Tag Archives: Pixar

Lone Ranger

Lightyear

by George Wolf

Exploring new life in the Toy Story universe comes with benefits – and drawbacks.

Sure, you inherit the goodwill earned by four of Pixar’s best feature films. But then, those films cast a mighty long shadow.

Lightyear taps into the warm fuzzies early, by letting us know why Andy wanted a Buzz action figure so badly that Christmas back in ’95. It’s because he loved the movie so much. This movie.

But honestly, for the first sixty minutes, you can’t imagine why.

Space Ranger Lightyear (voiced by Chris Evans) blames himself for marooning his settlement on a distant planet. A return to hyperspeed could bring everyone home, so Buzz is determined to keep testing until he gets it right.

Trouble is, each test flight sends him into a time dialator where 4 minutes up in space turns into 4 years back at base. So before Buzz knows it decades have passed, and he must take an untested team (Keke Palmer, Taika Waititi, Dale Soules) and a robotic cat (Peter Sohn) into battle against Emperor Zurg’s forces for control of the precious hyperspeed fuel source.

That’s all fine, but that’s all it is. Director and co-writer Angus MacLane (Finding Dory) can’t find any way to make the toy’s story come to life.

Until Buzz comes face to face with Zurg (James Brolin).

Zurg has a big surprise for all of us, one that might as well send the film into hyperspeed.

Almost in an instant, the cinematography from Jeremy Lasky and Ian Megibben adds depth and wonder (that spacewalk – goosebumps!), MacLane quickens the pace while recalling both 2001 and Aliens, and backstories from earlier in the film pay off with gentle lessons on bloodlines, destiny, and what makes a life’s mission matter.

Stay for the credits and beyond to get two bonus scenes that bring a chuckle or two. But just make sure you sit tight for the final half hour. That’s when Lightyear delivers the kind of action and pizazz that just might make a kid change his Christmas list.

My Panda, My Choice

Turning Red

by George Wolf

With baseball still on hold for this year, it’s safe to say the most impressive batting average out there still belongs to Pixar. Twenty-four films in, and seeing that name at the top of the poster still has me expecting excellence.

Turning Red – Pixar’s twenty-fifth – keeps the winning streak alive with a frisky, meaningful and culturally rich update of a well worn message.

Meilin Lee (voiced by the completely captivating Rosalie Chiang) is a 13 year-old honor student in Toronto circa 2002. She loves math, her besties (Miriam, Priya and Abby), and the 5 singers in “4-Town” (the boy band craze is the most likely reason for the early 2000’s time stamp).

But above all, Mei lives by one rule: honor your parents!

Yeah, um…that rule is going to get tested when 4-Town comes to Toronto just as Mei’s world turns completely upside down.

Mother Ming (Sandra Oh) has never disclosed the “quirk” in their family history, and now it’s staring back at Mei from the bathroom mirror. The mystical powers wielded by ancient ancestor Sun-Ye promised that one day Mei would awaken as a giant red panda. That day has come, and once Ming understands it’s not that other red visitor that has her daughter locking doors in panic, Mom explains.

Strong emotions will release Mei’s inner panda, so she must keep a calm demeanor until the family can gather and perform the ancient Chinese ritual that will banish that bear forever.

Stay calm? Now? The 4-Town show is coming up, and the girls have to score some tickets without helicopter Ming finding out! And there’s this bully at school that needs to be taught a lesson! Plus, that dreamy Devon at the Daisy Mart has Mei feeling some strange new feelings…

Sure, the panda is a cute metaphor for the raging hormones of puberty, but director Domee Shi (who also co-writes with Julia Cho) has much more to offer in her feature debut. Here, the often generic moral of “be true to yourself” plays out with stakes that will feel authentic to both kids and parents. Pixar has a long history of finding true poignancy amid big laughs, but Turning Red feels like a turning point.

Not only is it the first Pixar film with a female director, women are also in leadership roles throughout most areas of the production. The mission was clearly to begin speaking to a slightly older target, with a tender honesty that adolescents – girls especially – could appreciate.

Mei’s feelings of pressure and confusion are laughed with, not laughed at, and her first fantasies of physical romance are presented with a refreshing, relatable warmth.

There’s also fresh air blowing through the animation department, realizing Shi’s self-described “Asian ‘tween fever dream” with an aesthetic that yearns for the big screens the film is not getting. Mei’s world is alive with modern vibrancy, yet full of bursts that recall more classic animation styles, including hand-drawn and slo-motion sequences, as well as eyes and mouths that suddenly pop open wide with anime homages.

Effervescent pop songs by Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell (who also voices 4-Town’s Jesse) blend joyously alongside Ludwig Göransson’s more traditional score, completing the film’s perfect ecosystem of subtext.

Respect the past, but embrace the possibilities of the future. That future is going to include parts of your true self that are messy, and that’s okay. In fact, accepting those awkward, messy parts is the first step to being okay.

Really, the most disappointing thing about this film is that it’s going straight to Disney+. A theater experience might make the promise of mother-daughter bonding feel even more memorable, if not downright eventful (as the trips to see the first Toy Story were for my son and me).

But Turning Red finds Pixar with a healthy and welcome new approach to its lineup. So wherever it’s found, that’s more than okay.

Sleeps with the Fishes

Luca

by Hope Madden

It’s summertime. Who doesn’t want to look out on the bluest water as little boats rock in the breeze and kids cavort in a tiny seaside villa on the Italian Riviera? Awash in the wonder of childhood, the latest adventure from Pixar follows someone from under the sea who’s lured to dry land—against their parents’ wishes—and finds a whole new world.

Wait, that last phrase evokes a different movie, but Luca – a Disney + release that doesn’t require the Premier Access fee – does share a winking resemblance to Disney’s most famous fish out of water story. Young sea monster Luca (Jacob Tremblay) finds the idea of the world above sea level equally forbidding and fascinating. He discovers, with the assistance of another young sea monster named Alberto (It’s Jack Dylan Grazier), that as long as he stays dry, he can pass for human.

Good thing, since the whole villa where they hide from Luca’s parents (Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan) is obsessed with finding and killing the elusive sea monsters of lore.

Writers Jesse Andrews (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) and Mike Jones (who co-wrote last year’s Oscar winner for Pixar, Soul) essentially turned The Little Mermaid into a buddy comedy. Rather than digging into a lot of angst, self-sacrifice or villainy, director Enrico Casarosa— longtime animator and writer/director of Pixar’s lovely 2011 short La Luna—keeps things light and harmless.

The water here is shallow but bubbling with activity. Luca and Alberto make a friend in the feisty Giulia (Emma Berman), make an enemy of the conniving Ercole (Saverio Visconti), learn a trade, discover a love of pasta, develop a longing to learn, and take part in an Italian triathlon (the middle leg is pasta eating) so they can win enough money to buy a Vespa and see the world.

It’s busy. It looks pretty. The message – embrace who you are – is worthy, but there’s just not much in the delivery for the film to call its own. From any other animation studio, Luca would be a solid summer release, but for Pixar, it’s a middling effort on par with Onward or Finding Dory. It’s a forgettable if lovely time waster.

Magic the Birthday Gathering

Onward

by Hope Madden

Dan Scanlon’s been kicking around Pixar for a while. He’s been part of the “Senior Creative Team” for some of the greatest animated films of the last decade: Toy Story 4, Coco, Inside Out.

He also wrote and directed Monsters University—his only w/d credits with the animation giant—and that movie is one of Pixar’s rare missteps. Can he right his footing with a fraternal quest, a hero’s journey, a nerdy road trip?

Not quite.

Onward, Scanlon’s first directing effort since that monstrous 2013 Revenge of the Nerds riff, opens where many a hero’s journey begins: a birthday. Shy elf Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) is turning 16. He’s a little awkward, and maybe even slightly embarrassed by his magic and folklore obsessed older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt).

Ian never met his dad, but his mom’s been saving a gift for just this occasion. It will set a series of actions in motion that will show the town how cool (and destructive) magic can be. But will it turn meek Ian into a hero?

Scanlon sets up a funny if slight near-satire of the mythical hero’s quest, and the most enjoyable sight gags in the film come from his eye for other (better) films in this vein: all things Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones. There’s even a bit of Guardians of the Galaxy (which feels a little too on-the-nose) and maybe just a touch of Weekend at Bernie’s.

Plus feral unicorns.

I will be honest, he had me at feral unicorns. And it is these little flourishes that Onward gets right, but that’s just not enough to carry the film.

Pratt and especially Holland – who continues a run of solid voice work (even if no one saw Dolittle or Spies in Disguise) – both find a rapport that feels honest enough to give the emotional climax a little punch.

But there’s just nothing particularly magical about this movie. The core story is paint by numbers obvious and the nods to other epic adventures become so frequent and so brazen that it’s hard to find a single inspired or original thought in the entire film.

It’s nice. It garners an amused chuckle or too, maybe even a sniffle, but you’ll be hard pressed to remember anything about it besides those unicorns, and there was no real point to those.

Hanks for the Memories

Toy Story 4

by Hope Madden

Almost 25 years ago, Pixar staked its claim as animation god with the buddy picture masterpiece Toy Story, where Tom Hanks and writer/director John Lasseter taught the world how to create a fully developed, nuanced and heartbreaking animated hero.

Woody and Buzz returned twice more over the next fifteen years, developing relationships, adding friends, enjoying adventures and life lessons all the while creating the single best trilogy in cinematic history.

And a lot of us wanted them to stop at 3. Is that partly because Toy Story 3 destroyed us? Yes! But also, it felt like a full story beautifully told and we didn’t want to see that completed arc tarnished for profit.

Toy Story 3 made an actual billion dollars.

Profit calls.

Right, so let’s drop in and see how the gang is doing. Woody (Tom Hanks in the role he was born to play) loves Bonnie, the youngster who inherited the ragtag group of toys when Andy left for college and we left the theater racked with sobs. But the cowboy just doesn’t feel the same sense of purpose.

Enter Forky (Tony Hale, who could not be better), a spork with googly eyes, hand-made and much-beloved friend to Bonnie. Forky longs for the trash, and Woody takes it upon himself to make sure Forky is always there for Bonnie. But when Bonnie’s family rents an RV for an end-of-summer road trip, Woody finds it tough to keep his eyes on the restless refuse—especially when a roadside carnival offers the chance to reconnect with old flame Bo Peep (Annie Potts).

Will Woody cast aside Forky, bestie Buzz (Tim Allen) and gang to rekindle something lost and taste some freedom?

Josh Cooley (who co-wrote Inside Out) makes his feature directorial debut with this installment. He also contributes, along with a pool of eight, to a story finalized by Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton (his credits include the three previous Toy Story films) and relative newcomer Stephany Folsom.

The talents all gel, combining the history and character so beautifully articulated over a quarter century with some really fresh and very funny ideas. Toy Story 4 offers more bust-a-gut laughs than the last three combined, and while it doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of TS3 (what does?!), it hits more of those notes than you might expect.

Between Forky’s confounded sense of self and Woody’s own existential crisis, TS4 swims some heady waters. These themes are brilliantly, quietly addressed in a number of conversations about loyalty, devotion and love.

This somewhat lonesome contemplation is more than balanced by the delightful hilarity of new characters Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) and Bunny and Ducky (Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key, respectively).

And the creepy yet tender way villains Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) and her posse of ventriloquist dolls are handled is as moving as it is funny.

Characteristic of this franchise, the peril is thrilling, the visuals glorious, the sight gags hilarious (keep an eye on those Combat Carls), and the life lessons far more emotionally compelling than what you’ll find in most films this summer. To its endless credit, TS4 finds new ideas to explore and fresh but organic ways to break our hearts.

Screen Savers

Incredibles 2

by George Wolf

I’m no math whiz, but 2004 seems somewhere close to 14 years ago. You wouldn’t know it from Incredibles 2, where no time has passed. Kicking off right where the original left off, the long-awaited sequel delivers just enough of the same charm to stave off some stale odors.

The super-powered Parr family has been sidelined, along with all the others like them, thanks to the law against superheroes. But when the evil Screenslayer starts cyber-attacking the city, local tycoon Winston Deavor (voiced by Bob Odenkirk) and his tech-savvy sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener) hatch a plan to get the supers back on the job.

It starts with putting Helen Parr aka Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) on the trail of Screenslayer, leaving Bob/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) alone to care for baby Jack-Jack, help Dash (Huck Milner) with his homework and Violet (Sarah Vowell) with her first heartbreak.

Brad Bird returns as writer/director, armed with a worthy game plan but not quite enough nerve to swing for the fences.

While the Deavor’s groom Elastigirl for a media makeover, Screenslayer’s plan is to use technology against its users, and to “destroy the people’s trust in it.” Call that incredibly timely, and fertile ground for some Zootopia-style animated bite.

Bird is more interested in exploring the warm family fuzzies. That’s fine, but the “can clueless Dad handle the house while Mom’s at work?” angle feels every bit 14 years old, even more so when you consider the edgy path Bird abandons to chase one so safe and comfortable.

But hey, it’s summer, why so serious?

Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) is back in chill mode, the action sequences pop and the animation has the requisite pizazz. I2 is a part 2 that’s easy to enjoy.

Outside of the near-perfect Toy Story franchise, Pixar sequels (much like sequels in general) have often faltered. Incredibles 2 ranks as one of their besteven with all it leaves on the table.

 

 

 

 





The Oscar Nominated Short Films: Animated

by George Wolf

Pixar – the veritable Meryl Streep of this category – is here again, and deservedly the favorite to win more hardware. But some impressive frogs may spring an upset, while fractured fairy tales, a sports icon and emotional baggage round out a captivating program.

 

Dear Basketball – USA  Dir: Glen Keane Wr: Kobe Bryant

From a distance, Bryant’s love letter to his sport may appear self-serving, but when brought to life through graceful, impressionistic chalk animation and a John Williams score, it becomes more. Vanity project? That’s fair, but it’s also a sincere farewell from a complicated legend.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vA3Pqne28PE

 

Negative Space – France  Dirs: Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata

With Sam’s dad often leaving on business trips, father and son form a bond forged in a perfectly packed suitcase. The stop motion animation is arresting and well-played, setting fertile ground for the bittersweet emotions the film explores.

 

Lou – USA  Wr./Dir:Dave Mullins 

Look at you Pixar, charming us again with your gentle humor and effective poignancy. A cousin to the Toy Story universe, Lou finds a playground bully meeting his match, in a good way. It’s surprisingly touching, and, no surprise, the frontrunner of the group.

 

Revolting Rhymes – UK  Wrs./Dirs: Jakob Schuh and Jan Lachauer

Based on the much-loved rhymes written by Roald Dahl and illustrated by Quentin Blake, Revolting Rhymes counters its somewhat bland animation with a talented voice cast (including Dominic West and Rob Brydon) to give famous fairy tales some new, sinister edges. Part one of a British TV double dip, it wanders off in spots but rallies at the finish.

 

Garden Party – France  Dirs: Victor Caire, Florian Babikian, Vincent Bayoux, Theophile Dufresne, Lucas Navarro and Gabriel Grapperon

In a deserted, well-appointed mansion, some amphibians explore their surroundings and follow their primal instincts to unexpected results. Practically bursting with wondrous CGI photorealism, this ambitious film – a graduation project from a French animation school – offers delight in every frame.

 

Also included in the program are these additional animated shorts:

Lost Property Office  – Australia  Wr./Dir: Daniel Agdag
Coin Operated  – USA  Wr./Dir: Nicholas Arioli
Achoo  – Japan

(rating for entire program)





The Screening Room: Holidays, Lawyers and Billboards

Welcome to The Screening Room. This week we take a look at new theatrical releases Coco, Three Billboards Outside Billing, Missouri, Roman J. Israel, Esq., Novitiate and I Remember You. Plus, we’ll help you pick through new home entertainment.

Listen HERE.





I See Dead People

Coco

by Hope Madden

Pixar is probably still the best bet in animation, though they followed up their 2015 high point Inside Out with the somewhat mediocre The Good Dinosaur and Finding Dory, and finally the underwhelming third installment in their least impressive series, Cars 3.

Can Coco, a story of finding your place between family and dreams, between this world and the next, set things right?

The film follows Miguel (well voiced by young Anthony Gonzalez), a musician, like his great-great-grandfather. The one no one is allowed to mention. The one whose face has been torn from the family photo. The one the whole family is supposed to forget.

Instead of being a musician, Miguel is supposed to make shoes, like the great-great-grandmother who taught herself to make shoes when her husband left her to pursue his dreams of being a musician.

But Miguel prefers music—who wouldn’t?—and “borrows” the guitar of the great, long-dead hometown hero Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) so he can play in the talent show during the Dia de los Muertos celebration.

One thing leads to another and Miguel finds himself in the Land of the Dead.

There are a number of things Coco does quite right. Though its themes are reminiscent of other Pixar films—Ratatouille, in particular—the cultural execution is a welcome change in a long and Euro-centric list of movies.

The film is also characteristically gorgeous, many frames spilling over with vivid color and imagery.

Coco also tells a satisfying story that packs an emotional wallop. Like the animation giant’s 2009 masterpiece Up, Coco invests in elderly characters and celebrates death as a tragic but inevitable consequence of life.

The structure by now has become common, with too many notions borrowed from other Pixar films. Worse, the laughs are rarely hearty and the genuine emotion is saved for the climax leaving too much time spent with little serious audience connection.

That’s the tough thing about being Pixar, though, isn’t it? We’ve become so accustomed to treasures that we disregard a lovely, heartfelt piece of family entertainment. Coco is no Toy Story, but it’s a lovely film.

 

 





Back to the Track

Cars 3

by George Wolf

As great as the Disney/Pixar lineup is -and it’s pretty great- the Cars franchise sits low in the batting order, especially after the debacle that was Cars 2 six years ago. Cars 3 rebounds nicely, but still can’t match the meaningful substance of Pixar’s best.

We catch up with legendary race car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) in a changing sports world. Suddenly, a new generation of “NextGen” cars, led by rookie sensation Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), is taking over. New team owner Mr. Sterling (Nathan Fillion) brings in a young trainer named Cruz (Cristela Alonzo) to get McQueen adapted to the new technology, but her “senior project” only fuels the feeling that the legend should stay in the garage for good.

Animation vet Brian Fee helms his first feature as director/co-writer with Cars 3, and while the visual style is characteristically luscious, the story that he’s telling never quite rises above the pleasantries of showing kids some talking cars and introducing a new line of tie-in merchandise.

The gags are amusing but seldom funny and the plot takes some turns that may confuse the young ones, but the bigger concern is what’s missing.

As Cruz reveals her true love is not training but racing, and McQueen reflects on his tutelage under Doc (Paul Newman), the movie has the chance to find the poignancy and resonance that has driven Pixar’s most touching classics.

You’ll find it in Lou, the Pixar short the runs before the feature.

Alas, Cars 3 drives on by, satisfied with “believe in yourself” mantras that are greeting card ready, and a first-place trophy for the cheerfully harmless.

Verdict-3-0-Stars