Ponyo Review

Ponyo (or Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, as it’s known in Japan) has always been Hayao Miyazaki’s most misunderstood feature. Though it received strong reviews from critics, fans of the famed Japanese animator often referred to it as Miyazaki’s “weakest film,” due to it being aimed at a younger audience (apparently these people forgot that Miyazaki made his name with films like My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service). It was even more bizarrely the only Miyazaki-directed feature not to receive a nomination in the Best Animated Feature category at the Academy Awards since that category’s introduction. Ten years later, and Ponyo is only now being more widely recognized for its merits. And while Ponyo may not be as synonymous with Miyazaki’s name in the same way Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro are, it is the strongest of the director’s trilogy of ‘post-Spirited Away’ features.

On paper, Ponyo may sound like Hayao Miyazaki’s most straightforward film: it tells the tale of a young boy named Sosuke, who finds a magical goldfish whom he names Ponyo (her ‘real name’ being Brunhilde). The two form a bond, with Ponyo defying her wizard father Fujimoto and transforming into a human girl to be with Sosuke.

A synopsis such as that might imply that Ponyo is simply a Japanese version of The Little Mermaid, but its execution makes it something more complex: Ponyo is described as a goldfish, but has a human-like face and a dress-like tail fin, and she becomes human after tasting Sosuke’s blood (by licking a cut on his finger to heal it) and tampering with one of her father’s magic wells. We also learn that, by becoming human, Ponyo breaks the laws of nature, and her transformation sends reality out of whack. The moon falls closer to Earth, leading the ocean to rise and satellites to fall from the skies, ancient fish come back to life, and tsunamis turn Sosuke’s world upside down. This all leads to a series of adventures between Ponyo, Sosuke, and Sosuke’s mother Lisa. All the while, Fujimoto – the closest thing the film has to an antagonist – tries to separate Ponyo from Sosuke to set things back to the way they were, while Ponyo’s mother, the goddess of the seas, more calmly tries to find a way to fix nature while not interfering with Ponyo and Sosuke’s relationship.

It is undoubtedly Miyazaki’s weirdest film, but it’s impossibly charming and sweet, and its imagination is seemingly infinite. While its immediate predecessor Howl’s Moving Castle’s weirdness often came at the expense of a consistently solid narrative, Ponyo’s story benefits from its surrealism and absurdities. Howl featured a strange tonal shift midway through, surrendering its fairy tale plot in favor of an anti-war narrative, ultimately feeling like two different, clashing stories. Meanwhile, Ponyo is a children’s adventure, and is running on “child logic.” As delightfully weird and surreal as Ponyo gets, it all feels like one cohesive whole with its imagination. The weirdness enhances the flow of the story, as opposed to clashing with it in the way Howl did.

It’s that childlike wonderment that is Ponyo’s biggest strength. It is impossible not to smile when watching the film. Like Totoro or Kiki’s Delivery Service, there’s a gentleness and sensitivity to Ponyo that’s unique to Miyazaki’s features. While many animated films feature one scene of hustle and bustle after another to hold the attention of younger audiences, Ponyo trusts that children are capable of following a less hectic plot and can appreciate a good story. And though Ponyo’s story is smaller than something like Princess Mononoke, it shares a similar scope to Miyazaki’s more dramatic works, making for an interesting combination of simplicity and complexity.

The characters here are among Miyazaki’s most memorable: Ponyo’s naivety makes her as humorous as she is cute, and Sosuke’s determination makes him an easy hero to root for. Lisa is head-strong and independent, and Fujimoto is an eccentric who looks suspiciously like David Bowie. They may not be Miyazaki’s most complex characters (though Fujimoto continues the rich Miyazaki archetype of a “villain who isn’t really a villain”), but they’re possibly his most charming sans Totoro.

Speaking of My Neighbor Totoro, that is the comparison people always seem to make with Ponyo and Miyazaki’s older catalogue, since both share a  more childlike narrative. And I suppose if there is one area in which Ponyo does fall relatively short, it’s that it doesn’t quite match up to its inevitable comparison. For all its charm and lovability (Ponyo equals Totoro in those departments) it doesn’t match its predecessor’s depth. The drama of Ponyo is almost exclusively fantasy, whereas Totoro’s dilemmas evoke a sense of relatability that is almost unheard of in fantasy films.

Still, if the big issue with Ponyo is simply that it isn’t quite as good as arguably Miyazaki’s most cherished film – which it shares elements with – I’d say that doesn’t exactly equate to a major flaw. If Ponyo served as a return to form for Miyazaki after the confused Howl’s Moving Castle, is it really much of a complaint if it isn’t quite Totoro or Spirited Away?

“Ponyo’s insatiable love of ham is a recurring dose of adorableness.”

While Ponyo may not match the depth of Miyazaki’s best work, it is among the acclaimed director’s most entertaining features. Its utter adorableness should have you smiling from ear to ear, and as mentioned, the weirdness adds a good dose of comedy to the equation, and packs on to the film’s charm. The story unfolds both beautifully and uniquely.

Disney was once again responsible for the dubbing, as they had been for most Miyazaki features to this point, and the dub of Ponyo is another winner, perhaps surprisingly so. While Noah Cyrus and Frankie Jonas – younger siblings of Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers – may have seemed like gimmicky casting as Ponyo and Sosuke on Disney’s part (given the dub was released in 2009, when Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers were still a thing), their voices ended up fitting the characters nicely. Tina Fey served as the English voice of Lisa, while Liam Neeson voiced Fujimoto and Cate Blanchett voiced Ponyo’s mother Gran Mamare. Getting such actors not only showed how much care Disney put into the dubbing, but their performances have helped the dub age gracefully. Perhaps the only downside is that the adorable end-credits song has a pop-y remixed second verse, which seems really out of place.

Hayao Miyazaki’s films are known for their stunning animation, and Ponyo is certainly no exception. In fact, in many ways, it may be Miyazaki’s most visually ambitious film. There’s a fluidity of movement at play that is close to unrivaled in hand-drawn features. Also of note is that the film seems to occasionally simplify its art direction, while never sacrificing the hard work and effort that went into the animation itself. Ponyo subtly changes its style from time to time, and combined with its settings both on land and the world under the sea, as well as its penchant of characters rapidly changing shapes, Ponyo is an absolute marvel of visuals. Fittingly, it was probably the most impressive hand-drawn animation since Spirited Away.

Complimenting these visuals is one of the best musical scores of any Miyazaki feature. Per the norm for the director, Ponyo’s score was composed by Joe Hisaishi, who created one of his strongest soundtracks here. The music of Ponyo captures an ethereal quality similar to that of the visuals, which perfectly compliments the story at play. Ponyo, almost secretly, boasted one of the best musical scores of any animated film of its time.

Sadly, that “secret” quality seems to speak for Ponyo as a whole. Despite its many merits and acclaim, Ponyo never quite reached the same heights in legacy as many of the Miyazaki-directed films that preceded it. Only now, a decade after its initial release, is Ponyo starting to get its due. Admittedly, Miyazaki’s resume does feature some giants of the animation medium that are hard to live up to, but Ponyo always did live up to that legacy, albeit a bit differently than you’d expect. It may not have attempted the same thematic depth of some of the director’s films, but it was something of an avant garde for animation, presenting a narrative that seems comprised of one idea after another that could only exist in its medium. And it does it all while being as fun and adorable as it can be.

Ponyo has lived in the shadows of Miyazaki’s other films for far too long. While it may not be the director’s best work, it has always, in its own way, deserved to sit right alongside them.

 

9

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Incredibles 2 Review

Of all the great films Pixar has made over the years, there’s perhaps none more beloved than The Incredibles. The 2004 super hero feature – which still ranks above every super hero feature made since – garnered wild critical praise, and more importantly, became a cherished classic, but for very different reasons than most Pixar films. While the studio is often known for bringing audiences to tears, The Incredibles was instead an action-filled romp, but one filled with all the intelligence you would expect from the Pixar brand. It was also more adult than the studio’s previous features, dealing with issues and themes that would likely go over the heads of younger audiences. Perhaps most importantly, The Incredibles shifted Pixar and, subsequently, western animated features to a stronger level of auteurism. Brad Bird became the first outside director hired by the studio, and brought with him the concept of the film, which he had planned virtually shot for shot.

In a time when it seems every animated film and (even more so) every super hero film receives a sequel, The Incredibles seemed like the most likely Pixar candidate to receive a follow-up. Even when Pixar started producing more and more sequels, to the point where people questioned the state of the studio’s originality, The Incredibles was the Pixar sequel everyone wanted to see.

Audiences had to wait fourteen years, but Incredibles 2 finally became a reality. With Brad Bird returning as writer and director, the film serves as an absolutely winning continuation of the original, even if it doesn’t quite match it.

Almost tauntingly, Incredibles 2 begins mere minutes after the ending events of the first film. Three months after Syndrome’s defeat, the Parr family – the secret identities of Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl, and their children – are re-adjusting to civilian life, when the mole-like Underminer attacks, resulting in the Parrs getting ready to do battle with the spelunking villain.

That’s where the first film wrapped up, and fourteen years later, it’s right there that this sequel begins. Mr. Incredible, AKA Bob Parr (Craig T. Nelson), Helen Parr, AKA Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), and their children Violet (Sarah Vowell) and Dash (Huck Milner) are on the Underminer’s tail, all while protecting civilians and babysitting the youngest Parr, baby Jack-Jack.

Though the Parrs manage to stop Underminer’s devastating machinery, damage has been done to the city, and the villain escapes. Super heroes are still illegal in the world of The Incredibles, and this last, botched scuffle proves to be the last straw for the government, who shut down their ‘Super Hero Relocation Program.’ With their last relocation being a ‘modest’ motel, the Parr family is in a bind.

Luckily, Bob’s best friend Lucius, AKA Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) happened upon an employee of eccentric billionaire Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), who is determined to help super heroes regain legality. Deavor wants to meet Bob, Helen and Lucius to explain his idea of improving the public image of supers. Winston and his cynical inventor sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener) hire Helen has their first representative (her stretching abilities being less destructive than Mr. Incredible’s strength or Frozone’s ice powers), which puts her back in the super hero role just as a new villain, the Screenslaver (Bill Wise), is coming to prominence. This in turn makes Mr. Incredible  Mr. Mom.

The film takes a cue from previous Pixar sequels Monsters University and Finding Dory by promoting the original film’s deuteragonist into the protagonist, with Helen Parr and her escapades taking center stage, while Bob’s story takes a relative backseat as he tries to manage stay-at-home life with the kids, which turns out more difficult than he prepared for. Violet is having issues with her crush, and Jack-Jack – whose powers were revealed to the audience at the end of the first film but remained unknown to the Parr family – are becoming more powerful and varied. Perhaps the only downside in the plot is that Dash doesn’t have much to do compared to everyone else in the family, mostly providing comic relief, as the closest thing he has to his own sub-plot is trouble with homework.

But I guess not every character can play as large of a role, and Dash’s reduced presence is a small price to pay for the fact that the story frequently matches the structural perfection of its predecessor, as well as its intelligent writing.

Helen’s story serves as the main plot, and features action scenes that match the excellence of the Mission: Impossible franchise and some top-notch moments of dialogue between her, Winston and Evelyn. Bob’s story is a little more comical and low-key, but it still manages to bring out a lot of heart and character development in the film. And as you might expect, the plots eventually converge on each other, which only kicks things into high gear.

Of course, with Helen separated from the rest of the family for most of the film, that does mean we get less moments of the sharp banter between her and Bob, which is a little disappointing. The Incredibles movies are often at their best when they’re dealing with familial issues, and though the early scenes feature some memorable moments with every Parr family member, you do kind of miss the realistic arguments and conversations between the parents in the film’s middle act.

Again though, these are only quibbles in comparing these elements to their presence in the original Incredibles film, which is a pretty much perfect movie. So any of these narrative complaints are only relative.

Incredibles 2 may actually be the funnier of the two films featuring the super hero family. Unlike most animated sequels, which introduce a new comic relief character for marketing reasons, the primary sources of comedy are Jack-Jack – whose multitudes of powers exhaust poor Mr. Incredible – and super hero fashion designer Edna Mode (voiced by Brad Bird himself). Both were characters from the original film, with Edna once again wisely being used sparingly, and Jack-Jack getting a more prominent (and humorous) presence than in the first film. The only major new characters are Winston and Evelyn, as well as the villain Screenslaver and a spunky super hero named Void (Sophia Bush), all of which feel like natural additions to the Incredibles universe, as opposed to flashy new characters created to sell more toys because they’re new.

As stated, the action sequences are top-notch, proving once again that Brad Bird is one of the go-to filmmakers for A-grade action. Like the aforementioned Mission: Impossible films (which Bird has had a hand in in the past) and Mad Max: Fury Road, Incredibles 2 features action scenes that flow along with the story, instead of merely being attention grabbers that exist outside of the plot. Even with only two movies and fourteen years between them, The Incredibles may just provide the best action sequences of any super hero franchise.

Of course, in those fourteen years since the first Incredibles movie, CG animation has only gotten better, and Incredibles 2 certainly showcases how far the medium has come. Incredibles 2 features state of the art animation that rivals anything else out there right now. And with its uniquely stylized character designs, it may just outdo all of its contemporaries.

Much like the first film, Incredibles 2’s score evokes not only super heroism, but James Bond-style spy films and espionage as well. And just like the first go-around, it’s among Pixar’s catchiest and (dare I say it?) sexiest scores.

If Incredibles 2 falls short of the original, it’s only ever-so-slightly. But that’s only a testament to just how perfectly crafted The Incredibles was. Incredibles 2 really isn’t that far behind – suffering only from a bit of longing to see all of the Parrs together more frequently – and is very likely the best sequel Pixar has made since Toy Story 2. Its  animation and action set pieces may be outstanding, but they are merely complimentary to the strong storytelling and memorable characters. The shadow of its predecessor may be unavoidable, but Incredibles 2 more than lives up to its name.

Now, when’s Incredibles 3?

 

9

Very, Very Late: My Favorite Movie of 2017

* The following contains spoilers in regards to some 2017 films*

2017 was an interesting year for the movies. Some great films, some bad films, some overrated films, some overlooked films, and so on. It was inconsistent, to say the least. As much as I enjoyed some of 2017’s films, my opinion as to which one I enjoyed the most was as fluctuating as the year’s releases themselves. So fluctuating, in fact, that I missed out on writing a proper favorite films of 2017 list and am only now – in July of 2018 – writing about which one was my favorite. I flip-flopped back and forth what to finally name as my favorite film of 2017. So, in the end, I simply went with the film that left the biggest emotional impact with me. And well, if you’ve followed my writing for a while, you probably won’t be the slightest bit surprised.

 

Winner: Coco

Runners-up: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (really), The Disaster Artist, Dunkirk, Spider-Man: Homecoming

Yes, I know, I picked another animated film. That may seem obvious coming from me, a confessed lover of animated cinema, and someone who has officially named an animated feature as his favorite film of the year consistently since at least 2013 (Frozen, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, Inside Out, and Your Name, respectively). But I think it’s a fair statement to say that the past two decades have seen animated films reach new heights and consistency in quality. Japanese animation has received wider recognition in the west, while western animation has become more sophisticated and achieved a greater sense of autersmanship, thanks in large part to the efforts of Pixar and others. With animation providing better and better movies, it’s simply a great time to be an admirer of animated cinema.

That’s not to say that I simply name an animated film as my favorite of the year because it’s animated. In fact, I seriously considered naming The Last Jedi or The Disaster Artist as my favorite 2017 film just so my current streak didn’t showcase too much of a bias…before I realized that’s utterly stupid and the movie that I genuinely think is the best should be named as my favorite. When you’re naming anything as “the best” or “your favorite,” shouldn’t you pick what you believe earns that monicker, even if they fit a continued trend? Not everyone should get a trophy. You shouldn’t deny what you think is best just to be fair to everyone. That’s idiotic.

And if it makes you feel any better, my worst movie of 2017 would also be animated, The Emoji Movie. So there’s that.

So yes, in the end, it was Pixar’s Coco that left the biggest impact on me of any film of 2017. Yes, I greatly enjoyed The Last Jedi and appreciated it from a filmmaking standpoint, a concept that’s clearly beyond the understanding of fanboys who simply want movies to pander to them. But at the same time, there are still some creative decisions where I can understand the (more civil) complaints, as they currently just leave a big question mark on things (I actually like the idea of Rey’s parents being random nobodies, but killing Supreme Leader Snoke – the “big bad” of this trilogy – in the second entry without explaining anything about him is still something I flip-flop on). Meanwhile, while The Disaster Artist gave a fun insight on the backstory of arguably the greatest bad movie ever made, it didn’t resonate with me nearly as much as Coco did.

I know, saying a Pixar movie made you emotional is a bit obvious, to the point that the cynical internet age often makes it out to be a running joke (“how dare a movie express genuine emotion and not just be filled with self-referential nonsense that doesn’t take itself seriously!”). But the way I see it, the fact that Pixar has so regularly made films that can bring such emotion to audiences is a testament to the studio’s capabilities of storytelling. After all, it used to be a rare thing that people would admit that a movie made them cry. But Pixar has been consistent at providing such an effect.

Although Coco may not be as ‘structurally perfect’ as, say, The Incredibles or Inside Out, it may provide Pixar’s most emotional highs outside of the latter aforementioned film. It’s a movie about life and death, love and loss, that is able to beautifully convey such heavy subjects while still being a perfectly enjoyable piece of family entertainment. Again, staples of Pixar. But if your staples are being pretty much the best at your craft, well, is it a problem if you follow suit with just that?

No, Coco may not be the most ‘perfect’ Pixar film, taking a few narrative shortcuts in order to get to its ending, which was surely the first thing Director Lee Unkrich and company thought up. But when the ending is that beautiful and emotional and rewarding, I think a few small narrative blips are easy to look past. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the theater when the credits began to roll during my viewing. And I was right there with everyone else, teary eyes and running nose. Pixar’s story of a young boy, Miguel, searching for his deceased great-great-grandfather in the land of the dead proved to be one of the most heartfelt and poignant films from a studio that is no stranger to heartfelt and poignant films.

Unfortunately, it was another example of an animated film being ignored come award season, only being allowed to win its token animation award as well as Best Song (both of which it deserved, but could have, and should have won more). Yet, the awkward and clunky romance between a woman and fish-monster as depicted in The Shape of Water could snag Best Picture. I guess the story of a young boy learning the importance of remembering lost loved ones was just too unrealistic for the Academy or something. But I’m not here to judge the continued ignorances of the Oscars. Rather, I’m here to declare my favorite film of 2017.

Coco is simply an exceptional film. It’s beautiful animation and soundtrack are merely complimentary to the wonderfully heartfelt and emotional story. In a time when it seems the climax of every movie is a super fight in the midst of citywide destruction, a film in which the payoff of the adventure is a kid singing a lullaby to his great-grandmother is all the more special.

It may not quite be Pixar’s best film, but no doubt that Coco was, as far as I’m concerned, the best film of 2017.

The Incredibles is the Best Super Hero Movie Franchise

Well, after fourteen years of waiting, Pixar’s The Incredibles FINALLY has a sequel, and a damn good one at that. Incredibles 2 has already broken box office records, and is on track to break several more. It couldn’t be more deserved, because not only was The Incredibles one of Pixar’s greatest achievements, but (if you ask me) the best super hero film of all time. And now, Incredibles 2 can also claim to be among Pixar’s best, as well as one of the best movie sequels ever (dare I say it has surpassed Toy Story 2 as Pixar’s best sequel?), and with its release, The Incredibles can now claim to be the greatest super hero movie franchise of all time.

I know what you’re thinking, “but what about the Marvel Cinematic Universe?” Well, it’s true that the decade-strong mega-franchise now boasts 19 films (with the 20th soon to hit theaters) that branch through several different tones and styles, which is no small feat. And the fact that Marvel has managed to pull off this complicated crossover is an achievement unto itself.

While I may enjoy most of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the Iron Man sequels kinda sucked), I have to admit, even the ones I like begin to blur together. Yes, it seems no matter how different their heroes’ powers are, or whether their plots are more serious or comical, they all ultimately get lost in the shuffle. Again, that’s not to say that I dislike the MCU – far from it – but I find it hard to say I “love” most of the movies within it. I may acknowledge them as being good movies, and that they do what they do really well, but for the most part, the MCU as a whole is what feels like a big deal, as opposed to the individual films within it. The first Avengers movie was something special in that it brought the various Marvel heroes together, and the first Guardians of the Galaxy, along with the Captain America sequels were very well done. But even they kind of blur with the rest of the franchise.

It may be telling that the movie based on a Marvel comic that I still hold in the highest regard is Spider-Man 2 (2004), a film that predated the MCU by a full four years, because it felt like something special in itself. It was a vast improvement over its predecessor, and took the genre to new heights with added character depth and emotional storytelling (shame about that Spider-Man 3…). But the MCU, no matter how fun it gets, almost exclusively feels like it’s always giving a wink as to what’s ahead, instead of producing timeless classics in their own right.

The Incredibles, by contrast, always felt exceptional. Perfecting – and yet, defying – both its status as a super hero film and a mainstream animated feature, The Incredibles was built on layers of narrative depth and themes, and told its story in such a smart way that it was perfectly relatable and entertaining for both kids and adults. In short, it was quite possibly the perfect family film. Even in Pixar’s practically peerless pantheon, The Incredibles was (and is) a standout.

Fourteen years later, and The Incredibles finally has a sequel, one that’s so good that, if it doesn’t match the sheer excellence of the original, it comes damn close enough to not make it an issue. It is every bit the fitting continuation we could have hoped it would be. It feels special, without having to hype up some impending crossover with a dozen other movies in order to do so. It’s sharp script, impeccable set pieces, and strong character depth give it an identity that stands well above most super hero fair.

But things don’t end there, as I would argue that, despite being “kids movies” both Incredibles films are much more intelligent in both structure and thematics than what their live-action contemporaries offer, with Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight being the only super hero film that can stack up against them in those regards (though it still falls short).

There’s a humanity to the Incredibles films – both of their depictions of every day life and conversation, and in their philosophies – that the Marvel films simply lack. Even The Dark Knight and Spider-Man 2 don’t quite share that human quality that either of the Incredibles movies boast. They at once deliver big, blockbuster entertainment, family comedy and drama, and a sense of cinematic auteurism that make them feel like works of art that stand above anything produced by other super hero franchises.

Now, that’s not to say that I need every super hero movie to be a masterwork. That’s a tall order to fill for a film of any genre. But my point is that, although the MCU films have been mostly solid fun, their lack of producing any such film has prevented them from feeling distinct from one another. Yes, the Marvel movies are entertaining, but The Incredibles films – like Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight – take the super hero genre to greater artistic heights, and do so better than the aforementioned films. So while the Marvel Cinematic Universe may keep cranking out hit after hit, in the end, they all just end up feeling like “another” Marvel movie. Very entertaining movies, mind you, but I’d be lying if I said the MCU films linger in my memory in the way that The Incredibles films do.

The Incredibles has provided a one-two punch, producing two of Pixar’s very best films. And that extensive (and painful) wait between the two has only made them feel that much more special. As fun as they are, all twenty MCU films don’t stack up to being as meaningful as just two Incredibles.

Meet The Robinsons Review

Walt Disney Animation Studios may be the world’s most famous producer of animated features, but their history is one of peaks and plateaus. Though the post-Walt/pre-Renaissance era was their darkest age, Walt Disney Animation Studios entered another dry spell during the 2000s, which bridged the aforementioned Disney Renaissance of the 1990s and their modern resurgence of the 2010s that continues to this day. Outside of Lilo & Stitch, the Disney films of this period either had no staying power, or were downright terrible. Meet the Robinsons, Disney’s 2007 animated feature, can at least claim to fall under the former category. It was certainly a marked step-up from Disney’s previous animated feature (2005’s Chicken Little, more than likely Disney Animation’s all-time low point), and feels like a genuine effort on the studio’s part. Unfortunately, even with its charms, Meet the Robinsons falls well below what the studio is capable of.

Meet the Robinsons follows the story of an orphaned boy named Lewis (Daniel Hansen and Jordan Fry), a boy genius and would-be inventor hoping to find a family. He manages to invent a ‘memory scanner,’ which can uncover lost memories, in hopes of finding his birth mother. He brings the machine to his school’s science fair, and that’s where things get complicated.

A teenage boy named Wilbur Robinson (Wesley Singerman), who claims to be from the future, shows up to the fair to warn Lewis that a man in a bowler hat – aptly labelled the ‘Bowler Hat Guy’ (Steve Anderson, the film’s director) – has stolen a time machine and is running amok in Lewis’ time. Unbeknownst to Lewis, Bowler Hat Guy has sabotaged his machine, which then wreaks havoc at the fair.

Losing confidence at yet another failed invention (one that could help him find his family, no less), Lewis becomes frustrated and decides to give up inventing. Wilbur returns to cheer Lewis up and to encourage him to continue his inventing. But a disheartened Lewis wants to hear none of it, and doesn’t buy that Wilbur is from the future. To prove himself, Wilbur takes Lewis to his future home via his time machine (one of two built by his father), where he introduces Lewis to his expansive and often bizarre family (while hiding the fact that Lewis is from the past). All the while, they try to find a way to recover the other, stolen time machine to prevent the Bowler Hat Guy from messing with the space-time continuum.

It’s a pretty wacky plot, and like any film that deals with time travel and isn’t Back to the Future, there are certain elements that really don’t make much sense when you think about them (in Back to the Future, the characters’ presence in the past altered historical events, while in every other movie, it seems the tampering with history somehow results in the creation of the events of their original timeline, which wouldn’t make sense unless they had been altered before, but differently). But Meet the Robinsons doesn’t take its time travel element as seriously as a lot of other movies, so I suppose the fact that things don’t always add up doesn’t matter too much in the greater context of the story.

The sad thing about Meet the Robinsons is that it actually feels like Disney made a solid effort to try to get things back on track after years of misfires (which is a big step up from Chicken Little, where I can’t imagine what the filmmakers were thinking). So it is a shame that Meet the Robinsons ultimately comes off as disappointing.

Though the plot can be fun and heartwarming, it just takes too long to get going, with a first act that feels like it came off a conveyor belt. And not all of the humor hits the mark (one member of the Robinson family is married to his hand puppet, which elicits more questions about his mental health than it does laughs).

Meet the Robinsons can also be kind of weird at times, which on one hand feels a little ahead of its time (just look at the surreal animated series that aired on TV a few years later, like Adventure Time or Regular Show), but in execution it stumbles, and feels more like the filmmakers were acting out of desperation to get a few extra laughs out of audiences. The Robinsons have an octopus monster for a butler, they have singing frogs as pets; and two members of the family live like potted plants at the family’s front door, each insisting guests ring the doorbell on their side of the door. I’m all for weird, especially in animation, which feels right at home with the surreal and strange. But again, Meet the Robinsons weirdness feels more thrown together – perhaps to make up for a lack of comedy in the writing – than it does imaginative.

The animation itself also seems uninspired. Though it’s not ugly, the character designs and animation are far from impressive. Usually, Disney movies – at the very least – stand out visually. But Meet the Robinsons only ever looks average.

By this point this is all sounding negative, but the truth is that Meet the Robinsons is a film I wish I could like more. It’s far from a total loss, with some solid voice work, and a strong improvement in story quality in the third act, including a pretty touching ending.

Long story short, Meet the Robinsons feels like a genuine effort, and I can appreciate it for that effort. Perhaps even the young audience that serves as the film’s target demographic can have a lot of fun with it. But when you consider that this is a Disney animated film, a canon that boasts more than their share of timeless classics that both older and younger audiences can appreciate, Meet the Robinsons comes off as a pale imitation.

The next year would see the release of Bolt, which served as another step forward for Disney, but it wouldn’t be until two years after Robinsons when the animation giant would really get their mojo back with The Princess and the Frog, which started a winning streak that continues today. Meet the Robinsons is thus one of Disney’s more forgotten animated films, but it’s certainly a lot better than many of Disney’s output that came before it, and may even win over some audiences. I mean, any film that names its villain ‘Bowler Hat Guy’ definitely has something going for it.

 

5

Bee Movie Review

2007 was an interesting year for animated features. This was a year that saw Pixar’s biggest winning streak kick off in the form of Ratatouille (which followed up the good but not-up-to-studio-standard Cars), as well as international critical darlings like Persepolis and Paprika. It was also the year that saw Dreamworks’ Shrek franchise fall from grace. Somewhere along the way Dreamworks released another animated feature in 2007 in the form of Bee Movie, a film that – despite some solid efforts at humor – feels decidedly bland and average. So much so that it’s only real legacy is that its entire script became an internet meme a decade after release.

Interestingly, Bee Movie was something of a pet project of one Jerry Seinfeld, who helped write its screenplay, served as producer, and starred as the voice of our bee hero, Barry B. Benson. It is Seinfeld’s comedic knowledge that provides the film’s few highlights, but it’s a real shame that he didn’t weave the same level of originality and wit into the overall screenplay that he did to his iconic (and brilliant) TV series.

The film begins the same as every single CG animated film that thinks they know the Pixar formula (but doesn’t): Barry B. Benson doesn’t quite fit in with the other bees in the hive, wanting to experience life to its fullest instead of being relegated to a single job for the entirety of his life. Of course, following the rulebook of CG animated films to a tee, Barry decides to venture outside the hive for a change of pace, and breaks ‘bee law’ by talking to humans, and soon becomes infatuated with a human flourist named Vanessa (Renee Zellweger). A human/bee romance is as weird as it sounds, but at least Barry is given actual human traits and a personality, so it’s still less awkward than The Shape of Water.

Anyway, Barry soon learns that food companies are selling and distributing honey, without permission from bees! And so Barry sets out to sue the human race so that bees can have full control over their product.

It’s a pretty strange plot, and though I do commend it from swerving away from the impossibly cliched “social misfit follows his dreams” story of CG animated films, the whole first act feels kind of pointless since that setup ultimately goes nowhere in favor of the honey-based plot.

There are other issues with the plot as well, including Vanessa’s human boyfriend , Ken (Patrick Warburton), who is treated as a moronic, villainous buffoon who is jealous of Barry, though he actually has some pretty justifiable reasoning that doesn’t mesh with his one-dimensional portrayal. When we’re first introduced to the character, he points out that he’s deathly allergic to bees. So while the movie treats the character like he just has some unfair prejudice against bees, I think the prospect of ‘not dying by bee sting’ more than justifies his reluctance to Barry. Before he even knows Barry can talk and tries to squish him (out of fear of, y’know, potentially dying), he is stopped by Vanessa, who then asks “why does his [Barry’s] life have any less value than yours?”

I’ll tell you why, Vanessa. Because Ken is a human, and Barry is a bee.

Am I getting sidetracked and overthinking things? Maybe, but I do think that just because a movie is aimed at children doesn’t mean it should talk down to its audience by not thinking through its finer details.

Even with the gaps in logic and awkward romance, there are still other elements holding Bee Movie back. Its character designs not only look basic and uninspired, but the animation itself looked well behind its time, being more akin to a late-90s CG animation than something that was released the same year as Ratatouille. And if the first act is largely forgotten with its original setup, then the third act is just downright confused as to where it’s going, including a completely unnecessary action sequence in which Barry and Vanessa have to land a plane after the pilots get knocked out.

The saving grace to Bee Movie, however, are a few moments where Seinfeld’s comedic genius shines through. Sporadic though they may be, the moments that hit the right comedic notes do so with a wit that is to be expected of Seinfeld and company. There are a lot of missed shots as well (the early moments in particular have a heavy emphasis on bee-based puns), but it sticks the landing when it comes to a few moments of more mature humor at the expense of things like lawyers and less-than-tolerant older generations (“your parents would kill you if you were dating a wasp”). We also get a fun but small role by John Goodman as the voice of the lawyer representing the humans. Goodman has one of those voices that just sounds perfect in animation, to the point that his presence is always a highlight.

Bee Movie is far from the worst animated film I’ve seen. In fact, it’s far from the worst Dreamworks animated film I’ve seen. But for those few brief moments that are worth the laughs, the movie just feels far too bland to truly stand out. The fact that many of the folks who worked on Seinfeld’s television series helped bring this film to life only hurts it all the more, since you know they were capable of doing so much more with it. Instead, they decided an animated film wasn’t worth their extra effort, I suppose. That’s a shame, because Bee Movie might have been more than an internet meme otherwise.

 

5

Isle of Dogs Review

Wes Anderson has grown into one of the more prominent film directors of the 21st century. The quirky, off-beat humor of Wes Anderson’s films have given them a style of their own. Though some find Anderson’s style unnatural (the characters of his film’s often seem to know they’re movie characters), even the director’s biggest detractors seemed won over by his debut animated feature, 2009’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Now, nearly a decade later, Anderson has followed up his witty animation debut with Isle of Dogs, a feature whose sharp visuals are matched by its originality.

Isle of dogs is set in a somewhat dystopian near future. In Japan, the country’s dogs have become inflicted with “dog-flu” and “snout fever,” which could potentially spread to humans. In the city of Megasaki, the conniving mayor Kobayashi decrees that every dog in the city be banished to Trash Island, despite claims from Prof. Watanabe that a cure for dog-flu is nearly complete. The first dog to be transferred to Trash Island is Spots, the guard dog of mayor Kobayashi’s orphaned ward, Atari (Koyu Rankin).

Six months later, Atari manages to pilot a small plane to Trash Island, desperate to find his dog. Unfortunately for Atari, his plane crashes on the island, lodging a piece of propeller into his head. Luckily, a gang of ragtag dogs – comprised of Chief (Bryan Cranston), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban) and Boss (Bill Murray) – find and resuscitate the boy, then proceed to join him on his quest to find Spots.

The plot is at once simple yet wildly original. The setup of a boy looking for his dog is certainly among the easiest to sympathize with, but the idea to set the adventure on a trash-covered wasteland is novel, as is the fact that most of the human dialogue is in Japanese (with only a few moments featuring translation) while all the dogs speak English.

It’s that offbeat originality, as well as the film’s deadpan humor and richly detailed animation that make Isle of Dogs one of 2018’s more standout features. This is an undeniably charming film, but perhaps not in the traditional sense of the word ‘charming.’ It may sound a little bit like a downer in concept, what with an entire city’s worth of abandoned dogs fending for themselves in a dystopian junkyard (early in the film, one dog bites off the ear of another in a scrap over some food), but Isle of Dogs is littered with characters whose humor and wit wins us over, and its story has an almost surprising amount of heart, without ever really feeling like it’s trying to wring tears from the audience’s eyes.

That’s before we even get to mentioning the fun little quirks that compliment the film’s personality. For example, it seems like Atari often understands what the dogs are saying, despite the fact that they speak different languages and are of different species. Little things like this, which gleefully avoid explanation when a simpler movie might feel the need to spoon-feed one to its audience, make Isle of Dogs one of those movies that wins you over for its sheer insistence to play by its own rules.

Stop-motion animation is often noted for the sheer arduousness of the process, to the point that even a few moments of it is considered a hefty feat. But Isle of Dogs – like Fantastic Mr. Fox before it – is one of those stop-motion treats where it comes to life seemingly effortlessly. It’s true that stop-motion can’t make things look as ‘perfect’ as CG animation, but that’s part of what plays into its charm. While computer animation is also a taxing accomplishment, the finished product can often disguise the hard work that went into it. But with stop-motion, the craftsmanship – blemishes and all – is on full display, leaving next to nothing to be taken for granted. Laika may get most credit these days for coming the closest to giving stop-motion the same smoothness as CG or hand-drawn animation, but Wes Anderson’s style may be among the most enjoyable to look at. Anderson’s stop-motion features often bask in duller hues and less fantastic character designs than most animated films, but they have an earthly charm to them, and they leave the personalities of the story and characters to provide all the color they need.

Time will tell how well Isle of Dogs stacks up to Fantastic Mr. Fox (if you ask me right now, I don’t think it’s quite as good), but it does follow the same winning formula…which in this case means going against many formulas and just being itself. Isle of Dogs is a funny and strangely heartwarming film that will probably leave you with a big, goofy grin on your face, and an even stronger appreciation for your pets.

 

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