The Other Side of Animation 182: Sword of the Stranger Review

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(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com/camseyeview. It would help support my work, and keeps the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this review!)

Parental Warning/Heads up!: This film is not meant for younger viewers. It can be pretty bloody, and you will see limbs getting sliced off. Viewer’s discretion advised, and enjoy the review!

I have written almost 200 reviews about animated films, and the film genres I wish I could talk about more are animated films that revolve around samurai. You would think in Japan at least, there would be an abundant list of animated films that are inspired by the many classic samurai films of old cinema. We have many live-action samurai films we can name and recommend, but in terms of samurai or ninja films in animation, unless you count franchise films from something like Naruto, the pickings are slim. Sure, I could talk about Ninja Scroll, but that film comes with a lot of baggage that I need to sort out first with that director’s work. So, what am I personally left with? Well, why not Sword of the Stranger?

Directed by Masahiro Ando, animated by Bones, and originally released back in 2007, Sword of the Stranger is an action animated film that made the festival rounds before originally being brought over by Bandai with a dub by Oceans Studios. It had a positive reception through 2007 and its original US release in 2008, but after Bandai left the anime distribution game, Funimation picked up the rights and re-released it. I bought the Funimation re-release, but only now have had time to rewatch it, since we are all (at least, I hope you are all) isolating ourselves. It was time to go through my backlog, and I decided to start with this film. So, what did I think about it? I would recommend reading more to find out.

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Our story revolves around a young boy named Kotaro, dubbed by Aidan Drummond. He is first seen in the film running away from a burning monastery when it was attacked by a group known as the Ming. The Ming is a group of warriors from China that is in Japan to perform some kind of ritual that requires Kotaro. Luckily for the boy, Kotaro runs into a wandering swordsman named Nanashi, dubbed by Michael Adamthwaite. Nanashi is then hired by Kotaro to protect him from the villainous grasp of the Ming and the right hand of the group Luo-Lang, dubbed by Scott McNeil.

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In terms of stories, this samurai tale is nothing all that unique. We have seen the wandering swordsman with a dark past, the bratty kid that’s important to the main plot of the film, and villains with a plan that goes beyond simple conquering of the world. If you are looking for something that fully stands out from the classic samurai flicks of old cinema, then you probably won’t find much here. On one hand, you want to see something different or a style of film taken to new heights or interesting directions. With all that said, on the other hand, if you can execute your film with likable characters, great cinematography and heart-pounding action sequences, then being more of the same stuff that you love before is okay. It’s all in the execution, and the execution here is great. You get a lot of beautiful environmental shots, fairly quiet scenes with Nanshi and Kotaro bonding, and when the film decides to focus on the action, it gives you everything that you want with samurai action flicks. They set up the mood, and the action is fast-paced, but followable. The fights show how threatening and powerful the characters are. Nanashi is already hinting at it, because he can take down most opponents with his sword still in the hilt. Plus, who wouldn’t want to see the villain tear through a group of 10+ bandits with ease to set the stakes in the story? Luckily, the story has enough depth to it to simply not be an action-packed tech demo. The depth will be familiar sounding to many with a swordsman who can’t let go of his past actions, and what you are willing to do to keep ahold of your beliefs. It’s not a deep movie, but the movie didn’t need to be deep, it just needed to be this fun easy-to-get-into action flick.

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The animation in Sword of the Stranger is quite good. The studio behind this film’s visuals, Bones, the same animation studio behind Cowboy Bebop: The MovieWolf’s Rain, the two animated Fullmetal Alchemist films, the Prototype short from Halo Legends, RahXephon, and the universally popular My Hero Academia series and films, really flexes their talent here, as it’s a beautiful film to watch in motion. It has sequences that set up the spectacle of it all, and it’s all so fluid. Sure, sometimes they use a little shaky cam that feels unnecessary, but in general, the designs are consistent, expressive, and they all move well. Another highlight of the presentation is the music. The epic samurai film score by composer Naoki Sato fit perfectly into the film. It’s grand in scale, with sweeping tunes that carry the film and make you feel engrossed in its world. It’s especially effective during the fight sequences, as it has an eerie calmness, then bombastic drums and tunes to help keep everyone on edge as swords clash. The voice cast is also pretty great. I know many older anime fans will recognize the studio that did the dub for the film, Oceans Studios, so it’s not all that surprising to see names like Scott McNeil and Paul Dobson pop up. Aidan Drummond almost teeters on being annoying, but he does a good job portraying Kotaro. I do like the dub overall, as it has talented people like Tabitha St. Germain, Brian Dobson, Michal Adamthwaite, Alistair Abell, Maryke Hendrikse, Brian Drummond, and Hiro Kanagawa.

Now, as for complaints, I have a few. While the action and story can be thrilling, the characters aren’t all that interesting. They are your very typical characters for these samurai flicks, with the bratty kid and the lone ronin who has a dark past that he tries to forget. The villains are slightly undercooked as well. Sure, the main bad guy of the villains is entertaining, but the rest of them don’t have a whole lot of dimension to them. It doesn’t help either that the film has many side characters. Not too many to take away from the plot like an early Toei-made film, but you are introduced to a character who is a bit bland, and then is killed unceremoniously. Yeah, I wish I cared more about that one person before the film gives him a gruesome death, and isn’t so worried about being macho and maybe/maybe not being xenophobic to the Chinese villains of the film. The film also does that thing that I rarely like in Japanese-animated films, the abrupt ending. Yes, this film does have an actual ending, and not “oh, we ran out of time”, but it does come close to that feeling, since it’s like “well, the movie ended, the boy and the ronin are the only ones left, and -insert pause here- that’s it!” To put it lightly, it’s a little frustrating.

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While not original, Sword of the Stranger is a wonderful action flick that I find myself watching or thinking about anytime I want to watch an animated action flick. It’s really easy to find the film on Blu-ray and DVD since Funimation re-released it after Bandai left the anime distribution game. You can even watch it on Funimation’s streaming service. So, we reveled in samurai action, and now we must change the tune of the next review as we talk about Trolls: World Tour!

Thanks for reading the review! I hope you all enjoyed reading it! If you would like to support my work, make sure to share it out, and if you want to become a Patreon supporter, then you can go to patreon.com/camseyeview. I will see you all next time!

Rating: Go See It!

The Other Side of Animation 145: MFKZ Review

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(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com/camseyeview. It would help support my work, and keeps the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this review!)

One of the things I can’t stand about the current image of animation is how many see it in a fairly limited way. They think that animation can’t be successful or good if they step beyond the family market, which is just incredibly ignorant thinking. That’s like saying adult comedies can’t go past a Seth Rogen stoner comedy, or horror films can only have jump scares and gore. The best part about animation, and I will say it as many times as I need to, is that animation is limitless. You can do anything you want with the medium. For every Dr. Seuss’s The Grinch (2018), you get a Liz and the Blue Bird. For every Incredibles 2, you get a Mirai. For every Duck Duck Goose, you get a How to Train your Dragon. My point is, films like today’s review, MFKZ, is to show how varied and vibrant animation can be. Directed by Shojiro Nishimi and Guillaume Renard, and produced by Ankama Animations and Studio 4C, this high-octane action flick stood out from rest of the films from 2018 for its odd, grimy, and intense visuals that were based on the comics made by Guillaume Renard himself. It was one of the first films during 2017’s Animation is Film Festival, but got a wider US release in October of 2018. So, was the wait worth it? Well, let’s check it out!

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So, what is this movie about? Well, a lot. We follow the story of Angelino, dubbed by Kenn Michael. He lives in Dark Meat City, a hyper-stylized, grimy, and grungy version of Los Angeles. He scrapes by making rent money with his friend Vinz, who’s a walking skeleton boy, dubbed by Vince Staples. They have to deal with living in the more poverty-riddled parts of the city and deal with the rent situation from their landlord Willy, dubbed by Dino Andrade. One night however, Angelino and Vinz get their apartment raided by Stormtrooper-like policemen that are chasing down Angelino for yet unknown reasons. This is on top of Angelino getting over an accident where he crashed into an armored car. The accident in question has him able to see individuals who are not who they supposedly are. This is probably why Angelino is being targeted. After that, Angelino and Vinz get sucked into a world that mirrors They Live (the John Carpenter horror flick). They encounter a group of luchadores who protect the world from evil forces, a group of thugs led by a man named Shakespeare, dubbed by RZA, a lovely woman named Luna, dubbed by Dascha Polanco, and getting relentlessly chased down by an evil man named Mr. K, dubbed by Giancarlo Esposito and his right hand Bruce, dubbed by Danny Trejo. Can the two make it out alive, and find out the mystery behind Angelino’s new abilities?

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So, yeah, let’s get this out of the way first, this film has a lot going on. However, unlike many movies with plenty of plots happening, MFKZ is definitely more focused. It’s more They Live, but with over-the-top action. I know nothing can beat that infamous brawl between Keith David and Rowdy Piper, but the action in MFKZ is easily one of the best elements of this film. Once again, with the knowledge that its animation, and the fact that Studio 4C is the studio that animated the film, the action is topnotch. It’s fast, intense, gritty, over-the-top, and varied. You get car chases, luchadores body-slamming Stormtroopers, Angelino gains new tentacle nightmare powers, and gunfights. For the most part of the film, you are constantly moving and learning about the characters. It’s a lot of fun to see them deal with one another, while dealing with constant action and darkly comedic dialogue. I mean, you can be critical of this film, but you can’t be mad at a thug leader who quotes Shakespeare while carrying large machine guns. It’s deep enough for you to care about the characters, but the film knows you want the fun schlocky sci-fi action, too.

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Another major highlight is that the cast is probably one of the most diverse groups of actors for dubbing and films in general. Rarely do you ever hear or see voice actors who aren’t white. There are ethnic voice actors, but they don’t seem to balance out with how many white voice actors there are in the business. It makes sense that MFKZ would then have ethnic actors/voice actors, including Kenn Michael, Vince Staples, Dino Andrade, Michael Chiklis, Giancarlo Esposito, Jorge Gutierrez, Dascha Polanco, RZA, Danny Trejo, and you get the idea. They all do a pretty good job with their roles.

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While I do love this movie, am happy that it exists, and overjoyed to see an action-animated feature aimed at adults, I’m not entirely surprised by the overall rating and the critic-rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Not saying that it’s bad, because I really enjoyed it, but it is flawed. The third act especially has some pacing issues. It goes full steam ahead when the story gets going, but then it halts in its tracks. It then underplays some of the major plot elements by that point in time, and scales it back down to being more intimate and personal about not losing yourself to your darker intentions, and being human on top of the anti-establishment They Live story beats. The final scene also ends on a sequel bait joke that was funny, but also rubbed me the wrong way, because who knows if we are going to get a sequel or not.

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While it sort of unravels in the end, and I get why people aren’t fully on-board with this movie, I love that this movie exists. I’m always down for more action animation and films with weird and out-there plots. I find it hard for myself to be mad at its flaws, because there are a group of luchadores that protect the world from demons, and it’s essentially a wacked-out version of They Live. I definitely recommend either finding a theater that will play this, or checking it out when it hits DVD. While not perfect, I’m glad films like MFKZ and Ruben Brandt exist. For now, let’s talk about what is possibly the best animated feature of 2018 with Mamoru Hosoda’s Mirai. Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoy the review, and I will see you all next time.

Rating: Go See It!

The Other Side of Animation 128: Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay Review

(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com. It would help support my work, and keeps the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this review!)

Warning/Parental Heads Up: This film is crazy violent. There is also some brief female nudity and quite a lot of death. I will also be spoiling some minor moments. Younger viewers should probably stay away from this film. Enjoy the review!

Looking back at films like Suicide Squad, I feel badly for what happened to it. It was almost complete, but then got delayed for reshoots, due to the negative reaction to Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. It had a marketing campaign to match the film’s tone of Guardians of the Galaxy, came out, was widely panned upon release, was yet another DC film criticized for sloppy editing, and then was released on DVD with a different cut to it. Sure, it made money and gave DC/WB some profit, but you do get the feeling that it could have/should have been more than what we got in the final product. It’s always a bummer when studio shenanigans get in the way and hurt a film more than help it. Would have the original version been any better? Maybe, but we won’t know. Luckily, it won’t be the last time we see our rambunctious group of villains, as we are getting a sequel. For now, let’s look at the animated film, Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay. Directed by mainstay DC animated film director Sam Liu, Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay set itself up as this grindhouse-style action flick with plenty of violence, and plenty of action and fun. Does it succeed? Well, let’s find out.

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The story revolves around our ragtag group of villains working under the government. The team this time consists of Deadshot, voiced by Christian Slater, Harley Quinn, voiced by Tara Strong, Bronze Tiger, voiced by Billy Brown, Captain Boomerang, voiced by Liam McIntyre, Killer Frost, voiced by Kristin Bauer Van Straten, and Copperhead, voiced by Gideon Emery. They are under orders by Amanda Waller, voiced by Vanessa Williams, to find and take down Vandal Savage, voiced by Jim Pirri. He is apparently looking for something, and has gotten the help of Scandal Savage, voiced by Dania Ramirez, and Knockout, voiced by Cissy Jones. Can our team of misfits take them down? Can this film find a tone that fits?

I know I made that last part sound like a joke, but that is the film’s biggest failing. When the film starts, it’s this hyper-violent train heist, where Deadshot is with Count Vertigo, Punch, and Jewelee. And boy, do things get late 80s/early 90s anime-violent. Bodies are sliced in half, blood and guts fly everywhere, heads explode, and it then does that grindhouse film burn effect. The rest of the film is not entirely like this. It struggles to balance out the fun schlocky aspects, like finding out the most recent host of Dr. Fate was a male stripper, and even a plot twist of some other villains trying to find the same thing Vandal Savage is looking for. I won’t say who the villains are for those that haven’t seen it yet, but it’s a lot of fun, and the twist adds to the cheesy schlock of those old 70s/80s exploitation films. Some parts are fun to watch, and the dialogue is definitely punched up to match the tone, but then it tries to have slower moments and an emotional arc for Deadshot and his daughter. It’s not a bad idea for a character, but when it can’t find an ideal way to balance out the ultra-violence and the more dramatic moments, it flip-flops, and constantly kept taking me out of the experience. Much of the story does focus on only a few characters, and the rest are either given very little to do or little development as characters. I loved seeing Copperhead, but he doesn’t do a whole lot. He gets maybe one good death in, but that’s it. While it is schlocky fun, there comes a point where it becomes a bit much. There is some brief nudity that’s jarring, and that goes for the violence, too. Sometimes, things can get so violent, that it’s excessive. The plot also loses steam near the end, with twist after twist after backstabbing. Some of the lines for the snarkier characters also feel more like trailer lines than anything that felt genuine. This is especially true with Killer Frost.

So, what’s fun about the movie? Well, when everything does work, it’s an entertaining movie. While it has some of the same animation the other DC-animated features have, where a lot of the animation was obviously put into the action, and some areas lower the frames of animation, the action is fun to watch. I think what works with this film, more than in the Suicide Squad live-action film, was that the action was visible, and due to the more diverse cast of villains, we get to see more powers, more special moves, and it all sticks. It’s easily one of the more action-packed films from DC. When the characters do have time to be together, they are an amusing group. Everyone usually has a good quirk, or a clever line of dialogue. Even though I wish they didn’t kill off as many characters as they did, I do respect that they put some stakes into the plot. Even the additional villains bring flair and an entirely different DC story into the mix. Granted, that might make some aspects confusing. A lot of schlocky stuff would add in complex elements that are probably not needed, but they threw it in, because it was cool. The voice cast is once again very good. Tara Strong as Harley Quinn is always fun to hear, I like Christian Slater’s take on Deadshot, Vanessa Williams does a great job as Amanda Waller, Billy Brown brings this stoic calm headed tone to Bronze Tiger, Gideon Emery was delightfully slimy as Copperhead (who also had my favorite design out of all the villains), and Liam McIntyre brings in the same vibe Donald Gibson did as Captain Boomerang, to name a few. I also like their usage of other lesser known villains of the DC universe. Sometimes, you can only do so much with one character before you run into a wall, and run out of ideas. It’s why I always enjoyed the Batman: The Brave and the Bold TV series, because that was the entire point of the show.

While not my favorite of the DC films, Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay goes straight down the middle. When it’s fun, it’s a lot of fun. When the characters are allowed to work off one another, they are entertaining. I even like the story twist near the end, despite the drag the third act has. It even has a fun easter egg for the added antagonist’s voice actor, if you have seen one of the DC animated films from 2013 I simply wish it kept its tone consistent. It made the ultra-violence distracting, and the emotional moments feel unwarranted. Some of the animation can be stiff, and it’s not the most competently paced film out of the franchise. Still, it’s fun, and if you want to bring in the schlock for 80 minutes, I can think of worse films to watch. Before we get to review 130, let’s take a look at what is quickly becoming one of the best reviewed animated DC films with Batman Ninja. Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed the review, and I will see you all next time!

Rating: Rent it!

The Other Side of Animation 79: The Monkey King: Hero is Back

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(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com. It would help support my work, and keeps the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this review!)

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So, if I told you that I found an animated film from China that is pretty solid, would you believe me? I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t believe me. There has always been this stigma of China going for a quantity-over-quality style of filmmaking, and yeah, when you realize just how many animated films they make, it definitely shows how low the quality can be. I’m sure there are plenty of good animated films from China, but since most are never brought over here unless Lionsgate has  another bad spending day, then I won’t know about them. Granted, there are some great looking animated films coming out that are really promising. Today’s review is one of those promising films from China, Monkey King: Hero is Back. This was released in 2015, and has the noteworthy title of being China’s highest grossing animated film of all time. Well, until Kung Fu Panda 3 and Zootopia overtook it, but still. In terms of just China-made animated films, it’s the highest grossing animated film from that country. It’s weird because there were so many movies based on the Monkey King, and they got passable reviews. What about this film specifically made a dent in terms of films based on such a mystical character? Well, let’s find out.

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The story revolves a young boy who lives with a monk, played by James Hong, after his parents were killed by trolls. One day, the boy’s town is attacked by the same trolls from long ago. The boy does escape them, but ends up falling into a cave and accidentally awakens the imprisoned Monkey King, voiced by Jackie Chan. The Monkey King really doesn’t want anything to do with the kid, but is then forced into a quest of taking down an evil lord, voiced by Feodor Chin. Can the great Monkey King take down the evil force and bond with the young boy?

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I will start out with the negatives about this film; it might have the worst dub job that I have seen so far. It’s so rushed and poorly synced that it wouldn’t be a shock if they did this dubbing in an afternoon. I mean, it feels like no effort was put into having the voices sync up with the lip movements. The actors also didn’t put in much into their performances. It’s like they knew this was a trainwreck, and that they were going to be in a better animated film together with Kung Fu Panda 3, so they didn’t put too much effort into their roles. Even this annoying comedic side character played by Roger Craig Smith has a, “I really don’t care that I’m here” attitude. Or, maybe they were trying their best, and the individual in charge of the dub wasn’t doing their job! The film is also very annoying in terms of humor, with a lot of pandering fart jokes and other jokes that don’t really work. It’s distracting, and makes the film-going experience tough to sit through, since sitting through a movie with very bad jokes is a massive chore.

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The animation is also not really impressive. Granted, we are seeing small signs that China is getting better with their animation quality, but the CGI is pretty low level, and the animations are stiff when there aren’t any fight sequences or grand movements on screen. Textures are low quality, but the designs are fine. They aren’t anything amazing, but when you have seen how ugly bad foreign CGI character designs can be, it’s higher-up on the totem pole than most. The story is also very generic. On top of not really explaining how a few incidences in the film happened, it’s a very Hollywoodized version of the Monkey King legend that is apparently the biggest property to make films out of in China. I mean, I get it, since the US has the biggest turn-on for most young adult novels that have no right in being made into movies. The characters are not that interesting either. They were boring, generic, or really annoying. I don’t get the deal behind having an annoying kid team up with the lead character, who is much more interesting. The kid was really grating, and I don’t know if I’m right about this, but I think the creators knew that since there were way too many times in the movie where the kid would have or should have died. They did it just to annoy people. It even takes the weight out of the final climatic fight scene, because they don’t kill the kid in the end. I mean, why would you do that? It’s like when they “killed” Superman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and then teased at the very end that he’s coming back. Like, yeah, now you have ruined that character’s story arc. I don’t get why you would do that. Unless this was some clever Edgar Wright comedy, you shouldn’t ruin something like a death of a major character.

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So, what is actually good about this movie? Well, out of all the Chinese CGI trainwrecks that I can think of, The Monkey King: Hero is Back (and I still don’t get why they couldn’t fix that weird title) is at the very least watchable. It’s not something like Gods of Egypt or Norm of the North, where watching it is a chore. While it can get annoying, The Monkey King: Hero is Back does at the very least have some tension and investment in taking down the demon lord. The fights are also fun to watch. You can tell a lot of the budget and effort went into these sequences. While they never reach the heights of the Kung Fu Panda series or Kubo and the Two Strings, they are still entertaining enough to get you through the slog of bad jokes and horrible voicework. While the villain wasn’t anything that interesting, I at least enjoyed the campy personality, and the final fight with him and the Monkey King was fun to watch.

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While I totally get why this film got so much acclaim, I still don’t think it is all that great. It’s just very average. The only real reason to rent this film on any occasion would be because of its legacy and its status. Maybe if you can find this film for $5 or less, I could recommend it, but if you want good kung fu/action in animated form, just get the Kung Fu Panda trilogy or Kubo and the Two Strings. There are a ton of animated films that have much better action sequences and just better overall experiences that you should check out before even putting money down on The Monkey King: Hero is Back. It’s a shame since if the story and animation was better, I would have easily called this film the hidden gem of 2016, but that title goes to Mune: Guardian of the Moon and 25 April. Well, I’ll say this. I would rather watch The Monkey King: Hero is Back much more than what the next review will tackle. I won’t say what it is, but it is quite possibly the biggest flop in terms of animation from 2016. Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed the review, and I will see you all next time!

Rating: Rent it.