Toy Story (1995)
We all knew Toy Story was going to happen. The Little Mermaid in 1989 marked the last traditional hand-painted cel method of animation, and the successes after it did nothing to slow down computer assistance. So why not do an entire film on the computer?
We all knew Toy Story was going to happen. We just didn’t know it would be this good.
The Unique Premise
So I said the Pixar formula included a unique premise: toys that come alive only when their owners aren’t looking. Check.
When I was kid, I always felt like my toys could possibly live secret lives. Hold meetings about other toys given to their owner at his birthday, send plastic army men to do only the riskiest of tasks, scurry back into place when they hear their owner returning; needless to say, my suspicious were confirmed in this wildly entertaining toy world of Pixar’s.
I think why this premise works on a purely entertainment level is because it appeals to all people of all age groups. As a kid, it’s fun to see toys walk and talk the way they do in their imagination. As an adult, it’s almost nostalgic and makes you wish you were a kid again. That’s because we all played with toys at one point in our lives, and quite frankly, it was important to us.
So after establishing the rules of this toy world, the adventure starts to take form with the grand entrance of Andy’s new birthday present, Buzz Lightyear. In a testament to Pixar’s innovative technology, the scene where Buzz Lightyear flies, or rather, falls with style, is one that seems very realistic despite its fictional context. This sort of real-world physics simulation will make for a visually-exciting ending.
At first, it seems like we have a tale about friendship. Pixar was clearly influenced by the Disney family entertainment juggernaut, so in their first outing they played it safe and included songs such as Strange Things. However, I’m sure the one that everybody remembers is You’ve Got a Friend in Me, and yeah, this theme of friendship certainly exists as its theme song would suggest. But as the adventure ensues, we realize that this movie dives into much more adult-substance material.
The Pixar Moment
Woody, a cowboy doll of Andy’s, finds himself in trouble when he inadvertently knocks Buzz Lightyear out of a window in Andy’s room. The other toys accuse Woody of jealous-driven murder, and so Woody is excited when he finds Buzz at a gas station where Andy’s mom fills the tank. Soon, Woody and Buzz start fighting out on the cement, and Andy drives away; hence, the adventure.
During the adventure, Woody is forced to spend time with Buzz and his never ending space-ranger antics, and thus, tries to convince Buzz that he is a toy. It should be emphasized that Buzz is not some righteous prick or anything; he’s just programmed to be this way. However, Buzz starts to question his purpose in life after he sees a television ad for a Buzz Lightyear toy. So Buzz goes on to the top of a flight of stairs to see if he can really fly. And… this is undoubtedly the Pixar moment.
The reason why this Pixar moment works is because we know what’s going to happen before it happens. Although this is a fictional world, it is a world that has clearly defined rules. Simply put, we all know Buzz is going to fall and we know how this is going to break him. Sure, he loses an entire arm, but more importantly, he loses sense of who he is. Although Woody wanted Buzz to get a little dosage of reality, Woody didn’t realize that Buzz couldn’t handle the reality of the situation.
Buzz is going to be blown up tomorrow morning by Andy’s evil neighbor, Sid. But Buzz, being in the mental condition he is, doesn’t find much point in doing anything about it. What’s the point of living a purpose-less life? It is here when Woody learns his lesson after seeing his friend in this state of mind: sometimes, you aren’t going to be someone’s favorite toy. Sometimes, you aren’t going to be a space-ranger on some all-important mission. Sometimes, you aren’t going to be president of the United States, become a millionaire, or cure cancer. Sometimes, reality hurts.
But that’s not the point in life. It’s not to be important, or feel important, or be the best at something. Sometimes, the joy in living life can come from being someone’s friend, someone’s spouse, someone’s child, or even someone’s toy. Sometimes, living a life for others is far greater than living a life for one’s own self.
I love the entire car chase back to Andy. It is computer animation at its highest entertainment value just from a visual standpoint. However, what puts me from giving Toy Story a masterpiece grade (over 95%) is the quality of the visuals and its style. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs still looks great after more than 70 years. Toy Story kind of looks bland after 15. Also, Toy Story lacks the artistic merit which is, quite honestly, a requirement for a taestful masterpiece grade. While I don’t think Toy Story will be timeless visually, I do think Toy Story will be timeless for innovating family entertainment. In short, Toy Story marks the first of many adult films that just happens to be made for children too, and not the other way around.
A Bug’s Life (1998)
Toy Story was the biggest thing for animation since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. No, it didn’t get nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, an award that even Walt Disney himself never received, but it was the first animated film to be nominated for Best Writing, which is a testament to how Pixar was dethroning Disney—with substance. A Bug’s Life had a lot to live up to, and… unfortunately, it didn’t live up to them. I think that’s why it’s not as well-regarded, but it is a decent film.
The Not-So Unique Premise
One word: Antz.
Okay, but let’s be fair about this. In the whole feud between Pixar and DreamWorks, I buy Pixar’s side of the story. I think Katzenberg did get screwed over by Disney, but that does not justify stealing Lasseter’s idea for an animated film about bugs. If what I said didn’t make any sense and sounds interesting, then I suggest Google. This is all I’ll personally say on that issue.
The reason why A Bug’s Life fails to amuse me with its somewhat unique premise is because it does nothing to contribute to the adventure. Let’s face it: this movie could’ve been done with human actors, with an action camera, with animated fish, with animated cars… with just about anything. The story is about a protagonist who doesn’t fit in with society and eventually changes that society for the better. Does that make you want to direct an animated movie about bugs? I don’t know, I kind of see what they trying to do with the ant society, but I’ll suggest a better alternative.
What makes the predictable adventure watchable are two things: the characters and the visuals. There are just so many different characters, and I don’t mean it in a bad way. From the two rollie pollies (my favorite of the circus insects) to a fat caterpillar who turns into a butterfly (sort of), Pixar does manage to entertain with its insect world. The ant hill? Not interesting. The grasshopper club? Not interesting. The insect city? Freakin’ awesome. I wish the whole movie was set here, but the circus of insects that follows Flik back home is interesting enough.
Also, I love how big every blade of grass is, how frightening a rain storm is, and just experiencing our Earth from a bug’s point of view. Pixar simply gets the scale of it right, and the colors really pop. It’s bright and vast when it needs to be bright and vast, and it’s dirty and claustrophobic when it needs to be dirty and claustrophobic. From a visual standpoint, A Bug’s Life is an upgrade from Toy Story.
The Pixar Moment
A Bug’s Life adheres to the Pixar formula and tries to have a Pixar moment, but it comes off as obligatory. It happens when our ant protagonist, Flik, is revealed to have brought a circus of bugs instead of a group of warrior bugs to fight the grasshoppers who oppress the ants. At first, I thought I had this movie pegged: it was going to be about hope. About how even false hope can be better than no hope at all, as it gave the ants joy they never had once felt before. But no, it resorts to conventionality and makes the story about accepting new ideas. Not… interesting. The story should have been about hope. That would’ve made the Pixar moment.
Now, the climax is actually good, not from a substance standpoint, but from a style standpoint. Although I found the car chase in Toy Story immensely entertaining, the quality of it sort of degraded the experience. I don’t know, the dog looked a little funky, and while Pixar did a good job making the dog an intimidating creature for the little toys, the cars did not make their presence felt. The bird is perfect. I’m not just talking about the bird that eats the villain (surprisingly gory, by the way). I’m also talking about the bird Flik makes to scare the grasshoppers. Once again, the physics of it all is fabulous, even in its fictional context. Not to mention, when Flik gets beat up by the villain, it’s pretty emotional. But we all knew what was going to happen. Pixar wasn’t going to make this a sad ending, and I’m not asking for it. What I am asking is something that’s less predictable and less generic. I think what should’ve happened was a grasshopper victory. Then only would the ants appreciate the hope Flik gave them, even if it was hopeless, for a life with no hope is a life not worth living at all.
A Bug’s Life, with any decent film, brings some good with the bad. The good? The characters: the circus bugs are genuinely funny. The visuals: the birds are fantastic; the ant city entertains.
The bad? The story is generic and contrived; well done, but still too simple for my liking. I mean, come on, the ants put their hard summer work out in the open where wind, rain, or birds can knock it over just so that Flik gets in trouble? Contrived! While I prefer 2D animation over 3D animation, mainly because I can feel the animator’s heart behind the drawings, I really sensed the heart of the human storytellers behind Pixar’s script. That is sorely lacking in A Bug’s Life.
Toy Story 2 (1999)
Pixar gave us reason to doubt the legitimacy of Toy Story with its second outing in A Bug’s Life. Was Toy Story Pixar’s one-hit wonder? Is Toy Story 2 just going to ride the success of its first movie? No, Toy Story 2 is arguably as good as Toy Story.
The adventure starts to take form with Woody’s first injury. What’s interesting to note is that physical damage does not hurt these toys. This was established in Toy Story when Buzz Lightyear lost an arm. The only reason why Woody freaks out is because he believes this means Andy will not play with him or like him anymore, as he sits on the top of a book shelf waiting to be repaired. Once again, Pixar gets to the core of the human experience—it’s not the physical pain that we remember most. This makes the story all the more relatable to us.
The Pixar Moment
Woody gets stolen by some toy collector at a yard sale who tries to sell Woody, Jessie, Bullseye, and Stinky Pete the Prospector to a Japanese museum. Buzz and the gang try to rescue Woody, and along the way, we get the very nice additions of Evil Emperor Zurg and another Buzz Lightyear.
This Pixar moment really comes out of nowhere, and that is because it also serves to develop this character for the very first time: Jessie. For what it’s worth, this is my favorite Pixar song, although they don’t have very many, and I think this moment epitomizes Pixar storytelling—no dialogue, simplistic music, minimalistic styling, thematically-driven, and emotion-filled. The song is When She Loved Me, and it tells a short story about Jessie being abandoned by her owner.
So why does this work? It works because it does what a sequel should do: it builds off of the original. In the first movie, we saw Woody deal with the same fears that came into fruition for Jessie, and this makes us feel extremely sympathetic for her.
By the time Buzz comes to Woody’s rescue, Woody has become friends with Jessie, Bullseye, and Stinky Pete; Woody doesn’t want to be rescued.
But Woody’s constant loyalty to the people he meets only serves to make this event believable. The real, underlying reason why Woody is set on being preserved forever in a museum is because he is confusing admiration with love. Woody thinks being loved means enclosing yourself off in a glass display and having children take your picture and watch your TV show. But is that love? Can love be achieved without the physical and emotional tearing of the body? More importantly, if you had the choice, would you rather be admired for eternity or loved for a brisk lifetime? Toy Story 2 answers all of these questions convincingly.
Toy Story 2 makes the very smart decision to make this about Woody instead of Buzz. While Buzz’s story is about accepting reality and living a life for others, Woody’s story is about accepting pain and living a life for love—just because something can hurt you doesn’t mean you should run away from it.
What makes me say this is slightly worse than the original is because it splits its time between two journeys. One journey is mainly for entertainment, and that is Buzz’s group trying to rescue Woody. The other journey is mainly for substance, developing new characters and setting up the Pixar moment. The fact that each journey has a particular function makes the movie feel a little jumpy and a little formulaic at times. While Toy Story occurred over two locations, inside Andy’s room and outside Andy’s room, there was only one journey that served as both entertainment and substance. With that said, Toy Story 2 equally explores vital human conditions.
Monsters, Inc. (2001)
My review for this movie is going to be slightly different than the one I would’ve written after I first saw Monsters, Inc. Monsters University simply blows Monsters, Inc. out of the water when it comes to animation. I think this is because monsters are simply more difficult to render (than toys or bugs) on computers realistically (kind of a paradox, I know), but since monsters played such an integral part in the story, I’m glad Pixar pursued Monsters, Inc. The strength of Monsters, Inc. is not in the visuals, as is usually the case with Pixar, but in its story and storytelling.
The Unique Premise
With most Hollywood companies, it probably would have been enough to propose a story on the basis of monsters who need to scare children in order to produce energy for Monstropolis. I say this because of movies like Avatar, Titanic, and Transformers which are grossly unoriginal, but still manages to get green-lit. No, Pixar goes further. Not only should monsters have an incentive to scare children, but tiny, innocent children should scare the heck out of these monsters, and much of the humor of this movie derives from this smart decision.
After watching Monsters, Inc. as an adult, I can say almost confidently that this film had to be largely motivated by one particular scene: the chase scene with all the doors in the door factory. If you haven’t seen the film, you have to watch Monsters, Inc. for this sequence. It is by far the best scene in the movie, one that justifies the entire existence of the movie by itself. Not only is it a spectacle and a stunning display of Pixar’s commitment to innovative animation, but it is hilarious, frightening, thrilling, and immensely creative all at the same time. If only the rest of the movie was rooted in such obvious excitement from the studio.
The story is creative (overly complicated, sometimes), as is the unique premise. But the adventure is somehow flat. I couldn’t really figure out why until further thought and consideration.
The camera is static. It’s strange that something so seemingly minor would influence an entirely well-written script so much, but there’s a reason why cinema derives its name from cinematography. Although there is a modest amount of action, most of the shots are viewed from a bystander’s point of view who has his video recorder zoomed out far enough to catch the entire sequence without moving. That’s boring cinematography. So when the camera is strapped unto a bizarre door roller coaster or on Sully’s sled as he slides down to the village, it is so relieving.
Also, there is one character who I really couldn’t get invested with, and that is Mike, Sully’s best friend. I think he made for some good laughs, but for as much screen time as he gets, I didn’t think he deserved to be downgraded to a comic relief role. There’s a scene when both Sully and Mike are exiled into some winter wasteland and engage in a fierce argument. I think I was supposed to feel sad, but it wasn’t really a moving moment. I never thought Mike was a good friend to Sully. I like how Mike learns to be more selfless after this argument, but it still doesn’t resolve a big plot contrivance: why does Sully even live together with Mike? Monsters University actually makes this friendship dynamic a lot more plausible, so I’ll give Pixar a break on this one; it seems they acknowledged this problem too.
The Pixar Moment
The story, without getting tripped up in all the details, essentially follows Sully’s realization that scaring children is bad because children feels fear as monsters do. They cry, they have nightmares, and they feel. Monsters, Inc. is a cunningly innocent tale against xenophobia. Unlike something like Pocahontas which was so blatantly in your face about unreasoned prejudices, Monsters, Inc. focuses on Sully’s relationship with a single child who changes his mindset on his entire career, namely Boo.
It is precisely this sort of effectively humble storytelling Pixar so wonderfully realizes which makes their films such a joy to watch. Sometimes, it is the most seemingly insignificant of experiences which matters the most. And sometimes, the most traumatic experiences which changes us for the better. In this case, it is the seemingly insignificant and traumatic journey of Sully returning a child back home. Sully isn’t saving the world from villainy destruction or trying to save himself from alien invasion. Sully is sacrificing his livelihood for the sake of a single individual and learning from it. And yet, this story is more than important enough when told as beautifully as how Pixar is able to tell it. The Pixar moment occurs when Sully returns Boo home and has to say good-bye. It’s not sad because it is a father-figure saying good-bye to his sort of adopted daughter (inherently sad as it is). It is sad because it is Sully saying good-bye to Boo, well-developed characters who we full-heartedly care about.
I’ve omitted a formal climax section to this review because I thought it was better placed this time in the “The Unique Premise” section above. Once again, if you haven’t seen it, what are you doing reading this review? Go and watch Monsters, Inc. It’ll make you laugh, it’ll scare, it’ll amaze, it’ll shock, but most importantly, Monsters, Inc. will make you feel.
Finding Nemo (2003)
For those who have been keeping up with my Pixar reviews, I hope I was careful in refraining from complimenting Pixar’s artistic merits. Yes, there are some exhilarating sequences in which the animation is ground-breaking and the physics is superb, but I always thought Pixar’s films lacked the artistic qualities found in Disney’s traditionally animated features. I was beginning to think it was not a problem with Pixar, but a problem with the medium itself. Then I saw Finding Nemo, Pixar’s first film that made me wonder at the potential of computer animation. Make no mistake about it, Finding Nemo is Pixar’s first work of art.
The Unique Premise
There are plenty of films that have been shot underwater featuring fish, the most iconic species being a shark. For as much critical acclaim Jaws has gathered, I’ve always wondered when the natural beauty of our oceans would be fully utilized in cinema. To my surprise, it came from, out of all places, animation.
The Little Mermaid had glimpses of what Finding Nemo constantly offers. An immersive underwater world that visually engages upon multiple viewings. It really is impossible to absorb everything Finding Nemo has to offer in one sitting. Every time I watch Finding Nemo again, I find a new scene to marvel at.
Needless to say, the premise isn’t unique. No, not in the conventional sense of the word. To reiterate, there have been plenty of films that have been shot underwater, even outside the genre of horror or action, but rarely is it done this well. Finding Nemo’s premise of anthropomorphizing fish is unique because the natural beauty of our oceans is fully appreciated.
Finding Nemo has a prologue of sorts, telling a short story of two characters who we never really meet again. These characters are two clownfish named Marlin and Coral, future parents of 400. In a tragic incident, Coral is presumably eaten by a barracuda and Marlin is now the only parent of 1. He names his son, Nemo.
What follows is a brief but majestic transition to the main story, the story of Marlin and Nemo. Just by watching Marlin interact with Nemo, we can see that Marlin is no longer the fish he once was. Paranoid beyond belief, Marlin has become obsessively overprotective, the repercussions of losing almost everything that was important to him. Unfortunately, Marlin’s insistence eventually gets the best of Nemo, and Nemo suffers the consequence for disobeying his father and gets captured by a scuba-diver. Marlin, having absolutely nothing more to lose, and on the brink of having nothing else to live for, goes on an unexpecting adventure to find his son.
Now, it has come to my attention that Pixar films are really the only family films that address the issue of flat-out depression. First Buzz in Toy Story, then Marlin in Finding Nemo, and I’m sure you can think of at least one more (hint: look Up). I said the prologue tells a story of two characters who we never see again, and I stand by that statement strongly. Marlin is a broken fish. And finding Nemo simply isn’t enough to resolve the story with the way Pixar has set things up. This adventure is all about the journey, not the final destination. It is an internal journey, and the physical journey simply accompanies it. This film isn’t actually about finding Nemo; it’s about finding Marlin.
The Pixar Moment
For as much as I have been raving about Finding Nemo, this is the first of two problem spots for me: there are too many Pixar moments.
With the way I’ve defined things, it would seem many Pixar moments would be good, but instead, it makes Finding Nemo an almost jarring and exhaustive emotional rollar coaster. Pixar masterfully understands how to tug your heart into saddness, into fright, into laughter, and then back to saddness, but it cycles through our emotions too many times for one moment to really stick out. Some people will enjoy this, but I prefer my movies to feel a little less manipulative. In any case, there are some genuinely touching moments in the film, my personal favorite coming from the defeat Marlin communicates to Dory when stuck in the whale. It would be a good time to say that the dialogue in this film is just terrific.
The story marvelously builds to Marlin and Nemo’s re-union, but once again, finding Nemo isn’t enough. Marlin and Nemo hardly have any time to embrace because of a more precedent external and internal conflict. Dory is being fished out of the ocean, and Nemo tries to help her. Marlin forbids Nemo from trying, afraid of losing Nemo again, but Nemo asks his dad to trust him. Marlin, after shutting out the world for so many years, finally takes his first steps towards recovery by trusting the world again, trusting himself again, and trusting his son.
It would be heresy to write a Finding Nemo review without talking about Dory: Ellen DeGeneres does a wonderful job voicing a much needed, hilariously memory-deficient tag-along partner for Marlin. Pixar likes to have their protagonists in pairs, but this is the first time a female has taken the role of comic relief, and the effect is hysterical. This leads me into an unsuspecting second complaint, which is that I never understood the meaning of having Dory’s memory become miraculously better when with Marlin. I’m glad Pixar didn’t turn this pair into a love story, but in some ways, I felt it would have been appropriate. Does Dory’s happy ending extend to just her memory being patched-up? Considering how delicately Pixar treated Marlin’s depression, Dory’s amnesia seems to have been depicted far too naively.
Minor problems aside, Finding Nemo is definitely one of my favorite Pixar movies, the first to fufill the artistic requirement of a taestful masterpiece grade. I haven’t even mentioned the soundtrack, which is my favorite of Pixar’s. So it is with earnest regret that I cannot bring myself to award Finding Nemo a 95% or higher. The problems I have outlined simply keep Finding Nemo from joining an even more elite class of movies. But in no way should these problems deter anybody from watching Finding Nemo. I think what makes Finding Nemo a truly tremendous piece of family entertainment is because it is about parenting, therefore transcending the often pretentious disposition that family films are for kids. No, this film, more than any other Pixar film, is directed at the parents. Even though life gives you terrible children films, you have to trust cinema, take the bad with the good, just keep on swimming, in order to experience movies as rewarding as Finding Nemo.
Umm… why isn’t there a sequel for this yet?
I don’t want that opening statement to mislead my readers. The Incredibles, in spite of its title, is just an average Pixar effort. It has most of the usual Pixar stuff: great visuals, funny gags, fair share of action, one of Pixar’s better soundtracks, and even Pixar storytelling, all let down by Pixar’s first bothersome story. I’m just wondering why Pixar are willing to make Car sequels, which are clearly cash grabs, when they could actually please fans of a movie which was (and still is) actually left somewhat open-ended. For all the able decisions Pixar makes, I just don’t understand this one.
The Unique Premise
One word: Watchmen.
No, I am not talking about Zach Snyder’s Watchmen in 2009–that would be rather precarious. I am talking about Watchmen the DC comic published in 1986 and 1987. Now, I’m actually not a big comic book guy, so I’m going to have to go off of Snyder’s apparently faithful adaption: the concept of superheros being rejected by society and forced into secret lives is not unique to The Incredibles. In fact, people would be justified for saying The Incredibles is a rip-off of DC’s Watchmen and Marvel’s Fantastic Four in 1961. Nonetheless, I still think The Incredibles has an incredibly unique premise: portray a superhero family in an animated film targeted for non-superhero families. And for all the anthropomorphic stuff Pixar was so successful at during the time, it’s interesting it was at their peak with Finding Nemo in 2003 that they decided to finally animate humans as main characters. And while we’re on the topic, the humans actually look really good in a cartoony sort of way. I guess it’s a testament to how willingly versatile and confident Pixar was at the time (and still are!).
We have another character dealing with depression in this Pixar flick. He went by the name, Mr. Incredible, but was sued for doing superhero things and subsequently forced into leading a normal life with his superhero family. Going by the name Bob Parr, he gleefully rescues citizens from fires and such when he’s not working at an insurance company. Logically, not being invested in his job and having a prick for a boss leads Mr. Incredible to getting fired and so he takes on a secret job fighting off Syndrome’s, this movie’s antagonist, prototype robots. But with all secrets, how long can Mr. Incredible keep this away from his family? How long can Mr. Incredible keep fighting off Syndrome’s increasingly indestructible machines? Hence, the adventure.
In concept, the general set-up of the story is fine. Maybe a little bit more predictable than the previous Pixar outings, but still good enough to thrill and excite. It’s the little details that bog the movie down. Consider this: Mr. Incredible is sued for saving a man… who was attempting suicide. He gets fired from his job. He hates his life. The color is sucked right out of the screen, and no Ellen DeGeneres voiced comic relief character comes to save the day. There is simply no joy for children in this first act of the movie. Had this been an adult’s film, I probably would thoroughly enjoy this stuff, but like in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Pinocchio, I could not help but to wonder: would I show my kids The Incredibles?
The Pixar Moment
Eventually, Mr. Incredible gets captured by Syndrome and his family comes to rescue him. Syndrome launches missiles at their plane, and after a confirmed hit, Mr. Incredible believes he has paid the price for not appreciating his family. What he doesn’t know is that they survived the hit, and they eventually rescue their father.
In the midst of a lot of action involving Syndrome, his latest robot model, and a superhero friend of Mr. Incredible named Frozone, there is a really great moment in the film that almost single-handedly redeems the troublesome plot. It is so good, in fact, I’ll let the dialogue speak for itself.
Elastigirl: While what? I watch helplessly from the sidelines? I don’t think so.
Mr. Incredible: I’m asking you to wait with the kids.
Elastigirl: And I’m telling you, not a chance. You’re my husband, I’m with you – for better or worse.
Mr. Incredible: I have to do this alone.
Elastigirl: So you can be Mr. Incredible again?
Mr. Incredible: No!
Elastigirl: Then what? What is it?
Mr. Incredible: I’m not strong enough.
Elastigirl: Strong enough? And this will make you stronger?
Mr. Incredible: Yes. No!
Elastigirl: That’s what this is? Some sort of work out?
Mr. Incredible: I can’t lose you again! I can’t. Not again. I’m not strong enough.
Elastigirl: If we work together, you won’t have to be.
Mr. Incredible: I don’t know what will happen…
Elastigirl: Hey, c’mon. We’re superheros. What could happen?
This… is… brilliant! Mr. Incredible is genuinely affected by the events that occur in the story. The dialogue perfectly balances the tone from becoming overly sentimental. Elastigirl is a butt-kicking feminist superhero.
But then why does Mirage not affect Mr. Incredible at all? She saved his life! What’s her happy ending?
Why does Incrediboy, AKA Syndrome when he was Mr. Incredible’s biggest fan, not affect Mr. Incredible at all? Mr. Incredible learns not to work alone in this conversation with his wife. He says to Syndrome: I was wrong to treat you that way. I’m sorry…
It may seem like I am imposing my own personal dislikes and likes into the story, but that is not the case. I would not be complaining about these story elements if they hadn’t taken the time to develop Mirage as a dynamic character. If they hadn’t taken the time to develop Syndrome as a psychologically driven character. If Mirage’s only function in the story was to fly a rocket for the Incredible family, then why give her so much screen time? Just have one of your main characters fly that rocket. If Syndrome’s only function in the story was to be killed by Mr. Incredible at the end, then have him be the most wicked villain worthy of death. Don’t make Syndrome Mr. Incredible’s biggest fan. What are you doing Pixar?!?
I meant to have this review be a movie review (as compared to a longer full review) but The Incredibles is such a mixed bag that I have spent a great deal thinking about it. That is why I have so many things to say. I’ve already omitted an official climax section to this review in order to cut down on the word count. In the end, I think The Incredibles is a movie that people can love, and people can hate. It actually really surprises me that almost everyone ignored (didn’t notice?) all the story problems in The Incredibles and decided to love the stuff that was great.
Ah, screw it. I like this film too, guys. As long as you walk in expecting a superhero movie, not a Pixar movie, I think everyone will be pleasantly surprised by the incredible story of The Incredibles family.
So for those who haven’t visited my “About Me” page, I got into movies in 2008. I started (casually) writing movie reviews in 2011. It wasn’t until maybe 2012 then that I figured out Cars was a Pixar movie. For the longest time, I thought it was just another animated outing from DreamWorks or Blue Sky or something. When I first looked up the list of Pixar films, I was shocked to see Cars smack dab in the middle of some of my favorite animated films of all time. I quickly re-visited Cars to make sure I didn’t miss anything. This time, I found myself asking different questions: how does a company that knows nothing but success produce something so middling? How does the A+ student get a C on his test? How is Cars a Pixar movie? These questions will be addressed in the concluding portion of this review.
To be fair, Cars was a success. If not in the box office, it was a huge success in merchandising. And it is certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, although I don’t think that says too much about animated films since critics seem to grade more leniently when it comes to family films (which I find to be terribly pretentious; why shouldn’t family films be analyzed and scrutinized like any other movie?). I’m getting besides the point because I just don’t have that much to say about Cars itself. This really could be a quick review (instead of a movie review), but Cars is a Pixar movie and I am giving every Pixar movie at least a movie review, if not a full review, because I think they deserve my time. The actual review portion of this post will be short because there simply isn’t much I hated or much that I loved. Cars is well-made but unsubtle, thought-out but predictable, moral but cliche. Cars is my textbook definition of what it means to be an “average” movie, and it hurts me to say it. Why Pixar, why!
The Not-So Unique Premise
In every Universe Pixar created up to this point, there were always some nuances that made their world unlike our own. Sure, toys acted like us, but they didn’t feel physical pain. They had to scurry back into place. They froze in the presence of a human being. In this world, cars act like humans. That’s it. No nuances. Imagine NASCAR, except the spectators are cars and gasoline is the new beer (though Pixar wouldn’t dare to make that joke). There’s your car world. Something completely replaceable by human spectators, human drivers, human-made cars, and a real-live action camera.
The first story you think you are being introduced to through the introduction of protagonist Lightning McQueen is the story you get. To put it bluntly, McQueen is a cocky prick who thinks winning is everything, so logically, you’re thinking he needs to learn that winning isn’t everything and to stop being such a cocky prick. And what do you know, through some strange contrivances (cars drive cars to places in this world), McQueen finds himself stuck in a little town where he’ll make his first friends, fall in love, and learn some life lessons from some old dude, err, car.
The Pixar Moment
Uhh… umm… is it when McQueen learns the old car crashed in some race a long time ago?
Or is it when the person, err, car McQueen falls in love with reveals that Radiator Springs used to be some awesome indie town until the construction of the interstates? Hey, that could be used as a great analogy for how big city development and monopolizing corporations are obscuring the prosperity of local businesses and shops in which the nation should be depen… oh.
But if I am to be serious, there is a bright spot in Cars that cannot be glossed over. In every Pixar movie, there is a particular set-piece to which the story builds to. In A Bug’s Life, it was the bird attack scene. In Monsters Inc., it was the door factory chase. In Cars, it’s actually a plotless drive through Radiator Springs, and the placement of this drive in the context of the story is perfect since it’s right before the aforementioned “big reveal.” Once again, Pixar dazzles with their technical superiority, and it is the only time in which the storytelling is both clear and brilliant. McQueen asks: where are we going? And his love interest replies: I don’t know.
It’s strange to think my favorite part of this movie is when it’s not progressing the plot, but who could blame me when the story is just so… ordinary. I don’t want to give the impression that Cars is a bad movie. It’s just one that is well shy of Pixar’s better efforts. I like how McQueen’s love interest actually asks the guy on a date, err, drive. I like how McQueen doesn’t win the final race, as scripted as it was. The A+ student derived the velocity of the vehicle as a function of time, but the question stated that the car started out on an empty tank. Pixar thought we wanted a Cars movie, but there was simply no spark in its conception.
In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and themselves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.
The Unique Premise
Pixar has always been good at creating dynamic partnerships. Sure, these characters get angry with one another, but they compliment each other very nicely. Marlin can’t forget the past, and Dory can’t remember the past. In Ratatouille, such a partnership exists, and although this partnership lays the groundwork for the movie’s unique premise, there is a far more interesting character pair constantly driving the story forward.
Pixar begins with another prologue. We are introduced to a young, lively, and chubby chef who claims anyone can cook. To which a old, deathly, and sleek critic responds by dismissing such claims. Fittingly, the critic gives the chef a bad review, and in dramatic fashion, the chef dies.
The actual plot takes some time to get going, but Pixar seems to realize this and breezes through the first setting in an elder lady’s house.
Remy, a rat with an incredible talent for cooking, gets separated from his rat family. But in a stroke of improbable luck, Remy finds himself at the world’s central hub for cuisine, and that is Paris.
It is here where he finds the chef’s restaurant and a “garbage boy” named Linguini who doesn’t seem to be good at anything. Whereas Remy can’t make the most of his talent because of his circumstances, Linguini can’t make the most of his circumstances because his lack of talent. Hence, a logical partnership forms, and Linguini shortly rises to fame.
Now, there are some complications involving a stereotypical villain, Linguini being the chef’s son, inheritance issues, Remy’s family, and a love story which honestly bog down the true narrative being threaded here, but it’s all fairly enjoyable and never a detriment to what’s really being told.
As with all movie secrets, Linguini has to reveal his big secret to his kitchen. I say it is his kitchen because it turns out Linguini is the chef’s son, and as his son, the chef’s will writes of his inheritance. And Linguini, being usually inarticulate, actually improvises a remarkable speech. In most movies, this speech would be inspiring enough to win over any opposition, but not in a Pixar movie. His chefs abandon him after the truth is told, as any chef probably would after such reveal.
To make things even worse, the critic who doesn’t believe anyone can cook, waits, anxiously, for his meal.
The Pixar Moment
Ratatouille begins with a thesis from the chef: anyone can cook. But do we really believe this? Can anyone cook? To me, it’s as cheesy as “everyone is a winner” or “if you just believe you can make anything happen.”
In this way, we are all critics. We critique our friend’s hair, our neighbor’s lawn, our teacher’s handwriting, our boss’s clothes, etc. And as an amateur movie critic, I waited, patiently, for the critic’s review of the ratatouille Remy prepares him.
The critic’s review finishes as such:
In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto, “Anyone can cook.” But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist can come from anywhere.
By now, the pair I was referring to in the Unique Premise section must be obvious: that pair is Anton Ego and Chef Gusteau. Chef Gusteau presents one end of the spectrum. It’s the kid that really believed your mom when she said you were the most special person in the entire world. Anton Ego presents the other end of that spectrum. He is your adult self who has realized that maybe you aren’t the most special person in the world. This pair of two extremes, of two conflicting ideologies thematically drives the story forward, constantly rubbing on each other until they compromise in the middle. Not anyone can cook. Even half of Gusteau’s genes couldn’t give Linguini an ounce of his talent. But, as Anton Ego finds out, a literal interpretation of those words does not capture the spirit of Gusteau’s motto. When your mom said you are the most special person in the entire world, she meant you are the most special person in the entire world to her. And I’m willing to bet you are. Ratatouille begins with a thesis, and as the events in the story unfolds, the thesis evolves. Ratatouille is one of those rare movies that makes me believe in a cheesy line like “anyone can cook,” one who needed as much convincing as Anton Ego did.
Had Anton Ego’s review been said out-loud in the beginning portion of this movie, I probably would have been offended. A critic’s work is not easy. I risk a lot with my opinion. But in the grand scheme of things, I don’t risk a lot. My work is a lot easier than those who worked on the production of Ratatouille for probably 2 years. Here, I spend a couple of hours typing away at my keyboard, with no filming experience, and yet exercise a certain power over them. Ironically, Anton Ego actually loses his power. Something I absolutely adore about Ratatouille is that it refuses to be trash that’s been recycled.
The rat family that helped Remy prepare the ratatouille closes down Gusteau’s restaurant. Anton Ego’s glowing review of a restaurant ravaged by rats costs him his job. And still, in the end, you can see Anton Ego happily ordering from his new hot restaurant called La Ratatouille featuring chef Remy and waiter Linguini. I too would be more than happy to retire my move critic hobby if I owned a movie studio called Pixar featuring directors like Brad Bird producing me films as scrumptious as Ratatouille.
Toy Story may be Pixar’s most ground-breaking film. Finding Nemo may be Pixar’s most artistic film. Then let it be said with equal confidence, WALL-E is Pixar’s best film.
The Unique Premise
Pixar has always gambled on their animated features. A movie pivoting around a relationship between a monster and a child? A movie directed at movie critics asked to believe a rat can cook? But no film gambles more than WALL-E. At the very core, WALL-E is the greatest animated silent film. Only in hindsight did I realize how ludicrous the concept of WALL-E was. A 30 minute dialogue-less prelude for restless, bustling children? A robot with a fascination for a rather out-dated musical, Hello Dolly? A story about two robots falling in love? Only in hindsight, would I have thought this movie was set for utter failure.
One of the most common ways filmmakers establish exposition in the beginning is through words. You’ll have that narrator talking who is shortly revealed to be one of the main characters.
More rarely, it’s just a narrator.
More rarely, it’s just words.
I’ve always believed that cinema is primarily a visual medium. And I’ve always believed if you can communicate something through visuals alone, then you should. WALL-E fully embraces this philosophy to produce one of the best movie introductions… ever. Why is it so good, you ask? It’s because of how much exposition Pixar can get across without ever telling it to you. There’s this new trash-Earth world to introduce, and you learn everything you need to know about this world just by watching this little trash compactor named WALL-E do his thing. There’s no one here. It used to have humans living on it. Humans built WALL-E’s to try to clean up all the garbage.
More than that, it serves as character development. His favorite movie is Hello Dolly. He collects human inventions. He is lonely.
And finally, it sets up the themes. And I love how they force you to search for them. Since there was no plot driving the story forward, I never found myself in my usual mode-of-thought: Oh, I bet this is what is going to happen next. In fact, I had no clue as to what direction WALL-E was going story-wise. Hence, I found myself searching for themes, and only towards the end did I realize what WALL-E was about.
Okay, so it isn’t really a climax, but the whole movie takes a whole different tone after EVE, standing for Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator, lands on Earth. It becomes a love-at-first-sight story. I usually hate these types of stories, but it actually works perfectly here. Why? Because WALL-E has a reason to fall in love at first sight. He is so desperate to experience human emotions that it makes sense for him to fall in love so quickly. However, we see EVE is not like WALL-E. There is something more robotic to EVE. Although her English is much better than WALL-E’s, (I find it amusing that he never pronounces EVE’s name correctly, opting for EVA) EVE is more programmed. She’s inherently violent, shooting at practically anything that even moves. And she searches relentlessly for something, as if that is her only purpose in life. Sure, WALL-E does his trash compacting gig, but he has interests. He has a hobby. He is more… he is more…
There is another shift of tone once EVE finds what she is looking for (a plant) and WALL-E accompanies her to a ship called the Axiom. It is here where we see what we have become. Jelly beans on hovering lawn chairs.
This is where the movie went from Kevin’s Favorite Movies to Kevin’s Almost Favorite Movies. Once we’re on the Axiom, unfortunately, it is a movie for the kids. Here’s what you need to know: WALL-E frees John and Mary from their technological trance.
Now, it is very enjoyable. It’s still very funny, there’s one of my favorite side characters, and there is…
The Pixar Moment
Before we flew a rocket to the moon, before we built jets, airplanes, and helicopters, I think humans were mesmerized by the concept of flight. In a way, we still are. When I see a bird flying, I wonder if it knows how lucky it is to be able to fly like that. Although that is essentially what EVE and WALL-E are doing, I was mesmerized by another completely different concept. The concept of dance. It was one of those moments where I gained perspective. If I had a choice between flying and dancing, which would I pick? Now, I myself don’t even like dancing, so the analogy could have been lost on me, but it is the concept that pierced me. The chance of flying by means of natural forces is actually quite probable. It has a distinct evolutionary advantage. Organisms that can fly can avoid non-flying predators. But what are the chances of dancing arising by means of natural forces? What distinct evolutionary advantage does it give us? How lucky are we that we can dance? Statistically speaking, it is even greater than that of flying.
When I was introduced to the trash world of WALL-E, I thought I knew exactly what this movie was going to be about. It’s going to be about environmentalism. It’s going to have a heavy-handed message about humans polluting the Earth and succumbing to the luxuries provided by advancements in technology. The people who leaves WALL-E with the same impression are simply wrong. WALL-E isn’t a cautionary tale about commercialism and industry. WALL-E is an inspiring story about a robot who taught humans why humans are worth saving in the first place. Why humans, despite their sometimes naturally violent behavior and parasitic inclinations with Earth, deserve to live, to exist.
WALL-E begins with just a human footprint. We are no longer occupying Earth. We are what we have left behind. A foreign alien would probably conclude humans were ruthless, reckless, lazy, inconsiderate, uncaring creatures. And to their credit, they’d be right. Sometimes I am ashamed to call myself a human being. Sometimes I wish I was an ant so I couldn’t do any harm. But amazingly, WALL-E forms a different conclusion. By sorting through all the trash, he finds the heartbeat of human culture. Not the culture that shops, spends, and throws it all away just to shop again. Not the culture that creates material goods, but the culture that creates human relationships. Just like Leonardo da Vinci was consumed by the idea of flying, WALL-E is consumed by the idea of falling in love. Of shaking hands. Of greeting each other by name. Of holding hands. Of dancing. Of making a human connection. Amazingly, WALL-E restores my faith in mankind.
WALL-E represents what should be considered the best of humanity, what we most identify with. His home is a human haven in an in-human world. He has decorated it with Christmas lights. He has made a hammock for himself. He has even mimicked a living room TV with an iPod and a magnifying glass. But his home feels strangely empty. Although WALL-E has managed to physically replicate a house, he is upset that he has no one to share it with.
WALL-E says, no matter how accomplished we feel as a species for building cities, shopping malls, roads, cars, and houses, no one will care about that 700 years from now. Even now, do you gaze at a skyscraper and say: that is the embodiment of humanity? If we are to leave a footprint behind, let’s leave a footprint that captures the spirit of humanity, the spirit of WALL-E. Something that isn’t obscured by so much… well, garbage. A footprint that doesn’t need an OCD trash compactor to dig up. I’m going to re-show an image below, and I hope I’ve been able to give it more meaning now, because it really is a beautiful moment in the film on a second viewing.
What is the spirit of humanity? It’s that we can gaze at our cosmos and admit we are tiny. We are meaningless. But we are not alone.
Many movie critics (and movie goers) would love to walk out of a theater being able to say, “I laughed, I cried.” The problem is, I don’t cry. Not at the movies, anyway. Out of the 56 movies I have reviewed, only one made me tear-up. But I wasn’t tearing up because I was sad (I knew the Beast was going to re-incarnate). I was tearing up because of how good the storytelling was.
The Unique Premise
Much like how I felt about WALL-E afterwards (how in the world was it so good, no, great!), I questioned Up from the very start. How in the world is Pixar going to even sell a movie to kids if the main character is an old grandpa? How are they going to be able to relate to him? What is Up even going to be about? A house on balloons? What a stupid idea. For the first time, I thought Pixar was going to produce their first bad film. Against all odds, Pixar does it again. Pixar continues to surprise me.
Why did Pixar hide Ellie away from us? I mean, I just wasn’t expecting this to be a love story, and then they get married in like 5 minutes. And then they turn old a couple minutes later. And… no, no! They’re going to kill off Ellie? Okay, no, I think she dies of natural causes, but still, a love story and a subsequent death in 8 mintues? Only Pixar could pull this off, no, make that one of cinema’s greatest montages… ever. I usually dislike movie montages. I think they are all kind of the same, generic, trailer-reminiscent, easy-way-out method of fast forwarding time. I’d much rather just skip forward in time and have everything we need to learn established then. But… this movie montage is Pixar’s best short. Every theatrical release of Pixar has been preceded with an animated short, and Pixar’s Carl and Ellie love story montage shows why Pixar does that. They are just so good at telling stories with so little time, and the first ten minutes of Up is Pixar’s finest work. It represents Pixar storytelling. Risky, but crafted with care. Funny, but filled with heart. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.
So the real climax happens towards the end after the Pixar moment, but I wasn’t necessarily a big fan of it. Just some obligatory action to finish the film with some excitement. So I’m going to talk about the climax that allows the story to take off: when Carl lifts his house with balloons to make good on a promise he made to Ellie.
Unfortunately (for Carl), a boy scout named Russell unexpectedly came along for the ride. But for the audience, I think Russell brings some much needed humor into a film that could have easily been depressing like The Incredibles’ first act.
We also get the addition of Kevin, a colorfully exotic bird, and Dug, a dog with a collar that allows him to speak, to also lift the general mood of the movie. Even though Kevin can’t say anything comprehensible like her (yes, Kevin is a female) comic relief counterpart in Dug, a lot of her humor comes visually, and the noises she does make are funny in themselves.
Dug’s dialogue perfectly captures the essence of a dog, and it makes for a few chuckles.
But by the time all of these side-characters make their appearances, I felt Pixar’s story was wandering aimlessly. What was the point of that love story? Just as a motivator for Carl? What happens when they get the house to the other side of Paradise Falls? Whereas WALL-E made me explore for themes and established a plethora of symbols in its first two acts, Up had only established one symbol by this point. Perhaps this is why the Pixar moment hit me so hard.
The Pixar Moment
If there is one Pixar character I can best relate with, its Carl. Quiet in nature, he almost never expresses his feelings in words. But as I watched Carl live out his life without Ellie, I got this incredibly sad feeling that I knew Carl. Carl is going through the all too familiar feelings of regret and guilt.
He maintains the same routine he had with Ellie. He keeps the furniture squeaky clean and in their exact locations. There is a particularly revealing scene in the film when a storm disturbs the house and Carl scrambles to try and salvage the furnishings as if it is his way of protecting Ellie. This happens earlier as well when Carl hits a construction worker in the head with his walking stick after his crew accidentally knocks into Carl’s mailbox.
I got this incredibly sad feeling whenever Carl spoke to the house. No one who values a promise as much as Carl should have to go through what he is going through. It is precisely this promise that drives Carl to place the house exactly where Ellie dreamed it would be.
Finally, Carl gets his house to Paradise Falls. He places the furniture back in their exact location. He sits down. The story is dead, I thought. Then, he picks up the adventure book Ellie gave to him before she passed away; the scrapbook that was going to record all the adventures Ellie was going to have when she got to Paradise Falls. Carl looks at it, and is still left unsatisfied.
He opens it, and notices Ellie has put pictures in the pages reserved for all the adventures she was going to have.
When Ellie died, I was on the verge of tears not because of how good the storytelling was, but because of how sad I was. They had so many hopes and dreams that never came into fruition. A relationship with so much potential, I thought. But I was proven wrong. The success of their relationship wasn’t based on having children or taking a trip to a certain location. It was based on how happy they were with one another. They didn’t need any of that to be happy. They just needed each other.
I was on the verge of tears once again after Carl flipped the last page of Ellie’s adventure book. I was just so happy for Carl. So happy that he was going to be able to move on from this promise to a promise he made to Russell. But I wasn’t crying. Not yet, at least.
When Carl starts throwing all of the furniture outside his house to try and lift the house again, it was too much for me. I had to bring my hand to my eyes and make sure no one saw the state I was in while watching a children’s film. That is the power of Pixar.
Throughout the film, I felt heavy, dragged down by the sorrow and almost schizophrenic-like behavior of a man who lost everything that was important to him. But as Carl is literally hurling all his stuff, I knew he was also letting go of all his regret, guilt, and sorrow. As a result, the audience feels uplifted, and the house can fly once again. Carl can live his life again.
I laughed at Russell. I laughed at Kevin. I laughed at Dug. I was tearing up in sadness. I was tearing up in happiness. And finally, I cried. I was inspired. Although Up has a lot of filler and patches of either slow or unclear storytelling, it has the best Pixar moment. It contains Pixar’s best short. Its soundtrack and artistic vision is second to only Finding Nemo. And although I would put Up second to the more consistent WALL-E, it has moments more beautiful than what even Beauty and the Beast offers. These moments put Up in the discussion for the best animated film of all time.
Probably my favorite message from Up comes at the very end of the movie. Carl sacrifices his house to save Russell, Kevin, and Dug. He watches it float into the clouds. Another bittersweet moment in the film.
Ellie always wanted three things. She wanted adventure, she wanted kids, and she wanted to place her house on Paradise Falls. In a way, all of these things did come true, but in ways we thought weren’t possible. Ellie got her adventure with Carl. Carl is living out Ellie’s dream by being a father-figure for Russell. I think it goes to show that life never quite works out the way we intend for it. But if you have the right mindset, you will have your adventure. Adventure is out there! You just have to go out and discover it.
Toy Story 3 (2010)
Hmm… would anybody still read this review if I start off by saying Toy Story 3 is overrated?
When I think about animation’s greatest time periods, I think of 1937-1942, 1989-1992, and 2008-2010. Kick-starting animation in general, you have beautifully-drawn classics such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia, and Bambi from Walt Disney’s golden era. Revitalizing the Disney brand, you have infectious, show-stopping musical numbers a dime a dozen in The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin from the Disney renaissance. And most recently, we had WALL-E, Up, Tangled, How to Train Your Dragon, and Toy Story 3 all within 3 years from various animation studios. Is Toy Story 3 the best film of this unnamed era? I wouldn’t say so. Heck, is Toy Story 3 the best animated film of 2010? No. But is Toy Story 3 a near-perfect ending to one of cinema’s most cherished franchises? Undoubtedly, yes.
We meet up with all our favorite toys again in Toy Story 3, along with the colorful addition of an abandoned Barbie toy from Andy’s little sister who is also growing too old for toys. Andy is going to college, and after a pretty bloated misunderstanding, everyone but Woody believes Andy tried to throw his toys away. This causes all the toys to freak out and join Barbie to be donated to a daycare center. Once the gang gets there, Woody has had enough and decides to head back to Andy. Unfortunately, not even Buzz follows Woody’s lead, and hence, Woody storms off angrily on a sour good-bye.
Stuff happens, Woody comes back to Sunnyside daycare, Buzz is holding his friends hostage, and it becomes a darker jail break movie, and a well-made one at that. It’s funny, it’s creative, it’s fun, if unremarkable.
In this movie, there are almost two Pixar moments, but I’m going to go ahead and deem this moment as the climax. It’s when all of the toys have escaped the daycare center and are holding hands as they face their destiny.
I think why this scene works is because it ties into what this movie is about: facing our destiny. Over the course of two movies, in particular, Toy Story 2, Woody has accepted that Andy will grow up. Andy will abandon him. Woody learns it’s not so much about what our destiny is, but rather, how we cope with it, how we deal with it. Humans have constantly dealt with death over the course of history, the most inevitable and ultimate conclusion to our lives. You can either try and run away from it, or you can accept it, hold each others hands, and say good-bye.
The Pixar Moment
Do I even need to say what is the Pixar moment? You all watched it, loved it, and cried during it. It’s a little silly when you think about it, but I guess that’s the magic of Pixar. That they can convince you of a college boy who says goodbye to his toys by playing with them for the very last time.
I always found the spacing between the three movies a little odd. The first one in 1995, the second one shortly afterwards in 1999, and only in 2010 did they finally release the third. The first one was largely motivated by a short called Tin Toy, and it’s obvious how excited the creative team at Pixar was to start on their first feature-length film. The second film was inspired by John Lasseter’s fascination for toy collecting, and even started the project over from scratch when he came back to it (unsatisfied) after tours for A Bug’s Life. That creative motivation is what’s lacking in Toy Story 3. I just don’t feel that sense of excitement. Many plot threads are actually rehashed from previous movies, really compromising the emotional impact of Lotso’s story which is reminiscent of Jessie’s story in Toy Story 2. Pixar uncharacteristically falls back on typical cinematic tropes in this one, such as the obvious misunderstanding cliche. I think it could have been much more effective if Woody also thought he was being thrown away, but still put his trust in Andy.
Instead, we get a sense of obligatory commitment from Pixar, but when considering how much care Pixar shows for their first film’s trilogy, obligatory commitment is good enough. Just the range of jokes that expanded with the addition of Barbie and Ken is ingenious. Spanish Buzz is much more creative than the subplot involving Zerg in Toy Story 2, and the way Mr. Potato Head transforms into carbohydrates or other vegetables is absolutely hilarious. Toy Story 3 takes risks with its darker color palette, but it never loses its sense of humor throughout the film.
Toy Story 3 is one of those rare movies that almost demands a second viewing, because the ending of the film changes the way you view the beginning of the film. It begins with a montage of Andy growing up, and there is a real sense of nostalgia that may be lost on viewers who didn’t foresee the ending. Inherently, though, I think we all could sense this was Toy Story’s last chapter, possibly because we were also learning to let go of things. Many of us who grew up with Toy Story was also in Andy’s shoes by the time Toy Story 3 came out, and maybe that was intentional. Perhaps that was the reason Pixar chose this strange release date. Pixar knew just when they wanted to say good-bye, and while they haven’t since been able to quite reach the heights of WALL-E, Up and Toy Story 3, I think this is an opportune time to reflect upon how good we had it in 2008-2010. Toy Story 3 is our most recent memory of Pixar’s ability to say hello to great new stories, franchises, and trilogies.
Cars 2 (2011)
This is not only one of the worst animated films to have come out of the DreamWorks studio, it is perhaps one of the worst animated… oh, I’m sorry, this is not made by DreamWorks? May I know who… you’re joking. Please tell me this is some cruel joke. Is it April Fool’s day?
Have you ever had that experience where you wanted to slice a movie character’s head off with a light-saber?
Now, imagine if that character became the protagonist of a sequel. There’s Cars 2 in a nutshell.
Mater is unfunny, obnoxious, inconsiderate, grating, rude, annoying, incompetent, stupid beyond belief, socially inept, culturally ignorant, and insensitive to the stereotype he represents with his incredibly thick southern accent, buck teeth, odd fascination with (tractor) cows, and rusty tow truck… physique. This car world still refuses to make any sense as it continues to ignore the possibility of actually featuring human characters that drive cars! Why do they need to be cars if they are going to act exactly like us? Just to continue making car jokes which ran out of fuel ten minutes into the first movie? Making the car equivalent of every human thing is NOT FUNNY!!!
To make things even more confusing, this car world now feature spy… cars. With British accents. With built-in grappling hooks.
This movie refuses to be creative in any of its pursuits. Its characters are cardboard cut-outs from different movie genres or simply offensive. These characters are so confidently unoriginal that they actually completely overshadow Lighting McQueen, who is bland in comparison, and gets left behind in a screenplay that continues to become derailed by over-the-top silliness and over-complication of the plot as the movie drags on. Just when you think the movie is about to end, your misery continues. Just when you think the movie couldn’t get possibly worse, it does. This is truly a downfall for even Blue Sky animation studios. Oh wait, this isn’t made by Blue Sky? Well, who is this made by? Okay, just because you say it a million times doesn’t make it true. I’m not that gullible.
This movie is one-thirds comedy, one-thirds action spy flick, one-thirds race car movie, and 100% for children. I guess one could argue that, in fact, Cars 2 is not even suited for children with all of its violence and what not. When it comes to family films, hardly anyone dies, unless they are developed or have the full intention of coming back alive. Uncharacteristically, this children’s film kills (destroys?) many faceless car henchmen and fellow car racers with little remorse or care. The action, while occasionally interesting and bold, feels out of place with the kid-friendly sloppiness of its jokes.
The race car portion of Cars 2 is the only portion that works, mainly because it looks great. The only real compliment I can give this movie is that on a technical level, it is superior to most other animated outings. It looks like Illumination studio is finally catching up to their competitors in this regard. What do you mean it’s not made by Illumination studio? Who in the world made Cars 2? Fine, since you’re no help, I’ll look it up myself.
Have you ever had that experience where someone says something that makes you question everything you took to be true? Like, when you finally figured out Santa Claus was dad and Tooth Fairy was mom? I long avoided watching Cars 2. I couldn’t stand the thought of Pixar making a bad movie. I just assumed Pixar had been undone by their own expectations, and it wasn’t so much a bad movie as it was a bad movie by Pixar’s standards. Then, I watched Cars 2.
And all the displeased feminists cried: Do a female protagonist, Pixar! Do a female protagonist! As Merida learns, be careful what you wish for…
Brave is so non-Pixar that I cannot give it a normal Pixar review (Unique Premise, Adventure, Climax, Pixar Moment, Conclusion). I also made this exception to Cars 2, but for reasons I hope are more obvious. Considering how much I had to bash Cars 2, I really didn’t look forward to writing this review.
Brave’s closest equivalent of Disney’s is The Lion King, despite being a princess movie. The writing barely makes sense. You have this princess who doesn’t want to marry anyone, but is forced to by tradition. As explained by Queen Elinor, the princess must marry one of the three kingdom’s sons, as determined through some sort of a contest. Otherwise, the entire Brave world will erupt into war. Okay, well, this sucks for either Princess Merida or Queen Elinor, because both can’t possibly have their happy end… WHAT! THE KINGDOMS ARE JUST OKAY WITH CHANGING THIS TRADITION!?! Is this really your ending Pixar? If this is the ending you had in mind, then that means it is the kings ruling the kingdoms who need an epiphany! Not Merida and Elinor. The mother daughter relationship simply has no place within the plot you have constructed!!!
Sigh… the kings have their “epiphany” at around the 70 minute mark, persuaded by Merida’s words (very lazy storytelling, I know). I guess the mother daughter relationship is tangentially related since Merida’s speech suggests she has accepted her mother’s point of view, and her mother urging Merida to change her speech midway through indicates she has accepted Merida’s point of view. But then the movie keeps going. Why? Oh right, her mom is still a bear! Even though the entire internal conflict is resolved within 70 minutes, we still need to slog through 20 more minutes resolving a physical conflict. A simple question should arise: what was the purpose of having Elinor turn into a bear? So they can spend a couple of hours fishing together? I mean, I just don’t get it. Why couldn’t Merida and Elinor re-mend their bonds as HUMANS. Are humans simply incapable of this? Do you really need to turn your mom into a bear to see her point of view? Did they just want to copy the Disney formula and have a witch in their story?
Really, the answers to these questions doesn’t change the fact that the plot is painfully split into three, discrete fragments. Brave is about fixing tradition, fixing a mother daughter relationship, and fixing a spell. They just happen all at the same time to trick the audience into thinking this is one cohesive story. Brave should have pick any one of these three stories and rolled with it. I’ll spend the next part of this review talking about the story I personally cared for: the mother daughter relationship.
To write this review without contrasting Brave to the Disney princess movies is difficult since it is precisely this relationship which most princess movies omit. For whatever reason, it is usually the dad who manages to stick around, Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine being prime examples.
This is what makes Brave unique. It refuses to become a story about finding romantic love. The best parts of Brave is when it focuses on familial love.
In the film’s most touching moment, Merida and bear-turned-Elinor just goof around for a couple of minutes in the shallow parts of a creek. While Phil Collins singing pop rock songs in the foreground of Tarzan only invoked feelings of lament over the end of the Disney renaissance style, I was much more welcoming of Julie Fowlis, a true gaelic folk singer, who infuses Brave with a real sense of culture. Fowlis provides some of Pixar’s best songs with Touch the Sky, which functions very much like a typical “I want” song of the Disney princess movies, and Into the Open Air, which undoubtedly lend itself to the moving interaction between Merida and Elinor.
While were on the topic of authenticity, I absolutely love how all the characters have true Scottish accents. I’m sick and tired of protagonists having American accents whereas all the villains/henchmen have authentic accents based on the setting. Or worse, accents just for the hell of it (what’s with all the accents in The Lion King?). I say you should distribute American accents to all your main characters (including villains) and give setting-based accents to both henchmen and side-characters (like Beauty and the Beast) if you want atmosphere. Or even better, you can do what Brave does.
Now, there is one last thing I have to talk about before I can explain what makes Brave better than The Lion King, and that is Merida. Brave was released June 22nd, 2012. June is LGBT Pride Month. The release date is not quite as provocative as something like June 28th when the stonewall riots took place, but provocative nonetheless. If the Pixar theory can be legitimized by the studio’s attention to detail, then I think Merida represents the LGBT crowd. She is animation’s first lesbian, asexual, or bisexual protagonist.
This is quite the claim, I know, and while I could exhaust the rest of this movie review defending my case, I’m going to link my audience (sorry for all the links guys, trying to keep this review as short as possible) to a relevant article that I basically agree with, if you are interested. Probably more fun is watching the movie again with this lens, and seeing for yourself whether or not you agree with this claim. In the end, I am speculating. But that’s all Pixar needed to do. To quote the article, “it just needed to make us ask.”
There are many parallels one may draw between The Lion King and Brave. The African savanna and the Scottish Highlands are wonderful backdrops, conferring a more mature tone to the story which is unfortunately at odds with the almost nonsensical plotting. Both try to weave in mystical elements, like Mufusa 2.0 (Cloud version) and the wisps, but rather, these occurrences seem to come at times when the writers threw up their hands and didn’t know how else to progress the story.
On a technical level, both films represent some of the studio’s best work. As many critics raved, Merida’s orange mane indeed has a life of its own, resisting any societal tradition which may bind her.
More important, however, are the differences. And Brave has a distinct advantage over The Lion King: it has heart. In a sentiment I will echo in my concluding Pixar post, I think that’s what ultimately makes Pixar stand out for me. There hasn’t been a single film…
There hasn’t been two films of Pixar’s with no heart. Even something as bland as Cars and A Bug’s Life still made me care. I cared about Merida’s relationship with her mother. I cared about Merida obtaining her freedom. I cared about a studio trying to sneak in a lesbian protagonist. And for that, I’d say Brave is pretty… courageous.
Monsters University (2013)
Come on. People are still worried about Pixar after watching Monsters University?
The Unique Premise
I typically omit this section for sequels/prequels, since the premise usually remains the same, but Monsters University actually has almost nothing to do with the corporate conspiracy of Monsters, Inc. I mean, sure, the monsters come to Monsters University to eventually work for Monsters, Inc., but the predominate body of power now resides wherever Dean Hardscrabble decides to fly, instead of the omnipresence of Monsters, Inc. And barring the ending, the only children that appear are lifeless manikins. Monsters University is less about the human relationship between monsters and more about the relationship of monsters altogether.
I also feel the need to debunk detractors who claim Monsters University is a blatant copy of Revenge of the Nerds (among other college movies). I’ve even heard some unfair comparisons made to The Internship. I think people forget that those movies end happy. The nerds convinces everyone to join them instead of Alpha Beta. The underdog interns win the Google competition. Mike and Sully are… expelled from college. Sully cheats his way through the final round of the scare games. Mike never becomes a scarer. Ever.
Now, I’m not saying I like Monsters University because it is different from those movies. I like Monsters University because it is special.
Much like how Toy Story 2 shifted the focus from Buzz to Woody, Monsters University shifts the focus from Sully to Mike. And once again, it works. We get a glimpse of Mike’s almost tragic child-life, as he is constantly ignored by his peers. Everything changes after Mike is handed a scarer’s MU cap on a Monsters, Inc. field trip. He now knows how to be a somebody. He wants to be a scarer.
Being only one year removed from freshmen status when I first watched Monsters University in theaters, I had a lot of fun reminiscing freshmen orientation as depicted in Monsters University. Comedy is usually not what I most remember from Pixar films, but Monsters University is genuinely funny with its accurate but cleaned version of college life. I remember thinking to myself: Oh, me and my roommate are going to be best friends forever. I recall having a mental check-list, along the lines of: Audition for an a cappella group, join a pre-med society, and get straight A’s (only two of these things came true). Monsters University also has more fun than its predecessor playing with all of its different monsters, like having a snail monster inch its way to class (and receiving a post-credit scene). Perhaps people don’t share my sense of humor, but I think Monsters University is one of Pixar’s funniest, right up there with Finding Nemo and Toy Story 3.
I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical of Monsters University once we were introduced to the monsters of Oozma Kappa. I mean, did anybody think they were that funny or charismatic? I don’t know. I was a bit disappointed by the side-characters of Monsters University.
And by the time the scare games commenced, I was beginning to think this was going to be Pixar’s second-in-a-row, run-of-the-mill animated outing, and that perhaps Pixar had really lost their touch since Cars 2. Don’t get me wrong, the games are enjoyable, but it failed to form any resemblance of a solid story. After Mike won it all for his team in the finals, I sat in disbelief. Is Pixar really going to settle for this cliched ending? That if you work as hard as you can, anything can come true?
Of course not. It’s Pixar.
The Pixar Moment
Sully, even after doing the right thing and admitting he rigged Mike’s manikin to Dean Hardscrabble, faces the consequences of his actions and is expelled from Monsters University. Mike receives the same punishment after going into the real world–our world–to prove he is indeed scary. The thing is, he isn’t scary. He will never be scary. No matter how hard he works, no matter how hard he tries, no matter how badly he wants it, Mike Wazowski will never be a scarer for Monsters, Inc. Ever.
The thing I love about Monsters University as a prequel, although mostly uncomplicated for the entire duration of the scare games, is the message is more profound when viewing Monsters University alongside the crystal ball that is Monsters, Inc. We know Mike eventually becomes a Monsters, Inc. comedian. And Sully becomes the chairman. By many standards, Mike became a somebody. He was indeed special, just special in ways that were hidden to him at the time.
Just because your dreams burn up in flames does not make you failure. It’s not because you aren’t good enough. It’s because it isn’t right for you. There have been children’s films that have tried to invalidate the Disney motto of chasing your dreams till Earth’s end, but none does it better than Monsters University. Monsters University proposes to children that perhaps your dreams will only come true when you stay true to yourself. When you find what makes you special. Not Einstein. Not Picasso. But you.
I’m not going to be the first or last person to say this, but for all I’ve written, Monsters University does indeed fall short of WALL-E, Up, Finding Nemo, the entire Toy Story trilogy, etc. It just spends too much time making jokes, developing uninteresting side-characters, and lollygagging around with the scare games to continually progress its themes and story to the fullest. But why does every Pixar film have to be a near cinematic masterpiece? What’s wrong with Pixar making a film that is more about the fun and less about the storytelling?
I think it’s time we stop measuring every Pixar movie to the Pixar meter stick and start finding out what makes each of their movies special. It’s time we stop saying Monsters University is an unworthy Pixar title and time we start saying Monsters University is an exceedingly entertaining, and even occasionally deep, movie.
Inside Out (2015)
Inside Out may be considered “overrated” if it continues to be favorably compared to Toy Story, Finding Nemo, WALL-E, and Up. What is indisputable, though, is its commitment to profound thought and its willingness to experiment. Although the distinction between Pixar and Disney continues to blur with each of the studio’s successive release since Cars 2 and Wreck-It Ralph, Inside Out represents a similar peak for Pixar as Frozen did for Disney. In no way do I believe Inside Out will reach the popularity of Frozen. But Inside Out is just as creative and innovative as the self-aware Frozen, and perhaps even more so. It’s also just as fun and entertaining.
Inside Out operates on the same framework as other Pixar movies. Although there are five characters who represent the varying emotions of human character Riley, only two of them go on the typical Pixar quest. The typical Pixar partnership materializes in the form of Joy and Sadness, voiced by Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith respectively. Fear, Anger, and Disgust are mainly there for the much necessitated comic relief.
Inside Out competes with The Incredibles and Up for being Pixar’s most “adult” movie. In other words, it runs the serious risk of becoming too depressing and sad for children. Fortunately, Pixar does a marvelous job at managing all conflicting emotions into a well-balanced screenplay that skillfully incorporates jokes at even the most serious moments of the film. And there is plenty of seriousness to be found. I believe Inside Out is Pixar’s most adult film, even if the jokes are as slap-stick and rapid-fire as the ones in Finding Nemo. Inside Out is probably Pixar’s funniest since Finding Nemo, and yet, Pixar’s most poignant since Toy Story 3.
Where the film compares unfavorably to Pixar’s best is in the meandering nature of its plot and in the convolution of its ideas. Inside Out establishes many brilliant concepts in the beginning, only to abandon most of them as it narrows its focus towards the end of the movie. On one hand, it seems like we are going to witness Riley grow from her experiences. In the other, it seems like we are in for a tale of teenagehood. At the end, you realize Inside Out is about something entirely different, and that honestly kind of bothered me.
In my completely subjective opinion, I believe the best movies are so polished and refined that it becomes fully predictable. How the masterpieces distinguishes itself from the mediocre is in its ability to remain engaging, sincere, and thrilling in spite of its predictability. While Inside Out has all the emotions of a true masterpiece, it lacks the refinement of Pixar’s best work–I could not predict where the story was heading mid-way through. In other words, Inside Out lost its momentum at times, and I felt slightly bored in those portions of the film.
Despite some rough patches and dullness in the middle stages of the film, every establishment of characters and plot threads pays off handsomely by the end. There are moments towards the end when I could have cried if I wanted to, but I decided against it. The story of Inside Out heads into a dark place unvisited by other Pixar films, catching me off guard and placing me in a vulnerable state where I was primed for inspiration. The message of Inside Out pierced my heart, sweeping away any of my remaining cynicism for poetic truths. Inside Out is a brainy movie not in an educational sense, but in its sage understanding of life. Inside Out offers a wonderfully tragic vantage point.
Considering Pixar’s well-documented drop-off since Toy Story 3, one may be inclined to ask: is Pixar back? No. Pixar is not back. Inside Out lacks the clear direction of WALL-E, storytelling triumphs of Up, and animation flair of Finding Nemo. However, no Pixar movie is as bold and provocative as Inside Out. Even if this is objectively not Pixar’s best movie nor Pixar’s most technically impressive piece of work, I would argue Inside Out firmly re-establishes Pixar as the creative masterminds of the movie industry. Simply put, Inside Out reaffirms Pixar’s relevance in cinema. This isn’t the great return to form for Pixar that people may be anticipating. This is the re-branding of a studio that has clear intentions of diving to even deeper and darker places. One could say Pixar is evolving, and I am personally excited for their bright future.
The Good Dinosaur (2015)
Haters gonna hate. This is better than Inside Out.
I said it before and I’ll say it again: Pixar is evolving. I’m kind of getting sick of people comparing new Pixar to old Pixar. They aren’t making the same types of movies anymore. And that’s okay. To say this isn’t as good as the “classics” on that basis, however, seems unfair to me.
This film deserves comparisons to movies outside the Pixar echelon. How to Train Your Dragon comes to mind. The way the friendship between two different species of animals begin is akin to Hiccup’s and Toothless. What about Bambi? Whatever concerns I voiced about the lack of artistry in Inside Out is made absolutely obsolete by The Good Dinosaur. This is a visually lush and stunning film. Hey, I’ll even draw comparison to the good parts of The Lion King (maybe because some of my friends made incessant jokes about it, thanks Ryan). The way the father-son dynamic was handled was well done. Perhaps my favorite aspect of this film, however, is its overall feel, harking back to 30s and 40s animation. It’s, on occasion, dark and scary but on the whole, a slower-paced story that relies more on animation than story to capture its audiences. The Good Dinosaur easily achieves its lofty goals.
As someone who views animation, and even computer animation, like a kid viewing a magic show, I was completely engrossed by its brilliant storytelling techniques. Yes, the film doesn’t revolve around a very complicated plot, but the visual and colorful world it builds is just as captivating. As our main character Arlo, a rubbery green Apatosaurus who gets separated from his family, goes on an adventure to get back home, he meets a plethora of characters and critters that help him deal with his fear of the wild, death, and the unknown. While fear is a topic recently and proficiently visited by Pixar in Monsters University, it has always been a running current in their Toy Story series and Pixar re-visits this theme with a certain characteristic freshness. Maybe its only problem is addressing the theme a bit too directly.
Per usual, Pixar builds all their characters around a partnership, but this one feels the most essential. Simply put, Arlo is dead meat in an admittedly scary and unjust world without befriending a dog-like cave-boy named Spot who is simultaneously adorable and equally ferocious at the same time. I love how The Good Dinosaur handles death. There are many on-screen deaths that occur, and while none take too much screen-time, each one is made important because it establishes the harsh world that these dinosaurs live in. With a prevalent Darwinian “survival of the fittest” attitude, this film portrays an accurate depiction of nature that seems complementary for a movie about dinosaurs while furthering its themes about the fear of death.
However, this is not a grim film. The Good Dinosaur chooses to accentuate the beauty of nature without exaggeration. Its photo-realistic animation works for what it is striving to do–to produce an uplifting film that doesn’t sugar-coat the sad stuff in life. Life is morbid, but you know what, it is also beautiful.
Purpose. Love. Friendship. Family. These are all of the things that Arlo wants in life but doesn’t fully possess until he embraces fear. What I’m really enjoying from the new line of Pixar movies which I’ve personally defined as starting from Inside Out is their emphasis on family. For a genre that has been cemented into the public’s mind as a genre for the family (animation), Pixar is finally making a strong push to make their movies actually about family. The effect is not only healthy and invigorating, but also profound. A great lesson to be had as we head into holiday season.
There are some weird moments in the film–characters who feel like they don’t belong, or maybe accents that feel strange to be coming out of cartoonishly drawn dinosaurs. Whatever the case may be, The Good Dinosaur doesn’t necessarily have an ensemble of characters to charm the audience into liking them. My favorite side-characters were the Tyrannosaurus Rex’s, who take on an unexpected role in the film and reinforce any Western film influences The Good Dinosaur may have started out with. Outside of them, I can’t really cite another memorable character who’s more enjoyable than peculiar.
Still, without the rare scene here and there with certain characters that doesn’t work, The Good Dinosaur is practically a flawless film otherwise. It clearly sets up its goals and accomplishes them. It displays much respect for many different movie and story genres. Is this a coming of age story? Is this a Western? Is this 30s and 40s animation? It’s really an unlikely combination of all of the above that blends stupendously.
I adore this film. It’s sad to think that it’ll go underrated. I think it’s as every bit good as the Pixar classics, despite how different it is. Guys, this film is different. But let’s celebrate that. The Good Dinosaur is more than just good–it’s majestic, gorgeous, heartbreaking, and as close to art as Pixar has ever come.
Finding Dory (2016)
Will this be my next The Lion King review?
In almost every way, Finding Dory should be considered a resounding success. Andrew Stanton and Ellen DeGeneres tackle familiar roles, the challenge being to live up to the beloved Finding Nemo film released more than a decade ago. With its sequel racking up a stellar 94% on Rotten Tomatoes and setting new box office records, it appears Finding Dory has connected with audiences on a similar level of Finding Nemo. I couldn’t have personally predicted this type of success had I seen an early screening of this film. In fact, if I was the producer of the film I probably would have called for some staff to be fired and many scenes to be reworked. Harsh? Let me explain myself.
Finding Dory sets up its story quickly by beginning with Dory’s dreams of her parents. And already, I have slight problems with its title. You see, Finding Nemo was a great title because although it was about physically finding Nemo, it was actually Marlin’s story of overcoming his trauma and depression. Here, we are physically finding Dory’s parents and actually finding Dory’s… past history?
I should give the film a bit more credit than that. Finding Dory has a keen focus on human disabilities which has never been explored in an animated film like this before. This is a logical progression for the sequel, as Nemo and Dory are really one of the few disabled animated protagonists you can find in American cinema outside of DreamWork’s Toothless and Hiccup and maybe Disney’s Ariel and Bambi.
Finding Dory introduces an additional cast of disabled sea creatures who are kept at the Marine Life Institute for recovery. There’s Hank who deals with kid-phobia and anger management issues, Density who is almost blind, Bailey who deals with the effects of concussion, Becky who has attention-deficit disorder, and another sea lion whose name I can’t find on Wikipedia who is mentally retarded.
However, if you have already watched the film I have to ask: how many of these names do you really remember? With the exception of Hank, I think none of these characters will become household names in the way Nemo, Dory, and Marlin have become and that is because none of them get the screen-time that is necessary to develop them into characters beyond their disabilities. In an attempt to introduce many new characters for merchandising and to represent the large spectrum of human disabilities, Finding Dory becomes cluttered with plot points that must be visited and characters arcs which must be resolved by the end of the film. Even under the capable hands of Stanton, his large ensemble of characters do more harm to the film than to help further its message on human disabilities, a message that is sloppy at best and dumbed down to the point where even infants should have a chance in understanding Finding Dory’s Disney-isk message. In a film that chose a topic so emotionally sensitive for many people and so unique to animation, it probably chose the most unsophisticated and generic story to go along with it.
While the story may be simple, the plot is one of Pixar’s most complicated. With flashbacks that conveniently push the plot forward towards Dory’s parents and a bunch of coincidences and contrivances that take away from the plausibility of the film’s occurrences, the story of Dory’s “rescue, recover, and release” often takes a back-seat to the chaos of events that is going on the screen. With so many things happening in the plot at the same time, Stanton resorts to video-game style transitions where we hit pause in one storyline in order to catch back up with what’s happening in the other. This is a problem I noted in Toy Story 2 but wouldn’t have expected to appear with such severity in Stanton’s films. Even in Finding Nemo I found the pace bustled around a bit too much but that is in full-blown effect in Finding Dory with much determent to Dory’s story. In general, Stanton and his team really struggled to tie Dory’s adventure to her parents with their message on human disability. It often felt like these two storylines developed independently from one other and with the way the screenplay was organized, these storylines almost seem to fight for our attention and sufficient screentime.
This isn’t to say that Dory’s adventure is all bad. There are some genuinely funny moments, even as the characters did annoy at times. It is a very witty film, finding ways to connect different plot occurrences to one another and making jokes out of real sea animal facts. The Pixar pairing of Hank and Dory is well executed as expected from the usual Pixar affair but definitely with less effect than let’s say Woody and Buzz and even Marlin and Dory. Hank flat-out disappears for a good portion of the film before Stanton finds a way to involve him again as the film reaches its conclusion.
Probably the best part of Finding Dory is the seashell analogy they are able to establish–you’ll understand when you watch the film what I am talking about. It really represents how much Dory’s parents love and trust their daughter and was one of the few touches of brilliance that reminded me of Stanton’s work on Finding Nemo and WALL-E. The ending is particularly satisfying as well, finding a way to end the film on a quieter but suitable note.
If there’s any film I feel inclined to compare this too, it would have to be the non-Pixar film Anastasia. There too is a protagonist who tries to find her parents but there was very little to drive that story besides the generic fact that we want all people to be with their family. To compare Finding Dory to a more recent Pixar flick, this film has the same problem of Inside Out by not actually establishing the parents as important characters, characters who are defined more by their blood-tie to Dory than anything unique about themselves, a criticism I’ve also launched at Simba. In a film that teased a couple different directions, such as the concept of memory like in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Stanton’s message on disability is profoundly disappointing from a studio that is known to make disappointing trailers into profound pieces of cinematic storytelling.
If you were expecting me to dig up plot holes and berate the movie like in my younger days as an amateur critic, you might be disappointed to find such a calm review on a film whose grade might surprise you. I have no problems giving Finding Dory credit for what it does well: there are some stunning moments of animation, the lighting of scenes and Hank’s camouflage being standout moments. However, much like the animation was just an afterthought in my The Lion King review, I don’t think it’s worth spending time on it in a film that just doesn’t have the story to back it up. I’m more filled with sadness than anger. I love Pixar and want to love every movie of theirs and I’m jealous this time I couldn’t share your guys’ enthusiasm. Perhaps I’ll find it in…