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

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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.

 

8

The Boss Baby Review

Dreamworks has always been an interesting presence in the world of animation. Though they were once the only studio that could compete with Pixar in the realms of CG animation, they’ve never had the same level of quality control that Pixar has boasted. While Pixar has popped out winner after winner for most of their existence (with a few exceptions), Dreamworks seemingly gives every idea that passes through the studio the green light, leading to a miss or two for every hit. They’ve never really learned their lesson, and fittingly for 2017, a year that was largely inconsistent for movies as a whole, Dreamworks released one of their more shaky pictures in the form of The Boss Baby.

The gist of the story is that a young boy named Tim (Miles Bakshi) gets a new baby brother. But this baby isn’t any ordinary baby. With his finely-tailored suit and business savvy, Tim’s new little brother is the “Boss Baby” (Alec Baldwin). Tim quickly grows resentful of the new baby as he receives all of his parents’ attention.

Things get a little more complicated, however. It turns out, this Boss Baby is a member of Baby Corp., a giant conglomerate run entirely by babies in a sort of ‘before-life.’ Babies are losing popularity to puppies, and the company that Tim’s parents work for, Puppy Co., is planning on releasing a new breed of puppy, one that could put Baby Corp out of business. So the Boss Baby has been sent to Tim’s household (via taxi cab) to try to get info on this new puppy.

It’s a weird movie.

The concept behind the story – of a kid learning how to live with a new baby brother – simple as it is, is actually a decent one for a kids’ movie. And turning the baby into a corporate suit is a humorous twist on the idea (albeit one which is probably better suited for a short format, as opposed to an entire feature). But the small concept is stretched far too thin with the “babies vs. puppies” subplot (not to mention, who am I supposed to root for in that scenario?). And it only gets spread thinner as the movie goes on, with the introduction of an unnecessary villain midway through, and a plot that makes less sense the more you think about it.

Although the film’s marketing may have already had you rolling your eyes at the movie (those adverts really liked that “cookies are for closers” line), the fact that the movie ultimately falls apart is actually a bit of a shame. Because in its early moments, The Boss Baby shows some promise in both its story and humor.

For example, the early moments of the film tell us that Tim has a very active imagination, leaving the audience to think that the baby talking, wearing a suit, and being ‘born’ via taxi are all just Tim’s childhood imagination running wild with interpreting the situation around him. But as the film goes on and the whole corporate rivalry thing gets going, it becomes obvious that this isn’t the case. Not only does this remove a lot of the film’s early charm, but it also ends up raising a lot more questions about the plot than answers (does Puppy Co. actually manufacture dogs like a product? Why are the parents oblivious to the fact that their son arrived to them via taxi cab?) If the film were presented as being told through Tim’s imagination, such questions wouldn’t matter, and the sheer absurdity of it all would actually be made more charming. Instead, The Boss Baby will have you scratching your head asking “wait, so did that really happen to them?” numerous times. Just to hit the point home, there are a few moments where Tim’s imagination does take over, separate from the rest of the goings-on around him and the Boss Baby, confirming that, no matter how bonkers the movie gets, the characters are actually going through all of it.

I certainly don’t have any qualms with the idea of The Boss Baby being more inline with fantasy, but the way it’s structured is off-putting. It goes from possibly being about a kid’s interpretation of life with his new baby brother to something a bit more…wacky.

Along with feeling structurally confused and over-bloated, the movie also can’t help but aim for some obvious potty humor. Some of it works, but just as often you’ll be sighing that the movie didn’t even try to aim higher (we get it, babies poop. What else ya got?).

On the bright side of things, those aforementioned early moments have their charms, and when the humor strays from the obvious, it can be pretty funny (some of the film’s best gags involve Tim talking to his totally-not-Gandalf alarm clock…which goes back to how the movie is at its best when it’s in Tim’s imagination).

Another highlight is the animation, with The Boss Baby boasting some of Dreamworks’ most fluid character movements. And fittingly for a movie about babies, the character designs are cute and charming (those eyes!).

The Boss Baby isn’t a total dud, then. But its concept quickly stretches too thin, when a smaller scale story would have benefitted it greatly, and all too often it aims too low when just the little extra effort could have gone a long way.

Maybe for its target audience, it may provide a good hour and a half of entertainment. But for the older crowd who is becoming more and more accustomed to kids’ movies also appealing to them, The Boss Baby ends up being a missed opportunity.

 

5

How to Train Your Dragon Review

During the 2000s, Dreamworks Animation was in something of a rivalry with industry giant, Pixar Animation Studios, as the two regularly competed for cinematic supremacy in the CG animation scene. Dreamworks and Pixar traded box office victories, but when it came to critical and audience approval, Pixar consistently came out on the winning end. Perhaps Dreamworks got too comfortable with their more snarky, parody-style that began with Shrek (an instance in which such a movie felt fresh and original), but the studio always came up short against Pixar’s more earnest storytelling. That seemingly changed in 2010, when Dreamworks released How to Train Your Dragon, which told a more direct narrative than Dreamworks’ usual fare and, perhaps because of that, reaped critical praise and started a franchise that boasts many diehard fans.

While How to Train Your Dragon did feel like a breath of fresh air from Dreamworks at the time, the years since have revealed that sense of newness to have been relative. Dragons – though containing a good deal of competence with its material – seems to be telling its story from a rulebook, as it contains a strong sense of “been there, done that” throughout.

How to Train Your Dragon tells the story of Berk, where a tribe of vikings – lead by Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) – frequently have to do battle with dragons, who steal the vikings’ food and livestock at night. The vikings have been at war with dragons for generations, and see them as their mortal enemies.

There is one viking, however, who isn’t cut out for dragon-slaying. This viking is named Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), who happens to be the son of Stoick. Hiccup is something of a scrawny pushover, and has long-since been relegated to being the apprentice of the village blacksmith, Gobber (Craig Ferguson). But Hiccup longs to fight dragons, like the rest of the vikings, and invents machines in order to make up for his shortcomings. During a dragon attack one night, Hiccup decides to prove his mettle and tests one of his machines, successfully trapping a Night Fury, a dragon so fast that no viking has seen one up close.

Naturally, the other vikings don’t believe that Hiccup of all people could have been the first to down a Night Fury, so Hiccup sets out to find the trapped dragon, kill it, and prove his worth to the other vikings. But when Hiccup confronts the beast, he can’t bring himself to kill the dragon. Instead, Hiccup frees the Night Fury – whom he names Toothless – and begins to raise the injured dragon as a secret pet.

Hiccup soon learns how to tame dragons, as opposed to hunting them, and realizes that the vikings’ idea of dragons being mindless killing machines couldn’t be further from the truth. All the while, he tries to find a way to convince the other vikings – including his father Stoick and his would-be love interest Astrid (America Ferrera) – to see dragons in a different light.

Truth be told, the story is solid and well told, with some strong emotional bits and a good amount of entertainment throughout. Hiccup is a likable main character (even if Baruchel’s voice sounds a little older than the character should), Toothless is adorable, and the bond between the two makes for a heartwarming “boy and his dog” story…albeit the dog is a dragon.

How to Train Your Dragon tells its story with confidence, and there’s not a whole lot technically wrong with its narrative. The problem is that its narrative can feel like it came off a conveyor belt. Its setup of a misfit hero defying traditions, butting heads with ignorant adults, and befriending a creature once thought villainous, How to Train Your Dragon often brings to mind, well, pretty much every animated movie in history.

Again, that’s not to say that what is here is bad per se, as the storytelling at play is mostly solid, and the film does what it does better than many other animated features that did the same. It’s just that How to Train Your Dragon never once feels like it ventures off the beaten path. Both the story and the characters feel like they could have been pulled from an instruction manual on animated storytelling. It’s certainly an enjoyable and well put-together film, but I can’t help but wish How to Train Your Dragon had a little more creative spark in how it tells its story and the characters it chose to populate it with.

Though it may lack in imagination, How to Train Your Dragon does make for a fun viewing for audiences. Older crowds will appreciate the exquisite CG animation, dramatic musical score and thrilling flying sequences, while the younger lot will probably love the film for the various dragons that show up (each dragon looks and behaves differently, and have their own abilities, bringing a little Pokemon element into the mix).

Make no mistake about it, How to Train Your Dragon is a good movie. But it also seems to have become a bit overhyped. Often hailed as a modern animated classic, repeat viewings can make How to Train Your Dragon feel more like an entertaining but unremarkable animated adventure. It was great to see Dreamworks leave their comfort zone of more sarcastic animated features and make something more genuine (though I’d argue they also did that with Kung Fu Panda beforehand). But if one were to compare How to Train Your Dragon with many of the features Pixar was making at the time (and still is making on occasion), How to Train Your Dragon still feels like it’s in a comfort zone of its own. It’s thoroughly competent at what it does, but what it does is never really anything more than exactly what you’d expect of it.

 

6

Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro Review

To quote Hayao Miyazaki’s later work, Howl’s Moving Castle: “They say the best blaze burns brightest when circumstances are at their worst.” The quote seems to ring true in many instances, with it being particularly poetic in regards to Miyazaki’s very first feature film, Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro.

The 1970s were something of the dark ages of animated cinema. Mainstream animation was floundering after the death of Walt Disney (increases in censorship laws certainly didn’t help things out). Meanwhile, the only alternatives were the desperate and dated ‘adult’ animated films of the time, such as those from Ralph Bakshi. As such, the 1970s animation scene was riddled with features that were either insultingly childish or cringingly adult-pandering (sex and drugs, hyuk!).

It’s fitting then, that in 1979, the last year of that dark decade, an animated feature was released that would change the animation world for the better from that point on. The film in question was Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro. Based on the popular manga/anime series, Castle of Cagliostro is still seen as the pinnacle of the Lupin III franchise even today. More importantly, it was the feature film debut of Hayao Miyazaki, who would go on to have the single most prolific career in the history of animation. And in turn it also lead to the eventual creation of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and, by extension, Studio Ghibli. Castle of Cagliostro even inspired the western movie scene; seemingly reinvigorating the Disney animators (who often paid the film blatant homage in their own movies) and inspiring many of the key minds who would later form Pixar Animation Studios.

To put it bluntly, it’s hard to overstate just how much of a milestone achievement Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro was. Perhaps the best news is that – although it showcases some obvious limitations as Miyazaki’s first feature – it remains a timeless classic, one of the best in the action-adventure genre.

The story here is that master thief Lupin III and his accomplice Jigen have successfully pulled off their biggest heist at a national casino. Shortly after their getaway, however, Lupin discovers that their newfound riches are counterfeit, being among the legendary “Goat bills,” a counterfeit operation that has been increasing its influence on the world’s economies for centuries.

Lupin and Jigen track the operation to the small country of Cagliostro, where the malicious Count of Cagliostro has taken charge after the nation’s rightful rulers perished in a fire. The Count of Cagliostro is of course behind the counterfeit operation, and is also planning a forced marriage to the nation’s rightful heir, a young woman named Clarisse. Lupin then sets his sights on exposing the Count, sending his calling card to the Count in order to summon inspector Koichi Zenigata – Lupin’s longtime pursuer – to the location, to try and set a plan in motion to expose the Count’s schemes. Additionally, Lupin becomes enamored with Clarisse, and the romantic idea of saving her from the dreadful Count Cagliostro.

It’s a simple action-adventure setup, but its execution makes for one of the best films of its kind, with a consistently fun pace and many memorable set pieces. The film opens with a fantastic car chase (while still taking time to pause for a quiet moment – in true Miyazaki fashion – when Lupin and Jigen need to change a tire), and things only pick up when the gentlemen thieves make their way to the titular castle, where booby traps, ninjas and mysteries abound.

Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro is also one of those delightful animated films that takes full advantage of the medium to express its vision. In the aforementioned opening car chase, Lupin drives his automobile up a vertical surface to get to higher ground, effectively breaking the laws of physics. Later, Lupin manages to leap from one of the castle’s turrets to another, performing a superhuman feat of agility. Of course, no one in this movie is a super hero or wizard of any kind, so these aren’t directly feats of fantastic powers. Lupin III is simply an animated franchise, and so fantastic occurrences such as these are allowed to happen when need be. And there’s something charming about that.

Of course, being part of a franchise, the series’ key figures all come into play. Along with Lupin, Jigen and Zenigata, Lupin’s samurai-themed cohort Goemon also shows up (albeit sparingly), and the sexy lady-thief Fujiko is on her own undercover mission in the castle. Some fans of the overall franchise lament that some tweaks have been made to the characters’ personalities (most notably Lupin himself, whom Miyazaki depicts as a gentlemen thief, in stark contrast to the character’s often lewd, womanizing behavior, which is only referenced in the film as being a part of Lupin’s past as a “dumb rookie”). But truthfully, the changes work for the story being told here, and I personally prefer “gentlemen Lupin.” The fact that much of the character’s motivation in the film is to live out some romanticized adventure adds to the film’s charms. Besides, when a franchise lasts long enough to branch out into different continuities, such character changes happen all the time. This just happens to be Miyazaki’s personal interpretation of the characters, and it’s an interpretation that works.

There are, unfortunately, a handful of aesthetic elements that show the film’s age. While the main cast of characters are more fluidly animated than anything else at the time, and the environments are – as is the norm in Miyazaki features – truly captivating, the background characters can be a little on the stiff side. And while the music is still catchy and serves its purpose, this is the only Miyazaki-directed film not to be scored by Joe Hisaishi, and when compared to the scores of Miyazaki’s later features, it falls a little short.

Admittedly, those are only quibbles, and they’re only really present for those who may be familiar with Miyazaki’s later work. Seeing as Castle of Cagliostro was the legendary director’s first feature, and before he was one of the leading forces behind his own studio, it’s understandable that the film would have some noticeable limitations. Even with those limitations though, Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro has held up better than any other animated feature from its decade, and by quite a large margin.

Yes, Miyazaki would later perfect his craft (the subsequent Castle in the Sky is perhaps an even better adventure film, and features more of the director’s lavish imagination; while My Neighbor Totoro would mark Miyazaki’s shift in focus from simpler entertainment to deeper artistry). But there’s no mistaking that Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro lives up to its hefty reputation and influence. There’s never a dull moment, with the film often being as sweet and funny as it is action-packed and exciting. The film is even cited as being a precursor to the beloved action-adventure movies of the 1980s, including Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro began Miyazaki’s unparalleled streak of animated classics, and helped cement the director’s indelible style (the characters here seem to be a bridge between the traditional Lupin III look and what would later be Miyazaki’s own character designs). Just as impressive as its influence is how much fun Castle of Cagliostro remains even today. It’s still one of the most entertaining action-adventure films out there. Animated or otherwise.

 

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Coco Review

Pixar has been in an interesting place over the past few years. In the 2000s, it seemed like no one in the animation business could approach what Pixar was achieving with feature after feature. The 2010s, on the other hand, have been a bit less consistent, with their parent company Disney seemingly taking the animation crown for themselves. Toy Story 3 got things off to a strong start, but Cars 2 marked the studio’s first real dud. Brave wasn’t bad, but well below what we had come to know the studio for, and The Good Dinosaur is probably second only to the aforementioned Cars 2 at the bottom of the Pixar ladder. During the last few years, Pixar has also relied heavily on sequels: Monsters University was a fun if uneventful prequel to Monsters, Inc. Cars 3, though far from great, was an improvement over its dreadful predecessor. Finding Dory was perhaps Pixar’s only non-Toy Story sequel that matched up to its original, though even it wasn’t the most ambitious Pixar feature. Somewhere in the middle of all this though, Pixar released their most original, imaginative and (in my opinion) greatest feature in Inside Out. So while Pixar may not quite boast the inhuman consistency in quality they once did, they’re still more than capable of delivering the magic they once did so regularly.

Where exactly does Pixar’s most recent feature, Coco, fit into this equation? Well, it’s certainly the famed studio’s most original outing since Inside Out, and probably comes in second place (again, to Inside Out) in being Pixar’s most imaginative feature. Its plot does have some shaky elements that the studio’s best features usually lack, but in terms of emotional resonance and that indelible Pixar magic, Coco is up there with anything Pixar has created before.

Coco revolves around the Rivera family. Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) is the youngest member of the family, and dreams of being a musician like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Miguel’s dreams clash with his family, however, as the Riveras have banned music for generations, after Miguel’s great-great-grandmother’s musician husband abandoned her and her daughter, Coco. Understandably, the family has long-since erased the great-great-grandfather from their lives, and Coco – the only living relative who could remember him – suffers from severe memory loss at her old age (it is implied, though not explicitly stated, that she suffers from Alzheimer’s).

During Dia de los Muertos, Miguel happens to stumble upon some clues as to the identity of his long-forgotten great-great-grandfather; none other than Ernesto de la Cruz himself! Now more determined to become a musician than ever, Miguel confronts his family which, as you may have guessed, doesn’t go too well. After an argument with his grandmother, Miguel runs away from home, and looks to borrow Ernesto’s famed guitar from the singer’s mausoleum to use in a talent show to help his dream come true. But by “stealing” from the dead, Miguel has brought a curse upon himself, becoming invisible to all the humans around him.

Luckily for Miguel, many of his deceased ancestors are visiting the area for Dia de los Muertos. The spectral skeletons are able to see the boy just fine, but recognizing that he’s still alive, take Miguel to the Land of the Dead in order to find a way to send Miguel back home. Miguel can return to the land of the living with the blessing of one of his ancestors, but when they all add the condition that he must give up music when he gets back, Miguel leaves to find Ernesto de la Cruz in order to send him back home while still being able to keep his dream of becoming a musician alive.

Along the way, Miguel meets up with an old friend of Ernesto de la Cruz, Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), a skeleton who’s in danger of being forgotten in the land of the living, which would result in him vanishing from the land of the dead (the “final death” as the skeletons refer to it). Miguel and Hector team up, with Hector having connections to Ernesto de la Cruz, he can help Miguel get home. In exchange, he gives Miguel his photo to be taken to the land of the living and be put on his family’s ofrenda for Dia de los Muertos, thus ensuring he won’t be forgotten.

In case my lengthy synopsis of the setup weren’t evidence enough, the story of Coco is a bit complicated compared to most Pixar fare, at least in terms of setup. Using Dia de los Muertos as the backdrop for the story makes for both imaginative storytelling and eye-popping visuals, with the locations of the Land of the Dead being up there with the world of Riley’s mind of Inside Out as one of Pixar’s most vibrant and beautiful creations.

The only real downside to Coco is that, in order to make all these world-building elements around Dia de los Muertos work with the plot, the story does have to jump through some hoops in order to work properly (I can understand why the spirit of Miguel’s great-great-grandmother wouldn’t send him back unless he gave up music, but the fact that his other ancestors are afraid to do so just seems overly convenient).

That’s not to say that I have too many complaints with the story. As stated, all of these issues occur in the build-up, and the payoff ultimately makes it all well worth it. But most of Pixar’s best features seem to come together flawlessly. By comparison, Coco’s story may ultimately prove to be a beautiful structure, but it’s on a bit shakier foundations.

Again, these are all quibbles in the end, because when Coco works, it works wonders. The animation is among the best Pixar has ever created, and it is also arguably the best Pixar feature to listen to, with a host of songs written by Robert Lopez and Kristen-Anderson Lopez, the duo who helped make Frozen Disney’s best musical.

Most importantly, Coco lives up to Pixar’s legacy of heartfelt, emotional storytelling. Miguel and Hector end up being some of Pixar’s most likable creations, and the film boasts some heavy themes about death, family and remembering lost love ones. Appropriately, with such subject matter comes some of Pixar’s biggest emotional punches (and boy, is that saying something). In discussions of Pixar’s most heart-tugging moments, it’s usually the opening montage in Up and the ending of Toy Story 3 that are most frequently mentioned (perhaps not surprisingly, I’m partial to the entire third act of Inside Out). But I think the ending sequences of Coco stand next to Inside Out in being the most emotionally powerful and meaningful material in the Pixar canon. During my first viewing, I don’t think there was a dry eye in the theater when Coco’s credits started rolling.

It’s often said that the journey, not the destination, is what’s important. And while that may often be the case, Coco is an example of a flawless ending justifying whatever missteps the journey may have. That’s not to say that the journey of Coco is a troubled one – there are only a couple of bumps in the road early on – but when all is said and done, you’ll probably forgive them for being there, considering what they lead up to.

 

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