The Grinch Review

Of the many works of Dr. Seuss, the most iconic has to be How the Grinch Stole Christmas (sorry, Cat in the Hat). Not only is it the most famous of Dr. Seuss’ books, but in American culture it has become synonymous with the Christmas holiday. Its 1966 television adaptation has become a tradition of the holiday season, and the titular character – despite being a curmudgeon who disdains the merry holiday – has become almost as associated with Christmas as Santa Claus himself. This 2018 animated film by Illumination is the second feature length, theatrical adaptation of the classic tale, following the 2000 live-action film starring Jim Carrey (which, despite its muddy critical reception, has become a nostalgic favorite for many, myself included). How well does Illumination’s take on Dr. Seuss’ classic stack up against its predecessors?

Well, in short, it’s a pretty good adaptation. But it’s also an incredibly safe one, as it doesn’t really add anything new to the timeless tale. The key ingredients remain the same: The Grinch is a lonesome creature who despises Christmas. He lives on Mt. Crumpit with the only creature who could love a curmudgeon like himself, his dog. The Grinch’s ire for Christmas is magnified by the fact that his mountain home looks down on Whoville, a happy town obsessed with Christmas. Tired of hearing the joy of others below him, the Grinch sets out to ‘steal Christmas’ by dressing as jolly old Saint Nick and stealing every last present and decoration in Whoville.

The plot is simple and timeless, so a direct retelling isn’t any unforgivable sin, but it does mean that Illumination’s film does suffer a bit from a lack of its own identity. There is, however, one notable change that clashes with the message of the story.

In Dr. Seuss’ original book and the TV special, the Grinch is simply a cold-hearted individual, unable to love anything but his dog. His reasons for hating Christmas never needed a backstory, but it’s implied that he sees Christmas as a shallow celebration of gifts and loud noise. But the Illumination film, like the 2000 live-action Jim Carrey vehicle, gives the Grinch a backstory to justify his grouchy disposition. It’s understandable that the filmmakers would want to flesh out the story a bit to justify its presence as a feature film, but there’s something about this Grinch origin story that feels misplaced.

In the 2000 film, it was being bullied by the kids of Whoville that lead to the Grinch’s self-imposed exile. And since Whoville loved Christmas, he loathed it. Although its execution didn’t always work (he’s upset because kids made fun of him for cutting himself shaving? Really?), it still made sense given the narrative was that his anger and disdain were misplaced by being targeted at Christmas. But here in the Illumination film, the Grinch (voiced brilliantly by Benedict Cumberbatch) was an orphan who grew up alone. His loneliness is no fault of his own in this depiction, and so his anger and frustration with the Whos and Christmas comes across as more of inner confusion and insecurity than it does a man who has grown bitter. So this version of the Grinch doesn’t really seem to have a heart that’s two sizes too small (even though that iconic element remains). He’s more sad and in need of a hug than he is bitter and in need of a change of heart.

So the Grinch’s backstory is a little misplaced, given the message of the original story that carries over here. Still, the film is a lot of fun. Illumination has never been a heavy hitter with animated storytelling in the ways that Pixar or Disney are, but they do excel and delivering high energy cartoon antics. And that’s as true here as ever.

The many gadgets and gizmos the Grinch utilizes to carry out his Christmas-stealing schemes are fun to see in action, and the characters frequently lead to some zany comedy. And in typical Illumination fashion, the animation is colorful and lively. For an animation studio that’s known for making ‘smaller’ films in terms of budget and recourses when compared to other animation studios, you’d never know it with how fun their films are to look at. The Grinch just oozes a visual charm that captures the Dr. Seuss look in a way the live-action film simply couldn’t.

Like in the live-action feature, Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely) is promoted to a main character, who is determined to ‘trap’ Santa so she can ask him for something too important to be written in a letter, to help her mom be happy. And Whoville now houses a man named Bricklebaum (Kenan Thompson), who is not only the antithesis of the Grinch (always jolly, loves Christmas), but also the closest thing the Grinch has to a neighbor, as his house sits at the foot of Mt. Crumpit. Cindy Lou helps add a bit of heart to the film, while Bricklebaum provides some of the biggest laughs.

One of the film’s biggest highlights is Benedict Cumberbatch’s aforementioned voice work as the Grinch. Big name celebrities often phone-in vocal work for animation, and seem like little more than a means to help advertise the film. But Benedict Cumberbatch goes all out by creating a ‘Grinch voice’ that’s unrecognizable as the actor. To have a big name actor care that much for voiceover work is always welcome.

Illumination’s The Grinch may not quite capture the purity of Dr. Seuss’ original book or the classic TV special, and the Grinch’s new backstory may somewhat contradict his supposed status as a curmudgeon, but it’s still a fun take on the iconic tale that should delight younger audiences, and maybe even some older ones as well.

 

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Mirai Review

Mirai, the latest animated feature from Mamoru Hosoda, is one of those movies that combines the simple joys of life with the fantastic and surreal. While Hosoda’s last film, The Boy and the Beast, was a delight in its own right, its later half seemed to fluctuate with what kind of story it wanted to tell, with its wonderful monster world being largely forgotten for a lengthy stretch of time, and a final battle that felt like it was from another movie. By comparison, Mirai feels a lot more focused and consistently true to itself. And while Mirai may suffer from an occasional slump in pacing, it ultimately provides one of the most charming anime films in years, and one of the best films of 2018.

Mirai tells the simple but timeless story of a young boy growing jealous of all the love and attention his new baby sister receives from his parents. The boy is Kun, a rosy-cheeked child who loves to play with his dog Yukko and has a strong interest in bullet trains, with toy models of them strewn about his room. His newborn sister is Mirai who, like all newborns, understandably starts taking more and more of their parents’ attention. Of course Kun, being a young boy, doesn’t quite understand the situation, and only knows that he’s getting less attention from his parents.

This, of course, means that Mirai is a story about Kun becoming a more responsible and loving big brother. As stated, it’s a tried-and-true, though timeless, storyline. But Mirai is able to make a unique identity for itself by the ways it tells its story.

The film does a fantastic job at telling its story through a child’s perspective. For example, the only named characters are Fun, Mirai and their dog Yukko. The parents are only ever referred to as ‘Mom and Dad,’ even in the end credits. And the remaining characters consist of Grandma and Great Grandpa. Mirai puts audiences firmly in the children’s viewpoint, which really adds to how the film turns rather simple, mundane events into something fantastic.

Mirai features a number of fantasy elements, which may be real or simply creations of Kun’s imagination. The most notable being that Kun meets up with an older Mirai from the future, who needs Kun’s help in a few different instances, as she can’t directly affect moments from her past. Fun also meets a human version of Yukko, a child version of his mother, and his recently deceased great-grandfather during his younger days. As stated, whether these elements are literal or allegorical is up for interpretation, but they do all have a common thread.

The house in which Kun and his family live is as much a character as any of the humans (or the dog) in the film. Built by Kun’s now stay-at-home architect father, the house of the film – much like the house in anime classic My Neighbor Totoro – is one of those places from the movies that really stands out, and you’ll vividly remember. A doorway leads to a stairway leads to a garden leads to the house which, in itself, is a series of small rooms on top of each other like a staircase. But it’s whenever Kun exits the house and into the garden that the seemingly supernatural elements take place. There’s never a reason given why this happens, which always feels infinitely refreshing in this day and age when movies feel like they want to hand deliver an explanation for everything to the audience.

Mirai mostly plays out like a series of episodes, each one bringing a different otherworldly occurrence to Kun, and each helping him grow and learn his role as a big brother (even when his baby sister from the future is older than he is). On the downside, some of these ‘episodes’ can drag on a bit. This isn’t too noticeable at first, but when you realize that the future version of Mirai isn’t in the film all that much, it does feel like a little bit of potential is missed in the film’s most unique element to its core brother-sister relationship.

The inconsistent pacing is a small price to pay, however, for how charming and sweet Mirai ultimately is. The characters are believable and easy to sympathize with (again, Kun is just a small boy, so his jealousy for his baby sister never comes across as petty, just a confused child who doesn’t understand the change around him). And as stated, it’s unique to see him interact with a future version of his sister, as the older Mirai appropriately reacts to Kun as someone she’s known for many years, while also remembering she’s speaking to a child version of her older brother. It’s the same kind of topsy-turvy take on familiar relationships that made Your Name feel so unique.

Much like Hosoda’s previous work, Mirai is an absolute marvel in the visual department. Featuring some of the most fluid animation in years, as well as some of the most charming character designs, Mirai is instantly pleasing to the eyes. And it only grows into more and more of a visual spectacle as it goes, and Kun finds himself in even more otherworldly encounters. While the CG wonderlands we’ve grown accustomed to in animation are also eye-striking, there’s an ethereal element to traditional, hand-drawn animation that just feels so mesmerizing – maybe even uplifting – to look at. It’s great to see the world of anime keep traditional animation alive, and Mirai is among the best looking ones.

Although animation in the west is often stigmatized as exclusively child’s fare, it really is a medium that can present stories for any audience. And films like Mirai sum that up on their own. Mirai is simple, sweet and cute enough to delight children. But it’s also complex and deep enough to hold any adult’s interest. Mirai is simply a wonderful movie.

 

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Pokemon the Movie: The Power of Us Review

The Power of Us marks the twenty-first Pokemon movie, and the second in this rebooted continuity of Pokemon movies, following Pokemon the Movie: I Choose You. While I Choose You served as a retelling of the beloved first season of the Pokemon anime, The Power of Us can feel like a spiritual remake of Pokemon the Movie 2000 (known in Japan as The Power of One, which makes the connection between films all the more apparent). Like I Choose You before it, The Power of Us has more than its share of narrative bumps, but if you’re a fan of Pokemon, it will leave you with a good feeling by the time it’s done.

As stated, the movie seems to be something of an homage to Pokemon the Movie 2000, as it features Ash Ketchum traveling to a new town celebrating a festival in honor of the legendary Pokemon Lugia. But whereas its predecessor was a direct remake of the series’ earliest episodes, The Power of Us does create a distinct identity from Pokemon 2000.

As was the case with I Choose You, this continuity only sees Ash Ketchum and Team Rocket Members Jessie and James as the only returning human characters from the series (of course Pikachu is back, as well as Meowth).  The story takes place in Fula City, which is about to have its annual festival celebrating Lugia. But a sacred flame – which serves as a beacon to summon Lugia – ends up missing, which marks the beginning of things going awry for the festival. As more and more things start to go wrong, Ash finds himself helping various citizens of Fula city with different hardships.

“Risa is best girl.”

If there’s one aspect of the story that proves really entertaining, it’s how The Power of Us creates a fun community of characters within Fula City: Margo is the daughter of the city’s mayor, and is secretly friends with the mysterious Pokemon Zeraora. Risa is a Pokemon novice and former athletic runner who has lost her confidence. Toren is a scientist with severe social phobia. Harriet is a cranky old woman who dislikes Pokemon. And the film’s best original character, Callahan, is a compulsive liar who just wants to impress his young niece. The Power of Us serves more of a story about Fula City and its citizens than it is a traditional Pokemon story. Ash doesn’t even seem like the main character for much of the film, playing more of an Obi-Wan Kenobi role and helping people like Margo and Risa with their problems.

For the most part, the movie plays like small episodes focusing on different character stories, and how they eventually come together, than it is a story about legendary Pokemon, which is a nice change of pace for a Pokemon movie (though on the downside, this means that Lugia – my favorite legendary Pokemon – is barely featured in the movie, more or less being built up through the whole thing for a small appearance at the end like Luke Skywalker in The Force Awakens). It’s refreshing to have a Pokemon story that doesn’t really have any villain or epic battle, and is instead about the daily lives of people in the Pokemon world.

Unfortunately, the film does hit some notable bumps in the road. Although the movie doesn’t revolve around a villain as previously stated, a duo of Pokemon poachers are introduced in a brief second, only to have a lackluster payoff of being featured in a single scene. Why even add them into the picture when those extra minutes could have been spent with characters who actually feel like part of the story?

Even bigger issues ensue with elements to the characters’ different stories that often feel underdeveloped and rushed. A brief moment sees Callahan’s niece taken to a hospital, to which Callahan explains that she’s “always lacked energy.” And then it’s never really mentioned again and the girl is fine. Meanwhile, Harriet’s disliking of Pokemon is resolved immediately after she explains her reasons for it.

Granted, no one is expecting Pixar levels of storytelling with a Pokemon movie or anything, but it’s still a shame to see a number of elements in otherwise charming stories get shortchanged (just like in I Choose You, Team Rocket seems to only show up out of obligation, as they’re always in the background of the story). With that said though, the aforementioned nature of the movie being a movie about different people in the Pokemon world is pretty refreshing, the characters ultimately win us over, and it has a nice message about helping others in need. Plus, you get to see all kinds of Pokemon both new and old, and who doesn’t love Pokemon?

On top of all that, the film is also one of the best looking Pokemon movies, with unique character designs that are a notable improvement over the forgettable ones in I Choose You, and fluid animation that is among the best the franchise has ever seen. The only downside are some notably aged CG background characters, but that’s a small price to pay for what ultimately is a lively and colorful animated feature.

Pokemon the Movie: The Power of Us may not be a technically great movie with all the shorthanded subplots, but it still has the franchise’s unique charm intact. And as commercial as Pokemon is, the series has always had a genuine heart about it, and that’s as true here as ever. If you’re a fan of Pokemon, it should put a smile on your face.

 

6

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.

 

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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.