Our Movie Grading Scale:
- S Grade; 5.0 Stars: The Best Film One Has Ever Seen, Everyone Has An S Film
- A+/A- Grade; 4.0/4.5 Stars: One Of The Best Films Of The Year, If Not All-Time
- B+/B- Grade; 3.0/3.5 Stars: Worth A Trip To The Theatre For First Viewing
- C+/C- Grade; 2.0/2.5 Stars: Watch From Home For First Viewing
- D+/D- Grade; 1.0/1.5 Stars: Don’t Bother Watching This At All If You Can Help It
- F Grade; 0.5 Star: One Of The Worst Films Of All-Time
- Reminder: Reviews For These Films Can Change Over Time And Will Be Reflected Over At Our Letterboxd
- The Plot: The story of Usnavi, a bodega owner who has mixed feelings about closing his store and retiring to the Dominican Republic or staying in Washington Heights.
- The Review: There’s only two ways I can review this film for this newsletter - objectively and subjectively. In other words, this is a film that must be tackled first as to what I can tell you about the film in its existence and second what I can tell you about this film in the fact that it pulled off something I never thought any movie made in my lifetime would ever do - its now my all-time favorite film surpassing 1940’s THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER, a statement I do not make lightly.
First lets talk about it objectively. This is an adaptation to the Tony Best Musical winning stage play back from the 2007-2008 season for Broadway. Arguably the very musical that would in time kickstart this renaissance we’re seeing at the moment with Broadway and now in turn the return of the big movie musical. With its mixture of classic Broadway, hip-hop, rap, and Spanish music influences it delivers a sound that many don’t typically associate with your average musical. It changed the game in the way perhaps some would say HAIR did back in the late sixties at the end of that first golden age for musicals. But perhaps more importantly in a time where representation matters, this musical gave us new Latino voices that you don’t usually see in the frankly white dominated Broadway stage which is ironic given the makeup of New York City.
Those who have seen the stage play might have some mixed feelings on some of the changes made for the on screen adaptation but for the most part it mostly stays intact from everything I’ve researched in terms of the overall arch of the plot, the characters, and most of the music does survive, though not all of it, from the playbook to the screenplay.
Oh yes. The music. As a lover of musicals the trick for a musical to pull off is to hint at coming and previously played song and dance numbers. It also needs to have a balance in the way the song’s energy and lyrics play off of the story being told in the middle of all the singing and dancing. And this film achieves all of those things and more, and like his would be next musical HAMILTON, Lin Manuel Miranda’s songs in this use all sorts of varied influences of music even while still hinting at its Broadway roots. One song could feel like a typical singing while talking Broadway scene, only to be followed by a rap, only to be followed by a musical number that incorporates the classic salsa my dad loves to play. Okay lets keep this on the objective side of things for a little bit longer because I’m obviously trying to keep my love for this film a bit bottled up to tell you about it with less bias.
The musical score, composition, songs, and incredible production values of the dance numbers that range from a playground to a breathtaking one take shot of a pool filled with hundreds of dancing swimmers, are all amazing to watch unfold. Most songs will make you want to jump and dance and I say that as someone who may love musicals, but isn’t a singer or dancer. Trust me - ask my wife. And to be balanced there is a dance and song number in here that makes me cry it tugs at my strings so well.
But the characters also make the film. Our main protagonist in Usnavi is easily relatable to anyone who ever had dreams of business success; his main love interest and our other main protagonist in Vanessa is easily relatable to someone like me (I promise I’m still trying to keep myself from getting into the subjective) who has dreams and hopes of getting their creative side out; Usnavi’s cousin Sonny’s struggles as a kid to a mostly absent father (Interestingly enough played very well in a cameo by the one and only Marc Anthony) will be relatable to those who grew up with such family drama; Nina’s issues with trying to overcome racism and bigotry while making her way through an elite college will be relatable to those of us nonwhites who have experiences similar issues (Again, I’m trying to remain objective here); Benny’s struggles with having no control over his work situation and Nina’s dad’s struggles with keeping up with the college payments for his daughter will be relatable to those trying to overcome life situations that come their way; and finally Abuela Claudia will be relatable to any Spanish person from her portrayal as the kind of grandmother we all knew to her stories of what its like to come here as an immigrant.
Okay let me finish up the objective part here, because I’m obviously ready to explode already and get to the subjective. The characters are all portrayed by a stellar cast with Anthony Ramos as Usnavi and Melissa Barrera as Vanessa having breakthrough performances, and the show stealing (and potential Oscar nominating) performance by Olga Merediz. The movie will leave you feeling joy, appreciative of community, wanting to dance, and most importantly happy to be back at the movies. Director John Chu who has gone from mediocre STEP UP sequels to CRAZY RICH ASIANS to this has continuously improved as a Director and this is his best effort yet. This is a prime example of that crowd pleasing musical that is easily among the best films of the year much less the film of the Summer. In fact, Chu has already posted on Twitter a video of a screening he snuck into that shows the audience having a blast. This has A+ written all over it.
But this is where the subjective part comes in. So if you’ve realized by now (Or didn’t notice through the headline pic) that this an overall good review and don’t really need to hear more from me in terms of convincing you to go, this is the end of this review. If you want to read the next two paragraphs and hear me as cinephile gush over a movie the same way you’d gush over your own all-time favorite, read on.
I’m not like some movie goers out there who declare every new favorite of the year their new all-time favorite movie. I consider picking your all-time favorite movie as important as making a choice of who you will marry. I think in some deep way your all-time favorite pick says something important about you and what stories you enjoy the most. Don’t get me wrong I enjoy my big action/adventure flicks and Godzilla is my favorite film franchise. But in terms of what really works wonders with me - I’m a Sapp for romance, I enjoy well done musicals, I want to laugh and feel joy while watching a film, I don’t mind my emotions being tugged on, and I love leaving a film with a smile on my face. For the longest time the film that met almost all those expectations and had a storyline that had me coming back again and again was the aforementioned THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER. But as the camera went underneath the pool’s waters in the 96,000 song number it suddenly struck me that film’s reign as my all-time favorite had ended.
Because in that moment I realized this movie was and did check off all the marks on my checklist. It has the great musical genius from a MY FAIR LADY, the fantastical elements of a SLEEPING BEAUTY, the witty dialogue of a MY MAN GODFREY, and the romance of a THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER. And yes I’d be naïve not to acknowledge that the fact this is the best representation I’ve ever seen of the culture I grew up with on the big screen probably helps to make it resonate with me downright to the very being of my soul. This had me wishing they’d just play the movie again by the time it was over, and I already bought tickets to go see it again and again. S for IN THE HEIGHTS. There is no higher compliment or recommendation I can give this movie. This isn’t just the movie of the Summer for me, its not even just the movie of the year for me, its (for me) the movie of my lifetime.
- The Plot: Bea, Thomas, and the rabbits have created a makeshift family, but despite his best efforts, Peter can’t seem to shake his mischievous reputation. Adventuring out of the garden, Peter finds himself in a world where his mischief is appreciated, but when his family risks everything to come looking for him, Peter must figure out what kind of bunny he wants to be.
- The Review: 2018’s PETER RABBIT was a surprise hit that on paper many probably thought should have been a disaster. Particularly if you’re a James Corden “hater” (Personally I don’t have strong feelings about the guy). But thanks to that film’s success we’ve gotten a sequel which was supposed to come out last year, but like almost every major Summer movie this year was delayed. This movie however did release in some overseas markets earlier and hasn’t had a bad run at the box office for what its worth. Furthermore there’s an interesting ad campaign by the film ongoing in which those who see it on opening weekend Saturday in the states enjoy a free Popcorn. Probably a reaction to how to deal with coming out the same weekend as IN THE HEIGHTS.
Oh but what about the film itself? Well how you felt about the first one might inform how you think about this one. That film had some similar aesthetics to the widely praised Paddington films, but seem to play down more to the kids than those wittier titles. The slapstick comedy was plenty, so much so there was even a joke about a death. The characters were mostly types as you’d expect from these kids movies, especially ones with talking CGI animals. It might sound like I’m being harsher towards this film than I actually meant to be with some of these remarks - but given that on paper these movies should be predictable throw away kids movies there is some small amount of heart in these and this new one is no different.
The first film mostly took place in the farm where Peter caused trouble for our poor protagonists, but with the sequel it takes the predictable “Fish out of water” plot by taking Peter and friends into the city where obvious and predictable shenanigans occur and in time they predictably realize they rather be home. The movie has some moments that will make you chuckle for sure including one or two good physical gags and like the first film achieves a little bit of a feel good ending with a positive message for kids even if just like that one you come away wondering if Peter actually learned his lesson.
Regardless I think younger kids will mostly have fun with this one but like SPIRIT UNTAMED last week I think families can just wait to see this one from home rather than spend tons on a theatrical experience for this one - free Popcorn on opening Saturday included. I wish I could go more in-depth but what much is there to say, its a movie that is exactly what it tells you it is. C+ for PETER RABBIT 2. Its not a terrible movie, but unless they’re begging you to see it you can make the kids wait for movie night a few months from now to see it.
- The Plot: Din, a working-class college student, and Long, a cynical but all-powerful dragon capable of granting wishes, set off on a hilarious adventure through modern day Shanghai in pursuit of Din’s long-lost childhood friend, Lina.
- The Review: Its unfortunate that in a day and age when major studios seem to dominate the conversation on animated films that deserve praise that smaller lower budgets films like this struggle to capture traction in praise or just attention period. I came into this expecting a generally okay animated movie that probably deserved its place as a Netflix straight to streamer here in the states (China saw it get a theatrical release). What I got was a film I had a ton of fun with and wish would get more eyeballs on it.
With a film like this its always easy for these writers to take the lazy route and tell themselves they can bring the material down to the kids’ level like PTER RABBIT 2 just did this same weekend. But a good animated film will elevate the material so it doesn’t go over kids’ heads but leave enough for the older crowd to enjoy. This was thankfully the latter.
John Cho is the English dub voice actor for our Dragon in this, Long and what could have been an overdone and annoying character ended up being hilarious. The dialogue in this is incredibly witty and gave me flashbacks to the screwball comedies of the thirties that I love. But the other characters are also well done from our protagonist Din or even our villain which proved to be an exception to the rule for interesting twist villians.
The only major setbacks are that this is obviously a lower budget smaller animated flick and it shows at times. Not to mention that when compared to another “Magic Dragon helps young person” film from earlier this year in RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON this has less action and more emphasis on comedy which could be some aren’t that crazy for. But for me overall I found myself having a blast with this and would not have minded seeing this on the big screen at all. I feel like this would be getting different looks had it gotten backing from say…Pixar? A- for WISH DRAGON. Maybe I’m alone here but this is a nominee for making my Best of the Year list.