The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special

STREAMING REVIEW:

Disney+;
Animated;
Not rated.
Voices of Helen Sadler, Omar Benson Miller, Jake Green, Eric Bauza, A.J. LoCascio, Matt Sloan, Trevor Devall, Matt Lanter, Tom Kane, Matthew Wood, Dee Bradley Baker, James Arnold Taylor, Grey Griffin, Kelly Marie Tran, Anthony Daniels, Billy Dee Williams.

To say the “Star Wars” franchise hasn’t had the best of luck with holiday specials would be an understatement.

In 1978, a year and a half after the release of the first “Star Wars” film, CBS aired the original Star Wars Holiday Special for its one and only time Nov. 17. Seizing on the continued excitement surrounding the first movie and anticipation of a sequel, the special re-united the original cast, and was so notoriously awful, with cheap production values and a dreadful variety show format, that “Star Wars” creator George Lucas once wished for every copy to be burned.

In the ensuing years, it was distributed solely through bootleg VHS and DVD copies, shared from one fan to the next and achieving a certain cult status before the Internet made it more readily viewable for everyone.

The story involved Han, Luke, Leia, C-3PO and R2-D2 helping Chewbacca return to his home planet to be with his family for Life Day, the “Star Wars” equivalent of Christmas, while avoiding Darth Vader’s efforts to capture them. While a series of notable guest stars popped in for jaw-droppingly bad musical numbers, the special’s most significant claim to fame was an animated segment that served as the introduction of Boba Fett before his appearance in 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back.

While much of the special is no longer considered canonical, many elements from it have been reintroduced into “Star Wars” lore over the years, particularly and most recently through references in “The Mandalorian.”

Fans have certainly embraced the concept of Life Day, celebrated the unofficial “Star Wars” holiday every year on Nov. 17. Fittingly, then, and with a healthy sense of humor, Disney+ presented the franchise’s second holiday special on that very day, and this time the results are much more favorable.

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Instead of repeating the mistake of the first special and presenting it as a sequel to the first movie, the new one uses the animation style and sensibilities of the “Lego Star Wars” world, making it more of an homage to “Star Wars” than a continuation of it. Filtering the special through the “Lego” lens gives “Star Wars” fans a chance to enjoy a lighthearted, yet still heartfelt, poke at their favorite franchise.

Picking up after the events of Rise of Skywalker, the story finds Rey doubting her ability to train a new generation of Jedi. While her friends prepare the Millennium Falcon to celebrate Life Day with Chewie’s family, Rey consults the ancient Jedi texts and learns of a temple that offers a key to the insight she seeks, but is accessible only once a year on the holiday. While the Life Day celebration begins to spin out of control, Rey journeys to the temple and finds the key opens a doorway through space and time, allowing her to visit significant moments in “Star Wars” history, a trip that descends into chaos when the characters of the various eras begin to interact.

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The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special crams a lot of gags into its 44-minute running time, drawing inspiration from the entire 43-year history of the franchise and putting the characters in fun but absurd situations that, because its Lego, doesn’t detract from actual canon.

It has all the “anything goes” feeling of kids playing with their “Star Wars” toys waiting for Christmas dinner, and with letting imagination run wild definitely makes for a winning combination.

The Banana Splits Movie

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Street Date 8/27/19;
Warner;
Horror;
$19.98 DVD, $24.98 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘R’ for horror violence and gore.
Stars Dani Kind, Finlay Wojtak-Hissong, Romeo Carere, Steve Lund, Sara Canning, Eric Bauza.

The line between comedy and horror is often a fine one, as attempting to build a mood of genuine fright can often be undone with over-the-top depictions of gore. On the other hand, a copious amount of blood and guts splattering across the screen can even be a lot of fun when not meant to be taken seriously.

So then, what to make of The Banana Splits Movie, a horror-infused update of the infamous “The Banana Splits Adventure Hour,” the psychedelic kids show of the 1960s featuring a bizarre band of four overgrown animal puppets performing a variety of cheesy gags that would leave viewers asking if the creators or the intended audience are supposed to be more high.

The new movie is based on the premise that the costumes are too creepy to really work as children’s characters, and are more akin to theme park mascots that could be hiding any number of unsavory sorts while unsuspecting parents push kids in front of them for photo ops.

In a world where the Banana Splits show is still on the air after 50 years, the characters are now played by sophisticated robots, whose creator programs them with a prime directive that “the show must go on.”

One of their biggest fans is a kid named Harley (Finlay Wojtak-Hissong), whose family takes him to a taping of the show on his birthday. However, on this day, the new network head of programming decides to visit, and because every adult considers the show immensely stupid, he cancels it.

This news doesn’t go over too well with the Splits robots, who start murdering every adult in the studio in their effort to keep the show going for the kids.

The idea of the robots turning on their human masters was inspired by Westworld, with the idea of the cute mascot characters turning on their fans was the plot of the memorable “Itchy and Scratchy Land” episode of “The Simpsons.”

It’s a bonkers setup that should yield a ton of wacky horror scenarios, but instead of playing up the juxtaposition of a kids show turning into a splatterfest, the film is more interested in dialing up the dark-and-creepy factor.

The film chugs along at a leisurely pace as it isolates a handful of characters to follow through eerily dark soundstages while being stalked by the Splits. Some of their kills are inventive and rife with gooey makeup effects, but they take so long to develop and pay off that there’s little joy in beholding the audacity of the premise.

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Imagine instead playing up the acid trip nature of the show, and keeping the tone light and cheery as the robots slaughter everyone as they’re running for their lives? Then maybe once the survivors start to hide, the Splits would hunt them down for some of the game-like kill scenarios.

Still, the curiosity factor over the premise of a Banana Splits murderfest (piqued, no doubt, by the Splits theme song used during the memorable Hit Girl intro scene in Kick-Ass) should draw in some eyeballs.

The film is a little more clever in its spoofing of studio power politics and the often absurd whims of big-wig executives who ascend to their lofty positions without the faintest whiff of merit or creative talent.

Bonus materials on the Blu-ray are rather sparse, with two behind-the-scenes featurettes that run about 15 minutes.

The first, running eight-and-a-half minutes, is a pretty standard talking-heads piece with the filmmakers and cast discussing the tone of the film and why they wanted to target the Banana Splits as the kiddie characters most likely to turn violent.

Then there’s the six-and-a-half-minute companion video in which they discuss some of the various murder scenes created for the film.

Finally, there’s a two-minute montage of fake “Breaking News” videos of reports of the slaughter at the Splits studio.

One of the featurettes also touts the old “Banana Splits” show being available on DVD, but maybe a few episodes could have been included with the movie’s Blu-ray just to really give viewers some context about where the movie was coming from.

Batman Ninja

BLU-RAY REVIEW

Street 5/8/18;
Warner;
Anime;
$19.98 DVD, $24.98 Blu-ray, $29.98 Steelbook Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for sequences of violence and action, and for some suggestive material.
Voices of Roger Craig Smith, Tony Hale, Grey Griffin, Tara Strong, Fred Tatasciore, Yuri Lowenthal, Adam Croasdell, Will Friedle, Tom Kenny, Eric Bauza.

Batman Ninja isn’t just another high-concept direct-to-video animated movie with a fun premise to guide the characters’ latest adventure. This is a full-on anime experience that blends traditional notions of Batman with many of the genre’s tropes. When the movie’s plot involves Batman has to call upon an army of monkeys to fight a giant robot, you know you’re in for a wild ride.

The concept is best summed up by one of the filmmakers in the Blu-ray’s bonus materials: it’s not Japan through the eyes of Batman, but Batman through the eyes of Japan.

This isn’t just an Elseworlds concept that re-imagines the Batman characters into similar roles in a historical setting. Rather, the story finds Batman, along with his allies and enemies, transported from present-day Gotham City to Feudal Japan, where the villains begin to take over different territories.

Though Batman has friends to fight alongside him, he finds his many gadgets are useless in the past, forcing him to adapt to the fighting styles of the day if he is to round up the bad guys and return to modern times.

The animation is complex but beautiful, shifting styles at times to reflect the tone of the scene. The colors are vivid, and the look, feel and plotting of the piece is distinctly Japanese in its craftsmanship. The Blu-ray includes both the original Japanese audio with subtitles, and an English audio track with an American cast, highlighted by a manic Joker performance from Tony Hale (“Veep,” “Arrested Development”).

Fans of the project will also find many interesting behind-the-scenes details revealed on the Blu-ray, especially in a 49-minute video of the film’s 2017 New York Comic Con panel discussion with the filmmakers (before any of the cast was announced).

There are also a couple of more traditional making-of featurettes, with “Batman: Made in Japan” clocking in at 14 minutes, as well as the 17-and-a-half minute “East/West Batman,” which delves into the cultural impacts of Batman and anime and why they were a natural fit for each other.