What better time to name my favorite film of 2018 than in the deep end of August 2019?
Okay, okay, you’re probably wondering “why even do this at this point?” and that’s fair. The reason I’m still bothering to write this is quite simple…
Because I want to.
You may now be wondering why I didn’t do it sooner, and the truth of the matter is, there is no particular reason other than I’ve just been busy (hence my slower updates over the last couple of months) and when I have had the chance to update this site, I’ve been preoccupied with other things, like reviews and such. And I would have got to this sooner, except there were still some 2018 films I had wanted to get around to seeing the past few months before I made anything “official” (at least, as official as things can be on a site where I can edit things later to reflect changing opinions). And well, it took me longer than expected.
I have a confession to make: I’m not that big of a Lion King fan.
Don’t get me wrong, Disney’s 1994 animated feature is a good movie, to be sure. But as a Disney fan, I never understood why it was held on a pedestal as one of the best films to come out of the studio. I would say Lion King fits somewhere in the high middle-tier of Disney’s animated feature canon. It showcases captivating animation and some truly emotional moments, but it also feels like it adheres too strongly to the studio’s conventions, as opposed to transcending them.
The characters fit squarely into Disney’s archetypes, with Simba being a cookie cutter main character (with Simba’s adult form being particularly boring thanks to Mathew Broderick’s phoned-in vocals), the comic relief characters can be a little too overbearing, and if I’m being perfectly honest, I don’t particularly care for the songs, with the exception of Be Prepared (songwriter Elton John felt he had hit a career low when writing Hakuna Matata, and though he’s long-since change his mind, I’m inclined to agree with his original stance).
Despite my feelings of the original Lion King being “good but not great,” its overall reception has made a remake inevitable in this day and age where Disney is seemingly remaking their entire back catalogue of animated classics.
There’s only one issue: while most of Disney’s recent remakes have been live-action, The Lion King’s all animal cast makes that an impossibility (certain animals can be trained to act – such as dogs or apes – but I think it’s safe to say that meerkats and warthogs don’t share that emotional range). So the remake of The Lion King is, like the original, an animated film. Only this time around, the animals are animated through photorealistic CGI, which ultimately works against the movie’s favor, as it removes the majority of the charm, personality, and overall visual appeal of the story at hand.
There was some semblance of hope going into The Lion King remake. After all, it’s directed by Jon Favreau, who previously directed Disney’s 2016 version of The Jungle Book, which seems to have the warmest reception of all Disney’s recent live-action remakes (though I thought the new Aladdin was just as good). But there are a few key differences between Favreau’s Jungle Book remake and his version of the Lion King that helped the former and hinder the latter.
The first is that, although the 2016 Jungle Book was also primarily created through CG, it had a human actor in the lead role of Mowgli, so the idea of photorealistic animals interacting with him made more sense. The other big difference is that, while the original Jungle Book contains a few songs, it would be hard to refer to it as a musical. The characters simply sang a number or two here and there, so the photorealistic animal characters in the remake could get away with being a bit expressionless when they were singing (Balloo simply sang Bare Necessities as if singing in the shower, and King Louie was voiced by Christopher Walken, so it was to be expected that he would more talk I wanna be Like You than sing it).
2019’s version of The Lion King doesn’t have such benefits. It’s an animated film that doesn’t want to be an animated film. So while the CG used to bring these animals to life may be impressive, the movie loses its soul in the translation.
Without a human to interact with, making the animals look realistic in an animated film comes across as pointless, as their limited expressions can’t convey the range of emotion that their personalities require, a feat which comes without any hiccups when making the animals look animated. And seeing as The Lion King is a full-fledged, Broadway-style musical in the same vein as the other 90s Disney films (and some of their modern ones), it really works against the film that the animal characters can barely emote. You can’t have a big musical number like those found in the original, and have realistic looking animals be the ones to sing it without it coming across as awkward and lifeless. It’s a case of having ones cake and eating it too.
Another issue is that 2019’s Lion King is a bit too similar to the 1994 original. Some have had similar complaints with Disney’s other recent remakes, but those films still featured changes that felt meaningful when they were present (the newer Aladdin, for example, gave Jasmine a much stronger character arc, complete with a badass new song). The new Lion King, on the other hand, is a whole half hour longer than the original, but I’m having trouble thinking of how that is, since it follows so closely to the original.
Yes, the story is as it always was, which is to say it’s pretty much Hamlet but with animals.
Simba (DJ McCrary) – a lion cub – is the prince of the Pride Lands, being born to King Mufasa (James Earl Jones, reprising his role from the original) and Queen Sarabi (Alfre Woodard). This proves to be a deep cut for Mufasa’s younger brother, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who was first in line for the throne.
Scar plans various means to retake his place as future ruler of the Pride Lands, manipulating young Simba’s ego so that the young prince – trying to prove his bravery – makes his way to an elephant graveyard, with his friend Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph) in tow. Scar intentionally kept one important detail about the elephant graveyard from Simba: it’s home to an army of hyenas who have a vendetta against Mufasa. Simba and Nala avoid a gruesome fate when Zazu (John Oliver) – a hornbill and Mufasa’s majordomo – informs the king of Simba and Nala’s whereabouts. Mufasa fights off the hyenas, leading a disappointed Scar to concoct a new plan; kill Mufasa.
I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler if I reveal that Scar’s plot to murder his brother succeeds (seriously, if you don’t know that by this point, where have you been for the past twenty-five years?). Scar, in collusion with the hyenas, orchestrates a stampede of wildebeests to kill Mufasa and Simba. Mufasa rescues his son and nearly escapes, before Scar personally throws his brother to the stampede below. Despite the remake’s issues, this iconic scene is still appropriately emotional.
A devastated Simba witnesses his father’s death (though not Scar’s involvement with it), with Scar planting the idea in Simba’s head that his father’s death was his fault. Simba runs away from the Pride Lands, falling under the care of Timon the meerkat (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa the warthog (Seth Rogen) two slackers who, while well-meaning, are basically negative influences when it comes to teaching responsibility. Meanwhile, with Mufasa gone and Simba presumed dead, Scar takes control of the Pride Lands with the aide of the hyenas, sending the kingdom into disarray.
Honestly, if you’re among those who absolutely adores the original Lion King, you may like this remake for its faithfulness to said original. Of course, I think fans of the 1994 feature are just as likely to wonder what the point of this remake is.
Again, Disney’s other remakes have played things close to their source material, often feeling like love letters to the originals as opposed to full-on remakes. But they still found time to make changes to set themselves apart. It seems like the only major change to The Lion King is that the hand-drawn, stylized animal characters bursting with personality have been replaced with realistic-looking animal characters who, by default, can’t showcase any of that personality they had in their more vibrantly-animated past lives.
That’s not to say that there haven’t been any changes made, just none that really amount to anything. Shinzi (Florence Kasumba), a hyena who was part of a comedic, villainous trio in the original, has been promoted to the leader of the hyenas. Not that it ends up amounting to much, since the change doesn’t really affect the plot at all, and she doesn’t get much screen time anyway. The remaining members of said trio, Banzai and Ed, have been replaced by Kamari and Azizi (Keegan-Michael Key and Eric Andre), who are still kind of a comedic duo so I don’t really see the purpose of the change.
These changes are few and insignificant. Most of the dialogue, and even camera shots, seem barely altered from the original. Though I will admit, bringing back James Earl Jones as Mufasa is a respectable decision (it’s one of those roles that simply can’t be recast, like J.K. Simmons’ portrayal of Spider-Man’s J. Jonah Jameson). Though at least one other actor from the original should have reprised their role, as Jeremy Irons is sorely missed as Scar. Chiwetel Ejiofor does his best to make Scar menacing, but his performance lacks the elegance, regality and vanity of Irons’.
Speaking of Scar, here’s where we get to the remake’s one big change from the original’s soundtrack… Be Prepared has been butchered! The once iconic villain song has been reduced to a single verse, with Chiwetel Ejiofor talking through most of it in place of singing. Rumors suggest that Jon Favreau wanted to cut the song altogether, before settling on “merely” gutting it. Of all the songs to cut/edit, why was Be Prepared the one considered for the chopping block? In the original film, it’s the song that best expresses the character singing it. Personally speaking, I would have labelled Hakuna Matata – the song in which a warthog sings about farting – as the one musical number most in need of reworking.
Other than that baffling change, most of the songwork is more or less the same as it was in the original, with the obvious difference of them being sung by their new actors. There is one new addition to the soundtrack during the course of the movie (plus one during the credits) in the form of “Spirit” by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. While the new musical addition to the live-action Aladdin, Speechless, was a real show-stealer (I would even say it’s my favorite Aladdin song, despite not being in the original), Spirit is kind of forgettable. And despite the fact that Beyoncé voices the adult version of Nala, Spirit is merely a background number, and not actually sung by the character (which always seems kind of underwhelming in a musical).
While the voice work is mostly solid (despite my complaints with Ejiofor’s Scar mentioned earlier, they are only relative to Jeremy Iron’s performance from the 1994 film), the film actually repeats one of the shortcomings from the original in that Simba’s adult self (voiced this time by Donald Glover) is the most boring performance in the film. Both versions of The Lion King are filled with so much great voice work, yet the main character (at least in his adult form) is the one who stands out as bland in both versions!
I will say, much to my surprise, that I really enjoyed Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa. Both actors reportedly ad-libbed many of their lines, and seem to be playing the characters in a way that suggests both Timon and Pumbaa are aware they’re in a remake (at least to some degree). The film also gives Timon and Pumbaa something of a nihilistic element, with their “life is a straight line” outlook directly clashing with the “Circle of Life” philosophy Mufasa taught Simba.
Normally, I’m dead against nihilism, but what worked here is that – while many works in this cynical time depict nihilistic concepts as some kind of profundity or intellectualism – Timon and Pumbaa’s new worldview is the butt of a joke, one that highlights the shallowness and simplemindedness of nihilism (in one particularly funny scene, a naive Pumbaa, after hearing how Simba was taught about the Circle of Life, retorts with something along the lines of “That’s nonsense! If everything I did affected that guy, and that guy, and that guy, our carefree, do-what-we-want lifestyle would be pretty selfish and terrible”).
2019’s Lion King definitely has its merits. But of all Disney’s recent remakes, it also feels like the most unnecessary. The other remakes were live-action tributes to their animated counterparts, maybe tweaking certain story elements here and there, adding new dimensions to characters, or simply finding meaningful ways to mix things up a little. But 2019’s Lion King is as close to simply giving the original a new coat of paint as Disney could have gotten. If you’re among those who adores the original Lion King, that might not be so bad. But it goes without saying that this is the inferior version of Disney’s beloved classic. Yes, the CG used to bring these animals to life is impressive, but in focusing too much in emulating real life, this Lion King remake misses the point of animated storytelling and – ironically enough – robs the story of life.
Some of the positive elements of the original still shine through, the voice work is mostly solid (Donald Glover and Beyoncé being the exceptions), and I might actually like Timon and Pumbaa more after this remake. But despite being a half hour longer than the 1994 film, it’s hard to say what exactly pads this 2019 version’s runtime, as the changes made seem so minimal.
If the original Lion King had a voice, Jon Favreau’s version is merely an echo.
When Toy Story 3 was released in 2010 (eleven years after Toy Story 2), it seemed to mark the end for the series that made Pixar Animation Studios famous. Toy Story 3 was a fitting, emotional end to the journeys of Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Hamm (the perennial John Ratzenberger), and the rest of the Toy Story gang. Their owner, Andy, was grown up and heading off to college, and the ending saw him passing down his beloved childhood toys to a young girl named Bonnie. Given the overall reception of all three Toy Story films, an argument could be made that it was the best trilogy in film history.
It was a bit concerning then, when Pixar eventually announced that they were creating a fourth Toy Story feature, especially since the studio has fallen under some criticisms for its reliance on sequels during the 2010s (though in all honesty, most of their sequels have retained the studio’s high quality). Considering how conclusive of an ending Toy Story 3 was, a continuation seemed entirely unnecessary. It was all too easy to get a bit cynical and assume that Pixar simply saw more dollar signs in the property and nothing more. Combine that with some notable production issues, and things were looking grim for the continuation of the Toy Story franchise.
Thankfully, not only does Toy Story 4 prove to be one of the few fourth entries in a series that can hold its own, but in doing so it beautifully puts that aforementioned cynicism in its place. Toy Story 4 is a delightful and entertaining film that retains the series’ emotional storytelling. Though with that said, Toy Story 4 does nonetheless fall short of all three of its predecessors.
While Toy Story 3 acknowledged the eleven year gap between it and the previous entry, Toy Story 4 – for the most part – takes place shortly after the events of Toy Story 3. The exception being the film’s opening, which takes place nine years in the past (which I guess would make it two or three years after Toy Story 2, depending on when exactly the rest of the film takes place). This opening explains why Bo Peep (Annie Potts) – the porcelain doll who served as Woody’s love interest in the first two films – was absent from the third entry.
After another daring rescue of one of their fellow toys, Bo Peep was packed in a box, and given away to a friend of Andy’s family. Woody briefly considers leaving with Bo Peep, before he remembers his loyalty as Andy’s toy, and the two are then separated (preventing a time paradox for Toy Story 3 in the process).
Fast-forward to the present, and the toys have found a new home as Bonnie’s toys. Though Woody has been having a harder time adjusting to the change than the rest of the gang, with Bonnie often leaving him in the closet while she plays with the other toys.
When Bonnie is frightened to start kindergarten, Woody – desperate to keep her happy – sneaks into Bonnie’s backpack to help cheer her up. When no one sits at Bonnie’s table for arts and crafts, Woody gathers a number of discarded items and sneaks them onto Bonnie’s table.
With a spork, pipe cleaner, popsicle sticks, glue and googley eyes, Bonnie creates Forky (Tony Hale), who quickly raises Bonnie’s spirits. Much to Woody’s surprise, Forky soon comes alive, much in the same vein as he and his fellow toys. Forky quickly becomes Bonnie’s favorite toy, but having been created from trash, Forky still believes himself to be trash, and is dead-set on throwing himself away. Determined to keep Bonnie happy, Woody spends day and night preventing the suicidal utensil from throwing himself away.
This proves especially difficult when Bonnie’s family takes a road trip, bringing her toys along for the ride (as kids do). During one especially tiresome night for Woody, Forky manages to jump out of the RV, leaving Woody to give chase.
Woody reunites with Forky, and manages to make the utensil understand his place as a toy. But getting back to Bonnie will prove to be a difficult task both physically and emotionally. Bonnie’s family is at an RV park sitting next to both an antique store that serves as the home of Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) – a doll determined to steal Woody’s voice box at any cost – and a traveling carnival, where Woody is reunited with Bo Peep (who has become a lost toy), leaving him to question what he truly wants.
Considering how conclusively Toy Story 3 seemed to end the series, it’s actually a little surprising that Pixar managed to concoct a plot as strong as they did for Toy Story 4. It manages to be consistently entertaining and delivers some genuinely emotional moments. There are, however, a few cracks in the foundations of Toy Story 4’s plot.
The first issue is that – aside from Woody and Bo Peep – the returning characters have very little presence in the story. Even the heavily-marketed additions from Toy Story 3 get minimal screen time. The worst example of this is that Buzz Lightyear and Jessie have seemingly nothing to do throughout the film!
I understand that Woody is the main character of the series, but the original Toy Story presented both Woody and Buzz with equal prominence in the narrative, and Toy Story 2 beautifully continued that trend, with Buzz Lightyear reminding Woody the importance of being a toy, just as Woody had taught him in the first film. Toy Story 3 reduced Buzz Lightyear’s role to mere comic relief, which was one of my big complaints with the third installment. But instead of rectifying this gross misuse of one its best characters, Pixar has doubled down with the underutilization of Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story 4.
It would seem the filmmakers at Pixar have misjudged one of their greatest creations in Buzz Lightyear, focusing only on the comedic aspects he brought to the first two films, and associating the series’ heart with Woody alone (did they forget the “I Will Go Sailing No More” scene from the first movie?). The Toy Story films released in the 1990s starred Woody and Buzz Lightyear, but the latter half of the series has foolishly relegated its deuteragonist to a bit part.
And poor Jessie, whose introduction in Toy Story 2 brought a new emotional depth to the series, literally only has a single scene in which she does anything in this fourth installment. At what point, I have to wonder, did Pixar forget that the heart of the Toy Story films was shared between its main characters, and decided that only Woody boasted stories worth telling?
Buzz may have had a reduced role in Toy Story 3, but at least there, it didn’t have a direct affect on the story at play. But here, Buzz Lightyear’s minimal role prevents the film from resonating as much as it should. Without spoiling anything, the direction the plot takes in its third act really required the classic Toy Story characters (specifically the main ones like Buzz and Jessie) to have bigger roles in order to achieve its full impact. But because Pixar forgot how to properly implement them into the plot, the story at hand suffers a bit.
Toy Story 4 seems to place a greater emphasis on its new characters, which includes not only Forky and Gabby Gabby, but also a duo of carnival plush toys Bunny and Ducky (Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key), and Duke Kaboom (Keanu Reeves), a Canadian stuntman action figure whose over-the-top antics and boisterous personality often steal the show. I don’t have anything against the new characters (though at times, Bunny and Ducky can feel more like a means to get Key and Peele in the movie than they do genuine characters), but it’s a shame to see the old Toy Story cast get tossed aside.
Pixar has made a few sequels which focused on the secondary character of the original (Mike Wazowski in Monsters University, Dory in Finding Dory, and Helen Parr in Incredibles 2), which worked to great effect in adding to those characters and distinguishing the sequels from the originals. So it seems weird that Toy Story has failed to do something similar by its fourth entry. Especially when you remember just how great of characters Buzz Lightyear and Jessie are. Even if Woody were destined to be the main character once again, I do have to reiterate that Buzz and Jessie (and the returning characters in general) needed a bigger role in the story in order to really hit a homerun with the direction the story takes.
Still, the new characters have their charms. Forky, Bunny and Ducky are all cute and add some good humor to the proceedings, and Duke Kaboom, again, is a highlight of the film. Perhaps most interesting of all is Gabby Gabby, whose own story arc may be more emotional than Woody’s this time around.
The film also places a strong emphasis on its re-introduction of Bo Peep. Toy Story 4 can on occasion feel like it’s giving itself a pat on the back for Bo Peep’s newfound independence, and while it’s nice that Pixar decided to give its original female character an actual personality this time around, Pixar themselves seem strangely ignorant to the fact that they had already accomplished so much more through a female character in the form of Jessie. Why not promote the character Pixar got so, so right from the get-go, instead of bringing back a character who had so little presence in the series they were left out of the third film, and try to bring more out of them at the expense of the stronger characters? Again, it’s nice that Bo Peep has more to do this time, but because it comes at the expense of Jessie, it feels self-defeating.
This reflects what I think is the fundamental problem of Toy Story 4: with how Toy Story 3 ended, Woody’s story felt completed. He saw Andy grow up and move on, he faced his greatest fear of loss/abandonment, and found new purpose with Bonnie. It felt like it completed what the first two films started (the first film having Woody’s place as Andy’s favorite toy usurped by Buzz, and the second having him contemplate living in a museum forever instead of facing the pain of heartbreak as Andy grows up).
If Toy Story 4 had to exist, it should have been Buzz and Jessie’s movie.
I was at the D23 expo’s animation panel in 2015 when the basics of the plot were first announced. When they were first describing Toy Story 4, Pixar referred to it as a “standalone sequel.” That seemed to make sense. The overall arc of the first three movies had ended, but Toy Story 4 could be its own little adventure starring the beloved toy characters. Pixar then announced that the film would be “a love story…” which – given Buzz and Jessie’s budding romance in the previous two movies – briefly indicated that they might be the focus of Toy Story 4, which would have further justified the continuation of the series. But then I remember when the panelists continued with “the love story between Woody…and Bo Peep.”
I remember being somewhat baffled at that point. Didn’t Woody already get the spotlight to himself in Toy Story 3? And wasn’t Bo Peep left out of that installment entirely? Again, why take things in this direction when they already had a love story blooming on the side in the second and third films (a romance which, by the way, is never so much as brought up in Toy Story 4)?
Toy Story 4 doesn’t feel particularly “standalone” by the end of things, either, as it seems to find more ways to try to close the series as a whole. This also puts things in a weird spot. Toy Story 3 was a fitting end to the series, but a standalone sequel could justifiably stand on its own merits. But by trying to conclude the series again, it feels like the Toy Story saga has two different third acts (which kind of cheapens Toy Story 3, when you think about it).
By now I may be sounding a bit negative, but I have to emphasize that these complaints are all relative to the exceedingly high standards set by the Toy Story series. The first three films are all among Pixar’s best, which in itself is a hefty claim. Toy Story 2 in particular, is a perfect movie.
Toy Story 4 is still a well made feature with strong characters and storytelling, and it certainly does the best job it could with all the tools at its disposal. But it’s an undeniable sting to see so many of the classic Toy Story characters get the shaft, especially since a story focused on Buzz and Jessie would have justified this entry all the more. At the very least, giving them more to do would have made Woody’s latest story arc more meaningful.
To be the weakest of the four Toy Story movies isn’t too bad of a detriment, however. It just means that Toy Story 4 is a highly enjoyable movie whose older siblings happen to be all-time greats. I watched Toy Story 4 a few times in preparation for this review, and greatly enjoyed it every time I saw it. But it’s also the only Toy Story film that wasn’t constantly buzzing in my head afterwards. It makes for a wonderful viewing experience, but it somehow doesn’t resonate and stick with you like the preceding three films did (and still do).
Yes, Toy Story 4 is more than a good enough film that it should silence the hypocritically predictable cynics who cried fowl at its very existence (can we just admit that sequels can be art just as easily as original films now?). It tells a solid story that makes the best with what it has, and does so with some of the most colorful and vibrant animation yet seen in a Pixar film. But the fact that Pixar saw fit to stretch out Woody’s story arc while making the rest of the returning cast less important than ever doesn’t exactly justify the necessity of the series continuing past Toy Story 3’s conclusion.
While the Toy Story series is known for bringing adult audiences to tears, I feel that Toy Story 4 – though delivering on emotion – is only able to go so far with it. It creates something similar to what the other films did in regards to tugging at the heart strings, but only to an extent. We’ve seen Woody go through such existential crises before, so to see his inner turmoil boil back to the surface seems redundant, and somewhat undoes some of the development the preceding films gave him. Perhaps if Buzz or Jessie were given a chance in the spotlight, Toy Story 4 might have felt less like it’s treading familiar ground (even this entry’s Randy Newman song, I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away, seems like it’s going through the motions, and feels like the film rushes to get it out of the way early on).
Toy Story 4 is an interesting case. Yes, it is indeed a really good movie that I greatly enjoy. But it also seems like Pixar missed an opportunity here to delve deeper with the other Toy Story characters, which would have made the continuation of the series feel more earned. For all its merits, with the story Pixar chose to tell through Toy Story 4, it feels more like Toy Story 3-2. On its own, Toy Story 4 is a winner. But when you remember what it’s a following act to, it does fall short of its series’ exceedingly high standards.
Illumination garners a lot of unwarranted hate. No, the Despicable Me studio hasn’t made an animated film I would call great, but they’ve never made a notably terrible movie, either. They may not hold a candle to the heavy hitters in animation like Disney and Pixar, but Illumination have consistently provided decent children’s entertainment, and nothing they’ve made has been as bad as the darker side of Dreamworks Animation (remember Shark Tale?) or Sony Pictures Animation (come on, before Spider-Verse, did they have a good movie to their name?).
It’s funny, when Despicable Me was first released, people seemed to love that it was a simple and harmless feature, and appreciated that it was a small-scale animated film that managed to find success. But I suppose it found too much success, because lord knows in this internet age, we can’t allow anything to become too popular/liked (the motto of millennials may as well be “we hate happiness”). Suddenly the perception of Illumination took a complete 180, and what was previously seen as simple became ‘stupid,’ and the Minions suddenly became the most annoying things on the planet (y’know, because popular with kids).
The truth though, is that Illumination makes decent kids movies, and they may crack a few laughs out of adults too. Illumination doesn’t make great animated films, but they make fun cartoons. Even their worst movie is harmless.
With that (largely unnecessary) defense of Illumination Studios out of the way, The Secret Life of Pets 2 – sequel to Illumination’s 2016 film – is among the weaker side of the studio’s spectrum. Again, that’s harmless. It’s simply a movie that will appeal to its intended audience (children), but maybe miss the mark with the older crowd. But hey, not every animated film can have the universal appeal of Pixar.
The story here takes place some years after the first Secret Life of Pets. Katie (Ellie Kemper), the owner of dogs Max (Patton Oswald) and Duke (Eric Stonestreet), falls in love, gets married, and has a baby named Liam. Though the dogs have apprehension about the baby at first, they quickly grow protective of him. This is especially true of Max, who sees the world in a whole new, dangerous light now that he’s concerned over the baby’s safety.
The film then diverges into three different plots: Story A sees Max and Duke go on a trip to Katie’s father-in-law’s farm, where Max’s bravery is tested by the farm’s sheepdog, Rooster (Harrison Ford). Story B involves Gidget (Jenny Slate) – the Pomeranian upstairs neighbor of Max and Duke who is infatuated with the former – trying to reclaim Max’s favorite toy from an old cat lady’s apartment after she was left in charge of said toy during Max’s trip. Finally, story C sees eccentric bunny Snowball (Kevin Hart) – believing himself to be a superhero due to his owner’s playtime activities – try to rescue a white tiger from a cruel circus ringleader with the help of a Shih Tzu named Daisy (Tiffany Haddish).
If the three different plots sound largely disconnected, that’s because they are, until the finale scrambles to tie them all together in an attempt to justify this sequel’s status as a feature-length film as opposed to a series of short films. The episodic nature of the movie can lead to a manic pacing, which can make it feel like one of those kids movies that feels like it has to zoom through things in order to keep children’s attention. And it’s always unfortunate to see a children’s film that seems to think children aren’t capable of following a movie if it isn’t constantly moving.
Still, the individual bits and pieces have their charms. Snowball’s storyline brings out the best comedic bits in the movie. I like the character Rooster, whose overly practical and disinterested disposition seem to be a parody of Harrison Ford himself. And as is usually the case for Illumination, you would never guess that the studio makes its movies on a (relatively) small budget, as the animation is vibrant and boasts a cartoonish fluidity that adds to the physical comedy.
The Secret Life of Pets 2 is nothing special. It’s lack of focus means it’s not even as good as the first Secret Life of Pets. It does feel like a rushed, cash-in sequel. But y’know, as far as rushed, cash-in sequels go, at least The Secret Life of Pets 2 is cute.
No, Illumination may not yet have found the recipe to make great animated movies. But if my generation can adamantly defend the cheesy Saturday morning cartoons of the 1980s that were solely designed to sell toys (*Cough! Transformers! Cough!*), then I can defend Illumination’s okay movies for being, well, okay.
During a flashback sequence in How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World – the third and final entry in Dreamworks Animation’s critically-acclaimed trilogy – Stoic the Vast (Gerard Butler) tells his young son Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) that “Love comes with the great price of loss.” It’s a hefty message for a “kid’s movie,” one that treats its target audience with respect, and trusts that they’re mature enough for it. It’s also a fitting message, seeing as the How to Train Your Dragon series began at the dawn of the 2010s, the series now seems to be bookending the movie decade, with many of those who watched the original in theaters as children now adults themselves.
That’s why I wish I could say that How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World lived up to that message. The Hidden World may earn brownie points for never talking down to its young demographic, but like both of its predecessors, it ultimately plays things safe in terms of narrative structure. And what could have been a deep, melancholic change of pace for the franchise is unfortunately a missed opportunity in a rather by-the-books animated adventure.
That’s not to say that How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is bad by any means. But I’ve always felt that this franchise’s acclaim has been a little misplaced, with most of its praise stemming from the fact that it was a Dreamworks franchise not built on sarcasm (admittedly a novelty for the studio), as opposed to anything remotely resembling Pixar levels of storytelling and thematic invention. How to Train Your Dragon was always a good series, just not really special in the way its acclaim might have you believe. In that sense, The Hidden World lives up to its predecessors’ quality, but it’s a shame that this final entry couldn’t ascend into something more than the series’ “solid but safe” status.
Taking place one year after the defeat of Drago Bludvist and the death of Stoic the Vast in How to Train Your Dragon 2, The Hidden World sees Hiccup as the new chieftain 0f the vikings of Berk. And Hiccup’s pet dragon (a ‘Night Fury’ to be precise), Toothless, is the alpha dragon of Berk. With vikings and dragons finally coexisting in peace, Berk seems like a paradise.
Hiccup and his friends – including his now-girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) – have been freeing dragons from less open-minded vikings, and bringing them to Berk as a kind of dragon utopia. But this eventually riles the ire of several viking warlords, who recruit the infamous dragon hunter Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham) – the man responsible for sending Night Furies to the brink of extinction – to hunt Toothless and claim Berk’s army of dragons.
Grimmel proves to be a cunning foe, and eludes Berk’s attempts to thwart him. Out of desperation, Hiccups commands the citizens and dragons of Berk to find a new home, on their journey to find the fabled “Hidden World” which can serve as a sanctuary for dragons, outside of human reach. But Grimmel has an ace up his sleeve, a female “Light Fury,” which he plans on using to lure Toothless out of hiding.
It’s a straightforward plot, but one that feels epic in buildup, but ultimately misses its potential in execution. The Hidden World retains the series’ standard hour and a half runtime, but the story at hand feels like it needs more. As a result of cramming in an epic scope into a shorter runtime, many key moments in the film fly by pretty quickly. When what I assumed to be another action set piece ended up being the climax of the film, it really became apparent how rushed the film can feel. It leaves both the big action scenarios and the key emotional moments feeling a tad underwhelming.
Another persistent issue with the franchise which is still at play here is that there are too many side characters. We have Hiccup and Astrid’s friends; Snotlout (Jonah Hill), twins Ruffnut and Tuffnut (Kristin Wiig and Justin Rupple), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), as well as Hiccup’s mother Valka (Cate Blanchett), Berk’s resident blacksmith Gobber (Craig Ferguson) and enemy-turned ally Eret (Kit Harington). This abundance of side characters may not have been an issue, if not for the fact that – aside from Valka and Eret – they are all played entirely for comic relief, which basically makes them interchangeable. Once again, if the film were given more time to develop these characters, they may have been a little more than their introductory punchlines. Yet here we are at the end of the series and that’s still where they are.
Of course, the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless is still sweet and memorable. Additionally, the relationship between Toothless and the Light Fury is a cute, Lady and the Tramp-style romantic subplot. And I do have to admit, Grimmel is a step up from Bludvist in the bad guy department.
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World still showcases the strengths of the series: The animation is often stunningly beautiful, the various creature designs for the dragons are cute and charming, and the music is as gorgeous and epic as ever. Like its predecessors, the things that How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World does well, it does very well. But the disappointing thing is that, in terms of story, the franchise has done very little to stand out on a narrative or thematic level. And more so than the past two entries, The Hidden World suffers from its relatively short running time (plenty of animated films aimed at children reach the two hour mark these days. And when trying to tell a story on this scale, the extra time really could have helped).
The How to Train Your Dragon trilogy can at hold its head high knowing that all three of its acts are genuine efforts that are sure to please fans. But it is a bit of a shame that its storytelling capabilities never really evolved beyond tried-and-true animated conventions. Still, a consistent trilogy is hard to come by, and fans of How to Train Your Dragon will be happy to know that their series is one of the few to have pulled it off.
Even though animated sequels are commonplace in this day and age, Walt Disney Animation Studios – the world’s most famous source of animated features – rarely creates follow-ups to their animated classics. Some might be quick to point out the flood of direct-to-video Disney sequels that plagued the 90s and early 2000s, but those were actually produced by the now (mercifully) defunct DisneyToon Studios. Those were products of their time, and never once have those straight-to-video sequels been considered a part of the official Disney Animation canon.
The beloved studio’s only true animated sequels are The Rescuers Down Under, Fantasia 2000, Winnie the Pooh (2011), and now, Ralph Breaks the Internet, sequel to 2012’s delightful Wreck-It Ralph. Though considering the Pooh movies work more like standalone episodes, and the Fantasia films are non-narrative, there could be an argument that Ralph Breaks the Internet is only the studio’s second animated sequel. No matter how you look at it, however, Ralph Breaks the Internet proves to be the best sequel Disney has yet made by an incomparable margin, and arguably the best Disney animated film since Frozen.
Ralph Breaks the Internet is set six years after the original (coinciding with the real gap between films). Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly), the lovable video game ‘villain’ of Fix-It Felix Jr., has become something of a surrogate brother to Vanellope Von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a character from the cutesy, Mario Kart-esque racer, Sugar Rush. Ralph and Vanellope spend the days in their respective arcade games, while at night they jump from game to game goofing off. Ralph, having spent years as an outcast due to his role as a video game baddie, is perfectly content with his life now that he has a friend. Vanellope, meanwhile, wishes for something more out of life, feeling that her game is too simple, and her time with Ralph too routine.
Ralph, wanting to help Vanellope out with her problems, tries adding something new to her game. But, true to his name, Wreck-It Ralph’s good intentions make a mess of things. This results in the steering wheel controller for Sugar Rush’s arcade cabinet breaking. Mr. Litwak (Ed O’Niell), the owner of the arcade, unplugs the Sugar Rush game. A child at the arcade finds a Sugar Rush wheel on eBay, but Mr. Litwak deems it too expensive, and expects to can the game for good
Luckily for Ralph and Vanellope, however, Mr. Litwak has recently installed wi-fi in the arcade. And so Ralph and Vanellope sneak into the arcade’s wi-fi router, in hopes of traveling into the internet to find eBay and buy a new Sugar Rush wheel so that Vanellope (and all the other now-homeless Sugar Rush characters) can go home. Of course, being video game characters, Ralph and Vanellope don’t exactly know what they’re getting themselves into, and their ensuing adventure may just test their friendship.
It sounds like a simple setup, but like the other recent Disney films, Ralph breaks the Internet tells a story that’s made complex by the characters. Gone are the days when Disney simply utilized their stock archetypes to push plots forward, Disney’s recent output have told stories dictated by the characters, not the other way around. And Ralph Breaks the Internet continues this trend in a unique way. Being a sequel, Ralph 2 could have easily fallen into the pitfall of recycling the original’s material under a new guise. Instead, Ralph Breaks the Internet uses its position as a sequel to build on the characters we grew to love the first time around, and give them new dimensions. In turn, this sequel may actually outdo its predecessor in the emotional department.
Like the first film, Ralph Breaks the Internet uses its premise to create a wide array of different visual styles and art directions. It’s easy to go into the film being skeptical at the change in focus from the video game theme of the original to the internet theme of this sequel, but Ralph Breaks the Internet finds ways to make it work.
Not only does the internet world have a cleanly “retro future” look about it, but Ralph and Vanellope also find themselves visiting an online game called Slaughter Race, a grungy mix between Grand Theft Auto and Gran Turismo that beautifully contrasts the vivid colorfulness of the rest of the film. And – as has been greatly advertised – Vanellope even finds herself in the (very real) Oh My Disney website, where she encounters characters from Star Wars, Marvel and even her fellow characters from the Disney Animation canon, most notably the Disney Princesses (with all the more recent princesses being voiced by their original actresses). These scenes are among the funniest in the movie, though they do kind of make you wish we could get an entire movie about a Disney crossover…
With so many different worlds to explore – whether it’s the returning Sugar Rush or Fix-It Felix Jr., the internet itself, Slaughter Race, the dark web, or the worlds of Disney – Ralph Breaks the Internet continues what the first film started by making an animated feature that’s constantly rebuilding itself on the visual front. The Wreck-It Ralph movies are so good I’d love to see a third entry, but I wouldn’t mind a third one even just to see what other visuals they can come up with.
Like the first movie, Ralph Breaks the Internet also features a memorable musical score that channels the video games that inspired it. And this time around, we even get a big musical number, which is another highlight of the film.
Another interesting change of pace from Disney norms is that Ralph Breaks the Internet doesn’t have any real villain. It seems like Disney’s recent flicks have been doing new and different things with their villain scenario, finding ways to make them key to the plot without being the center of it like the Disney of old. And now Ralph 2 seems to just throw the villain element away entirely. As stated, this is a movie about Ralph and Vanellope, and they end up creating their own dilemmas for themselves (whether through conflicting interests or well intentioned accidents). There’s something really refreshing about that.
If there are any issues with the story, it might simply be that it can feel like it takes a fair bit of time to get going. As stated, searching for a video game steering wheel doesn’t exactly sound like it makes for a great adventure, and you may wonder where exactly the film is going for a while (albeit the charming characters and witty writing might make you not care), but once it picks up, it’s a consistently entertaining and heartwarming picture.
Fans of the original film may also lament that returning characters Fix-It Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer) and Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch) have largely reduced roles. After marrying at the end of the first movie, Felix and Calhoun end up adopting all of the Sugar Rush racers (sans Vanellope) once their game gets unplugged. It had the potential to be a pretty funny sub-plot, but sadly it gets very little time overall.
New characters include Shank (Gal Gadot), a badass chick from Slaughter Race, Knowsmore (Alan Tudyk, who’s omnipresent in Disney animation these days), a search engine, Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), an algorithm on a YouTube-esque site, and J.P. Spamley (Bill Hader), a clickbait pop-up advertisement. With the exception of Shank, most the new characters don’t have too big of roles. But they all help push the main plot forward with Ralph and Vanellope’s journey, so they don’t feel underutilized in the way Felix and Calhoun do with their own sub-plot.
In the end, what makes Ralph Breaks the Internet such a winner is that it is a heartfelt story between its two main characters that helps them change and grow in a way a lot of sequels are afraid to do. It doesn’t simply continue what its predecessor started, but builds on it. The change in setting from video games to the internet may have been cause for concern going in (because really, which one seems the more fitting setting for an animated film?), but the story and characters win you over so strongly the change seems inconsequential. It seems a lot of CG animated films are defined by their setting – emulating the ‘themed movie’ approach of Pixar films without understanding the deeper story aspects – but Ralph Breaks the Internet lets its characters take the steering wheel, ultimately telling a story that delivers in entertainment and emotion, with a pretty heavy and mature message about friendship that may bring a tear or two to your eye.
Disney has rarely created proper sequels to their animated classics. But Ralph Breaks the Internet puts up a good argument that they should do it a little more often. It may have a slow start, but Ralph Breaks the Internet is a prime example of what a sequel should be. Fingers crossed that Frozen 2 can do the same.
The Cat Returns was always one of Studio Ghibli’s smaller features. As only the studio’s second animated film not to be directed by either Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata, The Cat Returns was aiming to be a means to groom a new director for the studio, Hiroyuki Morita. Strangely, The Cat Returns remains Morita’s sole feature film as director. While Morita may not have become the successor to Miyazaki or Takahata, his single feature remains a delightful if small-scale installment in the Studio Ghibli canon.
The Cat Returns tells the story of Haru, a Japanese high school student. She’s shy, quiet, and a bit clumsy, not to mention she tends to be late for class and other events. Basically, she’s the most uneventful student at her school. That is until one day when she saves the life of a cat that’s about to be hit by a truck. This cat turns out to be Prince Lune, the prince of the Cat Kingdom, who begins to speak to Haru and thanks her for her bravery, much to Haru’s astonishment.
That night, a parade of cats – which includes the Cat King himself – visit Haru at her home. They tell her that for her actions, she will be showered with gifts. Though these gifts are more cumbersome than anything, and include boxes of live mice (the cats being unaware of the difference between human and cat diets) as well as planting cattails (which Haru happens to be allergic to) all over her front yard. Things get even weirder for Haru when she learns that the Cat King has decreed that she will marry Prince Lune!
Understandably not wanting to marry a cat, Haru is desperate for a way out of the situation, as the cats seem entirely naive to her objections. Suddenly, Haru hears a mysterious voice that tells her to seek out a “big, white cat,” who will lead her to the “Cat Bureau.” Haru finds the obese feline, a marshmallowy cat named Muta, who guides Haru to the Bureau. There, they meet Baron Humbert von Gekkingen (or simply “The Baron”), a magical cat figurine who comes to life when people seek his help. Soon after meeting the Baron, Haru and Muta are whisked away to the magical world of the Cat Kingdom, with the Baron and his ally Toto – a crow statue who comes to life similar to Baron – giving chase to save Haru from becoming a cat herself.
It sounds like a silly plot, and that’s because it is. But it’s also sweet, charming, and has a bit of heart to it. It has a nice message of being true to yourself, and it’s often hilarious with characters (particularly Muta and the Cat King) and its visual gags.
Of course, being a film made to groom a new director, The Cat Returns is one of Studio Ghibli’s simplest films. It barely exceeds the hour-long mark by ten minutes, and just feels like a much smaller-scale picture than most other Ghibli features. There’s nothing inherently wrong with The Cat Returns, but when compared to the usual standards of Studio Ghibli, it does feel relatively uneventful.
It’s also of note that The Cat Returns was the closest thing Ghibli made to a sequel to one of its feature films. The characters of Muta and the Baron were originally featured in Whispers of the Heart (ironically the studio’s previous attempt at grooming a new filmmaker). Though the stories are largely unrelated, with the popular belief being that The Cat Returns is a story written by the protagonist of Whispers of the Heart, who was an aspiring author. The Cat Returns doesn’t quite match Whisper of the Heart, but it does serve as a fun, quasi-continuation.
Not being a Studio Ghibli masterpiece is hardly a complaint, however, as everything that is here in The Cat Returns is quite charming, and it’s all too easy to be won over by it. The Cat Returns is the kind of movie that’s impossible not to smile at.
Along with the fun and whimsical story and the cute characters, The Cat Returns features some truly stunning animation. Though a Ghibli film having fantastic visuals is stating the obvious, The Cat Returns boasts a unique look for the studio. The Cat Returns looks akin to a Mamoru Hosada film, with simple and clean character designs that are its own. The character movements are smooth and fluid, and every last scene is filled with life and color. The Cat Returns is simply a joy to look at from the very first frame.
Complimenting these visuals is a soundtrack that is somehow both energetic and soothing. It may not rank alongside Joe Hisaishi’s compositions for the best Miyazaki films, but the music by Yuji Nomi is a joy to listen to, and really adds to the film’s dreamlike qualities.
Per the norm, The Cat Returns also features a stellar English dub. Anne Hathaway provides the voice of Haru, and gives the heroine a strong sense of believability and sympathy, while still hitting the right comedic notes when necessary. Cary Elwes voices the Baron, providing all the dapper British charm you could hope for, while the late Peter Boyle adds a good deal of comedy to his portrayal of Muta. And Tim Curry provides the gravely, somewhat lecherous voice of the Cat King. It goes without saying that Tim Curry is brilliant.
The Cat Returns may be a small film by Ghibli’s staggering standards. But it’s an undeniable charmer that will entertain audiences both young and old. It should leave you with a big grin beaming across your face and a warm feeling in your heart by the time the credits roll.