Toy Story 4 Review

When Toy Story 3 was released in 2010 (eleven years after Toy Story 2), it seemed to mark the end for the series that made Pixar Animation Studios famous. Toy Story 3 was a fitting, emotional end to the journeys of Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Hamm (the perennial John Ratzenberger), and the rest of the Toy Story gang. Their owner, Andy, was grown up and heading off to college, and the ending saw him passing down his beloved childhood toys to a young girl named Bonnie. Given the overall reception of all three Toy Story films, an argument could be made that it was the best trilogy in film history.

It was a bit concerning then, when Pixar eventually announced that they were creating a fourth Toy Story feature, especially since the studio has fallen under some criticisms for its reliance on sequels during the 2010s (though in all honesty, most of their sequels have retained the studio’s high quality). Considering how conclusive of an ending Toy Story 3 was, a continuation seemed entirely unnecessary. It was all too easy to get a bit cynical and assume that Pixar simply saw more dollar signs in the property and nothing more. Combine that with some notable production issues, and things were looking grim for the continuation of the Toy Story franchise.

Thankfully, not only does Toy Story 4 prove to be one of the few fourth entries in a series that can hold its own, but in doing so it beautifully puts that aforementioned cynicism in its place. Toy Story 4 is a delightful and entertaining film that retains the series’ emotional storytelling. Though with that said, Toy Story 4 does nonetheless fall short of all three of its predecessors.

While Toy Story 3 acknowledged the eleven year gap between it and the previous entry, Toy Story 4 – for the most part – takes place shortly after the events of Toy Story 3. The exception being the film’s opening, which takes place nine years in the past (which I guess would make it two or three years after Toy Story 2, depending on when exactly the rest of the film takes place). This opening explains why Bo Peep (Annie Potts) – the porcelain doll who served as Woody’s love interest in the first two films – was absent from the third entry.

After another daring rescue of one of their fellow toys, Bo Peep was packed in a box, and given away to a friend of Andy’s family. Woody briefly considers leaving with Bo Peep, before he remembers his loyalty as Andy’s toy, and the two are then separated (preventing a time paradox for Toy Story 3 in the process).

Fast-forward to the present, and the toys have found a new home as Bonnie’s toys. Though Woody has been having a harder time adjusting to the change than the rest of the gang, with Bonnie often leaving him in the closet while she plays with the other toys.

When Bonnie is frightened to start kindergarten, Woody – desperate to keep her happy – sneaks into Bonnie’s backpack to help cheer her up. When no one sits at Bonnie’s table for arts and crafts, Woody gathers a number of discarded items and sneaks them onto Bonnie’s table.

With a spork, pipe cleaner, popsicle sticks, glue and googley eyes, Bonnie creates Forky (Tony Hale), who quickly raises Bonnie’s spirits. Much to Woody’s surprise, Forky soon comes alive, much in the same vein as he and his fellow toys. Forky quickly becomes Bonnie’s favorite toy, but having been created from trash, Forky still believes himself to be trash, and is dead-set on throwing himself away. This makes a dilemma for Woody. Determined to keep Bonnie happy, Woody spends day and night preventing the suicidal utensil from throwing himself away.

This proves especially difficult when Bonnie’s family takes a road trip, bringing her toys along for the ride (as kids do). During one especially tiresome night for Woody, Forky manages to jump out of the RV, leaving Woody to give chase.

Woody reunites with Forky, and manages to make the utensil understand his place as a toy. But getting back to Bonnie will prove to be a difficult task both physically and emotionally. Bonnie’s family is at an RV park sitting next to both an antique store that serves as the home of Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) – a doll determined to steal Woody’s voice box at any cost – and a traveling carnival, where Woody is reunited with Bo Peep (who has become a lost toy), leaving him to question what he truly wants.

Considering how conclusively Toy Story 3 seemed to end the series, it’s actually a little surprising that Pixar managed to concoct a plot as strong as they did for Toy Story 4. It manages to be consistently entertaining and delivers some genuinely emotional moments. There are, however, a few cracks in the foundations of Toy Story 4’s plot.

The first issue is that – aside from Woody and Bo Peep – the returning characters have very little presence in the story. Even the heavily-marketed additions from Toy Story 3 get minimal screen time. The worst example of this is that Buzz Lightyear and Jessie have seemingly nothing to do throughout the film!

I understand that Woody is the main character of the series, but the original Toy Story presented both Woody and Buzz with equal prominence in the narrative, and Toy Story 2 beautifully continued that trend, with Buzz Lightyear reminding Woody the importance of being a toy, just as Woody had taught him in the first film. Toy Story 3 reduced Buzz Lightyear’s role to mere comic relief, which was one of my big complaints with the third installment. But instead of rectifying this gross misuse of one its best characters, Pixar has doubled down with the underutilization of Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story 4.

It would seem the filmmakers at Pixar have misjudged one of their greatest creations in Buzz Lightyear, focusing only on the comedic aspects he brought to the first two films, and associating the series’ heart with Woody alone (did they forget the “I Will Go Sailing No More” scene from the first movie?). The Toy Story films released in the 1990s starred Woody and Buzz Lightyear, but the latter half of the series has foolishly relegated its deuteragonist to a bit part.

“Visual dramatization of Pixar shoving Buzz and Jessie to the sidelines.”

And poor Jessie, whose introduction in Toy Story 2 brought a new emotional depth to the series, literally only has a single scene in which she does anything in this fourth installment. At what point, I have to wonder, did Pixar forget that the heart of the Toy Story films was shared between its main characters, and decided that only Woody boasted stories worth telling?

Buzz may have had a reduced role in Toy Story 3, but at least there, it didn’t have a direct affect on the story at play. But here, Buzz Lightyear’s minimal role prevents the film from resonating as much as it should. Without spoiling anything, the direction the plot takes in its third act really required the classic Toy Story characters (specifically the main ones like Buzz and Jessie) to have bigger roles in order to achieve its full impact. But because Pixar forgot how to properly implement them into the plot, the story at hand suffers a bit.

“Bo Peep gets her own sidekick in the form of Giggle McDimples (ally Maki), a Polly Pocket-esque police officer.”

Toy Story 4 seems to place a greater emphasis on its new characters, which includes not only Forky and Gabby Gabby, but also a duo of carnival plush toys Bunny and Ducky (Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key), and Duke Kaboom (Keanu Reeves), a Canadian stuntman action figure whose over-the-top antics and boisterous personality often steal the show. I don’t have anything against the new characters (though at times, Bunny and Ducky can feel more like a means to get Key and Peele in the movie than they do genuine characters), but it’s a shame to see the old Toy Story cast get tossed aside.

Pixar has made a few sequels which focused on the secondary character of the original (Mike Wazowski in Monsters University, Dory in Finding Dory, and Helen Parr in Incredibles 2), which worked to great effect in adding to those characters and distinguishing the sequels from the originals. So it seems weird that Toy Story has failed to do something similar by its fourth entry. Especially when you remember just how great of characters Buzz Lightyear and Jessie are. Even if Woody were destined to be the main character once again, I do have to reiterate that Buzz and Jessie (and the returning characters in general) needed a bigger role in the story in order to really hit a homerun with the direction the story takes.

“Credit definitely has to go to Gabby Gabby’s character design which, depending on the situation, can be either sympathetically cute or creepy.”

Still, the new characters have their charms. Forky, Bunny and Ducky are all cute and add some good humor to the proceedings, and Duke Kaboom, again, is a highlight of the film. Perhaps most interesting of all is Gabby Gabby, whose own story arc may be more emotional than Woody’s this time around.

“It seems weird to suddenly put the relationship between Woody and Bo Peep at the forefront…”

The film also places a strong emphasis on its re-introduction of Bo Peep. Toy Story 4 can on occasion feel like it’s giving itself a pat on the back for Bo Peep’s newfound independence, and while it’s nice that Pixar decided to give its original female character an actual personality this time around, Pixar themselves seem strangely ignorant to the fact that they had already accomplished so much more through a female character in the form of Jessie. Why not promote the character Pixar got so, so right from the get-go, instead of bringing back a character who had so little presence in the series they were left out of the third film, and try to bring more out of them at the expense of the stronger characters? Again, it’s nice that Bo Peep has more to do this time, but because it comes at the expense of Jessie, it feels self-defeating.

This reflects what I think is the fundamental problem of Toy Story 4: with how Toy Story 3 ended, Woody’s story felt completed. He saw Andy grow up and move on, he faced his greatest fear of loss/abandonment, and found new purpose with Bonnie. It felt like it completed what the first two films started (the first film having Woody’s place as Andy’s favorite toy usurped by Buzz, and the second having him contemplate living in a museum forever instead of facing the pain of heartbreak as Andy grows up).

If Toy Story 4 had to exist, it should have been Buzz and Jessie’s movie.

I was at the D23 expo’s animation panel in 2015 when the basics of the plot were first announced. When they were first describing Toy Story 4, Pixar referred to it as a “standalone sequel.” That seemed to make sense. The overall arc of the first three movies had ended, but Toy Story 4 could be its own little adventure starring the beloved toy characters. Pixar then announced that the film would be “a love story…” which – given Buzz and Jessie’s budding romance in the previous two movies – briefly indicated that they might be the focus of Toy Story 4, which would have further justified the continuation of the series. But then I remember when the panelists continued with “the love story between Woody…and Bo Peep.”

“He’s the hero the franchise deserves, but not the one it needs right now.”

I remember being somewhat baffled at that point. Didn’t Woody already get the spotlight to himself in Toy Story 3? And wasn’t Bo Peep left out of that installment entirely? Again, why take things in this direction when they already had a love story blooming on the side in the second and third films (a romance which, by the way, is never so much as brought up in Toy Story 4)?

Toy Story 4 doesn’t feel particularly “standalone” by the end of things, either, as it seems to find more ways to try to close the series as a whole. This also puts things in a weird spot. Toy Story 3 was a fitting end to the series, but a standalone sequel could justifiably stand on its own merits. But by trying to conclude the series again, it feels like the Toy Story saga has two different third acts (which kind of cheapens Toy Story 3, when you think about it).

By now I may be sounding a bit negative, but I have to emphasize that these complaints are all relative to the exceedingly high standards set by the Toy Story series. The first three films are all among Pixar’s best, which in itself is a hefty claim. Toy Story 2 in particular, is a perfect movie.

Toy Story 4 is still a well made feature with strong characters and storytelling, and it certainly does the best job it could with all the tools at its disposal. But it’s an undeniable sting to see so many of the classic Toy Story characters get the shaft, especially since a story focused on Buzz and Jessie would have justified this entry all the more. At the very least, giving them more to do would have made Woody’s latest story arc more meaningful.

To be the weakest of the four Toy Story movies isn’t too bad of a detriment, however. It just means that Toy Story 4 is a highly enjoyable movie whose older siblings happen to be all-time greats. I watched Toy Story 4 a few times in preparation for this review, and greatly enjoyed it every time I saw it. But it’s also the only Toy Story film that wasn’t constantly buzzing in my head afterwards. It makes for a wonderful viewing experience, but it somehow doesn’t resonate and stick with you like the preceding three films did (and still do).

Yes, Toy Story 4 is more than a good enough film that it should silence the hypocritically predictable cynics who cried fowl at its very existence (can we just admit that sequels can be art just as easily as original films now?). It tells a solid story that makes the best with what it has, and does so with some of the most colorful and vibrant animation yet seen in a Pixar film. But the fact that Pixar saw fit to stretch out Woody’s story arc while making the rest of the returning cast less important than ever doesn’t exactly justify the necessity of the series continuing past Toy Story 3’s conclusion.

While the Toy Story series is known for bringing adult audiences to tears, I feel that Toy Story 4 – though delivering on emotion – is only able to go so far with it. It creates something similar to what the other films did in regards to tugging at the heart strings, but only to an extent. We’ve seen Woody go through such existential crises before, so to see his inner turmoil boil back to the surface seems redundant, and somewhat undoes some of the development the preceding films gave him. Perhaps if Buzz or Jessie were given a chance in the spotlight, Toy Story 4 might have felt less like it’s treading familiar ground (even this entry’s Randy Newman song, I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away, seems like it’s going through the motions, and feels like the film rushes to get it out of the way early on).

Toy Story 4 is an interesting case. Yes, it is indeed a really good movie that I greatly enjoy. But it also seems like Pixar missed an opportunity here to delve deeper with the other Toy Story characters, which would have made the continuation of the series feel more earned. For all its merits, with the story Pixar chose to tell through Toy Story 4, it feels more like Toy Story 3-2. On its own, Toy Story 4 is a winner. But when you remember what it’s a following act to, it does fall short of its series’ exceedingly high standards.

 

7

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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?

 

8

Very, Very Late: My Favorite Movie of 2017

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

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

 

Winner: Coco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Incredibles is the Best Super Hero Movie Franchise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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Cars 3 Review

Pixar’s resume has built such a prestige over the years, that the release of a new film from the studio is often cause for celebration. Though it was a little harder to get too excited for Cars 3. While 2006’s Cars was a good enough movie, it was far from Pixar’s best. Its 2011 sequel, Cars 2, broke Pixar’s then-undefeated streak of quality films, and was the first flat-out bad Pixar movie. But the Cars franchise remains Pixar’s biggest merchandise seller, so here we are with a third entry in the series.

I tend to favor the Andy Warhol outlook in believing that, just because something is made with commercial intentions, it doesn’t automatically disqualify it as art. And Cars 3 ended up being a good example of just that. While it certainly won’t be in discussions of Pixar’s finest achievements, Cars 3 manages to avoid the pitfalls of its immediate predecessor and delivers a heartfelt (if familiar) tale that justifies the series’ continuation.

First thing’s first, Cars 3, in many ways, seems like an apology to audiences for Cars 2. None of the original characters from the second film return (which is a little bit of a shame, as I actually enjoyed Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer’s characters, despite the film they were stuck in). Perhaps even more notably, Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), the comic foil of the first film who was the miscast star of the second, has a completely minimized role; only appearing in a small number of scenes and with few spoken lines of dialogue. The role of comic relief is mostly passed on to series mainstays Luigi (Tony Shalhoub) and Guido (Guido Quaroni), as well as newcomer Cruz Remirez (Cristela Alonzo), who serves as Lightning McQueen’s new trainer.

Speaking of Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), the red race car is back to where he belongs as the central character in the film. Taking place a good deal of time after the events of the second film, Lightning McQueen is now a veteran racer, and he’s beginning to be upstaged by younger, newer racers who are changing the game to such an extent that many of Lightning’s old friends and rivals on the racetrack are heading for retirement. One newcomer in particular, Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), is proving to be a thorn in Lightning’s side.

During one such race, Lightning – desperate to beat Storm and prove he’s not ready to hang it up – overdoes himself and ends up in a terrible crash. Lightning fears he may end up like his mentor, Doc Hudson, and be forced into retirement without getting the chance to show what he has left. From there, Lightning’s sponsors sell their company to billionaire Sterling (Nathan Fillion), who plans to put Lightning through vigorous new training techniques to get him back on the winning side.

When it looks as though Lightning is too old to handle these new training methods, Sterling wishes to send Lightning into a quiet retirement, and continue his legacy through branding. Lightning, wanting to decide for himself when he’s done, makes a bet with Sterling. If Lightning can win one more big race, then he gets to continue to race for as long as he sees fit. But if Lightning doesn’t win, he will agree to retirement. Sterling assigns Cruz Ramirez to help train McQueen who – along with Luigi and Guido – are ready to do whatever they need to make sure Lightning continues racing.

It’s a simple enough premise, and echoes the 2006 original in a number of scenes (I suppose playing it safe to what worked just fine is better than whatever happened with Cars 2). But Cars 3 has enough heart to hold its own as a film.

The Doc Hudson character (voiced by Paul Newman in the original Cars) was the heart and soul of the first film. When Paul Newman passed away in between the first two films, the character was written out of the sequel. An understandable choice on the part of the filmmakers, but no doubt the absence of the first film’s best character was one of the many aspects that left the second film feeling so empty. Cars 3 finds a way to keep the character’s presence intact in a way that’s still respectful to Newman, with flashbacks involving both returning dialogue from the first film, as well as unused lines recorded by Newman. It also helps this threequel that Doc Hudson’s passing is actually used as a thematic point, and not just present in a throwaway line like in Cars 2.

The film as a whole has a nice message about growing older and continuing what you love, even if the world may suggest you’re passed your prime. And the presence of Doc Hudson brings back the heart the second film so sorely lacked. But it’s Cruz Ramirez who gives Cars 3 an identity separate from the first film, with her relationship and interactions with Lightning McQueen standing out as high points for the entire Cars series. And she even proves to be effective comic relief.

Cars 3 is also a beautifully animated film. Though it uses many of the same characters and assets as the other films in the series, Cars 3 looks sleeker and more eye-popping than ever. The racing and action scenes in particular, are quite stunning to behold.

If there’s any fault to be had with Cars 3, it’s simply that it is unambitious. Perhaps it has its reasons for playing things safe after Cars 2, but the similarities to the first film in Cars 3’s narrative are more than a few. And as unfair of a complaint as this may sound, the concept behind the Cars movies has always been far more creatively limited than Pixar’s other works. There’s only so much that can be done with talking cars both in terms of  their movements in animation and the stories they can tell. Cars 3 does the best with what it has, and is certainly a worthwhile rectification for the Cars series, but if one were to compare it with Pixar films such as Inside Out, The Incredibles or Wall-E, then Cars 3 falls drastically short.

With all that said, Cars 3 is a fun movie from start to finish. Its fast-paced action, coupled with its exquisite animation and charming characters (also including Doc Hudson’s former crew chief Smokey, voiced by Chris Cooper) make for a film that children can easily love, and one that may prove surprisingly entertaining for adults.

 

6

November is Animation Month!

Moana

While I still plan on reviewing a few video games in November, for the most part, I’m going to dedicate this month to catching up on my reviews for animated films. It seems like my animation reviews have taken a backseat for far too long now, so I figured prioritizing them for a month would be a nice way to get things back on track.

I figured November would be a good time to do this, because later this month, Disney’s Moana will be released. Seeing as Disney is the most popular animation studio in the world, the release of their latest animated film seemed like a good excuse to get this going.

I have a lineup of Disney animation reviews I want to get done before then, but I should also be writing on other animated films as well, notably Pixar and Studio Ghibli.

This also gives me an excuse to get back to writing some of those lists I had planned back in my “Pixar month” back in June (which sadly fell flat with very little to it).

Again, I’ll still be writing some video game stuff, but November will be mostly dedicated to animated films. Of course, this may change some of the plans I had for December (meaning my list of Best Games Ever may be delayed for the umpteenth time), but nothing’s set in stone just yet. So I guess I’ll keep you posted in that area.

For now, I hope you enjoy whatever I end up writing about animated films.