Spring Movie Preview 2011: Animation and Family

With springtime comes hope renewed. Although March and April are never devoid of their fair share of stinkers, it wouldn’t take much to constitute an improvement over this winter’s films.

One genre that will hit full bloom this season is animation. Four animated films grace this list, as do two live-action family films and one live-action/animation hybrid. To say the least, families looking for something to see on a rainy spring day will not find themselves handcuffed.

7. African Cats (Apr. 22)

Directed by Alistair Fothergill, Keith Scholey

The Word: DisneyNature delivers a third straight Earth Day film for families looking to get an education National Geographic-type experience in theaters. 2009 was “Earth,” so a very broad portrait of the planet’s creatures, 2010 was “Oceans” which limited the scope to 75 percent of the Earth’s surface and now “African Cats” focuses on the lions and leopards of Africa. Much more narrow, wouldn’t you say?

My Thoughts: It doesn’t really count as a movie and won’t make much money at the box office, but it’s nice that a film for children exists that doesn’t try and market itself to them. You won’t see any “African Cats” lunch boxes for sale anywhere.

African Cats Trailer

6. Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil (Apr. 29)

Directed by Mike Disa
Written by Mike Disa, Cory Edwards, Todd Edwards, Tony Leech
Starring: (voices) Hayden Panettiere, Patrick Warburton, Joan Cusack, Glenn Close

The Word: After being pulled from the release schedule a long time ago, this sequel to 2005’s “Hoodwinked” finally gets snuck in, and during one of the worst weekend’s of the year: the one right before the first big May summer movie release. Hood, now training to be a deadly warrior of sorts, joins forces with her old pals Granny, Wolf and some squirrel to foil an evil witch’s plan to kidnap Hansel and Gretel … or something like that. The original film made about $50 million stateside in the middle of December, not exactly big numbers, but apparently Kanbar Entertainment and The Weinstein Co. thought it was worth a second go-around.

My Thoughts: Were you hoodwinked into thinking this bastardization of the “Shrek” series was a worthy comparison? Just watch this trailer to see one of the most exploitative and unoriginal pieces of movie advertising you’ve ever seen. Animation has made strides in the last few years thanks to Pixar, but film’s like this one drag it back. Even the CGI looks awful. Too many great family films will have come out by Apr. 29 to go see this one. Hoodwinked Too! Trailer

5. Mars Needs Moms  (Mar. 11)

Directed by Simon Wells
Written by Simon and Wendy Wells, Berkeley Breathed (book)
Starring: (voices) Seth Green, Dan Fogler, Joan Cusack

The Word: The premise is this: in Mars, Moms are a commodity and incredibly valued, so when they find out Earth children under-appreciate their mothers, the Martians begin abducting them. Young Milo, therefore, has an important lesson to learn. The 3-D film features mo-cap style animation similar to the Disney/Robert Zemeckis films “A Christmas Carol” and “The Polar Express” so it appears very lifelike despite the whole non-lifelike premise. The movie was directed by Simon Wells, who directed several popular animated alternatives to Disney in the ’90s such as “An American Tail: Fievel Goes West” and “The Prince of Egypt.” After that last title, he went back to storyboarding for DreamWorks and a few other major animation projects, perhaps a casualty of the CGI trend. Now, he returns to the director’s chair.

My Thoughts: Has a movie’s story ever spelled out its ending and moral lesson in bigger and bolder all caps than “Mars Needs Moms”? Doubtfully. You know how this one will end. The motion-cap style will be interesting for a sci-fi themed movie, but no matter how you look at it, animated films that have dealt with space such as “Area 51” and “Astro Boy” have only experienced minimal success, mostly because they alienate little girls. The film feels like a mom-and-son bonding experience and a mediocre one at that. Mars Needs Moms Trailer

4. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules (Mar. 25)

Directed by David Bowers
Written by Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah, Jeff Kinney (book)
Starring: Zachary Gordon, Devon Bostick, Peyton List, Steve Zahn

The Word: After a strong $20 million in its opening weekend, last year’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” was an expected success. It only did about $60 million U.S. business and flopped overseas where it has no market because of no built-in audience exists there for Kinney’s books. However, it cost just $15 million to make. A second film was underway quickly, this time with David Bowers stepping into the director’s chair and away from all his work on animated films. This second chapter continues Greg’s agonized middle school life and deals with his relationship with his older brother, Rodrick.

My Thoughts: There are a lot of American children who love these books and that small but guaranteed fan base was enough to get this movie made. Understandably, the first director, Thor Freudenthal, didn’t want anything to do with the second one. Neither did Chloe Moretz, whose star shines a bit too brightly for a film like this anyway. Her role was recast. Basically, this film is for fans of the books or the last movie. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules Trailer

3. Rango (Mar. 4)

Directed by Gore Verbinski
Written by  John Logan, Gore Verbinski, James Ward Byrkit
Starring: (voices) Johnny Depp, Isla Fischer, Ned Beatty, Abigail Breslin

The Word: Gore Verbinski had a nice run with the original “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy, so why not try animation, right? It’s essentially the first endeavor for Verbinski using his “Pirates” money as he began his Blind Wink productions. It helps that he scooped up Johnny Depp to voice his titular character, a lizard-out-of-water story about a chameleon in a Hawaiian shirt who stumbles upon a Wild West town and becomes a hero overnight. Trouble is, he’s not all that cut out for the full-time hero gig. The film will be distributed with the help of Nickelodeon and Paramount.

My Thoughts: If you’ve seen anything about this other than trailers, you’ll know that the actual actors playing these characters were filmed acting out the parts. This served as inspiration for the animators who put it together, so you should really see these actors in their characters and not just from a likeness standpoint. The animation style looks unique and very cool and Depp seems to be clicking. We also have yet to get desert animals in a talking-animal animated film, so it’s (slightly) original. This definitely looks to fit the “fun for the whole family” bill. Rango Trailer

2. Hop (Apr. 1)

Directed by Tim Hill
Written by Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio, Brian Lynch
Starring: Russell Brand (voice), James Marsden, Kaley Cuoco

The Word: Well, I suppose if you want to make the next great live-action/animated hybrid family film a la “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” you hire the guy who directed “Alvin and the Chipmunks.” This Easter-themed family film looks to find that same success using bunnies and chicks and capitalizing on a holiday under-utilized by Hollywood. “Hop” pairs a real James Marsden with the voice of Russell Brand. Set to be the next Easter Bunny, E.B. would rather be a rock ‘n roll drummer, so he travels to Hollywood where has a run-in with Fred (Marsden) who is forced to befriend and care for him.

My Thoughts: Universal has really stuck to formula with this movie in order to replicate the “Chipmunks” in terms of receipts. The coup-de-grace of the trailer features the bunny on Fred’s windshield pooping jelly beans. Kids will eat that up (literally). If parents buy into the “Easter-themed” movie, this could be one of the bigger films of the spring. It also has some of the writers behind Universal’s “Despicable Me,” which effectively catered to the young-uns. On a geek-related side note, the movie also marks the first significant film role for Kaley Cuoco of “The Big Bang Theory.” Hop Trailer

1. Rio (Apr. 15)

Directed by Carlos Saldanha
Written by Don Rhymer
Starring: (voices) Jesse Eisenberg, Anne Hathaway, George Lopez, Jamie Foxx

The Word: The director of the “Ice Age” films changes things up a bit and sets this new Fox Animation film in his native Rio de Janeiro. Don Rhymer (the “Big Momma” films and the likable penguin movie “Surf’s Up”) handles all the writing duties, a definite rarity in the animation world. The film stars the voices of Oscar nominee Eisenberg and Oscar host (and former nominee) Anne Hathaway. Blu (Eisenberg) is a domesticated macaw, but also the last male of his kind, so his owner takes him to Rio from Minnesota to mate with Jewel, the last female. But when the two are abducted, they must escape, only Blu doesn’t know the first thing about the outside world.

My Thoughts: Fox probably likes this movie because although not original, it has the feel of a sure bet. The story (captive animals uncomfortable in the wild) has similarities to a number of animated films, the closest being “Madagascar,” and feathery creatures tend to do well at the box office. With Saldanha, who’s made the company a lot of money, directing, “Rio” looks life a safe choice for a family film and for making a good (or at least decent) impression on critics. Rio Trailer