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Entries in Pixar (4)

Thursday
Jun202013

Monsters University

With last year’s middling, but still solid, “Brave” and 2011’s “Cars 2,” the only movie ever to receive negative reviews from the otherwise untouchable Pixar, people began to question whether or not the animation studio had lost its edge. Their warm, emotional and downright brilliant movies like “Up,” “Wall-E” and the “Toy Story” franchise had devolved into kiddie fare (as opposed to the family friendly movies that had come before and were accessible to everyone) with simplistic themes and unimpressive stories. Well, it looks like they’re back on track with “Monsters University,” a wholeheartedly impressive movie that takes a subject from the wonders of a child’s imagination and injects it with a truthful examination on failed dreams and the meaning of friendship.

The movie begins with Young Mike (Noah Johnston). He’s a happy-go-lucky kid with a wonderfully positive attitude despite his classmates’ negativity towards him. While on a field trip to Monsters Inc., the company responsible for scaring children and powering the monster world with their screams, he finds his calling. He’s going to be the greatest scarer that ever lived. Now he’s all grown up and Mike (Billy Crystal) is headed off to college at Monsters University. His entire life has led up to this moment and nothing will stand in the way of him achieving his dream. However, when it’s decided he’s just simply not scary, he’s taken out of Scare School along with the unfocused Sully (John Goodman). But his determination won’t keep him down, so he partners with the dorkiest fraternity on campus, Oozma Kappa, and his newfound frenemy to compete in the school hosted Scare Games. If they win, they’ll all be allowed back into Scare School and Mike will have a second chance at achieving his dreams.

And if you’ve seen “Monsters Inc.,” you know he doesn’t. While Sully goes onto break records while scaring children at night, Mike is relegated to sidekick, the unsung hero who lives vicariously through Sully. Yet as a child and a college student, Mike just knows that if he works hard, his aspirations will naturally fall into place. He has a naiveté that many in his position share, unaware of the fact that no matter how much you want something and no matter how hard you work for it, it may not pan out. Life throws curveballs and takes you down different roads than you originally imagined.

It’s a brave stance to take in a kid friendly movie and is opposite of the “you can be whatever you want to be” message so many kids are exposed to these days. It may even seem like a negative stance, but the opposite turns out to be true. Although the movie takes an honest look at failed dreams and shows that life sometimes doesn’t work out the way you had planned, it’s ultimately a hopeful and encouraging movie because it shows that other skills can lead to happiness and success. It emphasizes the idea that one dream crushed is another dream created and even though Mike is initially disheartened by the sudden realization that his lifelong dream will never come to fruition, he discovers other opportunities in his strengths.

This is exactly the type of theme Pixar needed to tackle, one that is necessary for children, but also relatable to adults. Very few people have lived their lives and achieved their one lifelong dream, so many in the audience may be shocked to see such a truthful representation of themselves in a movie about monsters learning to scare children. As far as storytelling goes, “Monsters University” is nearly flawless, if only one little inconsistency that fails to connect the two movies didn’t rear its ugly head. In “Monsters Inc.,” Mike specifically says to Sully, “You’ve been jealous of my good looks since the fourth grade,” implying that they have known each other nearly all their lives. But in “Monsters University,” they’re meeting for the first time at college. Although relatively minor in the big scheme of things, the stories of the two movies don’t connect as they should, which is a cardinal sin for any sequel or prequel.

Nevertheless, the most important aspect of “Monsters Inc.” carries over without a hitch: its amiable charm. In terms of pure wit, this is perhaps the cleverest movie Pixar has done since, well, “Monsters Inc.” As Mike walks down the main university strip on his first day, for instance, he passes by the debate team led by a monster with two heads that can’t seem to agree with each other and the improv club that can’t even improvise their pitch to get him to join. These small moments are delightful and really give the film a humorous appeal.

I’ll admit, I was skeptical of Pixar after their last couple films, especially when those disappointments followed their three best and most mature efforts to date, “Wall-E,” “Up” and “Toy Story 3,” but they’ve renewed my faith in them after this. “Monsters University” is gorgeously animated, wonderfully voiced (with additional help from John Krasinski, Nathan Fillion, Charlie Day, Aubrey Plaza and Helen Mirren as the Dean of the school) and all around magical. It’s that rare film that mixes childlike wonder with adult themes while never neglecting the details that are needed to bring the world to life. “Monsters University” is a joyous experience.

Monsters University receives 5/5

Friday
Jun222012

Brave

It’s unreasonable to expect Pixar to put out an animated classic every year. To keep up a standard of excellence as good as Wall-E, Up and Toy Story 3 would be near impossible and last year, the seemingly infallible studio had its first bust with Cars 2. The film, while fast paced and colorful, was missing the character relationships that were so strong in its predecessor. It was missing the emotion and the humanity (yes, there was humanity in those machines). For the first time, Pixar made a bad movie. It’s too early to tell if that was the beginning of the end of quality entertainment from the studio, but judging from their newest release, Brave, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Brave isn’t amazing and when compared to Pixar’s other 12 full length releases, it’s closer to the bottom than it is to the top, but at least it’s good and it offers some substance to complement its gorgeous visuals.

The film follows the young Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) as she approaches her betrothal. For her entire life, her mother, Queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson), has prepared her for this moment, where young men from competing kingdoms will compete for her hand in marriage. The problem is Merida doesn’t want to get married. She wants to be free, able to ride the countryside on her horse and practice her archery as she sees fit. Prim and proper isn’t her way of approaching life, so to avoid marriage, she buys a spell from a witch in the nearby woods. The spell is meant to change her mother so she won’t feel it necessary to force Merida into marriage, but the spell instead changes her into a bear. This threatens her safety as her father, King Fergus (voiced by Billy Connolly), is an avid bear hunter and has been ever since a mysterious bear took his leg years ago. Furthermore, two sunrises from now, her mother will be changed forever, so she must hurry if she wishes to break the spell.

What was sorely missing so much in Cars 2 is central to Brave. This isn’t about dazzle; it’s about human relationships—more specifically, mother-daughter relationships—and the bond the two eternally have. It’s about listening and trying to understand each other even when you disagree. It’s a simple message to be sure, but it’s one that speaks to both children and parents that highlights the importance of love and understanding. The theme is presented perhaps a bit too on-the-nose, however, considering that after Queen Elinor is turned into a bear all she can do is listen. The movie doesn’t set up a scenario where the characters discuss how they feel about the situation. It instead thrusts them into a situation where one is forced to hear the other out. The script obviously had a thematic goal in mind, but it doesn’t seem to know how to get there without literal interpretations. The script is anything but subtle and as far as writing goes, when isolated from the movies they represent, Brave is one of Pixar’s weakest.

The writers don’t even take the time to map out a proper villain, instead throwing in another spellbound human in a similar situation as Queen Elinor to make things a bit more dangerous and further enforce its theme of mother-daughter love as forcefully as possible. Where they succeed is in the creation of Merida’s little brothers, identical triplets named Harris, Hubert and Hamish. They don’t speak a word the entire movie, but they’re easily the best characters in it. They’re energetic, mischievous and very funny and the antics they pull off, both for their own benefit and to help out their family, are endlessly amusing. Their rascally behavior usually means pranking others, which leads to enough slapstick to fill a Kevin James movie, but it’s harmless in its approach and provides the biggest laughs.

But the feeling of disappointment lingers on. A movie as good as this one would be a delight if coming from another studio, but Pixar is capable of so much more. Nevertheless, this is a step in the right direction. If Cars 2 was three steps back, Brave is two steps forward. It doesn’t come close to matching the brilliance of their best, but it’s also a far cry from mediocrity. Some people lost some faith in the studio last year and Brave won’t completely restore it, but it will give them cause for optimism that Pixar hasn’t lost their touch. They’re just saving it for something special.

Brave receives 3.5/5

Friday
Jun242011

Cars 2

Throughout the years, Pixar has come to be the most reliable production studio in Hollywood. Their movies have been so good, the fact that they’re animated has meant little. Animated or otherwise, Pixar films rank among the top movies of the last 16 years (going all the way back to 1995’s Toy Story). They have had a perfect track record, eleven for eleven (or more if you include their wonderful short films), but it seems that record is now tainted. I never thought I’d see the day, but it has come. Pixar has made a bad movie and its name is Cars 2.

The film takes place a few years after Cars. Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) has just returned to Radiator Springs after winning his 4th Piston Cup. His best friend, Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), is ecstatic that he’s home and has big plans for his buddy. However, they soon hear of the first ever World Grand Prix, a race that is going to be done exclusively with Allinol, an alternative fuel source being promoted by the World Grand Prix founder, Sir Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard), and head off to compete in that instead. Little do they know, an evil organization of clunkers, fearful of becoming obsolete, is out to destroy the cars during the race in an attempt to delegitimize Allinol. In a series of mix-ups, Mater finds himself participating in a mission of international espionage with secret agents Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), who are trying to find and stop the evil mastermind behind the sabotage before it’s too late.

Except for perhaps A Bug’s Life, the original Cars is Pixar’s worst film because it is largely for children. The thematic complexity of many of their other films was all but missing. Nevertheless, it was still a good movie with a heartfelt, if overdone, message about figuring out what’s really important and finding your bliss. In that film, Lightning grew as a character and learned that there was more to life than winning races and awards. Cars 2 has nothing like that. The deepest it goes is “be nice to your friends,” which may be great for the little ones in the audience, but won’t do much for anyone who has already hit puberty. In some ways, it’s commendable to see Pixar put out a wholesome, inoffensive film solely for children—there aren’t too many of those these days—but it’s also extremely disappointing because they’re capable of so much more. In the last few years, we’ve gazed in awe at the wonders that were Wall-E, Up and Toy Story 3, Pixar’s three most mature films to date. To see them take such a puerile leap backwards is disheartening to say the least.

Even with those problems in consideration, Cars 2 has a lazy, poorly developed story and an out-of-place eco-friendly message. Its call for a renewable fuel resource, however admirable it may be, will undoubtedly go over children’s heads and come off as preachy and unnecessary to the adults. Had the story been fleshed out more than what is presented, perhaps the message could have worked, but it’s not. Essentially, Cars 2 is a James Bond film with automobiles, but the problem is simply putting cars into a Bond-like scenario is not enough. Something must be done with it to make it memorable, but there’s no parody of action movie clichés (something that the excellent Kung Fu Panda 2 nailed several times), no homage to Bond elements (aside from a few character names like the aforementioned Holly Shiftwell) and no unique twist to the already worn down spy story.

As with the first film, Larry the Cable Guy is the best part of Cars 2. He puts real effort into his performance as opposed to Owen Wilson who sounds like he’s just taken a heavy dose of Nyquil and is delivering his lines only minutes before falling asleep. However, a little goes a long way and, like Ken Jeong in The Hangover Part II, his expanded part grows a bit wearisome. In this installment, Mater is the central character and his Southern ignorance becomes less and less charming as time goes on.

As should be evident by now, even the film’s positives are hampered by their own distinct negatives. The 3D, for instance, isn’t as obtrusive as other movies thanks to Cars 2’s bright and colorful nature, but it’s still unnecessary and produces more noticeable double vision than most other films in recent memory. Simply put, Pixar dropped the ball on this one. Cars 2 is hands down and by a wide margin the worst, most inaccessible Pixar film to date. And as much as I hate to say it, it’s also the first one that is not worth seeing.

Cars 2 receives 1.5/5

Friday
Jun182010

Toy Story 3

Things were simpler in the early 90’s. Hollywood worked the way it always had. We had our dramas. We had our comedies. We had our romances. We also had our animated movies, a group of films largely meant to be for children. Most were hand drawn with perhaps a few touch ups from our friendly computers. Then in 1995, along came a little company called Pixar with Toy Story, a film that completely redefined what we could expect from animation, making it a smash hit. Being the first fully computer animated movie certainly helped its cause, but it also provided a story that could be understood and loved by any age, finally proving that animation wasn’t just for children. Four years later, Pixar topped themselves with Toy Story 2. Now eleven years later, it looks like they’ve done it again with the marvelous Toy Story 3, which is easily one of the best films of the year, animated or otherwise.

Andy (John Morris), now grown-up since we last saw him, is about to head to college. His toys he used to have so much fun with have sat in a trunk in his room for the last few years. It seems he’s simply outgrown them. His mother (Laurie Metcalf) explains to him that when he leaves for college, she wants all of his stuff out, including his toys. He needs to stash them up in the attic, throw them out, or take them with him to college, so he makes the decision to take his favorite toy Woody (Tom Hanks) with him while his other toys collect dust. He unwisely packs them in a trash bag, however, and his mother throws them out, but instead of being demolished they end up at Sunnyside Day-Care where they are promised attention from a seemingly gentle teddy bear named Lotso (Ned Beatty). But not all is as it seems and the day-care becomes more like a prison. So now Buzz (Tim Allen), Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris), Hamm (John Ratzenberger), Rex (Wallace Shawn) and the rest of the gang devise a breakout plan under Woody’s supervision, hoping to get home before Andy leaves without him.

When I was a child, I had a very active imagination. Just like the kids in these movies, I used to cherish my toys and play with them as if they were alive. They were my best friends. I used to wonder what they did when they were alone. I wanted to believe they had their own little world outside of my playtime with them and sprang to life when I was gone. Therein lies the brilliance of the original Toy Story. Never before had I seen my thoughts and wonders as a child translated so faithfully. Now I’m an adult. I live in the adult world. I have an adult schedule and I have adult bills to pay. I haven’t even seen my old toys in many years, much less played with them, but for the first time in a very long while, I can feel my imagination springing to life. Toy Story 3 is one of those films that reminds you what it’s like to be a child, jumping and running and having the time of your life. This is a special movie.

At a certain point in your life, you are pressured to give away your cherished possessions. All those dolls and action figures you spent countless hours with simply need to go. But if you’re like me, you felt guilty and simply refused to give them away (I have boxes of action figures under my bed). Like the previous movies, Toy Story 3 taps into this guilt, but its meaning goes much deeper. It’s about clinging onto those memories, but also helping others forge their own. It’s about growing up and learning valuable lessons. It’s about identity. It’s about family. It’s about a host of things that all get to the core of what it’s like to come into adulthood.

And it’s like that for all the characters—plastic, plush, furry or flesh. Woody, Buzz and the gang find their own revelations through the events that unfold. They love Andy and want to be with him, but things don’t seem to be going in that direction. The film's not so much about Andy giving them away, but rather them wanting to do what’s best for Andy. The final scene in this movie, a beautiful one that echoes how the adults in the audience will feel while watching it, wraps the trilogy up perfectly. It closes every door while giving just enough of a glimpse into the future so we know that the gang is in good hands.

Of course, everything before this climactic scene is a joy as well. It’s funny. It’s exciting. It’s scary. It’s heartfelt. It’s what every movie should strive to be. It’s a juggling act of fear, anxiety, humor and tenderness and not a single ball falls. The fluidity of that hectic combination is masterful in itself. Add in the charming usage of sub-genres, including a story flip to what is essentially Escape from Alcatraz with toys, and you have a surefire winner for all ages.

Toy Story 3 is a delight, a tour de force of childlike imagination and spirit. This isn’t simply premature praise for what some may call a pleasant nostalgia trip. It’s much more than that. Toy Story 3 is truly terrific and will be cherished by generations to come.

Toy Story 3 receives 5/5