THE MUPPETS (****)
98 minutes of pure joy. Co-writer, co-producer, star, and Muppet aficionado Jason Segel achieves exactly what he set out to do: resurrect The Muppets brand and put those lovable felt puppets back on the big screen and in audience's good graces. The jokes are swift, the music is catchy, the celebrity cameos are fun, and the frenzied, "let's put on a show" spirit is undeniably entertaining. Though children will certainly dig it, it's their parents - those in the 30-40 something age range - that will truly love it. Watching it is like reliving a piece of your childhood. The movie's secret weapon? Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie, who composed all of the original songs. "Me Party" and "Man or Muppet" are instant classics, and if the latter doesn't walk away with the Best Original Song Oscar this year, something will be terribly wrong.
THE DESCENDANTS (***1/2)
Writer/director Alexander Payne goes 5 for 5 now with his latest comedic drama. This one's a little more heavy on the drama than previous efforts like Election and Sideways. While I would have preferred a few more laughs, Payne gets a lot of things right in The Descendants. He uses the Hawaii backdrop as a real character in the movie - one whose lush locales and exotic views are constantly at odds with the emotional turmoil raging in each character. The performances are uniformly excellent, with George Clooney giving one of the best of his career (he's sure to be nominated for Best Actor) and Shailene Woodley making one hell of a first impression as the older daughter. Not quite worthy of all the "best movie of the year!" blurbs that some critics are tossing around, but a smart and finely tuned movie that's worth seeing.
With Martin Scorsese directing (his first family movie), you know you're in for some impressive visuals, masterful image composition, and expert technical craftsmanship, and Hugo definitely delivers in those areas. The use of 3D is particularly impressive, actually adding to one's enjoyment of the movie rather than detracting from it like so many other 3D films these days. But over the course of its 2+ hours, Hugo's story left me cold. The Hugo character doesn't really have that much personality, and the weird tonal shift from Oliver Twist-style orphan shenanigans in a subway to film class lecture on the history of cinema did not really jive, or even make much sense. Scorsese is a film geek for sure, and Hugo allows him plenty of opportunities to geek out. His love of film shines through here, but he seems to be forcing certain elements into the movie that the story should otherwise resist. Kids 10 and under will likely be bored out of their minds here.
ARTHUR CHRISTMAS (***)
Cute and reasonably clever in spurts, Arthur Christmas aims for modern Christmas classic territory, but doesn't quite get there. Many of the best comedic bits and concepts were already used by Disney's 2009 TV special, Prep & Landing. Still, the voicework is perfectly cast (always good to hear Bill Nighy's purr on screen), and the CGI animation looks spectacular. Family audiences looking for a bit of Christmas cheer on screen this December could do a lot worse.
HAPPY FEET TWO (***)
A by-the-numbers sequel that can't live up to its Oscar-winning predecessor. In the past, writer/director George Miller has made terrific sequels to his iconic films - both The Road Warrior and Babe: Pig in the City are as good as, if not better, than the original films. Happy Feet Two doesn't seem to have the same inspiration or innovation behind it though. That's not to say it's bad. The animation is fantastic. The eco-friendly storyline is at least responsible and conveys a good message to kids. Hank Azaria's spirited vocal turn as Sven adds a lot of color to the movie. But the Moulin Rouge-vibe of the original is sadly missing this time around.