A must-see for Japanimaniacs, those interested in Japanese folklore, or anyone weary of the boring stories that typically accompany American animation, Miyazaki's Spirited Away is a refreshing new take on Alice in Wonderland. The film, which destroyed box office records in Japan, knocking Titanic out of the top spot (which, in turn, had bested the previous champion, Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke), might be too heady and a bit scary for our fat, dumb, little kids, but most adults should get a kick out of it, especially if they hit the pipe before they hit the theater.
Purists may have a problem with the original dialogue being dubbed in English, but it does little to distract from the story --- as opposed to, say, the dubbing in Iron Chef. Here, the voice of our protagonist, 10-year-old Chihiro, is provided by Daveigh Chase, who played that creepy little girl from The Ring. Spirited begins with Chihiro fidgeting in the backseat of her parents' car, expressing great anxiety about their move to a new city. Like any father, Chihiro's dad pooh-poohs his daughter's concerns, right before getting the family lost during one of his infamous shortcuts.
When the car stops at a dead end, the family sees a long, dark tunnel with a tiny opening. They decide to check it out and, upon reaching the other side, discover they've stumbled upon an abandoned amusement park. Entranced by the smell of food, Chihiro's parents follow their noses, while the little girl does some investigating of her own. When she returns, her parents have engorged themselves on chow and, right before her very eyes, turn into pigs. To make matters worse, the park begins to fill up with very strange-looking spirits at nightfall.
What follows is a trippy adventure involving frogs, giant walruses, soot balls, heads with no bodies, talking door-knockers, and a woman who looks like a cross between a character from the cartoon version of The Hobbit and Joey's agent on Friends (then she turns into a frigging bird and flies away!). Basically, Spirited is a story about a young girl finding herself without the help of her parents, or anybody else. One of the underlying themes seems to be the protection of one's identity. Chihiro's boss (she's forced into slave labor at a bathhouse) steals some of the letters from her name, turning her from Chihiro into Sen. It's a Japanese thing, I guess.
A week ago, if somebody had asked me which Thanksgiving release would contain more songs --- Disney's Treasure Planet or Adam Sandler's Eight Crazy Nights --- I probably would have bet all the guns in Texas on the former. And I would have been dead wrong. I also would have been dead wrong at that time about the possibility of Nights being dreadfully stupid. OK, it's totally stupid, but it's also the most stirring holiday film since Prancer, and the best animated musical since South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut.
Granted, I'm among the film's lowbrow target audience, but even people who can only take Sandler in small doses should be surprised at how oddly touching Nights is. However, it would have been a lot better if Sandler didn't provide the voices for the film's three main characters. One of them is so annoying that you'll want to grab the closest living organism to you and shake it until it stops moving. Other than that (and enough product placement to fund 33 movies), Nights is packed full of funny songs, gags revolving mostly around feces, and... well, that's about it. But that's all some people need.
Traditionally animated (think boring Don Bluth-style), Nights opens on the first night of Chanukah, where we see Davey Stone (voiced by Sandler) running out on a bill at a Chinese restaurant in dumpy Dukesberry. Stone, we are told by the narrator (Rob Schneider), is the town asshole. Nobody likes him, and he returns their unfriendly sentiments, usually via the extension of his middle finger. Davey is also a Jew, but I guess we're supposed to assume people hate him because he's a dick, not because they're all small-town anti-Semites.
After the restaurant dine-and-dash, Davey is nabbed by the cops and dragged into court, where he's given a choice --- do a dime in the pokey, or assist an 80-year-old rec-league basketball ref named Whitey Duvall (also Sandler). Davey chooses the latter, yet still continues to act like a douche to everyone around him --- even Whitey and his twin sister, Eleanore (Sander, again), who has diabetes and looks like Little Enid from Daniel Clowes' Ghost World comics. Eventually, Davey begins to soften --- right around the same time we learn why he's such a dink.
Generally speaking, film franchises --- especially those that lose vital acting leads --- get worse and worse as they lumber through the multiplexes. Thankfully, Friday After Next, the third film in the popular Friday series, is far more enjoyable than its predecessor, Next Friday. Then again, Next Friday was one of the worst films to be released in 2000. That picture suffered from both the loss of its most charismatic character (Chris Tucker) and a dumb-ass script that delivered the same situations in a different setting. But it didn't matter, since the second film made more in its opening weekend than the first did in its entire theatrical run. Incidentally, what's wrong with you people?
We lose "Tiny" Lister in Friday After Next, but that ain't no thang because the story is much fresher, both in a figurative and street sense. This time, the titular Friday happens to fall on Christmas, which opens a whole Pandora's Box of comedic possibilities, including the filthy Project Santa, who breaks into the low-rent apartment leased by our heroes --- Craig (Ice Cube) and Day-Day (Mike Epps). It's 3:37 a.m. and the boys have visions of dimebags dancing in their heads when this evil St. Nick (is he the one from the Fishbone song?) wakes Craig and beats him with his own Christmas tree.
In addition to having taken every gift under the tree, Project Santa also jacked a speaker which contained Craig and Day-Day's rent money. Luckily, Christmas just so happens to be their first day working as guards for Top Flight Security. Coincidence strikes again when they're assigned to work the very same ghetto strip mall that is home to Bros. Bar-B-Q, the new joint business venture owned by their parents (John Witherspoon and Don 'D.C.' Curry). While "working," the boys meet the colorful Money Mike (Katt Williams), who runs a shop called Pimps 'n' Hos and has a sexy assistant (K.D. Aubert), who causes them to drool and fall all over each other. Like Cube needs more opportunities to stare into space with a slacked jaw --- he's already a Level 3 mouthbreather. Speaking of Cube, he also wrote the screenplay, which contains poetic gems like, "You remind me of a young nigger who fucked with the wrong nigger." Of course, there's always some incendiary content about the police, and plenty of gags involving the digestive process of Craig's dad. Friday After Next is a step in the right direction, if only just for having the courage to not be another bad repeat of the original film (which wasn't even that great). But don't mistake Next for being one of the year's best comedies.
Interested in unsanitized movie ramblings from Jon? Visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy www.sick-boy.com, or listen to him on WBER's Friday Morning Show.