TURBO **** (96 minutes) G
In a winning, delightfully crazy and decidedly uplifting thrill ride for kids, a speed-loving snail called Turbo is imbued with the super power to move as fast as a race car. It's a nutty idea pulled off with plenty of pizazz.
With his dream of entering the Indy 500 now within reach, Turbo hooks up with a gaggle of similarly obsessed molluscs and heads off on an event-packed adventure. Also along for the ride - and how's this for a refreshing dose of originality in an idea-starved Hollywood - are the proprietors of a dying shopping plaza! Director/co-writer David Soren deserves a special Oscar for blending such an engaging, left-field notion into a film about, well, a racing snail.
Though the "be yourself" theme is becoming a little too familiar (see Planes review) what really sparks the proceedings here - apart from the usual high standard of 3D animation we now expect from studios such as Disney and Dreamworks - are the lashings of wily humour, the takedown of hero worship and a terrific subtext about overcoming the limits others put on you. It's a very positive message for kids.
And though there's nothing online to suggest this was intentional, Turbo also seems to be commenting on overcoming disability, for while Turbo obtains his speed through a freak occurrence, the snails he befriends are just ordinary snails, yet they don't let that stand in the way of their pursuit of an adrenalin rush.
The celebrity-crammed voice cast includes: Ryan Reynolds; Paul Giamatti; Michael Pena; Snoop Dogg; Maya Rudolph; Michelle Rodriguez; and Samuel L. Jackson, who has fun as one motivated mollusc.
RIDDICK ***1/2 (118 minutes) MA
Far from the forgettable sequel mulch it could have been, Riddick turns out to be one of the most pleasantly surprising multiplex films so far this year. With Vin Diesel (Fast & Furious, etc) back for his third turn as the grumbling, muscle-ripped interplanetary rogue, the film is not so much a sci-fi action film but a full-on sci-fi drama with slices of action that serve a really enjoyable, full-bodied character-driven yarn. Yes, we're talking about a Riddick film here.
After an overlong opening stanza in which Riddick faces off against slimy, scorpion-like alien beasts and befriends an extraterrestrial coyote, the dustbowl of a planet on which he is stranded is visited by two competing teams of bounty hunters.
For long stretches of the film Riddick appears tangentially in shadow or in the background as we get to know the conflicting characters who make up the rival crews. These include a vengeful captain (Australian Matt Nable), a greasy mercenary (Jordi Molla) and a kick-ass female (played by a terrific, Ripleyesque Katee Sackhoff, aka Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica).
As bizarre as it sounds, Riddick essentially shapes up as a quality chamber piece set in the dusty wastes of an alien planet; the crew members bicker and negotiate with each other while trying to track down their elusive, lethal quarry.
Writer/director David Twohy, who did the first two Riddick films Pitch Black (2000) and 2004's letdown The Chronicles of Riddick - as well as 1996's under-appreciated, pre-ID4 invasion film The Arrival - puts as much meat into his dialogue as he does into his action.
Fun Fact #1: Vin Diesel traded his fee for appearing in Fast & Furious: Tokyo Drift for the rights to the Riddick character. The film cost a low $40 million, and has thus far taken $55m.
Fun Fact #2: Actors who often play grunting muscleheads on screen - Diesel; Schwarzenegger; Stallone; Norris; Dwayne Johnson - are actually among Hollywood's smartest operators, working over franchises and extending their action- hero life-spans long beyond what anyone would have reasonably predicted.
PERCY JACKSON: SEA OF MONSTERS *** (106 minutes) PG
More pretty good, if forgettable FX-driven franchise fodder as Percy (Logan Lerman) heads off with his demigod pals (including Alexandra Daddario as the standard teen movie hottie) on an impressively mounted sea-bound trek in search of the mythical Golden Fleece. Amidst the swirl of dazzling visuals and magnificent beasts, there is a very funny "what are you doing here?" moment that takes place deep inside the stomach of a giant sea creature. The film, proficiently directed by Thor Freudenthal (Hotel for Dogs; Diary of a Wimpy Kid) also features the ever-surprising Stanley Tucci, who sports the latest in a long line of formidable movie wigs.
PLANES **1/2 (91 minutes) G
Think Cars, but with planes. Passable, pleasant, mildly fun and apparently written by computer, comedian/actor Dane Cook gives voice to an ambitious little crop- dusting plane who defies everybody by entering an around-the-world air race. It's he very familiar "be yourself" theme long championed by Pixar, though it's important to note that while this is a Disney film, it didn't come from the Pixar division of the Mouse House. It's a good, nifty little time-killer, but nothing special. Originally intended as a straight-to-disk film, two more Planes films are planned.
ONE DIRECTION: THIS IS US **1/2 (92 minutes) PG
As a straight out, brand-enforcing concert film for fans in the style of Justin Bieber: Never Say Never and Katy Perry: Part of Me, this puff piece of pop propaganda does precisely what it's supposed to with the British all-boy vocal group One Direction.
There's the standard interviews, hard-luck stories and the fairly interesting tale of how Simon Cowell threw the lads together as a group after they each individually tanked out on The X Factor.
There's a touching bit where one of the kids buys his mum a house, and some fun with a running gag where they get their female fans to scream on cue, Pavlov's Dog-style.
What's super-odd about this film is its director, Morgan Spurlock. Best-known as an activist documentarian - Supersize Me; Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?; 30 Days - it's a bit of a shock to see his controversy-magnet name attached to something so tame, formulaic and corporate.
There are hints over the film's final credits that Spurlock had some edgy ideas involving fans and the guys wearing disguises - one amusing sequence does make it into the film - but we'll likely have to wait for the DVD to discover whether Spurlock intended a different film from the stamped-out merchandising showreel we get here.
A HIJACKING **** (99 minutes; partly subtitled) M
After a Danish freighter is hijacked by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean, the suits in head office engage in a tense, months-long tango of ransom offers and counter offers with the increasingly twitchy captors while the crew try to work out what their chances are of making it out alive. Absorbing, realistic, non-sensationalist drama follows the nuts-and-bolts of negotiation; things get tight enough at HQ, but on board director Tobias Lindholm (he wrote The Hunt) creates a palpable sense of ennui mixed with the potential for sudden violence. A very, very good film.
I'M SO EXCITED * (90 minutes; subtitled) MA
After a string of excellent, dark dramas - The Skin I Live In; Broken Embraces; Talk to Her - Spanish bad boy Pedro Almodovar attempts a return to his earlier, naughtier, heightened comic style - and falls flat. Think Flying High with a gay cabin crew and no laughs. Set on a passenger plane with campy flight attendants, the mess is one dud joke after another, coupled with bargain-basement production values (watch those static shadows) that suggest Almodovar just didn't care about what he was doing. The story has most of the plane's passengers rendered unconscious, presumably by showing I'm So Excited as the in-flight movie. After 20 minutes you'll know precisely how they feel. Terrible, and an odds-on favourite to become the year's most ironically titled film.