written by David Steffen

Rango is a 2011 computer-animated western comedy film distributed by Paramount Pictures. The protagonist (Johnny Depp) is a chameleon living a solitary life in a family’s terrarium acting out fantasy scenarios he invents in his ample spare time, and the family is driving with the terrarium in the back, when an accident throws the terrarium from the car, stranding the poor animal in the middle of a desert highway.

Given this opportunity to reinvent himself, he dubs himself “Rango” and takes on the role of a tough-as-nails drifter, enacting an elaborate persona that is completely unlike any personality he has ever actually had to take control and intervene in any problems he thinks the town has. Often as not, since he is concocting complex structures of lies, these lies tend to have unintended consequences and frequently make things worse more often than they make things better, and seem to be more motivated by trying to impress others than about trying to make anything actually better.

I found the movie more frustrating than funny or entertaining largely because Rango is often acting destructively in this elaborate guise of pretending to be a hero and he does not even seem to recognize that he might be the biggest villain of the piece. The more visibly villainous villains may be more dastardly but they are also more comprehensible in that one can understand the source of their actions, but Rango is just acting like what he pictures as the hero because that’s what he’s decided to do, no matter how many die in the process. This is… not admirable, and it’s only a matter of chance that these actions don’t end up killing every person he claims to help.

The movie has some interesting effects and kids will probably like it, but for me the plot was too “let’s congratulate this person who is destroying the lives of everyone around him on the premise of a journey of self-discovery”.

MOVIE REVIEW: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

written by David Steffen

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a fantasy action/adventure movie tie-in to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter universe,  distributed by Warner Bros pictures in 2016.  It shares a title with one of Harry Potter’s textbooks in the Harry Potter series, written by Newt Scamander.  And it has also been published as a standalone book by J.K. Rowling in 2001.

In 1926, before he wrote his famous book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Newt Scamander traveled to the United States with a magical bag full of magical beasts, in order to return one of them to its native habitat in the American southwest. Newt accidentally switches bags with a local N0-Maj (the American word for “Muggle” or non-magic-user), an aspiring baker.  Demoted Auror (hunter of dark wizards) Tina Goldstein arrests him for the disturbance caused by one of the escaped creatures, but they decide to work together to find the bag and contain all the escaped creatures again.  Meanwhile, something magical and powerful is killing people in the city, but Newt is certain it’s not one of his creatures.  But the only way to prove that is to recapture all the creatures again.  There is an anti-magic in New York at the time, led by No-maj (another word for Muggle, a non-magic-user)Mary Lou Barebone, head of the New Salem Philanthropic Society.  The anti-magic sentiment is strong in New York at this time and any magician caught is in danger from the No-Maj population, as well as risking the larger magical society, and Newt’s activities here aren’t exactly legal even within the magical population.

This movie was a lot of fun!  Largely because it’s great to have a chance to jump back in the Wizarding World since the main line of Harry Potter books and movies is over.  This is the first foray (at least that I remember) into the USA Wizarding World and it’s interesting to see how the laws and customs and wordage are different in the American setting than the British.  Although the characters are only familiar in a vague historical sort of way, there is plenty here to engage the watcher, and Newt is an interesting character with at least some laudable goals even if he does seem to make an art of self-delusion (“these creatures aren’t dangerous!” as he works very hard to prevent them murdering random passersby).  It works better than any of the Harry Potter movies in my opinion, and I think the reason for that is there’s no book source to compare it unfavorably to, while the Harry Potter movies were all books first that were adapted into movies, this was made to be a movie.

Action packed, a fun return to the universe we know and love but on a new continent we haven’t seen in Harry Potter stories.  A lot of fun!


written by David Steffen

Big Hero 6 is an animated action comedy science fiction movie released by Walt Disney Animation Studios in 2014, which is loosely based on the Marvel superhero team of the same name.

Hiro Hamada is a 14-year old high school graduate  living in San Fransokyo (a combination of San Francisco and Tokyo apparently?), who spends his free time building robots to fight on the illegal underground bot fighting circuits.  His big brother Tadashi shows him to the advanced research lab where Tadashi has been spending his time inventing a balloon robot with nursing capabilities, and Hiro quickly makes friends with the other young researchers as well as the lab’s director Robert Callaghan who invites Hiro to apply to join the lab by entering something in an inventing competition.

Soon after, a disaster at the lab takes the life of Callaghan and Tadashi, and Hiro is left to pick up the pieces of his life.  But Baymax was in Tadashi’s bedroom at home at the time of the accident, and activates to help Hiro cope with the loss of his brother.  Hiro recruits Baymax’s help, and the help of his friends, to get to the bottom of the accident at the lab.

Baymax is lovable and hilarious from the first minute he’s onscreen, in part because of his unusual architecture as an inflated balloon built around a flexible skeleton, built to be nonthreatening to help with his healthcare functionality.  Even as he gets pulled further and further away from his core purpose for the sake of the story, Baymax’s focus is always on helping Hiro heal from the loss of his brother.  This is both funny and sad.  Funny, because Baymax is always so well-meaning, he is always looking out for others at all times, that he interrupts action scenes to verify that what he is doing is helping Hiro feel better.  Sad, because he is so trusting and Hiro honestly takes advantage of someone he calls a friend, by pretending that a quest for revenge is equivalent to grief counseling.

Spoilers in this paragraph: I normally don’t discuss big plot points in reviews, but in this case I wanted to talk about a particular point that did bother me, although I like the movie as a whole.  This ongoing choice to take advantage of Baymax comes to a head during one of the major climaxes of the show when Hiro asks Baymax to kill in the name of his quest for revenge, and Baymax can’t harm a human being because of his programming.  Instead of trying to understand this, Hiro removes his healthcare programming chip, which is like lobotomizing a friend because your friend doesn’t agree with you.  I feel like that was more than just a mistake, that was a mind-rape of a friend who trusted him, and while the movie made it clear that was a bad choice, I felt that it glossed over the consequences.

But overall, loved the movie, lots of fun action, lots of funny stuff.  Great for kids too.  Since we watched the movie, my 4-year-old asks me on a daily basis “Do you remember the Baymax movie?”



written by David Steffen

Coco is the newest adventure/comedy animated film from the ever-popular moviemakers Disney/Pixar, released in November 2017.  The movie tells the story of Miguel, a young Mexican boy who is an aspiring musician in a family where music has been forbidden since Miguel’s great-great-grandfather abandoned his family to pursue his music career.  Miguel idolizes the legendary musician Ernesto de la Cruz.

Miguel is determined to enter the music competition on the Day of the Dead (the one day of the year when the dead are allowed to come back from the other side to visit their living relatives, as long as those relatives hang photographs of them in their honor), when his grandmother discovers his guitar and smashes it.  Still determined, he breaks into the tomb of Ernesto de la Cruz to steal the guitar enshrined there.  Stealing from the dead on the Day of the Dead curses him to be sent to the land of the dead (with his stray dog friend Dante tagging along) where only his dead relatives can free him back to the land of the living.

While there he meets all of the dead members of his family (all of the dead people are skeletons) and their animal spirit guides, seeks out Ernesto de la Cruz, as part of his quest to return home to his family.

Pixar is easily one of my favorite moviemakers, and Coco is in the upper end of Pixar’s movies.  It’s a wonderful, enjoyable movie, lots of laughs, lots of fun action and dramatic moments, the main character and his doggy sidekick are very lovable, and his family are relatable as well, even when they’re also infuriating.  And, true to Pixar form, it made me cry.  Highly recommended!


written by David Steffen

Trolls is a 2016 DreamWorks animated romantic comedy adventure film for kids, based on the lucky troll dolls that were popular in the 80s (you know, the little naked dolls with the giant flourescent hair?).

Trolls are tiny creatures of nearly endless happiness, spending all of their time singing, dancing, and hugging.  They also have fast-growing prehensile camoflauging hair which was admittedly pretty neat.  Twenty years ago, all of the known trolls were held in captivity by a race of much larger creatures called Bergens, who live in nearly unending unhappiness but who discovered that they can be happy for a short time if they eat a troll.  So the Bergens rounded up all the trolls and kept them captive in the center of their town, and once a year on the Trollstice holiday, the Bergens have a feast of trolls and as a result have a day of happiness.

But on that fateful Trollstice twenty years ago King Peppy (Jeffrey Tambor) led the trolls on their escape, burrowing out of their enclosure and out of the Bergen city before they could be eaten.  The Bergen chef who was in charge of preparing the Trollstice feast was exiled into the wilderness.  Twenty years have passed and the trolls still live free in the woods, unharrassed by their former tormentors.

On this momentous anniversary, the trolls are having a bigger celebration than ever to celebrate.  Only one troll is opposed to the festivities–Branch (Justin Timberlake), a strangely uncolorful, unjoyous troll who refuses to sing or to dance and who has a reputation of being a paranoid crackpot because he is constantly raving about the dangers of being discovered by the Bergens.  Branch’s worst fears come true as the exiled chef from all those years ago sees the fireworks of the troll celebration, and captures a pouchful of trolls to win her way back into the good graces of the Bergens.  Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick), daughter of King Peppy who had led the trolls to escape all those years ago, ropes Branch into helping her rescue her friends.

I got the impression that the audience of the movie is supposed to find the carefree joyous attitude of most of the trolls endearing, but I found it anything but.  It can be a wonderful trait to find happiness wherever you go, but I found it very hard to have a great deal of sympathy for the trolls’ plight in this movie which was brought on by ignoring Branch’s solid advice and insisting on partying in the loudest possible fashion despite their deadly enemies being less than a day’s walk away.  It’s one thing to celebrate, and another thing to do so in a fashion that seals your own doom as you avoid thinking critically about anything.  Branch’s paranoia and grumpiness was portrayed as though it were a character flaw, but if anyone had listened to him, no one would have been in danger, and even without that I wouldn’t say it’s a character flaw to not want to participate in what appears to be the PG version of a giant drunken frat party.  Besides Branch, I did have some sympathy for Poppy, since she was the only troll inclined to actually take some initiative and try to make things better.

I did feel sorry for the Bergens, and wondered what it is that made them so unhappy.  Maybe a dietary deficiency that messes with their brain chemistry, and the only readily available dietary remedy is troll-flesh?  I… generally had a lot more sympathy for them, as horrible as they were supposed to be.  And, again, the movie completely lost me with the implication that the Bergens really just need to loosen up, because apparently dancing solves depression?

I’m sure a lot of kids will love this movie, and probably some adults.  But, I guess I’m more of a Branch-at-the-beginning-of-the-movie sort of guy.  I was a little surprised they went with this moral for a kid’s movie–usually morals for kids movies are pretty unobjectionable (if not remarkable) but this one felt way off the mark.