Sunday, July 26, 2009

Review: G-Force (***1/2)

Zach Galifianakis (Ben), Will Arnett (Kip Killian), Bill Nighy (Saber), Kelli Garner (Marcie), Piper Mackenzie Harris (Penny), Tyler Patrick Jones (Connor), Jack Conley (Agent Carter), Gabriel Casseus (Agent Trigstad), Justin Mentell (Terrell), Niecy Nash (Rosalita), Loudon Wainwright III (Grandpa Goodman). Featuring the voices of Sam Rockwell (Darwin), Penelope Cruz (Juarez), Nicolas Cage (Speckles), Tracy Morgan (Blaster), Jon Favreau (Hurley), Steve Buscemi (Bucky). Directed by Hoyt Yeatman. Rated PG (action, rude humor). 89 minutes.

In 2005, Disney released a film that was a glorious spectacle in the B-movie tradition. It was called "Sky High," and it was a dazzling mix of the "Harry Potter" series and "The Incredibles" that worked wonders and was that summer's most fun release by a mile, a joyous respite that worked as well as, but in different ways than, the darker releases that season, such as the final "Star Wars" film or the "Batman" reboot. In the same way, and with one minor but considerable flaw, "G-Force" is this year's answer. The film is in no way smart or sophisticated, but how can it be? It's about guinea pigs that are special agents with the FBI! The plot calls for a B-movie and "G-Force" delivers the goods.

The movie forms some sort of plot. Appliance manufacturer Leonard Saber is developing brand new technology to go along with his devices (including a specially-designed coffee maker); it will connect them using a radio frequency. But his inventions seemingly hide something more sinister: the operation reveals something called Clusterstorm, a plot to overrun the world with machines. On the case are the G-Force of the title, and they include: three guinea pigs named Darwin, Juarez, and Blaster and their mole Speckles. The team escape from the clutches of the FBI and are marooned in a pet shop. Here they meet Hurley, an unsure, slightly overweight guinea pig, desperate to leave the pen. After losing one of their own team members in an escape plan gone awry, team leader Darwin is keen on vengeance--and will stop at nothing to prevent global destruction.

If we still lived in the times of VHS, video tapes everywhere would probably be worn out watching "G-Force." It's just that type of movie. It reminds, in tone, of last year's "Meet Dave," except with better special effects and a much more sufferable first act. "Meet Dave" was neither as terrible as the trailers were nor as clever as the concept was. "G-Force," on the other hand, is much more involving than its concept would initially seem. The idea of guinea pigs as special agents is tired and juvenile, sort of like making a movie about Alvin and his fellow chipmunks, which did happen, to disastrous results. "G-Force" is the Second Coming in comparison and much cleverer than most kid-friendly espionage movies out there; it's the best of its kind since the underrated, kind-of-visionary gem "Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams" and trumps fare like both "Agent Cody Banks" movies, "Catch That Kid," and the unbearable "Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker," none of which have the wit or style of this film.

The G-Force is a likable troupe of guinea pigs and more characterized than you may think--with one exception. Leader Darwin, plagued by guilt over the loss of a good friend around the end of the first act, turns into the consummate movie hero, extremely likable, resourceful, and flawed. Sam Rockwell embues humanity into his role, which is one of the best voiceovers in a Disney film I've seen a long while. Agent Juarez is somewhat of an off-to-the-side role but Penelope Cruz does what she can and does it well, besides. As Hurley, Jon Favreau is hilarious and heartfelt, much the same way John Ratzenberger is in his many voiceovers for Pixar's films. Nicolas Cage's voice is completely unrecognizable as Speckles, the mole in two different ways, but he's terrific and almost photorealistic in execution.

If the film has a flaw, it is in the inclusion of Agent Blaster, voiced irritatingly by Tracy Morgan, who is underqualified for this role. They could've gotten Eddie Murphy and the role could probably have the potential to be a Donkey-type of beloved animated character. More intriguing is Steve Buscemi's virtual extended cameo as Bucky, a fellow petshop-mate of Hurley's, who is funnier with 10 minutes of screen time than Blaster is in the entire picture. My suggestion to the writers would be to switch those characters and the star rating might have been pushed up to four stars.

Luckily, Blaster only pauses the experience and doesn't bring it to a complete halt. Otherwise, the film is unadulterated fun and one of the better movies this summer. The action scenes are actually intense (something I didn't foresee), and the villain, Saber, is played with great relish by Bill Nighy. One might think Nighy is too good, but he impresses from frame one with a deliciously over-the-top performance that reminds of John Malkovich's Pascal Sauvage in the underrated "Johnny English" or Jim Broadbent's Inspector Butterman in the brilliant "Hot Fuzz" (which this film is the kid-version of). The other human actors are window-dressing, like Zach Galifianakis and an underused Will Arnett, but that is perfectly okay under the circumstances.

Director Hoyt Yeatman has directed his first feature after years of special effects work, but he proves himself worthy with this film, a kind of Michael Bay for the kiddos. He frames some of his action scenes as Bay would. The ending would have been derivative of "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," what with its Transformer made out of kitchen appliances, but it's practically as insane as some of the stuff in last month's action masterpiece. The special effects are nearly as accomplished and deliriously beautiful. That Oscar winner Scott Stokdyk (look him up) helped with effects is not surprising. Editor Mark Goldblatt has worked on such big-budget films as "Starship Troopers," "Armageddon," "Hollow Man," and "Bad Boys II," and he uses every tool in his arsenal here (that "G-Force" is better than those movies is perhaps more indicative of their deficiencies, but what the hey).

"G-Force" is a wonderful family film, one that is unexpectedly moving at times and nearly always funny; but it has that extra layer of ingenuity that most live-action family films from Disney have missing. This summer has presented disappointments, like "Terminator Salvation" and "Land of the Lost," both films with better advertising than this and another surprise, "X-Men Origins: Wolverine." "G-Force" is a big success and should be seen by 7-year-olds everywhere. One of the shocking aspects about the movie is its refusal to pander to the age group and then treat them like imbeciles. There is a genuinely surprising twist at the end that kids may not like, but they will certainly understand it. It treats its target age with respect and doesn't condescend. That's all we can ask for.

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