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Alpha-Bots Christmas Is Breathtaking!

Z-Bot

My wife and I just watched the most wonderfully awful Christmas film “for kids.” Alpha-Bots Christmas is a CGI film (with some live action) made by North of Philly Productions in 2004. It’s supposedly for children, but I don’t suspect they’ll like it much. I think it would bore them to death. The real audience for this thing is wise-asses like me and my wife, who will riff this turkey mercilessly.

Santa 01

That suit! That beard! Those glasses! That suit!

So, we begin with a news broadcast about some very special toys called Alpha-Bots that Santa is delivering this Christmas. There are only 26 of them, and only the very best children will get them (second prize is two of them.) During this bulletin we see what our Santa looks like, and it is breathtaking. It’s even more amazing when we get to see him in full. His beard is ridiculous. His suit doesn’t fit. His glasses are too big. And there’s no jolliness in his voice. If Hollywood wanted to create a Santa that perfectly communicated the ideas of cheap and cheesy, they could not top this. This is the definitive cheap Santa Claus.

So while delivering presents, Santa finds that the playful Z-Bot, who has an annoying voice, has gotten out of his box. Santa comments that next time he’ll ask the elves not to make the bots so playful. Wow, what a jerk. He tells Z-Bot that he must stay in his box until morning.

After Santa leaves, all the other Alpha-Bots, who also have annoying voices, come and try to get Z-Bot to be irresponsible and leave his box. And I admit, I do like how each bot has its own distinct design. But this is where I started to notice the very particular way the dialog is paced. An Alpha-Bot says something, we hold on him for two seconds, then another Alpha-Bot says basically the same thing, we hold on him for two seconds… we always wait a few seconds before the next character talks. I don’t know if the editor was just an idiot or if they thought children needed it stupid and slow like this. But I started counting seconds between lines after a while.

Flying: The Movie!

Z-Bot has decided to behave, so the other Alpha-Bots decide to go play without him. So they fly through the plastic CGI town. That’s all they do. They just fly in a straight line. And there’s way more flying than we need to tell the story, but they’re still flying, and it’s Flying: The Movie! Deep Hurting! And then they all take turns saying that this was fun and then pausing for two seconds. Apparently they’re easily amused.

Deep Hurting!

Then they decide to come back to Z-Bot’s house and play with him there. They identify themselves to him, one by one, slowly, as A-Bot, B-Bot, C-Bot, D-Bot, E-Bot, F-Bot, G-Bot, H-Bot, I-Bot (not made by Apple,) J-Bot, K-Bot, L-Bot, M-Bot, N-Bot, O-Bot (it’s “robot” minus one letter,) P-Bot, Q-Bot, R-Bot (who, missed opportunity, should have been a pirate,) S-Bot, T-Bot, U-Bot (me-bot?) V-Bot, W-Bot, X-Bot, and Y-Bot (dear god, why bot?) and then Z-Bot identifies himself. So bots A through Y prepare, and prepare, to play some kind of alphabet game with Z-Bot. Then they fly into the middle of the room and take the shape of an A. Z-Bot, staying in his box, identifies the shape as an A. Then they transition into the shape of a B. At this point, I realized to my horror that they were going to spell out and identify every single letter of the alphabet, one by one, in very slow succession. After a while, my wife and I started yelling out things at the screen. I: “…want to die!” N: “NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!” O: “Oh my god!!!” S: “Sesame Street never took this long to give children the alphabet!” U: “Gee, I wonder what letter’s gonna come next. Do you know? Oh, U.” Y: “WHYYYY!?!?!?!?” And it takes them over 5 minutes to get through the whole thing!

Then the robots fall out of the air. Z-Bot asks each bot what’s wrong, one by one, right down the alphabet. They say their batteries have drained. Z-Bot says the children will be so disappointed when their Alpha-Bots aren’t there in the morning (though I suspect this would be a blessing in disguise.) We learned in the news bulletin earlier that they charge in their boxes, so each bot takes a turn charging in Z-Bot’s box. Unfortunately, they don’t each say their names as they do this, and the editor employs crossfades to compress time a little bit, which makes the sequence less riffable. But then they thank Z-Bot, they all fly away, they’ve learned their lesson, and that’s it. The show’s over.

Did that little bit of story really require a full half-hour? No, but that’s why it’s such a blast. The ineptitude on display is amazing. The pacing is ludicrously slow, the bots keep saying the same things, it just goes on and on, there’s that Santa, and there’s so much to riff! If you’re a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and especially if you and your friends like to riff things together, you have to see this movie! It’s available to watch on Netflix Instant and Vimeo.

The Alpha-Bots Christmas from Rich Heierling on Vimeo.

Trebob’s Lab (trebobslab.blogspot.com)

Today, I’m going to talk about something totally different. I’m going to talk about a popular blogger who went by the name Trebob. He used to be a Young Earth creationist, until he realized that Young Earth science was full of inconsistencies and false assertions and that the people behind it were intellectually dishonest. And so he went on his own path, ultimately deciding he didn’t believe in God or in any religion. His blog, trebobslab.blogspot.com, dealt with topics pertaining to religion, science, and the supernatural. He followed in the footsteps of Carl Sagan, James Randi, and others. He advocated the importance of accepting reality on reality’s terms. He said that forgoing critical thinking in favor of unsupported beliefs was dangerous; that it harmed our ability to make informed, responsible choices in the real world, and that it could cause people to bring harm upon themselves or others. He argued against religion infringing upon civil rights. He celebrated the scientific wonders of the universe. He argued for the importance of the scientific method as a tool for testing the validity of theories. He always emphasized the importance of intellectual honesty: of debating ideas like mature adults. He kept a list of commenting rules on his sidebar, stating, among other things, that commenters would be required to provide evidence for their claims and to answer any pertinent questions asked of them, and that if one of their claims was proven to be false, they must acknowledge it. I’m sure a lot of people would have liked to gut him and run him up a flag pole. A lot of people respected him, too. I had a tremendous amount of respect for him.

Now today, I have discovered that he has deleted his blog, Trebob’s Lab, as well as his YouTube account. I cannot imagine why. Perhaps there was pressure from family or friends. But whatever the reason, it is a terrible loss. He was a powerful advocate for science. He was well-educated and well-written, and his posts were always a pleasure to read. Trebob, if you’re reading this, I hope you will reconsider abandoning all your wonderful writings. You created something truly special.

Kiara the Swindler

I went to my local grocery store tonight and happened to see the RedBox. Right there in the Family section was a movie called Kiara the Brave. And I need to vent, because what’s going on here is not right. It’s not about copyright. It’s more important than that.

What’s going on here is just cruel and inconsiderate. Phase 4 Films, I’m talking to you. When you heard about Pixar’s Brave, you rushed a film into production. You put it out where people were likely to see it, and you designed your poster with the word “BRAVE” in big letters. You can’t lie your way out of this: you wanted to deliberately deceive people. You were counting on Grandma to rent — or at a store, buy — your movie instead of Pixar’s. Grandma’s naive about these things, you see; doesn’t pay close attention to details when things like these are concerned. She thinks she got the popular, well-praised new movie the kids want to see. She thinks she did something nice for them. Then the movie goes on, and things get bad. This isn’t the right movie at all. This is a cheap piece of garbage. What happens now? People start getting upset. The kids are disappointed. Maybe they even cry. Grandma is mortified that she messed up and gave her grandchildren this trash instead of the movie they would have enjoyed. Grandma feels completely swindled. Maybe this is one of those families that fights a lot, and now Mom is saying, “Damnit, mom! I told you to get the movie called Brave! Just Brave! How hard is that?” Or maybe she prefers to yell at the kids. “Damn it, you two! Grandma did something nice for you! Now you’re gonna show some fucking respect! Say, ‘Thank you!'”

Yelling or none, everybody’s getting upset, and it’s your fault, Phase 4 Films. Does this make you feel like a man? Are you proud of yourself? Does it make you happy that you get your money dishonestly by swindling people instead of entertaining them? Why don’t you get a real job, huh? Try earning your money the honest way.

Yellow Submarine on Blu-ray

The new Blu-ray of Yellow Submarine is out. I just picked up a copy at Best Buy. I’ve looked over some parts of it, and I fully recommend buying it. It isn’t perfect, but it’s well worth buying.

First, the bad news (mixed with some good):

1. No, they didn’t master the film in its original 4:3 aspect ratio, like I wish they would have. So yes, there will be a little cropping at the top and bottom from the full image as created by the animators. This is unfortunate. However, the aspect ratio is 1.66:1, which is better than 16:9. Fans may recall that in 1999, MGM released this film on DVD in the US with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 while the rest of the world got 1.66:1. Somehow, we got a raw deal on that one. This time, it’s 1.66:1, thank goodness. It’s not as good as getting genuine 4:3, but it’s better than before. And I’m very happy to report that it isn’t savagely cropped like that terrible theatrical presentation I went to. That was merely a case of dire incompetence. We can clearly read that George Martin was the Musical Director and that “one minute is a long time.”

2. No “Beatles to Battle.” If you love the alternate footage from the American release of the film, you’ll just have to cling to the old laserdisc.

3. The 5.1 mix is the same as the one on the DVDs. This is the least of the issues, really. I just had hoped they would do a new mix, since several of the music remixes are more different from the originals than they ought to be; certain stereo effects and EQ choices, mostly.

Now, the good news. One of my biggest concerns from the 1999 DVD has been addressed. They’ve included the original mono mix, for real this time. The original DVD was advertised as having the original mix, but in fact, it was only the original mix up to a point. A big section in the middle was the new mix. How does something like that happen? I don’t know. But this time, they really do have the original mix.

The music-only tack is no longer present, contrary to what DVD Beaver says. However, we get a shiny new commentary with producer John Coates and the late Heinz Edelmann. We also get some storyboard sequences that DVD Beaver tells me were on the original DVD (UK anyway) but that I certainly don’t remember. We also get a gallery of pencil sketches and one of production photos, annoying stretched into perspective so it looks like we’re viewing them on a monitor. The “Mod Odyssey” featurette and the crew interviews are here, as before, although notably, they went the extra mile and restored “Mod Odyssey” in HD. Bravo for that.

A few more minor notes. The disc gets a brand new menu, which is a nice bit of work. And on the package side, we get a new booklet with an intro by John Lasseter, a set of plastic transparencies of the four Beatles, some stickers — why not? — and an ad saying that the Yellow Submarine picture book (my dad and his girlfriend had a copy of this) is being reprinted. That’s a nice thing to do. (Now if only they’d reprint “Andromedary SR1.”)

But I’ve saved the best for last. The film looks gorgeous. The HD trailer on YouTube (provided below) is an accurate indication of what you’re going to get. The restoration is beautiful. While we didn’t get film in its original 4:3, we did get a beautiful, sumptuous restoration, and that counts for a whole lot. That’s the biggest reason to buy the new disc. Issues aside, this is a splendid reissue. Pick it up at a retailer near you.

We almost saw Yellow Submarine tonight.

My fiancée and I almost saw Yellow Submarine tonight. Then it all went wrong.

A while back, I saw the HD trailer for Yellow Submarine on YouTube and discovered that there was going to be a new theatrical release (I think I already knew about the new Blu-ray.) Just to catch everyone up, this is a very special movie to me. This is a movie I grew up with. My dad had taped the movie off TV, probably before I was born, and I used to watch it a lot. This was a formative film for me. It showed me, at an early age, what incredible things animation can do — that other formats can’t — if it has the ambition; how it can defy reality and create something freewheeling and strikingly original. Followers of this blog know I’m a big fan of Heinz Edelmann’s psychedelic designs, as well as The Beatles’ music (that goes without saying.) So I was excited to see this movie in the theater.

That excitement dissolved when the movie started. Let me preface this by saying that the tickets cost $15 each. I would expect value for that money. But right at the start, the movie screen greeted the audience with the “Please wait” start-up screen of a cheap digital projector. Then it displayed a desktop background. And I began to worry. Friends, this was some truly awful projection. I have adjusted the movie’s original poster here to help you visualize what the presentation looked like. Instead of getting a nice, remastered print — which I would expect after paying what I paid, seeing the HD trailer online, and coming into what seemed to be a nice theater (beautiful ornamentation on the inside) — we got a DVD screener. I had been excited to see the beautifully restored detail and color of the new 4K remastering, but no; we got a god damn DVD screener instead. That was the best these jokers could do. And the digital projector clearly wasn’t made for a screen that big, so the picture was too dark. And they didn’t bother to adjust the projector properly, so the picture was stretched vertically. Everything was too tall. Hell, they didn’t even bother to size-up the projection to the screen until the movie was already underway. And the movie had some pretty severe cropping on the top and bottom. Now, I know Yellow Submarine was originally made for TV in a 4:3 aspect ratio and that it was later cropped to 1.66:1 when they decided to put it in theaters instead. But I have never seen this level of cropping on the movie. During the credits, you could frequently see who worked on the movie, but not what they did, because the top of the frame was cropped off. During “When I’m 64,” the words “long time” as in “one minute is a long time” were partly cropped off at the bottom. When Ringo told the police officer that he’d seen a yellow submarine, Ringo’s face was cut off below the middle of his nose. Now, into the bargain, the sound was rather weak. Not up to scratch. And we kept hearing low-frequency rumbles leaking in from the movie next door.

My fiancée was still enjoying the movie. But I was sitting there feeling pissed. This was a total ripoff. There was no excuse for it. No way was this worth $15. I love the movie, but I was too pissed to enjoy it. And then the picture cut out. It was during the part of “When I’m 64” where they count the seconds in a minute. I think we got up to about 43, and the projector went off. The sound was still playing, but the screen was pitch black. Probably something was configured to automatically turn off after so many minutes. A few seconds went by and nothing changed. I doubt there was anyone in the projection booth. So I ran to the lobby and told the staff about it. Incidentally, when I went out into the hall, I could still hear the movie quite clearly. Soundproofing? In a movie theater? You must be joking! By the time “Only a Northern Song” was playing, the picture was still out. Enough was enough.

I went up to the front desk with my fiancée and made them give me my money back. They tried to offer a voucher first, so I could come back and see another movie for free, but hell no. After an experience like that, I didn’t want to come back. Ever. They were nice enough about it, so I won’t rat them out and tell all of you what theater this was. But I still think they made too many excuses. They told us the distributor is a company called D & E Entertainment, and that this company was in charge of the screening. I’m going to be writing those assholes a letter. Anyhow, the manager said the theater didn’t have as much control over the screening as they would have liked. They said the DVD had only arrived yesterday, for example. But that’s still no excuse for these problems. If the DVD arrived yesterday, then they had a whole day from then to make sure the projection was properly adjusted and there were no kinks in the system. And they shouldn’t have bought such a crappy, underpowered projector in the first place. Now maybe these jokers from D & E were the ones who provided the projection equipment and operated it as well, but it doesn’t matter; it’s still unacceptable to charge $15 per ticket to a piss poor presentation like this. It’s damn unprofessional, and it doesn’t matter who’s responsible.

I recall, now, that I had a nightmare some time ago about going repeatedly to a theater that was like this. I’d constantly get movies played on VHS at this theater, and there would be no indication beforehand that the movies would be presented that way. I must have been a slow learner in this dream, because I walked into one bad screening after another before I finally made up my mind to stop seeing movies there. I attribute this nightmare to two negative experiences I had. First, in my first year of college, I went to see Tim Burton’s Big Fish at one of my university’s special screenings. I forget how much it cost. But they proceeded to project the movie from, yes, a VHS tape, cropped to 4:3. The year was 2004, incidentally, and by this time, I was fully through with VHS tape. I stayed for the whole screening, but I never went to another one. The second experience happened last year. My fiancée and I went to a screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark at a local theater. Again, I don’t remember how much it cost. You know what, I wasn’t going to name the theater, but considering the extreme audacity of this experience — and considering that during other screenings there, the staff have told me that I am wrong to complain when people in the audience take flash photos of the movie — I want this movie theater to starve to a painful, agonizing death. Colonial Theater in Phoenixville, PA. (This was not the same theater where we went to see Yellow Submarine, so we’re clear.) Again, I thought we were going to get film. I’ve seen plenty of movies projected on film at this theater. But no. It was a digital copy. It might have even been the same HDTV rip that has been floating around the internet; it had the same blown-out highlights. Well, then the theater’s god damn screensaver started cutting in. Movie plays for a while, then in comes that god damn screensaver. Finally, it popped up one too many times, and we got the hell out. They were nice enough to give us double our money back, but the experience still left a putrid, festering taste in my mouth. It’s unprofessional and inexcusable. I’ve never gone back to that theater, and I never will.

People complain a lot about the disappearance of local theaters; how they get torn down to put up Starbucks stores and gas stations. But you know what? If these are their standards — if this is the moviegoing experience they are going to provide their patrons, who are paying full-price to see the movies there when they could see them better in their own homes — and if they have no intention of ever getting their act together, then they need to be bulldozed right to the ground to make room for something useful. You sign the demolition orders, and I’ll bring a sledgehammer to help out.

Update: D & E responds. “We apologize sincerely.  Actually, the film was not presented on DVD, but Blu Ray in a HD format as there are no DVDs available.  This HD and remastered format should have looked amazing as it has across the country.  We will investigate.”

The Pirates! (Who don’t do anything.)

If you want swashbuckling adventure on the high seas, you won’t find it here. The Pirates! Band of Misfits, the new stop-motion film from Aardman Animations, has no interest in any of the things that have traditionally made pirates exciting characters. In the beginning, we see them sail around expertly in their ship, bouncing high in the air on the force of their cannon blasts, freewheeling through the ocean, and it looks like we’re in for an exciting time. But that ends quickly. The pirates never successfully loot anything, or get into any real sword fights (the Captain eventually gets into one, but he’s horrible at it,) or do any of the things that a good pirate is supposed to be able to do. To make things worse, the movie quickly throws all possibility for pirate adventure out the window by putting our characters on land and involving them in a plot to win a science competition. Look, I understand that it’s the point — that these pirates are supposed to be horrible at what they do — but these guys are boring! These characters aren’t worth making a movie about! Give me a band of real pirates, who know how to loot ships and fight with swords! Give me some excitement, damn it!

Here is the basic story. The Pirate Captain, whose name is Pirate Captain (the movie doesn’t know how to make this funny; it only demonstrates that the writers are too lazy to give him a real name,) wants to win the prestigious Pirate of the Year award. His competition is pretty impressive. One rival pirate even rides into a tavern inside the mouth of a whale. Yes, the whale jumps out of the water and smashes out one wall of the tavern, and then the pirate steps out of its mouth. The Pirate Captain decides to take on the challenge anyway and sets out to capture some loot. In a brief sequence, the Captain and his crew capture and board a number of ships one by one, only to find that they’ve messed up each time and the captured ship is just carrying plague victims, or school children, or some other thing. Then the Pirates capture Charles Darwin, famed naturalist and father of the Theory of Evolution. Yes, this is just as stupid as it sounds. Darwin explains to the pirates that their beloved “parrot” Polly is in fact a dodo bird, which by this point is supposed to be an extinct species. He convinces the pirates to go to London for a science competition, where the dodo bird is sure to win first prize, and Darwin promises the winnings will include significant treasure. Darwin, meanwhile, has his own nefarious plans to steal Polly and use her for his own ends. And yes, making Darwin a villain is as stupid as it sounds.

The pirates disguise themselves as scientists and win the competition, but they accidentally blow their cover. Queen Victoria and her fellow Britons, you see, absolutely loathe pirates, who stand in the way of the British Navy’s total domination of the world’s oceans. Through a series of events, The Pirate Captain ends up selling Polly to Queen Victoria, unbeknownst to his crew, for a large bounty of gold. He tells his crew he stole the gold, and they set sail for the Pirate of the Year awards, certain that this treasure will win the contest for the Captain. But the Pirate Captain ends up getting disqualified (while in London, he received a pardon from the Queen, which means he is no longer a pirate in the eyes of his peers,) and then he reveals his shameful deed (selling Polly) to his crew, who are very upset. So of course, what happens? The Pirate Captain sets out to get Polly back, has a boring fight with Queen Victoria, learns that friends are more important than money. This is what the movie boils down to; a well-loved man makes a bad choice, does a bad thing, alienates his friends, goes out to make things right again, and Learns a Valuable Lesson About Life. It’s boring and trite.

There are some funny moments, frequently arising out of the character of our cast. When the pirates arrive in London, Darwin tells them the streets aren’t safe for pirates. The pirates are offscreen and Darwin is looking out at the street. When he turns back to the pirates, reveal: they are all dressed as girl scouts. “There are no pirates here! Only girl scouts!” Darwin stares at the silly disguises. Then the Pirate Captain, thinking Darwin can’t recognize them, says, “We’re not really girl scouts. It’s us, the pirates. We’re masters of disguise.” That was a funny moment. Later, when the Pirates need to enter the science competition and only scientists can get in, they do the same routine; the pirates are offscreen, then we reveal that they are now disguised as scientists, then the Captain explains to Darwin that it’s really them. “We’re masters of disguise.” Yes, the joke is funny twice. It’s also funny that the Captain, disguised as a scientist, introduces himself as “The Scientist Captain.”

Another good bit involves the Captain’s advice to Darwin regarding women. “You should act aloof. Women love it when you act aloof.” Another involves Darwin’s chimpanzee companion, Mr. Bobo, who speaks by holding up cards with words written on them. The chimpanzee and this running gag are not themselves funny, but there is a funny bit in the scene where Darwin explains his plan to Mr. Bobo. Darwin doesn’t want anyone to overhear their plot. Bobo holds up a card that says “But…,” Darwin hushes him, and then Bobo holds up a card that says “but…” written in smaller letters. At the science competition, one of the entrants plans to demonstrate the reaction between vinegar and baking soda. Queen Victoria has a ship called the QV1. And there is one clever running gag about a pirate in the Captain’s crew who is actually a woman with a false beard. Her disguise isn’t very convincing, but the Pirate Captain, completely oblivious, calls her “Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate.”

Unfortunately, the bad outweighs the good. Let’s start with Darwin. The way they portray him, you’d think Aardman was in the Creationist camp. When we first meet Darwin, we pan across a room of preserved specimens, progressing from rather primitive creatures to an ape and then to Darwin; arranged, yes, like an evolutionary chart. Maybe you’d be tempted to write that off. Darwin is portrayed as a buffoon, a villain (at least until the third act,) and a failure with women. Maybe you’d be tempted to write that off, though it’s not as easy. Darwin has his friend Mr. Bobo, whom he has dressed up in a suit. The message would seem to be that Darwin has apes on the brain and doesn’t understand the difference between chimpanzees and men. This we may have a harder time writing off. Then there’s the Pirate Captain’s off-hand question to Darwin about whether he and the chimp are related in some way. Maybe you want to write that off, but it harkens back to the famous drawing that put Darwin’s head on a monkey’s body, which implied that Darwin’s ideas made him less human than everyone else. Then, right after that bit, we see a sign over a storefront that says “MAN KEE Chinese Laundry.” It’s obvious: the suggestion of something half-man, half-monkey. Aardman is big on hiding jokes in little details like these: this is no accident. And finally, to top it all off, Darwin gets tarred and feathered (accidentally.) That’s a tough one to write off. Maybe these jokes only came about because the writers are lazy, unfunny people. Because that’s certainly true about them. But if it was an attack on Darwin, I have this to say to them: get over it, guys. Darwin’s theories were correct, and yours were wrong. Accept that you were wrong and move on.

Beyond that, most of the jokes are anachronism. Modern shit. The fact of the matter is the writers wanted to tell a story with pirates in it but didn’t really want to work in the pirate idiom. There are no desert islands, daring fights, conquests, or treasures captured, and there is far less sailing than a pirate story should have. There is no piracy in this story about pirates. So instead, we have the story we have, and we get constant modern references. A lady pirate named Cutlass Liz (voiced by Salma Hayek in a way that screams “Celebrity voice coming through!”) has a glitter-covered necklace that spells out her name. The Pirate Captain says that he has called his crew a crew “in the street sense” and then proceeds to make a gang sign with his hands. There are numerous bits of technology thrown in, like elevators (complete with an Elevator Music version of “The Girl from Ipanema”), mechanical billboards, and an airship. (Incidentally, the technology verges at times on steampunk, though to my eye, it doesn’t quite count as steampunk because it doesn’t emphasize the workings of the technology as much as steampunk would; it just puts various machines out there and leaves it at that.) None of these things are funny. They all scream, “Look! This didn’t exist back then! That means this is a joke! And all jokes are funny!”

I have said many times that the pirates never have a real sword fight. There is one sword fight involving the Pirate Captain, but he fights so terribly, it really doesn’t count. His opponent is Queen Victoria herself, who plans to eat Polly. Queen Victoria comes after the Captain with a sword in each hand, swings from a ceiling fixture, and generally fights like Xena. Yes, this is as stupid as it sounds. The Captain, understand, does not fight her off, sword to sword, like a real pirate would, because that would be exciting, and we can’t have that. The most he does is use a knife to cut a rope and make a bunch of barrels fall from the ceiling onto Queen Victoria. Because that way, he can win the fight and still be a pussy. Did I mention the Captain and his crew are pathetic excuses for pirates? Just want to be sure we’re clear.

The film shows comparative restraint in choosing its voice cast. There are a lot of celebrities, but not so many A-listers. There’s Salma Hayek, as mentioned above, and she gets way higher billing than she should for the incidental character she voices. And there’s Hugh Grant as the Pirate Captain, though he fits the role quite well (certainly doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb the way Salma Hayek does.) There are other celebrities at work, but they’re mostly BBC regulars, like Martin Freeman (Tim from The Office, Watson from Sherlock) and David Tenant from Dr. Who. Oh yes, Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter plays Queen Victoria. And Al Roker, of all people, plays an incidental character. Star-studded casts for voice acting roles usually bother me, as they seem to be more of a marketing ploy than an artistic choice and are often used as an excuse not to tell a good story. But in this case, we don’t get the obligatory flood of A-list celebrities we so often get in Hollywood productions, so I’ll let it pass.

The movie is pretty to look at, but so what? They didn’t create good characters or give them something worthwhile to do. The movie was tedious. The few chuckles and the well-constructed visuals are winsome at times, but it still falls just south of good. ** 1/2 our of *****

Aside

Los Tres Reyes Magos

Olbaid, Diablo spelled backwards

This movie is decent as long as it’s focusing on the titular three kings. The kings are nice. There are no 3-dimensional personalities or anything, but their personalities are at least defined, and their screen time is entertaining to watch. Too often, however, the movie gets sidetracked into distracting subplots, such as a number of scenes featuring King Herod that really don’t go anywhere or contribute anything to the plot. The scenes with Mary and Joseph also fall flat because Mary has all the personality of cardboard. And there are too many still-drawing-based musical interludes of Mary and Joseph looking for a place to stay and being rejected by the scowling local townspeople. These get tedious really fast. The movie should have kept the focus on the three kings and the main antagonist, the Devil (who goes by the name Olbaid, Diablo spelled backwards.)

The way this movie tries to blend the worlds of Mexico and the Middle East is frustrating. In one of the aforementioned musical interludes, one of the townspeople who rejects Mary and Joseph is a fat hombré who holds a big cigar in his fat fingers; a distracting reminder that we’re not precisely in Israel as well as an annoying anachronism. Then there are Melchior’s travels through the desert mountains, in which he encounters both a cactus and a rattlesnake (which tries to constrict, rather than bite and poison, Melchior’s horse,) neither of which can be found in the Sahara. These things might not be so bad if the film used the names of places in Mexico, but it constantly specifies place names like Bethlehem and Nazareth. Plus the homelands of the three kings (one of whom lives in Africa) are on completely different continents from Mexico. There could have been a balance between the cosmetic features of Mexican folk art and the world of the Middle East, but this movie failed to strike it.

Murcio

There’s also the matter of the comedy. Somebody failed to tell the filmmakers that they aren’t any good at comedy, so the movie wastes time on “funny” characters like the the Devil’s impish general Murcio, who always bungles his assignments; or King Herod, who loses his temper and falls down a lot, and frequently hurts his butt; or Herod’s three wise magicians, who bungle their spells and engage in other unfunny slapstick. And these characters waste further time with songs we didn’t need. Yes, this movie is a musical, mostly because of these comic relief characters. The songs are annoying and should have been cut.

Lastly, the animation. This film has some great character designs, such as Olbaid with his distinctly Mexican facepaint, and a few beautifully animated frames. But in motion, it falls to the limitations of low budget animation; a general lack of good lip syncing, unconvincing movement, etc. Every now and again, there’s a nice stretch of animation. In particular, there are some nice action sequences featuring the three kings. But the bad parts weigh things down. The aforementioned comedy characters, for example, are animated about a step below Mr. Magoo.

I’ll give the movie 2 1/5 stars, rounded up here to 3 to be generous. The animation is sometimes nice to look at, and there are some fun bits, but the movie loses a lot of points for some cardboard characters, distracting subplots, unfunny comedy, tedious musical numbers, and the poorer aspects of the animation.