Issa Rae and Marsai Martin in Little

Friday, April 12, 10:45 a.m.-ish: My third quadruple feature in as many weeks starts with a delightful cartoon, and it isn't Missing Link – though in a couple hours' time, that film will prove even more delightful. Rather, it's the unapologetically cartoonish body-swap comedy Little, which, as its title suggests, is a similarly themed, 180-degree spin on Tom Hanks' iconic Big. Instead of a sweet, 13-year-old white boy waking to find himself in his 30-something body, writer/director Tina Gordon's lighthearted treat gives us a rude, 30-something black woman waking to find herself reverted to her gawky 13-year-old frame. In other words, it's about as familiar-yet-slightly-different as high-concept Hollywood offerings get. With its leads portrayed by Regina Hall, Issa Rae, and the remarkable Marsai Martin, it's also about as enjoyable as they get – though you can't help wishing there were even more here to enjoy.

I know it's a pointless hypothetical question, but why do nearly all American screen comedies of the past several decades require their characters to Learn Life Lessons and Become Better People by their finales? (The only recent ones I can think of that don't are Tyler Perry movies with Madea in the title.) Given that you know from the start that Little is a race/age/gender-switched take on Big, you know that its wonderfully funny females are inevitably due for self-improvement, and in that regard the film doesn't disappoint. Or rather, it does, because every time Martin's bullying-CEO-in-teen-form Jordan Sanders faces the truth about her nasty disposition, or Rae's bullied personal assistant April Williams confronts her corporate meekness, the soundtrack swells with sentimental music cues and the usually speedy pacing slows to a crawl – it's “character growth” as narrative stagnancy. But even Gordon's less good-for-you flourishes are occasional bummers. There's an overlong, wholly unnecessary scene in which little Jordan and big April, holding bread-stick microphones, disrupt a fancy restaurant with their caterwauling and gyrating. (Shouldn't Jordan be too uptight, and April too prim, for such behavior?). And everything to do with the plot-goosing magical transformation is a bust. Poke fun at Zoltar if you want, but in the scheme of things, at least his powers made sense.

Very little of this matters, though, considering how completely Hall, Rae, and especially Martin crack you up. After winning critics' prizes for her dream boss in last year's excellent Support the Girls, Hall is clearly having a blast playing a nightmare of one, and while Little's storyline dictates that she not be around as much as you want, every minute of the performer's snappish entitlement is a comic thrill. Rae, the Emmy-nominated creator and star of HBO's Insecure, suggests that she'll soon be just as formidable a presence in movies; her April is an easily empathetic figure who mutters understated sarcasm and lobs verbal firecrackers with equal panache. And Martin is, quite simply, a powerhouse, and not even a powerhouse in miniature. I didn't think it would be possible, especially in the #MeToo era, for any film to get away with scenes of a 13-year-old girl blatantly hitting on 20-something beefcake, which the young black-ish co-star does here with characters played by Justin Hartley and Luke James. (Hilariously, and blessedly, both men find young Jordan's attentions jarringly inappropriate and icky.) But then again, I never imagined seeing a young performer with the wit, confidence, timing, and invention of Marsai Martin, who not only pulls of her stunt performance with fearlessness and gusto, but who is legitimately believable as a hardscrabble career woman profoundly vexed to be rediscovering her inner and outer nerd. Despite its fairly predictable failings, Martin's first cinematic showcase is a delight, and one for the history books, to boot, as the 14-year-old served as one of its executive producers; Martin is now the youngest person in Hollywood ever to receive that credit. That may be a Little achievement, but it sure ain't no little achievement.

Missing Link

12:50 p.m.-ish: Next up in my day's four-fer is an actual cartoon – or rather, an animated feature – by the most consistently trustworthy film-animation studio around. Nope, not Pixar. Not Disney, either. Not even Aardman. It's the stop-motion-centric Laika, whose last four movies were all nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar: 2009's Coraline, 2012's ParaNorman (my personal favorite), 2014's The Boxtrolls, and 2016's Kubo & the Two Strings. I should mention that these are also the only movies Laika has thus far released. And if there's any justice (and the rest of 2019 doesn't produce five titles to top it), the studio's new Missing Link should continue Laika's 1.000 batting average in that category, as this Sasquatch comedy delivers all the unique visual amazement we would expect plus an almost staggeringly riotous vocal performance by Zach Galifianakis. The man is a frequent screen hoot, of course, but I'm not sure he's even been funnier than he is as this film's unfailingly friendly, literal-minded Bigfoot – a creature who quietly bristles at his description as a 700-pounder (“I think I'm more 660, 640 ...”) and whose given name Mr. Link is wistfully abandoned so he can be a boy named Susan. Johnny Cash, eat your heart out.

Missing Link's minimal plot finds 19th Century explorer Sir Lionel Frost (delectably voiced by Hugh Jackman) in search of the titular mythic beast in America's Pacific Northwest, and after quickly discovering the hirsute, impressively well-spoken animal, setting off again, new traveling companion in tow, for the fabled city of Shangri-La and the Yeti that Susan imagines are his long-lost cousins. Along the way, there are sublimely visualized transcontinental adventures – the finest being the incredibly well-storyboarded peril on a storm-swept steamer ship – and memorably goofy detours, among them our heroes' encounter with an elderly Himalayan woman who wears a live chicken as a hat and cooks meals composed entirely of yak. There are loads of entertaining peripheral figures, including Lionel's spitfire ex-girlfriend (Zoe Saldana), a scarred, pint-sized assassin (Timothy Olyphant), and the Yeti tribe leader (Emma Thompson) who blithely dismisses Susan as a redneck while he argues that he's really more of a rust or an auburn. But mostly, there's Susan himself, whose hysterically childlike reactions to everything and everyone around him suggest Galifianakis' weirdo from the Hangover movies with a sunnier disposition and without the temper tantrums. Missing Link is more genteel than traditional Laika fare, and a good deal more sentimental; as with Little, there are definitely Life Lessons to be Learned. Yet they land and depart with a refreshing lack of pushiness for family fare, and even when this terrifically winning outing veers toward the maudlin, writer/director Chris Butler's off-kilter dialogue and the über-endearing Galifianakis save the day. “Have you ever wanted something so bad it hurt inside?” asks Susan at a moment of particular poignancy. “Like gas, but sadder?”

David Harbour in Hellboy

2:30-ish: Having not much cared for 2004's Hellboy or its 2008 follow-up Hellboy: The Golden Army, I didn't much care that Guillermo del Toro, the director of those films, had apparently zero involvement with the new Hellboy reboot, which is livelier, funnier, and infinitely more disgusting than its cinematic-comic-book precursors. David Harbour, with his intense bellow and ironic readings, is also a vast improvement on the (seemingly) perfectly cast yet ultimately banal Ron Perlman as our half-human/half-demon superhero, and thankfully, this time around, the pouty, petulant Selma Blair is nowhere in sight. What is in sight, though, for the whole of director Neil Marshall's two hours, is mass chaos: severed heads and limbs and Excalibur and Merlin and Nazis and giants and a walking house and a Tijuana wrestling match and a Cockney pig munching a monk's jaw and Thomas Haden Church in a 30-second cameo as “Lobster Johnson” … . It's all reasonably diverting on a scene-by-scene basis, but what in the name of holy hell is going on here?!

In a nutshell, it's world-annihilation time again, with this latest plot to destroy humankind led by Milla Jovovich's centuries-old sorceress, who's introduced in a blood-red dress amidst a black-and-white background á la that doomed little girl in Schindler's List. Milla's gown is hardly the only blood-red on display in this Hellboy, as Marshall splatters the screen with viscera that's less extreme than damned near operatic in its overkill. (A lifetime of movie-going has made me less than squeamish, and even I winced and muttered “Oh God” on more than a few occasions.) Yet the pummeling violence, to say nothing of the lack of narrative coherence, grows exhausting by the film's halfway point, making the second half watchably gory but strangely redundant; even the appearance of a demon in a diaper isn't all that surprising, because it makes just as much sense as anything else in the picture. To be sure, the movie has energy, as well as an unexpectedly robust supporting cast boasting Ian McShane, Daniel Dae Kim, Sophie Okonedo, Sasha Lane, and Brian Gleeson. I was still relieved to see Hellboy nearing its end – even if it ended, naturally, with the threat of sequels – and only momentarily perked up when our heroes mentioned their new hunt for some sort of Atlantean mermaid creature … because Atlantis was exactly where Sir Lionel Frost was headed at the climax of Missing Link! I smell a crossover!

Josephine Langford and Hero Fiennes Tiffin in After

4:45-ish: If, for some unfathomable reason, you were actually disappointed not to see Selma Blair return in the new Hellboy, you can instead watch her on a neighboring screen playing the heroine's mom in the YA drama After. Trust me, though: You won't want to. It's not that Blair is all that bad in her supporting role; she's still pouty and petulant, but it kind of works for the character, and she looks great. It's that this sappy collegiate romance is so deathly dull, and so staggeringly humorless in its execution, that it practically drains your will to mock. I say “practically” because it didn't deter two sects of teenage girls at my screening from giggling like mad throughout – though whether they were laughing at the film, its lame attempts at chaste PG-13 eroticism, or its leading dreamboat's hilariously meaningless tattoos is open to debate.

The hunk in question is played by a 21-year-old with the priceless name of Hero Fiennes Tiffin (he's Ralph and Joseph Fiennes' nephew), and he provided my only fascination with After, considering he's the spitting image of my high-school best friend DJ – except DJ wasn't British, didn't have tattoos, and could act. Maybe Hero Fiennes Tiffin can, too, but you wouldn't know it from director Jenny Gage's adaptation of Anna Todd's novel, which puts far more stock in posing than performance. In the movie, Josephine Langford's virginal first-year student Tessa quickly falls for Hero Fiennes Tiffin's mysterious brooder Hardin, whose stale bad-boy act comes complete with Ramones T-shirt, air of affected nonchalance, and perma-smirk. (He's also the sort of conceited douche-bag who thinks himself unspeakably bold for suggesting that Mr. Darcy was just slumming it with Elizabeth in Pride & Prejudice.) Enacting the worst nightmare of overprotective parents and English-literature fans everywhere, Tessa eventually falls for the guy, at which point I started having higher hopes for the film than I should have. Would Hero Fiennes Tiffin's character, fingers crossed, maybe prove to be a serial killer? Sadly, no – he's just the usual blandly damaged goods. And while obnoxious acoustic-folk litters the soundtrack and our leads gaze at one another with loving emptiness and the sex is mostly kept to discreet cuddling (there's a Hardin but no hard-on), After winds up feeling years longer than its actual 105 minutes, with only randomly welcome moments – such as the here-and-gone presence of Jennifer Beals – to enliven the torpor. Following one of their early, insufferable arguments, Hardin tells Tessa, “That was exciting.” “No,” she says, “that was annoying.” I'm with Tessa on this one.

6:45-ish: With another quadruple feature over and done and a 7:30 curtain for a play I'm appearing in, I have just enough time to grab a coffee, run lines, and giggle in the car thinking about some of Zach Galifianakis' zanier Missing Link gags … and, ya know, Hero Fiennes Tiffin.

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