Thursday, 2 August 2018

Maya The Bee: The Honey Games (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: After an unfortunate encounter with the Empress of Buzztropolis (Marney McQueen), country bee Maya (Coco Jack Gillies) is given an ultimatum: Unless she can beat the Buzztropolis team at the upcoming Honey Games, the Empress will take all of the honey from Maya's hive. Teaming up with her best friend Willy (Benson Jack Anthony) and a group of bugs from her home in Poppy Meadow, they will have to work together if they want to save the hive.

Gillies does pretty well as the overly enthusiastic and headstrong lead, evenly getting across her character’s genuine merits and the lessons that need to be learnt with equal vigour. Anthony is okay here as the best friend, but between the fixation on food and the constant fawning over the rival, he’s not given much to work with. Justine Clarke gives a kindly and regal air to the Queen of Poppy Meadow, while Marney McQueen acts as a direct contrast to that in a rather plain but still serviceable way as the Empress. Aussie comedic legends The Umbilical Brothers as the duo of comic relief ants are annoying in a thankfully ignorable way, while Jimmy James Eaton, Jordon Hare and Cam Ralph as the motley crew that makes up the rest of the team do decently with their basic traits.

Rupert Degas as the gamesmaster Beegood (*heavy sigh*) is all things snooty and turns out well enough as one of the antagonists, and Linda Ngo as Violet, the leader of the Buzztropolis team… wow. Even considering how basic her characterisation is, basically being the stock sporting rival who keeps taunting and tricking our heroes, this is an exceptionally annoying performance. She gets across all the reasons why we’re meant to hate this character, but that never translates into a villain that we would actively want to watch. As a result, she’ll likely make the parents in the audience grind their teeth into powder with how grating her sneering can get here.

The animation quality here is a real mixed bag. Flying Bark Productions, the Aussie studio that worked on not only the first Maya The Bee movie but also the recent Blinky Bill movie, are a landmark production house and have been attached to a lot of childhood favourites for over 50 years. Of course, longevity doesn’t always translate into great results as the CGI here is pretty much the definition of child-friendly. Rubbery, overly shiny, round and bouncy textures for the characters and settings make it look like everything was sculpted out of plastic, only it’s more than evident that this isn’t any form of deliberate artistic choice. More likely, it’s an attempt to translate the franchise’s hand-drawn animated origins into the age of computer graphics, and the result is about the same as what we got four years ago with the first movie: It looks okay, but it most certainly isn’t anything special. Oh, and joy of joys, we have bad water textures to deal with here as well.

The feeling of having to settle for just average material carries on into the story, as this is about as by-the-numbers as you can get for what is essentially a sports movie. You have the underdogs who have to prove their worth, you have the higher-ups running the event who are pretty much strong-armed into even hearing them in the first place, you have the rival team who spend more time taunting our leads than anything physically competitive, and you have the artificial tension around whether or not the main characters will actually win. The fact that the film seems to lean into all of these tropes only makes things worse, since it ends up relying on familiar ideas and characters in order to push itself forward. Considering one of those characters includes the perpetually bitchy Violet, whose brand of Mean Girl-meets-Valley Girl antics are enough to make you want to throw things at the screen, this is not a good thing. I mean, if we were given any reason to care about the characters in question, this might have sufficed, but we’re only given surface-level outsider traits to identify the leads with. As bland as Maya and Willy ultimately are, at least they stand out; same can’t be said for the coded emo spider and the germaphobic cockroach, who only register as their informed traits and little else.

But this is me looking at it from my own perspective; much like when I looked at the first film, I have to face the fact that I am in no way the target demographic for this. I take issue with some of the characters and how the film looks, but both are done in this simplistic fashion because it’s meant to be digested easily by the kids this film is aiming to engage with. Honestly, I don’t have a problem with that, considering the messages this film wants to impart on its audience.

Now, admittedly, said messages are not only shown in a very simplified manner (which makes sense, given the exceptionally young target audience) but are also incredibly blunt. For example, there’s a scene where the Empress is shown the scores for the Games and she remarks with glee that her team is in first place. Smash cut to the Queen, who is equally happy that her team isn’t in last place. There’s a few moments like this, and as much as I don’t care for how basic it is, these are still useful things to be teaching young kids. Things like good sportsmanship, learning to work as a team and not just trying to do everything on one’s own, and playing fair even when the opposition refuses to do the same.

On top of that, we even get a thematic through line about characters taking responsibility for their own mistakes, rather than blaming everyone else for what they themselves did wrong. Regardless of my issues with this film’s aesthetic and production values, that kind of lesson is one that earns instant respect in these parts. I’ve talked at great length in the past about how I see humanity’s inability to take responsibility for its own actions to be something of a prevalent problem, so seeing a film like this trying to teach the next generation to avoid that pitfall makes me appreciate this production on a certain level. No amount of slapdash animation can take that away.

All in all, while I personally don’t care much for this feature, credit where it’s due in that this feels like it will do some good for the audience it’s aiming for. The acting is passable, while the writing and the animation are the definition of kids’ filmmaking, and the story overall is one built on clich├ęs and tropes that are so ingrained in our culture that I’m pretty sure even those in utero are already familiar with them. But even with my own apprehension, this film’s intentions and the lessons it wants to impart feel both worthy of being taught and could actually get through the audience. I may not like it as entertainment, but then again, this wasn't made with people like me in mind. I mean, compared to a lot of kids’ films I’ve already covered this year, this thing comes out smelling like roses regardless.

It ranks higher than Breath, which may have far more visual finesse to its name but also contains material that sets off some serious alarm bells for me. Maya The Bee: The Honey Games is not going to do much for older audiences, but for kids, it’s more than serviceable. However, even with the begrudging respect I have for this film’s intentions, it still ranks lower than Mary And The Witch’s Flower. They’re about as derivative as each other, but Mary has a far nicer visual aesthetic and the animation looks like a lot more effort was put into the details.

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