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For a little over a decade, Michael Bay built a billion-dollar empire on treating his audience like children. In his eyes, all the people want to see are boobs, explosions, and jokes about boobs and explosions. He has become, for many, a symbol for just how little Hollywood actually thinks of its customers, capable only of money-grubbing cynicism.

Enter Travis Knight, president of stop-motion animation studio Laika, director of the phenomenal Kubo And The Two Strings, and the human that this series has been needing for a very long time now. If there’s one thing Knight knows, it’s how to make inanimate objects feel like they are just as full of life as any flesh-and-blood human. And through Bumblebee and his interactions with the perpetually-on-the-edge-of-seventeen Hailee Steinfeld, we get a very tender and emotional display of that in action. Through sheer body language and sampled speech, Bumblebee becomes something worth caring about, worth crying with, and worth sharing victories with.

He’s also someone worth seeing in a fire fight, and this is another result of Knight’s involvement. Stop-motion animation is a gruelling and time-consuming process, one that requires a metric tonne of patience to see through. The kind of patience that, unlike Bay, allows Knight to give the audience time to breathe between action scenes so it doesn’t just blur together into a sprawling behemoth of incoherency. It maintains the CGI fidelity of the other films, one of the few consistent high points for the series, and applies it to fight scenes that may lack a certain bombastic punch but balances that out with plenty of emotional hutzpah. They work because we care about who’s involved.

But more than anything else, what Knight and writer Christina Hodson do that warrants the most praise is that they actually have an idea of who their audience is. The film is soaked in ‘80s nostalgia, showing a lot of reverence for the era that gave birth to Transformers and so many other toy-licensed cartoons, referencing everything from ALF to The Breakfast Club to make for cheesy but undeniably fun moments. These work nicely to counteract how sombre this film can get, with the relationship between Bumblebee and Steinfeld’s Charlie a surrogate for grief and adolescent woes and all those other things that most would wish to forget.

Much like with Kubo, Knight trusts that his audience, young and old, can accept the darker aspects of life and death, up to and including how it is perfectly fine to not feel fine. Then again, even without that context, being handed a book titled ‘Smile For A Change’ will never not be patronising, as happens to Charlie early on.

For the first time in over 10 years, we have a Transformers movie worth watching; a fun, well-acted, exciting and even emotional piece of popcorn action.

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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

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There have been six Spider-Man movies since 2002, seven if you include Venom – not to mention Spidey’s various smaller roles in the Marvel films Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War – so it’s safe to say that the web-slinger has been well represented on the cinema screen. Taking that notion one step further, it’s perhaps fair to say your friendly neighbourhood arachnid chap is perilously close to becoming over-exposed. It’s something of a miracle, then, that the animated Sony film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse feels like not only a decent addition to the spider-library, but one of the best flicks in the canon.

The plot focuses on young Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) who, through a plot contrivance that would be a little mean to spoil, finds himself saddled with a 40-something slacker Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Jake Johnson) from another dimension.

Dealing with his very new powers, a plot by Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) that may result in the destruction of reality and yet more alternate dimension spider-folk including, among others, Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Noir (Nicolas Cage!) and motherflipping Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) – not to mention his awkward relationship with overbearing father, Jefferson Davis (Bryan Tyree Henry) – it would be fair to say poor old Miles has a lot to deal with.

In lesser hands this embarrassment of plot riches would swiftly become confusing noise, but happily screenwriters Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman keep the tone light and breezy, with enough self-awareness to have you chuckling through some of the more absurd sections and enough heart to make you genuinely care about the massive cast of endearing misfits.

And all of the above is before we even talk about the animation! Put simply, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is quite possibly the best looking animated superhero film of all time. The juxtaposition of animation styles, comic book iconography and kaleidoscopic collages of vivid colour imbues every damn frame with a jaw-dropping level of detail and artistry that is impossible to look away from. This is the kind of creativity and effort a good animated movie should have and will hopefully raise the bar for some of the lesser entries out there (we’re looking pointedly at you, DC).

Ultimately Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a two hour-long explosion of joy and colour, brimming with laughter and heart, and the kind of film even the most superhero agnostic will adore.

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Penguin Highway

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Whenever a new anime feature film makes waves with a sense of whimsy, fantasy and bold storytelling the inevitable appraisals as ‘The New Hayao Miyazaki’ or questions as to whether a new ‘Studio Ghibli’ has emerged often accompanies the film’s immediate success. When in fact what we are seeing is the emergence of filmmakers having grown up on the works of previous masters such as Miyazaki, Otomo, Oshii and Takahata. Young bold filmmakers with unique visions and their own stories to tell.

Filmmakers such as Mamoru Hosoda of Summer Wars fame, Makoto Shinkai whose Your Name remains Japan’s top earning anime, and with the debut of Penguin Highway, independent filmmaker and animator Hiroyasu Ishida is likely to join the ranks of anime’s new avant-garde, having already drawn the above-mentioned comparisons.

Produced under Ishida’s own Studio Colorido banner, and based on the award winning novel by Tomihiko Morimi, Penguin Highway is an impressively paced boys-own-adventure story that begins as a light hearted character study of a precocious fourth grader which unexpectedly escalates into a wild end-of-the-world escapade, complete with metaphysical mysteries, strange jabberwocky monstrosities and, as the title suggests, plenty, and we do mean plenty, of penguins.

During its opening monologue, the film introduces us to Aoyama, an overtly confident, if somewhat socially awkward student who views the world as one large scientific experiment. Urged on by his father, Aoyama documents everything around him, from weather patterns to the behaviour of bullies. But when a rookery of penguin suddenly appears in a field, his curiosity is put to task in figuring out the how and why.

Turning to his friend and chess instructor, a young woman who works at the local dentist clinic, Aoyama soon discovers a number of peculiar incidents around his home town that seem to share an elusive common thread, the least of which include the fact that the dental nurse can manifest penguins from random objects, and that one of his fellow classmates has discovered a giant orb of water floating in a field hidden deep within the woods.

Without question Aoyama is the heart of Penguin Highway, and director Ishida handles the character beautifully as a guide to help his audience navigate the turbulent, and at times perplexing narrative. Coupled with the film’s gorgeous art design and a nostalgic undercurrent, reminiscent of films such as The Goonies or Monster Club, Penguin Highway undoubtedly warrants the inevitable comparisons it will receive, but remains far more deserving of praise as a unique, beautifully entertaining and wholly original film.

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I Want To Eat Your Pancreas

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Fun fact: The average human pancreas weighs approx. 80 grams, has a creamy, rich mouth feel with a taste comparable to aged sashimi scallops… best not ask how we came about these facts.

But knowing this information has exactly as much relevance to the storyline of I Want To Eat Your Pancreas as the film’s actual title, and that’s to say, practically nothing. It’s not that there isn’t a passing mention of pancreas consumption, or that hardcore Japanese pop-culture fans will respond to some brand recognition, it’s just that compared to the other 99.8% of the film’s 108 minute run time, it’s a little puzzling that this is the reference Studio VLON used to label this beautifully rendered feature length anime for its Western release. Especially considering that the movie resonates as an emotional teenage coming-of-age fable that will likely have any wayward eighties-horror aficionados wondering into the cinema dabbing tears from their eyes as opposed to saliva from the corner of their mouths.

Spawned from the serialised novel by Yoru Sumino, and having already been adapted as a live-action film under the similarly ambiguous title of Let Me Eat Your Pancreas, director Shin’ichiro Ushijima wastes no time in establishing the bittersweet tone of his film, opening on a funeral scene weighed down by a somber narration delivered by the film’s central protagonist, Shiga.

From this point on, I Want To Eat Your Pancreas essentially takes place as a flashback, introducing Shiga as deeply introverted high schooler, more comfortable looking at the pages of a book than engaging with the world around him; a pastime that finds him in possession of a book he finds abandoned in a hospital waiting room. Flicking through its pages and realising it’s a personal dairy of a terminally ill patient, Shiga is suddenly confronted by one of his fellow classmates, the vivacious Sakura, who claims the dairy as hers.

Sakura explains that she suffers from a pancreatic disease, but as it doesn’t impact her day-to-day health nobody besides her immediate family know of her illness, and begs Shiga to keep her secret.

More distressed by having a conversation with a fellow classmate than learning of her condition, Shiga basically indicates he couldn’t care less and walks off. An action that immediately fascinates and attracts Sakura, bonding her to him regardless of his discomfort.

To call what follows, a simple teen love story, would do an injustice to what is essentially a beautifully crafted relationship between two damaged souls, deftly jumping between light-hearted playfulness and emotionally jarring moments that resonate with genuine angst.

Best known for his work on the series One Punch Man, director Ushijima has crafted a captivating and emotional work with his debut feature. And while the film does suffer from some pacing issues during its second act; never quite reaching the sense of heartbreak it strives for, it’s a film that nonetheless gets beneath the skin and eats away at you long after the credits roll… right down to your pancreas.