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.

 

7

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.

Well, Now I HAVE to Get Kingdom Hearts 3

I may not be the biggest Kingdom Hearts fan out there. Despite some fun ideas, I find the games are bogged down by an utterly convoluted, incomprehensible plot, cliched original characters, and often monotonous gameplay. Not to mention the fact that all the spinoff titles released on a myriad of different platforms all serve as parts of the main story have made it impossible for anyone but the most diehard of fans to follow.

But by God, Kingdom Hearts 3 has a Frozen level!

Allow me to fanboy-out for a moment here. Frozen is my favorite Disney animated film, and yes, one of my favorite films, period. And yes, its presence in Kingdom Hearts 3 is enough to sell me on buying the game (again, the series isn’t horrible. If it were, I wouldn’t buy it even with the Frozen stuff).

Now, this really shouldn’t come as any sort of surprise. Seeing as Frozen is the biggest animated film in history – and is especially popular in Japan – it would be nothing short of dumbfounding to leave it out of a game filled with Disney franchises. But to actually see it in action is just…YES!

On the downside, some of the dialogue in the reveal trailer suggests that this entry may still suffer from the narrative gobbledygook of the series. But heck, I’ll push through it for Anna and Elsa.

Although I still have my skepticisms with Kingdom Hearts 3, I do admit I’m intrigued by the fact that it seems to be emphasizing modern Disney movies more than past entries of the series. Along with Frozen, Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6, and Pixar films like Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. have already been announced. I’ve made it no secret that I think Disney’s current run is their best ever (I don’t care what your nostalgia says). So while some older Disney films will be making a return (Hercules), I’m happy to see something as prominent as Kingdom Hearts is putting modern Disney in the spotlight.

Yeah, I would probably prefer Kingdom Hearts if it were just the Disney (and Final Fantasy) characters. But whatever. We get Frozen. And they even nabbed Josh Gad to voice Olaf for the game, which is pretty great.

Anyway, here’s the reveal trailer for the Frozen stuff in KH3, though be warned, some elements are clearly unfinished (pretty sure Elsa’s ice blast is supposed to have sound), which makes some parts a little awkward. Same goes for the fact that Haley Joel Osment is still the voice of Sora, despite the actor now being 30 and the character still a teenager (have we learned nothing from Goku’s ungodly Japanese voice?).

 

…I promise I’ll add meaningful content soon.