Ralph Breaks the Internet Review

Even though animated sequels are commonplace in this day and age, Walt Disney Animation Studios – the world’s most famous source of animated features – rarely creates follow-ups to their animated classics. Some might be quick to point out the flood of direct-to-video Disney sequels that plagued the 90s and early 2000s, but those were actually produced by the now (mercifully) defunct DisneyToon Studios. Those were products of their time, and never once have those straight-to-video sequels been considered a part of the official Disney Animation canon.

The beloved studio’s only true animated sequels are The Rescuers Down Under, Fantasia 2000, Winnie the Pooh (2011), and now, Ralph Breaks the Internet, sequel to 2012’s delightful Wreck-It Ralph. Though considering the Pooh movies work more like standalone episodes, and the Fantasia films are non-narrative, there could be an argument that Ralph Breaks the Internet is only the studio’s second animated sequel. No matter how you look at it, however, Ralph Breaks the Internet proves to be the best sequel Disney has yet made by an incomparable margin, and arguably the best Disney animated film since Frozen.

Ralph Breaks the Internet is set six years after the original (coinciding with the real gap between films). Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly), the lovable video game ‘villain’ of Fix-It Felix Jr., has become something of a surrogate brother to Vanellope Von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a character from the cutesy, Mario Kart-esque racer, Sugar Rush. Ralph and Vanellope spend the days in their respective arcade games, while at night they jump from game to game goofing off. Ralph, having spent years as an outcast due to his role as a video game baddie, is perfectly content with his life now that he has a friend. Vanellope, meanwhile, wishes for something more out of life, feeling that her game is too simple, and her time with Ralph too routine.

Ralph, wanting to help Vanellope out with her problems, tries adding something new to her game. But, true to his name, Wreck-It Ralph’s good intentions make a mess of things. This results in the steering wheel controller for Sugar Rush’s arcade cabinet breaking. Mr. Litwak (Ed O’Niell), the owner of the arcade, unplugs the Sugar Rush game. A child at the arcade finds a Sugar Rush wheel on eBay, but Mr. Litwak deems it too expensive, and expects to can the game for good

Luckily for Ralph and Vanellope, however, Mr. Litwak has recently installed wi-fi in the arcade. And so Ralph and Vanellope sneak into the arcade’s wi-fi router, in hopes of traveling into the internet to find eBay and buy a new Sugar Rush wheel so that Vanellope (and all the other now-homeless Sugar Rush characters) can go home. Of course, being video game characters, Ralph and Vanellope don’t exactly know what they’re getting themselves into, and their ensuing adventure may just test their friendship.

It sounds like a simple setup, but like the other recent Disney films, Ralph breaks the Internet tells a story that’s made complex by the characters. Gone are the days when Disney simply utilized their stock archetypes to push plots forward, Disney’s recent output have told stories dictated by the characters, not the other way around. And Ralph Breaks the Internet continues this trend in a unique way. Being a sequel, Ralph 2 could have easily fallen into the pitfall of recycling the original’s material under a new guise. Instead, Ralph Breaks the Internet uses its position as a sequel to build on the characters we grew to love the first time around, and give them new dimensions. In turn, this sequel may actually outdo its predecessor in the emotional department.

Like the first film, Ralph Breaks the Internet uses its premise to create a wide array of different visual styles and art directions. It’s easy to go into the film being skeptical at the change in focus from the video game theme of the original to the internet theme of this sequel, but Ralph Breaks the Internet finds ways to make it work.

Not only does the internet world have a cleanly “retro future” look about it, but Ralph and Vanellope also find themselves visiting an online game called Slaughter Race, a grungy mix between Grand Theft Auto and Gran Turismo that beautifully contrasts the vivid colorfulness of the rest of the film. And – as has been greatly advertised – Vanellope even finds herself in the (very real) Oh My Disney website, where she encounters characters from Star Wars, Marvel and even her fellow characters from the Disney Animation canon, most notably the Disney Princesses (with all the more recent princesses being voiced by their original actresses). These scenes are among the funniest in the movie, though they do kind of make you wish we could get an entire movie about a Disney crossover…

With so many different worlds to explore – whether it’s the returning Sugar Rush or Fix-It Felix Jr., the internet itself, Slaughter Race, the dark web, or the worlds of Disney – Ralph Breaks the Internet continues what the first film started by making an animated feature that’s constantly rebuilding itself on the visual front. The Wreck-It Ralph movies are so good I’d love to see a third entry, but I wouldn’t mind a third one even just to see what other visuals they can come up with.

Like the first movie, Ralph Breaks the Internet also features a memorable musical score that channels the video games that inspired it. And this time around, we even get a big musical number, which is another highlight of the film.

Another interesting change of pace from Disney norms is that Ralph Breaks the Internet doesn’t have any real villain. It seems like Disney’s recent flicks have been doing new and different things with their villain scenario, finding ways to make them key to the plot without being the center of it like the Disney of old. And now Ralph 2 seems to just throw the villain element away entirely. As stated, this is a movie about Ralph and Vanellope, and they end up creating their own dilemmas for themselves (whether through conflicting interests or well intentioned accidents). There’s something really refreshing about that.

If there are any issues with the story, it might simply be that it can feel like it takes a fair bit of time to get going. As stated, searching for a video game steering wheel doesn’t exactly sound like it makes for a great adventure, and you may wonder where exactly the film is going for a while (albeit the charming characters and witty writing might make you not care), but once it picks up, it’s a consistently entertaining and heartwarming picture.

Fans of the original film may also lament that returning characters Fix-It Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer) and Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch) have largely reduced roles. After marrying at the end of the first movie, Felix and Calhoun end up adopting all of the Sugar Rush racers (sans Vanellope) once their game gets unplugged. It had the potential to be a pretty funny sub-plot, but sadly it gets very little time overall.

New characters include Shank (Gal Gadot), a badass chick from Slaughter Race, Knowsmore (Alan Tudyk, who’s omnipresent in Disney animation these days), a search engine, Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), an algorithm on a YouTube-esque site, and J.P. Spamley (Bill Hader), a clickbait pop-up advertisement. With the exception of Shank, most the new characters don’t have too big of roles. But they all help push the main plot forward with Ralph and Vanellope’s journey, so they don’t feel underutilized in the way Felix and Calhoun do with their own sub-plot.

In the end, what makes Ralph Breaks the Internet such a winner is that it is a heartfelt story between its two main characters that helps them change and grow in a way a lot of sequels are afraid to do. It doesn’t simply continue what its predecessor started, but builds on it. The change in setting from video games to the internet may have been cause for concern going in (because really, which one seems the more fitting setting for an animated film?), but the story and characters win you over so strongly the change seems inconsequential. It seems a lot of CG animated films are defined by their setting – emulating the ‘themed movie’ approach of Pixar films without understanding the deeper story aspects – but Ralph Breaks the Internet lets its characters take the steering wheel, ultimately telling a story that delivers in entertainment and emotion, with a pretty heavy and mature message about friendship that may bring a tear or two to your eye.

Disney has rarely created proper sequels to their animated classics. But Ralph Breaks the Internet puts up a good argument that they should do it a little more often. It may have a slow start, but Ralph Breaks the Internet is a prime example of what a sequel should be. Fingers crossed that Frozen 2 can do the same.

 

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Mary Poppins Returns Review

Disney is in an interesting place at the moment. While their much-beloved animated features are fresher and more inventive than ever, pushing their studio’s narratives and themes forward, their live-action slate is more or less being dictated by its past. The live-action remakes of their animated back-catalogue seem to be popping up left and right, and now Disney has reached 54 years into their past to deliver a sequel to arguably the most beloved Disney movie of all time, Mary Poppins.

That’s certainly means that Mary Poppins Returns has some pretty big shoes to fill. The film itself seems largely aware of this, and follows much of the same path as its classic predecessor to such a degree that it can sometimes feel more like an echo of Mary Poppins as opposed to a sequel. This of course means that Mary Poppins Returns is an incredibly familiar film (and thus not quite “practically perfect in every way” like its forebear), but still provides an undeniable good time. Perhaps most impressively, Mary Poppins Returns displays a sense of whimsy without once feeling the need to give a wink to the camera about it which, in this cynical day and age, can feel like a godsend.

Mary Poppins Returns is set twenty-five years after the original. The Banks children, Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer) are now grown. Michael is recently widowed, and lives in his childhood home with his three children; Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Sales) and Georgie (Joel Dawson). Jane has moved in with Michael in his time of need, and soon learns that Michael took a loan from the bank to pay for his late wife’s medical expenses, a loan that will cost him his home if he can’t pay it back by the end of the week.

Soon thereafter, Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) quite literally blows into town, and immediately resumes her duties as the nanny of the Banks family. Though Michael and Jane are in awe of Mary’s apparent lack of aging, they have long since written off the magical adventures they once had with the nanny as their childhood imaginations running wild. But together with a lamplighter named Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) – an apprentice of the first film’s Bert the chimney sweep – the younger generation of Banks children learn there’s more to Mary Poppins than meets the eye.

It’s a simple and charming plot that, as stated, can feel like something of a cover version of the original 1964 film. There are many fun sights to see, whimsical scenarios take place, and a good number of songs throughout. It’s all well and good, but each sight, scenario and song seems to reflect those of the original film a little too closely, right down to when they each take place within the film. Returns’ most captivating scene – in which the live actors are joined by hand-drawn animated characters, feels like a remixed version of the similar sequence from the first movie, and even takes place around the same time within the plot. And when it’s time to recreate the scene where Bert was joined by his fellow chimneysweeps for a good song and dance number, we get Jack and is fellow lamplighters doing more or less the same thing.

Mary Poppins Returns plays things safe then, and can feel like it suffers a bit of what I like to call “Home Alone 2 syndrome” (that is to say, it’s a sequel that plays out just like the original). But unlike most sequels which seem to mimic their predecessor as a means for a quick cash-grab, Mary Poppins Returns instead seems intimidated by its predecessor’s reputation, and doesn’t want to tamper with what isn’t broken. It’s a considerable bit more respectable than most other such sequels due to that reverence for its predecessor, but it still doesn’t change the fact that this may have been a better sequel if it were willing to be more of its own movie.

Still, as overly familiar as it may be at times, Mary Poppins Returns is nonetheless an undeniable charmer. It’s great to see a movie in this day and age where fantastic occurrences can just happen without needlessly being explained or attempted to be rationalized. Today’s audiences seem to have goaded movies to try to make sense of everything, no matter how fantastic the material. So to see Mary Poppins fly down to London on a kite, travel to an undersea world via bathtub, and transport herself and company to the  hand-drawn world of a painting on the side of a bowl without explanation is kind of beautiful.

Although the aforementioned songs may play into the film’s familiarity in terms of their placement and tone, in terms of lyrics and melody they stand on their own two feet (the film wisely goes against trying to recreate Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, which just couldn’t be done). The songs are fun and catchy, and really help the film’s enjoyment factor.

Another highlight of the film is Mary Poppins herself. Emily Blunt puts a nice spin on the character, playing her as more brash and curt than Julie Andrews did in the original. There’s just something appealing about the Mary Poppins character. She seems to work within her own world of childlike logic (with her ‘things can happen because magic’ mentality), yet has a number of adult character traits (arrogance, somewhat condescending, and a little bit of a smartass), putting her in a unique archetype that you really don’t see much of. And Emily Blunt brings out the best in it.

On one hand, Mary Poppins Returns is a welcome and refreshing type of movie for today’s audiences: one which is only cynical towards cynicism itself. It’s a whole lot of fun, and can even feel magical at times. But on the other hand, it accomplishes these feats by more or less being a mirror image of the iconic 1964 film. In a lot of ways, I’d say Mary Poppins Returns is a great movie. But because of its similarities to the original, it’s greatness may simply be a testament to just how great the original was.

It would have been exceedingly difficult for Mary Poppins Returns to ever become as iconic as the original Mary Poppins. But it does do a great job at echoing just how special Mary Poppins and her world are.

 

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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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Christopher Robin Review

Of all the casts of Disney characters, the most likable has to be that of Winnie the Pooh. Sure, Mickey Mouse and company may be the figureheads of Disney, but the adaptations of A.A. Milne’s characters are Disney’s most endearing and charming consistencies. And while Disney’s recent trend of turning their beloved animated films into live-action retreads has been a bit of a mixed bag (for every Jungle Book there was a Maleficent), the idea of a Winnie the Pooh addition to this sub-genre of Disney films was promising. Thankfully, Christopher Robin ultimately delivers on the fun and charm one would expect from a film starring the bear of very little brain, though it does take a while to get there.

“Hello there!”

Christopher Robin begins where the original Disney film ended, with a young Christopher Robin ready to leave the Hundred Acre Wood to begin school and, subsequently, grow up. Winnie the Pooh, Tigger (both voiced by Jim Cummings), Eeyore (Brad Garret), Piglet (Nick Mohammed), and the rest of the Hundred Acre Wood gang throw a going away party for Christopher Robin. And though Pooh and friends don’t forget about Christopher, as he grows older (becoming Ewan McGregor in the process), he forgets them.

We get brief glimpses of Christopher’s adult life from there: Meeting and marrying a woman named Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), fighting for the British forces in World War II, and having a daughter named Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). After returning home, he finds a job as an efficiency expert at the Winslow Luggage Company, where he slowly but surely begins dedicating more and more of his time.

Admittedly, this is where the film starts to teeter both into overly familiar and slow moving territory. A movie about the importance of family over work – while always a well-meaning message – is a bit formulaic, and it’s here where the film maybe slows down a little too much. However, once Winnie the Pooh and company come back into the picture to help Christopher Robin remember his more carefree days, things pick back up and start building more steam. Not to mention heaps of charm.

Of course this is a movie about rediscovering childhood wonderment. Of course it’s about not being a slave to your work and the importance of, as Pooh puts it, “doing nothing.” But it works because it’s told well, acted well and, perhaps most importantly, because it’s impossible for Winnie the Pooh to ever come across as anything other than lovable.

The movie is naturally at its best whenever Pooh and friends are on-screen, with their childlike simplicity and humor being all too easy to win us over with. But Christopher Robin also manages to find some good footing in the live-action department due to the performance of Ewan McGregor as its titular character as well as that of Hayley Atwell.

I’ve already seen some comments regarding that the film is “confusing” in regards to the relationships between the human and stuffed animal characters. Winnie the Pooh, Tigger and company are possibly created from Christopher Robin’s imagination as a child, yet other humans are able to see and hear them. And Pooh even manages to accomplish teleportation by means of entering a tree in the Hundred Acre Wood and finding London on the other side. But this is one of those movies where you really don’t need a logical explanation for things. When Christopher Robin questions his sanity when Pooh comes back into his life via the aforementioned tree, he claims Pooh’s explanation of the tree “being wherever it needs to be” to be silly, to which Pooh responds with “why thank you,” which delightfully sums up the nature of the movie.

It should be noted that although the film is (of course) the definition of child-friendly, I actually think it’s geared more for the adult crowd who grew up with these characters. This is, after all, a film about a grown-up Christopher Robin. It doesn’t bask in childhood like the animated Pooh movies, but rather expresses a melancholic yearning to recreate childhood. Younger kids may even get a bit antsy in the film’s slower moments, but adults may appreciated the film’s (very, very relative) more mature tone and pace.

“Could they be any cuter?!”

The CG used to bring Winnie the Pooh and his friends to life is, as you might expect with a Disney budget, top notch. It may not quite reach the levels of The Jungle Book in terms of realism, but the characters here don’t really require it. They mesh well with the live actors, and the character designs are adorable (especially that of Pooh himself).

Christopher Robin is a fun movie with a lot of heart, only held down by a sloggish start and some overly formulaic material (Christopher Robin even has a snobbish hire-up at the workplace who seems far too much like a Hollywood product for a Winnie the Pooh feature). But the flaws are easy to look past for the sheer warmth that radiates from the film. Though there’s nothing innately wrong with more hectic and serious family fare, it’s rare that you get to see a film aimed at a family audience that isn’t afraid to quiet down a bit.

Winnie the Pooh has always provided winning material by extolling simplicity and even passing on a good dose of wisdom (“They say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing everyday.” Explains Pooh). Christopher Robin follows suit with this tradition, and provides a film that, despite its early missteps, has a heart that continues to grow as it moves along.

 

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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?

 

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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.

Ant-Man and the Wasp Review

Some were a bit skeptical about Marvel releasing the sequel to Ant-Man as the follow-up to Avengers: Infinity War. After all, Infinity War is the (first part of) the grand crescendo of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe up to this point, and Ant-Man is a more lighthearted and small-scale sub-series within the MCU. But really, after the heaviness and somewhat exhausting Infinity War, a movie like Ant-Man and the Wasp is exactly what the MCU needed. Sure, it’s one of the smaller Marvel movies of recent times, but it’s kind of nice to have a film in this mega-franchise that feels like it goes back to basics with a simplistic super hero romp, without having the need to connect to the bigger goings-on in the MCU.

Ant-Man and the Wasp follows Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), the one-time Ant-Man, under house arrest, following the events of Captain America: Civil War. But Scott soon finds himself getting pulled back into super hero duty by scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lily).

After the events of the first film, in which Scott Lang managed to escape from the “Quantum Realm” after his shrinking powers as Ant-Man were taken to the extreme, Pym and Hope believe they can find a way to rescue the long-lost matriarch of their family, who has been trapped in that very dimension for thirty years. Meanwhile, Pym’s technology is soon the target of two very different antagonistic forces: the black market criminal Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), and the mysterious Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), a woman with the ability to phase through solid objects.

It’s a refreshingly small-scale plot, and one that is consistently fun due to how it juggles between its different sub-plots (one of the more unique aspects of the story is how it’s always finding ways for Scott to go back and forth between being Ant-Man, and continuing his house arrest, all while finding ways to get the authorities to believe he never left his home). It also becomes all the more fun when the film’s central plot device becomes Pym’s lab itself, which he can shrink to become a wheeled briefcase. I don’t know, there’s just something fun about a miniaturized building being at the center of the action.

Speaking of action, that’s another area where Ant-Man and the Wasp shines. The first Ant-Man made super hero action sequences fun with the way Scott Lang was able to change size during the fights, and now that he’s joined by Hope’s alter-ego of the Wasp – who has the same shrinking abilities plus blasters that can change the size of other objects – the filmmakers are able to get really inventive with how the action scenes play out.

One of the things that made the first Ant-Man one of the more memorable MCU movies were the characters themselves, and this is another area in which Ant-Man and the Wasp delightfully follows suit. Scott Lang differs from many of the other heroes of the MCU thanks to his everyman personality, and his standing as a father doing his best for his young daughter amidst his divorce and criminal background. Hope continues to be a great foil, as her intellect serves as a great contrast to Scott’s more comedic ‘averageness.’ Ghost is also made into one of the MCU’s more interesting villains, going into a life of crime not for selfish gain, but to find a means to save her own life. There’s even an excellent scene in which Ghost and her accomplice dialogue about how far they’re willing to go for her goal, and even set a perimeter for what they’re not willing to lower themselves to.

So far so good. On the whole, Ant-Man and the Wasp is a very fun and humorous addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With all the positives though, the downside to Ant-Man and the Wasp is that, in the end, it doesn’t exactly ascend beyond the majority of quality MCU entries. It follows the winning formula, and like its predecessor, does so with one of the MCU’s best casts. But now that we’re at a point when three or four MCU films are released a year, it’s all the more important for each individual MCU entry to stand out. And, well, if you’re a little super hero’ed out at this point, Ant-Man and the Wasp probably isn’t the entry that will pull you back in. I’m someone who has greatly enjoyed the Marvel Cinematic Universe films (Iron Man sequels and Thor 2 aside), and even my enthusiasm for them is getting a little diluted by this point.

That’s a shame, because had Ant-Man and the Wasp been released a little further apart from Infinity War, and Black Panther, and Thor: Ragnorok (and so on), it might be better remembered. But being the smallest Marvel release in a year that’s crammed with their heavy-hitters, Ant-Man and the Wasp ends up having a bit of a ‘flavor of the month’ feeling to it. The fact that it follows Incredibles 2 – a super hero feature that greatly ascends from the genre’s standards – hurts this Ant-Man’s sequel’s appeal all the more.

Ant-Man and the Wasp may be a really enjoyable film in its own right, but unless Marvel and Disney can start changing up the MCU formula a bit, they may need to rethink their release strategy for their smaller MCU features, lest they get lost in the shuffle.

 

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