21 Jump Street (Phil Lord and Chris Miller, 2012)

There’s something suspiciously endearing about Jenko (Channing Tatum) in 21 Jump Street. In an early scene, the audience sees him as nothing more than a condescending jock. It’s through his budding friendship (bromance if you will) with Schmidt (Jonah Hill) that he opens himself up to be a surprisingly sympathetic character. But I’ll get to that in a second. With 21 Jump Street, I’m really unfamiliar with its source, with only the passing knowledge that Johnny Depp rose to stardom through his participation in the show. So any sort of claims as to whether directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller utilized the source material to its best effect is a little lost on me. Instead, I’m simply looking at the picture on its own terms. And it works. To a degree.

The basic premise of the film is absurd, what with cops in their mid 20s going undercover as high school students to bust a drug ring. But part of what elicits some laughs is how writer Michael Bacall (who adapted Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) acknowledges the farce. On several occasions, Bacall acknowledges the disparity between Jenko and Schmidt’s appearance (they’re meant to be brothers) and Jenko’s adult physique. These self-aware jabs are done with a sort of vigorous spirit that makes the first half of 21 Jump Street particularly effective.

But the picture falters as the action begins to ramp up in its second half. The frantic pacing recalls that of Lord and Miller’s previous directorial outing, the animated Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. It works fine and well for that feature, but the sheer chaos of 21 Jump Street’s second act is too jarring and lacks any sort of formal sophistication. Not that the picture calls for it, but given that it worked so well for David Gordon Green’s Pineapple Express, I had hopes that 21 Jump Street would have balanced its endearing first act qualities with a more precise filmmaking process. For a picture that was adapted from a television show, it certainly has amateurish direction on display.

But the writing is clever, integrating raunchiness with contemporary bromance comedy. I mean, it’s not particularly innovative, but it’s the sort of script that adheres to an effective comedic flow. And while Hill does an admirable job, it’s Tatum who impressed me most. His meathead persona allows him to work as a great straight man to Hill’s manic gestures. And his comic timing is surprisingly developed and on point. At one point, it would’ve probably come off as a slight to acknowledge Tatum as the best aspect of any given picture, but hey, Tatum’s the best thing in 21 Jump Street, and it’s actually a pretty good film too.

Rating: 6/10

Puss in Boots (Chris Miller, 2011)

Perhaps I’ve been spoiled. The past few years of animation has been absolutely stellar, with Pixar churning out masterpieces and DreamWorks valiantly trying to match their rival's output. Add in sporadic appearances from Hayao Miyazaki and Sylvain Chomet and the past few years have given audiences some impressive animated features. But the amount of animated dreck this year has taken me by surprise, with DreamWorks’ Puss in Boots sitting somewhere in the middle of things. Puss in Boots coughs a hairball of ideas, where it strings together a yarn comprised of fairy-tale gimmickry, spaghetti western pathos, and Spanish storybook folklore. At times, the film can be surprisingly effective, though it never really clicks together in a cohesive manner, therein making it all feel more like a series of vignettes rather than a full-fledged animated feature.

Antonio Banderas voices the title character with a sincerity that carries the film throughout its runtime, particularly in an oddly-paced opening act. As Puss goes on his adventure with friend-turned-enemy Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis) for magic beans, writers Tom Wheeler, Brian Lynch, and Will Davies roughly sketch a narrative for the duo to operate under. At times, the general aimlessness of the narrative provokes the idea that the whole adventure is improvisational.

While Puss in Boots touches upon themes of vengeance and loyalty, those themes seem lost in the chaos of the narrative. It’s a shame, particularly given that there’s a lot of effort to flesh out the secondary cast. Humpty Dumpty is an especially interesting character, wherein his narrative arc touches upon a particular gray area that makes him an interesting adversary to the charismatic title character. Of course, there’s a fair share of egg jokes to cushion the darker material.

Puss in Boots’ most impressive quality stems from its rich visual design. While not the most unique visual experience of the year, there are some impressive sights to behold. It’s largely due to the topography of the journey, as the Spanish-Western setting is expansive and beautifully realized. The visual design for the Humpty Dumpty character  is quite impressive as well, as the physics of his movements and expressive face show a great level of detail to the craft. While the narrative has its share of problems, I relished in the film’s visual appeal. But it’s unfortunate that having a rich visual design and a strong narrative have become mutually exclusive for most animated films of 2011. Well, at least there's Rango. 

Rating: 4/10