Cars 2 (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Secret agent Finn McMissile (voiced by Michael Caine) was tracking a group of vehicular criminals, seemingly led by Professor Z (Thomas Kretschmann), conspiring to persuade the public that Allinol, an alternative fuel to gasoline, was bad. When his identity was compromised, he had no choice but to send the inexperienced but charming Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) out in the field. Meanwhile, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) was invited to participate in the first World Grand Prix and he decided to take Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), his best friend, with him. While in Japan, Mater was mistaken as an American spy by Holley. Based on the screenplay by Ben Queen, “Cars 2” was an improvement from John Lasseter and Joe Ranft’s “Cars” in terms of pacing. Still, it left much to be desired. From the first scene, I felt myself detached. Watching a car fling itself from one side of the ship to another like Spider-man had a certain bubbly creative energy, but it didn’t draw me into getting to know that character. The animation, as usual, was well-done. Vibrant colors were abound and it made my eyes want to linger on certain images even if the images were moving so quickly. The vroom-vroom sounds in the foreground and the background chatter and screams of fans complemented each other so they created an exciting mood prior to the race. The colors and sounds matched the country the cars were in. For example, while in Japan, indoor neon lights were prevalent, but while in Italy, outdoor natural light took center stage. I wish the friendship between Mater and Lightning McQueen was taken on a new level. They essentially learned the same lesson in the first film which made the entire oeuvre a bit déjà vu, stale, lacking genuine tension. When the duo got into a disagreement in Japan, it was too early in the picture and it didn’t help that they spent most of the time apart before and after that point. The decision of making Mater the center of the story was not entirely a good one. He was amusing to watch because he was a clown, a stereotypical hillbilly American who hadn’t experienced city life. I loved the scene where he thought that the wasabi was free ice cream. The server put a little dot on his plate. Mater, unimpressed, insisted that the server added more because it was free anyway. Things didn’t go well for the tow truck when he put a plateful of wasabi in his mouth. But the same type of joke was recycled over and over: Mater put himself in an awkward situation and he made a complete fool of himself. I wanted different types and more sources of comedy. What about Lightning McQueen and his rivalry with the vain Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro), both on and off the race track? It would have been great if Sally (Bonnie Hunt) was forced to choose between the two celebrities. After all, there was a theme about home life versus life in the fast lane. “Cars 2,” directed by John Lasseter and Brad Lewis, was an unnecessary sequel to a barely mediocre first outing. In the middle of all the car crashes and gasoline versus alternative fuel debates, I started to wonder about the money it took to create the sequel and how that money could’ve been used to make an entirely new Pixar movie with a genuinely moving story and lovable characters.
Waking Sleeping Beauty (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
I grew up on Disney’s late 1980s to mid-1990s animated movies like Ron Clements and John Musker’s “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin,” Hendel Butoy and Mike Gabriel’s lesser-known “The Rescuers Down Under,” and Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff’s “The Lion King,” but I don’t know much about the history of the team behind such hits so I just had to watch this film. With their successes, it’s difficult to imagine, let alone appreciate, the hardships the artists went through to release commercially-pleasing projects and at the same time ward off their competitors (Steven Spielberg, working for a different company at the time, was actually one of them). And that’s exactly what this film was about: To tell the story of the behind-the-scenes struggles the writers, artists, and leaders in the company who had no choice but to live up to Walt Disney’s many profound accomplishments. I thought it was fascinating in the way it explored the collision of vastly different ideas in how to launch a story and how those ideas cost millions of dollars, while only a minute amount ended up on screen. When the documentary showed us how much of the sketches ended up in recycling, the voice inside my head couldn’t help but yell out a resounding, “No! Don’t throw all of that hard work in the trash!” I learned a whole lot from the film and, in a way, it changed the way I saw the animated movies I cherished as a child. I didn’t know that “The Rescuers Down Under” (a box-office flop upon its release and, to this day, highly underrated) was Disney’s first ever animated film made digitally. I thought that each frame was drawn by hand but looking back on it, the images looked sharper and more defined than its predecessors. I almost wanted to see the movie again so I could observe the risks that the animators took in order to release movies at a much faster rate. The documentary also tackled the issue of the workers’ debilitating health. Since the animation studios’ projects were hit-and-miss, at some point the workers were not properly compensated; they had to draw all night and come to work in the morning with uncontrollable shaking of the hands, while some suffered long-term carpal tunnel syndrome. I thought the company’s goal of releasing one Disney movie per year was unrealistic considering the amount work the team had to inject in each project. “Waking Sleeping Beauty,” directed by Don Hahn, is a required viewing for those who love classic Disney animated films and are children at heart. There were some fun and touching appearances from Tim Burton, Howard Ashman, and John Lasseter, but watching it should make us appreciate the talent behind the art we feel like we have a deep connection with.
Toy Story 2 (1999)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Andy (voice of John Morris) was about to leave for cowboy summer camp with plans of taking Woody (Tom Hanks) with him, but after Woody’s arm had a small rip, Andy decided not to take his favorite toy and was shelved–a place where unwanted toys were placed. After Woody rescued a fellow unwanted toy from a garage sale, Woody himself ended up on the sale where a toy collector (Wayne Knight) spotted Woody and realized how valuable he was. Despite Andy’s mom making it clear to the toy collector that Woody was not for sale, the toy collector stole Woody and sold him to someone residing in Japan. We then get to learn who Woody really was such as his relationship with the cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), Bullseye, and Stinky Pete (Kelsey Grammer). “Toy Story 2,” directed by John Lasseter, promised to be bigger than the original with its epic opening sequence in outer space in which Buzz finally faced the evil Zorg. And, in some ways, “Toy Story 2” is arguably bigger and better than the original. I thought the jokes were far more creative and funnier (the happy meal joke was spot-on and I never saw it coming), the supporting characters had more defined roles and it served as a complement to the first installment in which Woody was the one needing to be rescued this time around. Furthermore, it felt that much more personal. We learned more about Woody and the picture began to ask deeper questions about his relationship with Andy; it even hinted at several moving elements that were tackled head-on in “Toy Story 3” such as Andy moving on without his toys and the toys having to accept that reality and they, too, had to move on from Andy being their owner. In a nutshell, “Toy Story 2” had more mature content than its predecessor but the energy was as childlike–one of the main reasons why we fell in love with the franchise in the first place. I was very moved by the scene that showed us Jessie’s relationship with her former owner–how the owner grew up over the years but Jessie remained the same. It made her sad and angry and we came understand why she was so bitter about Woody desperately wanting to return to Andy. As emotional as those scenes were, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles), Slinky Dog (Jim Varney), Rex (Wallace Shawn), and Hamm’s (John Ratzenberger) big adventures in the streets and a toy store provided an excellent balance of laugh-out-loud humor and imagination. “Toy Story 2” was a transitory phase which delivered the fun and heart we expected but multiplied by ten.
Toy Story (1995)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A cowboy toy named Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) felt like he was going to be replaced as Andy’s favorite toy when Andy (John Morris) received a spaceman toy named Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) for his birthday. Out of jealousy, Woody tried to get rid of Buzz and the two, after a series of adventures, ended up right next door–where another boy named Sid (Erik von Detten) lived and had a penchant for ordering explosives and blowing up his toys to smithereens. Buzz and Woody then had to work together in order to escape and return to Andy’s care before his family finished packing to move to another house. It is no stranger that Pixar’s first animated film was an international success because it was able to deliver state-of-the-art animation without sacrificing Indiana Jones-like adventure and witty sense of humor. It also had a real sense of danger denoted in scenes where Woody and Buzz had to face the neighbor’s toys after Sid performed cruel surgeries on them. At the same time, there were lessons in scary and dangerous scenes, especially for kids, such as not judging something solely based on its appearance and how creativity and imagination can triumph over the most seemingly insurmountable challenges. There were even lessons about empathy and taking care of the things we own. The picture really was multidimensional in terms of story and the meanings we could extract from the visuals and the script. Even though the characters’ faces looked more wooden and had sharper angles compared to its sequels, “Toy Story,” directed by John Lasseter, is something special because each character had a memorable characteristic and was able to contribute something crucial to the project. Some stand-out scenes include Woody and Buzz meeting green aliens who believed that if they were chosen by The Claw, they would go to a better place, when post-surgery toys acted like zombies in order to teach Sid a lesson, and when Woody and Buzz had to chase Andy’s car in which failure meant losing their friend forever. Based on the screenplay by Joss Whedon, Andrew Stanton, Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow, “Toy Story” proved that animation was not just for children as long as the story had an element of uniqueness that the audiences could invest in. And just like classic films, animated movies could also be timeless not just in terms of visuals but the universal emotions we couldn’t help but feel every time we would watch them.