Tag Archives: Pixar

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.

 

9.0

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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.

 

7.5

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.

Finding Dory Review

Finding Dory

Its becoming something of a trend for Pixar to focus its sequels on the sidekick characters of their films. On one hand, this makes sense, as original films often end with a good deal of closure, and the stories of their main character and plot don’t lend themselves for particularly interesting continuation. Then of course there’s the fact that the sidekicks tend to be the most popular characters in any Disney or Pixar movie. From the days of the Seven Dwarfs all the up to the present with Frozen’s Olaf, the “Disney sidekick” has become something of an archetype of its own, and regularly provides a film’s most iconic character.

On the other hand, focusing a story on a character that wasn’t intended to be at the center of things can be a risky move, as was proven with Cars 2, which showed that Mater was a character created solely to provide comic relief, and could not carry a story as its central focus.

Thankfully, Dory is far more of an actual character than Mater ever was, and showed a wider range of actions and emotions within Finding Nemo. And her presence at the heart of its sequel only reveals what a compelling character the regal blue tang really is.

While Finding Dory could have simply been a cash-in sequel banking on the character’s popularity, it is evident from the very first scene that Pixar and director Andrew Stanton brought their A-game when developing the sequel to what is likely the studio’s most beloved film.

Finding DoryThe opening immediately gives Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) a whole new depth. Her short-term memory loss, which was a source of comedic relief in the first film, is now revealed to be a far more serious disability, as the scene depicts a moment from Dory’s childhood where her parents try to teach her different ways to deal with her problem should she be separated from them (to varying degrees of success). As anyone who has seen the first film knows, Dory is eventually separated from her parents, with her memory loss making her forget where they are and, eventually, who they are.

It’s an effectively emotional opener that is especially notable for how it turns two comedic aspects of the first film into great backdrops for its own story. Along with Dory’s recurring memory loss, her passing reference to not knowing the whereabouts of her parents was little more than a punchline in Finding Nemo. Yet that small reference and Dory’s forgetful nature have been turned into something deeper, and successfully manage to carry this long-awaited follow-up.

After the first scene, the film picks up one year after the events of the first film, with Dory living among Marlin the clownfish (Albert Brooks), his son Nemo (Hayden Rolence) and many other fish. One day, while spending the day with Nemo and his friends as they visit a stingray migration for a field trip, Dory is reminded of a past event in her life, brining back memories of her parents in the process. She then remembers that she was searching for her parents before she ran into Marlin during the first film, and begins missing her parents all over again, and thus continues her search for them.

Admittedly, the events that lead into Dory’s continued journey to find her parents feels a little rushed, but it is a small price to pay for when said journey pays off. Marlin and Nemo accompany Dory on her adventure, which at first almost seems to be a retread of the events of the original film as they begin their search across the ocean. But it is soon revealed that Dory was not always from the ocean, and that her parents still live in a marine life institute in California, where she was born. It’s in this marine life institute where most of the film’s action takes place.

Finding Dory manages to greatly differentiate itself from Finding Nemo largely due to the change in setting. While the ocean certainly provides plenty of room for multiple adventures, this sequel is wise to change things up. While Finding Nemo was more akin to an on-the-road adventure, with a new character around every corner, Finding Dory is more focused on the main characters and their stories than it is on the scope of the adventure.

Finding DoryThat’s not to say that no new characters come into play. Joining Dory, Marlin and Nemo are a new set of characters who prove to be every bit as memorable. A near-sighted whale shark named Destiny (Kaitlin Olson) and a worrying beluga whale named Bailey (Ty Burrell) are old pals of Dory (explaining her ability to “speak whale”), while a trio of sea lions provide some great comic relief, as they obsess over sleeping on a rock. The main new addition, however, is an octopus named Hank (Ed O’Neill), whose bitter and curmudgeonly nature make him a perfect new foil for Dory, as Marlin’s role in the film is reduced.

As you might expect from a Pixar film, Finding Dory is beautifully animated. The characters and environments are all wonderfully constructed, with the ocean segments capturing a similar realism to that of the first film, while the events of the marine life institute give a whole new visual life to the franchise. Hank alone is one of the most detailed animated characters in recent memory, as his squishyness and tentacles give him unique movements, and his ability to camouflage providing some great visual gags.

Finding Dory also boasts an almost-surprisingly terrific musical score. Finding Nemo similarly had a beautiful soundtrack, but what stands out about Finding Dory’s score is how rarely it falls back on old tunes, instead building an identity of its own with its music, which is no less beautiful than it was in the first film.

Finding DorySome may lament that many characters from the Finding Nemo – such as the sharks – are absent, but in the end it works for the best. Finding Dory manages to tell a story of its own instead of simply pandering to our memories of the original, as so many sequels do.

Finding Dory has a heart, and a lot of it, which is certainly more than you can say for most sequels. It not only builds on its leading character beautifully, but it also has something of its own to say. While Finding Nemo was all about a parent’s love and devotion to his son, Finding Dory is a story bout living with, and dealing with, disability. This makes Dory thematically unique to Nemo, and furthers Pixar’s ability to tell a wide range of stories.

Perhaps Finding Dory’s greatest accomplishment, however, is how it takes such little details from its predecessor and turns them into not only a compelling and worthwhile sequel, but one of the best sequels in recent memory. It takes a number of cues from its predecessor, but its best bits are those that are its own, or the small things from the original that it turns into something more. This speaks truest for its heroine herself. Dory was always the most remembered character from Finding Nemo, but with the newfound depth this sequel gives her, she’s downright unforgettable.

 

8.5

Top 5 Pixar Soundtracks

Though Pixar’s films tend to lack the big musical numbers that make the soundtracks of Disney’s animated films so iconic, they’ve still provided audiences with some fantastic and largely underrated soundtracks. Even without the Broadway-style songs, Pixar films have featured soundtracks that rank up there with Disney’s and Studio Ghibli’s as some of the best music in animated films.

This begs the question as to which Pixar soundtracks are the best of the lot? While everyone is sure to have their own say-so, the following are what I consider to be Pixar’s best soundtracks. So if you’re a fan of film scores, I highly recommend giving each of them a purchase and repeated, obsessive replays.

One more thing, this list represents Pixar soundtracks as a whole, not individual pieces of music. Though I will highlight some of my favorites from each soundtrack. With that out of the way, let’s get to the top five! Continue reading

Finding Nemo Review

Finding Nemo

It wouldn’t be the slightest bit of a stretch to call Finding Nemo a modern classic. When it was released in 2003, Finding Nemo became a worldwide cultural phenomenon. For a time, it was the highest-grossing animated film in the world, and I think it’s safe to say it was probably the most popular animated film ever released up until Frozen hit theaters over a decade later. Pixar had made a name for themselves with the Toy Story films, Monsters, Inc. and A Bug’s Life beforehand, but Finding Nemo was the film that put them at the top of the mountain of animated films, where they have more or less remained ever since. The success of Finding Nemo certainly isn’t undeserved, as it remains an absolutely charming and heartfelt feature.

Finding NemoFinding Nemo tells the story of Marlin the clownfish (Albert Brooks), and his son Nemo (Alexader Gould). The film opens in tragedy. Marlin and his wife Coral are expecting parents, with hundreds of eggs ready to hatch, when a barracuda emerges and knocks Marlin unconscious. When he awakes, Marlin discovers his wife is gone, along with all but one of their eggs. He names the remaining child Nemo, and promises to never let anything happen to him.

It’s quite a shocking opener, to be honest, but an effective one, as it immediately sets the tone for the film in motion, as well as making Marlin an appropriately sympathetic hero. Disney films often feature overprotective parents, but rarely show audiences their perspective of things. What director Andrew Stanton did here was give Marlin an entirely justifiable means for both the character’s motivations and his flaws. You can’t help but feel for Marlin, even during the times when he’s in the wrong.

The main plot kicks in a few years later, as Nemo is preparing for his first day of school. An argument with Marlin upsets Nemo, who tries to spite his father by doing something reckless, which ends with the young clownfish getting nabbed by a scuba diver and taken away. Marlin panics and gives chase, but quickly loses sight of his son onboard the speeding boat.

Finding NemoMarlin then makes it his mission to find his son and fulfill his promise, even if it takes him across the entire ocean. Marlin ends up being accompanied on his adventure by Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), a regal blue tang who suffers from a severe case of short-term memory loss, and one of Pixar’s greatest creations. Meanwhile, Nemo ends up in the fish tank of a dentist’s office in Australia, where he teams up with a gang of aquatic misfits – lead by a moorish idol named Gill (Willen Dafoe) – to hatch an escape plan.

Finding NemoThe story is filled to the brim with heart and humor, with some of Pixar’s best writing up to that point. Just about every character, from the main heroes to those with smaller roles whom Marlin comes across on his journey (including a surfer dude sea turtle named Crush, voiced by director Andrew Stanton himself), leaves a lasting impression.

Another highlight of the film is the animation itself. Water-based stories and animation have a history of going together like peanut butter and jelly, and Finding Nemo remains sound proof that it’s a combination made in heaven. The imagery still looks stunning, and each character shows the effort and dedication that went into giving all of these aquatic animals personalities. It’s a beautiful film to look at from the first frame to the last.

On the musical side of things, Finding Nemo also boasts one of Pixar’s best soundtracks, with musical themes that beautifully capture the serenity and ambiance of the ocean, along with more – *ahem* – bubbly tracks to go with them.

Finding NemoTo put it simply, Finding Nemo is simply a great movie for audiences of any age. It’s cute, fun and relatable to children, while also being equally so for the adult crowd. Much like Monsters, Inc., the only real downside may be that Pixar has since bettered it. Pixar followed up Nemo with the strikingly sophisticated The Incredibles a little over a year later, and director Andrew Stanton would eventually create Wall-E, which would use a similar sophistication to magnify the feelings Nemo started. But if simply falling a little short of some of its creators’ other works is its only real drawback, then Finding Nemo has certainly done well for itself. It holds up – *ahem* – swimmingly.

If you’re looking for a great film to bring a smile to your face, and perhaps a tear or two to your eyes, you can never go wrong with Finding Nemo, no matter your age, and no matter how many times you’ve seen it.

 

9.0

Pixar Month Continues!

Monsters, Inc.

I feel a bit guilty. Despite declaring June to be Disney/Pixar Month, I have only added two reviews and an impressions article as far as Pixar-related content goes since the start of the month. Unfortunately, you see, that no-good SOB known as “Real Life” has been rearing his ugly head as of late, and prevented me from blogging as frequently as I’d like to.

So within the next few weeks, I will continue my Pixar “Month,” even if that means it spills over well into July. recompense, and all that.

Now, I’ll still write whatever else I have the time and interest to write, but I will make a special note to write at least a few more Pixar-based reviews (including Finding Dory), as well as the following Pixar-related lists, in the coming weeks: Top 5 Pixar Soundtracks, Top 10 Pixar Voice Over Performances, Top 10 Tear-Inducing Pixar Moments, a list of Best Pixar Characters (I may need to go over 10 for that one), and a revised version of my ranking of every Pixar film from least to greatest.

There you go, my apology to myself for my rather slow Pixar Month thus far. Hopefully the fact that I’ve now written this down will give me the proper motivation to pump out all this content. So be on the lookout, I guess.

Finding Nemo