Tag: pixar

Onward


Onward (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

Dan Scanlon’s “Onward” is what it must be like if Pixar shed away the majority of its convincing rollercoaster of human emotions and taken on the more action-oriented Dreamworks mantra wherein the animation’s color and movement take precedence over telling a genuinely compelling story. This tale about two brothers who get a chance to spend one more day with their deceased father should have been far more emotional and worthy of contemplation. Instead, it is busy, loud, constantly on the move. It stops only when it is time to manipulate the audience into feeling something sad. I didn’t buy it at all.

I must admit I enjoyed looking at the animation initially. This marks the first time that Pixar employs fantasy elements—unicorns, trolls, elves, and the like—while mixing the old with modern touches—cars, cell phones, toaster ovens. It is fun to note the disparities between the past and present, especially since the story’s universe was once rooted upon magic. But because technology is more convenient than magic, it completely changed the creatures’ way of life over time. There are numerous amusing visual jokes that do not attract attention; they are simply there to be appreciated should the viewer bother to look a little closer.

But in Pixar films, being beautiful visually is not enough to warrant a recommendation. It must have a strong heart at its center and it must be explored fully. I think the overall appeal is lost on me because I was never convinced that Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) are actually brothers in conflict. Yes, they are presented as nearly opposites in physicality, personality, and interests, but the screenplay by Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, and Keith Bunin fails to hone in on the complexities of being siblings who are several years apart.

If it did, it would have underscored that although they are different in many ways, these differences may actually complement one another at times. Or that their similarities are so potent, that these superficial differences may be negligible in the long run. Or both. Instead—observe carefully during the first fifteen minutes or so—we are inundated with dialogue that do not say much, slapstick and action that lead nowhere, and boring, barren busyness. And when the material does slow down eventually, note on how it relies on focusing on sad-looking Ian as he contemplates the father he’s never had. I found the formula to be obvious and mechanical.

Ian and Barley’s journey to restore their father’s body is uninteresting for the most part. Their quest involves learning how to cast and control magic, meeting curious creatures, gathering cryptic clues and making sense of them, and being thrown into moments of peril—but there is nothing particularly compelling about the journey. The reason is because the material fails to provide an answer to the question of why Ian and Barley are best suited to take on this quest. They simply… are. I suppose it is due to Ian having a natural talent for magic and Barley possessing knowledge about how mythic quests work (he’s a big fan of Dungeons & Dragons-style board games). But what else?

“Onward” may be intended for children, but Pixar has proven in the past that a movie can be targeted for kids—even very young kids—and still be savagely smart, emotionally true and complex, and wielding an intoxicating sense of adventure. This is why movies like “WALL-E,” “Toy Story 3,” and “Finding Nemo” (to name only a few) are modern classics. And conversely, movies like “Onward,” “Brave,” and all the “Cars” films feel like mere afterthoughts, existing solely to pass the time. We deserve better.

Toy Story 4


Toy Story 4 (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Pixar proves yet again that they understand their audience. Sure, the computer animation is more spectacular than ever. No detail is considered as too small or insignificant even during a most exciting chase or action sequence. The score is consistently on point: carefully calibrated depending on specific emotions being conveyed at a particular moment. But when it all comes down to it, notice that the standout works from this superlative studio are those that possess the most humanity; the medium just so happens to be animation. And “Toy Story 4,” written by Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton, is one of Pixar’s most entertaining works, a welcome installment to an illustrious series.

The screenwriters make the intelligent choice not to tell just another adventure story that unfolds throughout a road trip. Instead, it focuses on an existential note that harkens all the way back to the original “Toy Story”: what happens when a toy is no longer needed, or wanted, by its owner? (What happens when parents recognize that their children no longer needs them?) College-bound Andy handed over Woody (voiced by the inimitable Tom Hanks) and the rest of the gang to Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) at the end of the previous film and this next chapter proves interested in exploring—not just showing—what happens next. The masterstroke, I think, is that although the gang has found another home, not all of them feels at home. This is when the drama comes in.

Respect is given to longtime fans by not showing a strong bond between Bonnie and Woody. Although Bonnie’s name is written on the underside of Woody’s boots, we all know his heart will forever belong to Andy. This can be a complicated concept, both for young children and those who are new to the series, but I admired that the writing is sharp and patient enough to provide morsels of how important it is for every toy—not just Woody—to find a place where they feel like they are loved. And these universal examples are applied to the cowboy character’s psychology. It is clear that the writing strives to provide more than just surface entertainment. It is so refreshing given the poor caliber of animated movies aimed at children that release annually.

But what about those who are interested in surface entertainment? (There is nothing wrong with that.) Well, the movie has that covered, too. Its type of humor will appeal to the young, old, and everyone in between. The reason is because most jokes are kid-at-heart. They are creative and often delivered with such vivacity that even when an attempt at humor is not that funny, you find yourself laughing anyway. It is a movie filled to the brim with smiles.

There is not one joke involving poop, fart, or pee but there are jokes about body parts of specific toys—how they react, for example, after seeing another toy with a similar body composition having been cut in half. We get the impression that the filmmakers had put in the time to observe each character’s physicality and find ways to make us laugh out loud—or giggle at the very least. Notice that many jokes presented here cannot be used in other generic animated movies. Conversely, jokes involving bodily functions are all the same when used in said films. It goes to show that specificity goes a long way.

“Toy Story 4,” directed by Josh Cooley, provides a most joyous and emotional experience—a wonderful summer movie when children are out of school and have all the time in the world to play with their toys, to pretend like cowboys, princesses, monsters, gooey invaders from another planet. And for those of us who are grown, well, for about a hundred minutes the picture makes us feel like we are kids again. That’s indispensable.

Incredibles 2


Incredibles 2 (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

While the soulless “Cars” sequels are made solely to sell more toys, chugging out yet another mediocre entry approximately every five years, the follow-up to “The Incredibles” is released fourteen years later—and it shows. Notice right from the opening action sequence the numerous and seemingly superfluous details. For example, how light hits an object from a certain angle and the reflected light, its intensity, is adjusted based on tricky camera movements and hundreds of other factors, like shadows, around the object of interest.

This is one shot. Now imagine this love for detail and level of hard work throughout a handful of fast-paced battles or even when it is just two characters sharing a clever and funny conversation. Freeze every frame and it is highly likely that something in the background is changed even just a little. Pixar delivers yet another home run.

Sequels to animated movies tend to annoy me because most of them end up becoming just a rehash of what had worked in the original. “Incredibles 2,” written and directed by Brad Bird, is a shining exception, more within the veins of John Lasseter’s “Toy Story 2” than “Despicable Me 2,” “Hotel Transylvania 2,” or, dare I say it, even “Finding Dory.” I appreciated that this entry is actively interested in world-building: more superheroes are introduced, the politics of their legalization is explored a bit more, we get a villain who relies less on explosions and more on the long game of waiting to strike until all chess pieces are properly placed in order to optimize chances of victory.

Most importantly, the veteran writer-director is aware that the most effective weapon of the original is the Parr family dynamics—when they do not have their superhero suits on, when they are just a regular family dealing with regular things, like the pains of raising a toddler and babysitting, of being liked by a boy at school, struggling to get through math homework. The voice cast is top-notch. Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter, providing the voices for Bob and Helen, Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl, respectively, have such lovable chemistry. How they emote command such range.

For instance, when it sounds as though the dialogue is leading them toward a big argument, like whether or not Helen should accept a curious job that could eventually lead to the legalization of superheroes around the world, the material is capable of shifting suddenly toward sillier territory, like Bob’s jealousy of not being the client’s first choice. In the middle of the picture, I was convinced that the actors must have been in the same room while creating the exchanges because the final product commands dynamism—the kind that we do not feel in our bones when performers simply recite lines by themselves rather than aiming the words toward another person who is within an arm’s length. Context and subtext matter in voice work—especially when conflict is supposed to be convincing. Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner, and Eli Fucile provide voices of the Parr children.

Notice I have not detailed much of the plot. This is because the picture is not about the plot and so it is negligible in my eyes. Rather, the focus is on the colors, the energy, the painstaking details of animation, the visual jokes, the clever lines, the surprising and ironic situations. “Incredibles 2” delivers on providing a terrific time. I was in high school when its predecessor was released. I have a career now but this film, even though it has some familiar elements, inspired me to lean forward with my childlike eyes, a big smile plastered on my face.

Cars 3


Cars 3 (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

Despite being as pavonine and pristine as ever, “Cars 3” is yet another disappointment in the painfully mediocre series because it is a product of a confused screenplay. This time, the story is about obsolescence and how one chooses to react in the face of such inevitability. Keep in mind that the target audience is between four to nine-year-olds, but I am not convinced that a typical child within this age bracket would care about the heart of the picture. What it is, then, arguably, is a pessimistic film, certainly not anywhere within the vicinity of Pixar greats, since it goes by the assumption that children would eat up what’s projected onto the screen just because the images are colorful and full of energy.

While the story of becoming obsolete and the thoughts and emotions that come with it may appeal to adults, writers Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson, and Mike Rich fail to walk the tightrope between fun and mature content with elegance and grace. Putting harmless and silly jokes right next to a rather serious subject worthy of contemplation simply does not work here. As a result, the drama is convincing, rushed in parts, and lacking focus in areas meant to get to us emotionally. Notice the number of quick flashbacks, a common strategy in pedestrian films, designed to plug in the holes of its emotional core. Aside from confusion when thinking about the filmmakers’ goals, I felt next to nothing toward the material other than occasional amusement.

Voice acting behind each character are well done across the board. Owen Wilson, as usual, is convincing as racing legend Lightning McQueen with enthusiasm to spare on and off the tracks. A standout is Cristela Alonzo as Cruz Ramirez, a trainer who had dreams of getting on a racetrack when she was younger. The character is interesting for two reasons: it touches upon a woman’s place in a male-dominated arena and she is meant to function as a conduit for audiences who put their dreams on hold due to self-doubt.

Had the structure of film been more elliptical, unexpected, and dared to resolve McQueen’s boring issues in order to focus solely on Ramirez, it would have been a highly relatable film because just about everybody can relate to being put in an environment and feeling uncomfortable to the changes one must undergo to adapt to one’s role. Children would relate, whether it be starting in a new school entirely or even a new school year. Adults would relate also, whether it be beginning a new job or receiving a promotion with new responsibilities. The latter half of the film is stronger than the former because the screenplay has turned its attention on the more interesting race car.

Another element that’s lacking is a thoroughly effective villain. This time, it is Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), one of the many new generation of cars with parts that are much better. Plus, they race on simulations rather than a dirty, old track. The antagonist is wasted completely, reduced to saying one dig after another against “old timers,” specifically McQueen because he refuses to retire and allow new bloods to take over fully, who cannot compete with his superior breed. The character does not have an ounce of complexity and so the task of defeating him is more like an afterthought than a goal.

With so many brilliant films under the Pixar cannon worthy of receiving sequels, one must wonder why the unexceptional “Cars” series keeps producing follow-ups that no one asked for. Directed by Brian Fee, “Cars 3” shows that retiring the franchise is a long time coming. Let go; let’s put it in the junkyard where it belongs and call it a day.

Coco


Coco (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Pixar’s animation style is as beautiful as ever and “Coco” delivers the expected twists and turns as well as emotional highs and lows that have become the brand’s signature. It is interesting that this time around, however, the target audience skews away from six- to seven-year-olds and toward nine- to ten-year-olds—a correct decision because the story requires some understanding of death and what it might mean to be forgotten. In a way, Pixar takes a step toward a more mature subject. This comes at a cost.

Notice the middle section still involves chases and adventures within an unfamiliar or strange world. Upon closer inspection, these action sequences are not adrenaline-fueled with verbal and visual jokes firing on all cylinders. Also take note that these do not last more than a minute at a time. While this approach keeps us interested in the story, the picture is never becomes thrilling. Perhaps it is because this relaxed avenue is meant for us to take the in details of the land of the dead. For instance, as in life, the dead, too, have a class system. There is bureaucracy, reliance on technology, and celebrities being celebrated in gargantuan stadiums. Certainly there are amusing details to be appreciated, but the pacing takes a rather unhurried turn. This will test the patience of younger children and viewers who prefer not to think too much while watching an animated film.

I loved that Pixar takes a specific culture and treats a Mexican tradition with respect. Coming from another culture that also celebrates the dead annually, it is wonderful to see on screen the importance of such an event instead of serving merely as background of a Hollywood action film. While the plot revolves around an aspiring young musician named Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) standing up to his family of shoemakers, who just so happens to have banned all music because of a certain ancestor having committed an act of betrayal, it remains in touch with specific details such as what should be placed on the ground, and how, so spirits can find their way home during Día de Muertos, how cemeteries look like during the holiday, the overall mood of people partaking in the event. It is done well and with such class that I believe people not familiar with the concept will have a good, general understanding of what it is and why it is done.

My main criticism of the picture is its lack of characterization when it comes to the dead whose pictures are placed on the ofrenda, an altar where food, candles, religious items, and other memorabilia are placed. While we meet these characters when Miguel reaches the land of the dead, most of them are reduced to surface characteristics with one-dimensional personalities. For a film that touches upon the importance of remembering a person, presenting only his or her quirks is a mistake. Considering the talent of screenwriters Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich, I believe they could have found a way to incorporate these ancestors into the plot in a more meaningful and rewarding way. Perhaps providing them with more dialogue rather than quick reaction shots might have been a way to go.

“Coco,” directed by Lee Unkrich, is a step in the right direction for Pixar. It is amusing and heartfelt at all the right moments without sacrificing eye for detail. I hope that in the future the studio would remain willing to take inspiration from other cultures and tell interesting stories that could prove entertaining and educational.

Finding Dory


Finding Dory (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

The follow-up of “Finding Nemo,” a Pixar Animation Studios masterpiece, does not live up to its predecessor as a whole but nonetheless one that is highly entertaining and heartfelt. One characteristic that surpasses the original, however, is the visuals. Notice the confidence in how it changes the tone, flavor, and feel with each vastly or subtly different environment—sometimes within the span of mere ten seconds. Consider such a trait when taken side-by-side with other, lesser animated films. They look claustrophobic, cheap, and laughably one-note by comparison.

Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres), a blue surgeonfish who suffers from short-term memory loss, suddenly remembers that for years she has been looking for her parents (Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy). Convinced that they are still alive and looking for her, clownfish Marlin (Albert Brooks) and his son, Nemo (Hayden Rolence), volunteer to help their endearingly forgetful friend. Overwhelmed by pieces of the past that have popped into her head, Dory informs her companions that they must find a way to go to California. Marlin knows the reptile for the job.

Perhaps the film’s biggest limitation is its utilization of one too many flashbacks. These images show how Dory’s parents teach their young child small ways how to get around or overcome her condition. While two or three scenes are genuinely moving because these lessons of survival are usually disguised as fun games, these flashbacks are very short, sudden, and numerously dispersed. As a result, the momentum of the picture is disrupted continuously. Eventually, I grew exasperated from seeing more of Dory’s memories because they become very repetitive. I got the feeling that the filmmakers were treating us like we had memory loss, too.

The picture introduces a memorable supporting character: an octopus (Ed O’Neill) with seven tentacles who does not like to be touched—especially by children. Every time Hank the quick-tempered “septopus” moves, he commands attention. The beauty and impressive attention to detail of Hank’s animation can be most appreciated during sequences where he must take Dory from one area of the Marine Life Institute—where sea creatures are taken to be rehabilitated—to another.

The energy and number of elements that must be juggled expertly to create a convincing and engaging—not to mention funny, clever, and entertaining—plight reminds the viewer of the best sequences of the “Toy Story” series. The filmmakers are able to answer this question with specific, fun-filled details: How do you get sea creatures, many of which depend on constantly being in water to survive, across an aquatic amusement park without humans noticing something odd?

“Finding Dory,” directed by Andrew Stanton, undergoes a few hiccups with its flashbacks, but it nevertheless delivers top-grade animation and storytelling. It is certain to charm and delight young children, adults, and everyone in between because creativity is abound. It may not be a necessary sequel but it is absolutely a welcome one.

The Good Dinosaur


The Good Dinosaur (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Breathtaking images can be found in “The Good Dinosaur,” directed by Peter Sohn, which is not a surprise given that is, after all, from Pixar Animation Studios. What is a surprise, however, is that it is arguably the studio’s simplest picture, especially when it comes to the plot, and yet it can also be considered to be the most daring. One can make the case that, in its core, it is a western told through a computer animated lens.

The story involves a long journey across various terrains when a young and very fearful Apatosaurus named Arlo (voiced by Jack McGraw and later by Raymond Ochoa) regains consciousness after having been carried by the river’s violent current. His sole companion is Spot (Jack Bright), a human child, the pest that made it a habit to steal corn from the repository which sits in the middle of the farm that belongs to Arlo’s family. Without a storage full of food, Arlo’s family is likely to starve during the winter.

Like in Brad Bird and Jan Pinkava’s “Ratatouille,” clearly one of Pixar’s best projects, it is expected that these two vastly different beings find a way to bond without using words. What is new in this film, however, is that it uses the environment to directly cement a special friendship. Nature is a major character here—take away the vibrant colors, precise textures, and technical proficiency in terms of how the camera glides across landscapes, one feels a lack of adventure and urgency in the voyage. Notice how the water in the river, though animated, looks so real. Pay attention to how the blades of grass move along the wind, how rocks appear eroded, how fog hides certain places from a distance yet highlights the rainbow overhead.

The material takes its time showing the dinosaur and the human sharing a sense of wonderment. The script builds a relationship not in terms of words but through sensations. They experience curiosity together, they experience fear together, and they experience exhilaration together. Because the duo do not exchange words—at least not through standard two-way communication—the filmmakers are forced to be efficient in how the relationship develops. As a result, the movie shows rather than tells—as it should be, especially if a work is designed to entertain. Thus, complex emotions summoned during the more heart-tugging scenes come across genuine and earned.

Based on the screenplay by Meg LeFauve, “The Good Dinosaur” offers an amusing premise, is clever at times, but most enjoyable is its more subversive elements. Limbs get torn. Animals get eaten. There is safe, family-friendly entertainment and then there is daring but still family-friendly entertainment. I appreciated that it leans toward the latter.