ONWARD (animated, 2020)

March 5, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. No studio has ever had a 25 year run like Pixar. This is their 22nd feature film over that span and every single one lands somewhere in the range of brilliant/instant classic to watchable/re-watchable. Though this latest may not reach instant classic level, it does stick to the Pixar standard template of highly entertaining while delivering a life lesson. This is the first time in the Pixar director’s chair for Dan Scanlon since MONSTERS UNIVERSITY (2013). It’s also the first original Pixar since COCO (2017) … and note, it’s rated PG.

The film opens with a “history” lesson detailing how the world was once populated by enchanted creatures like elves, unicorns, wizards, mermaids, fairies and sprites. Science and technology created shortcuts and soon the world’s “magic” had disappeared, relegating these creatures to life in the suburbs. We pick up the story on Ian Lightfoot’s 16th birthday. Ian is part of an elf family that includes his older brother Barley and their widowed mother Laurel. While Barley is a loud and rambunctious type who is obsessed with the Quest of Yore game and mythology (think Dungeons & Dragons), Ian is a more pensive type who still mourns the late father he never met. Both brothers are surprised when their mother presents a “gift” from their dad – one he left instructions to be held until Ian turned 16. The gift is a magical wizard staff that, with the included precious stone, can bring dad back to life for 24 hours.

Barley’s knowledge of the magical spells combined with Ian’s lack of self-confidence ends up botching things to the point that only half of dad is brought back – the bottom half. Under a tight deadline and in need of a replacement gem to bring dad back for a much desired final conversation, the brothers take off on an adventure that turns pretty wild. Their quest leads them to cross paths with many of the previously enchanted creatures, including the fabulous Manticore, and mom’s boyfriend, Officer Colt Bronco.

We have come to expect ‘magic’ from Pixar with every movie, and this one doesn’t disappoint. It may not be quite as awe-inspiring as some of their best work, but it’s still a terrific suburban fantasy adventure filled with comedy and life lessons … the most crucial of which is: being happy with what you have is more crucial to your inner-peace than getting what you hope for.

As always, the voice acting is top notch. Tom Holland (SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING) delivers the goods as Ian, and Chris Pratt (GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY) brings the necessary wonder and excitement to brother Barley. Julia Louis-Dreyfus never really gets to shine as their mother, but then this story is focused on the boys. Octavia Spencer has fun as Manticore (we needed more Manticore!), Mel Rodriguez is a hoot as Officer Colt Bronco, and yes of course, John Ratzenberger sneaks in – he’s now voiced a character in all 22 Pixar films.

This is the first Pixar film to be totally free of input from ousted President John Lasseter, and it’s one of the very few to be released outside of the summer or awards season. The likely reason is that the studio has a second original film being released this June. SOUL will be directed by Pete Docter and is viewed as a companion piece to the already classic INSIDE OUT (2015). Given the time of year, it could be easy to overlook ONWARD, but it nails the Pixar trademark emotional finale … delivering a sentimental scene likely to stick with you. I have praised Pixar many times over the years as their creative teams really seem to “get it”. Regardless of the month, ONWARD will cast a spell.

watch the trailer:


INCREDIBLES 2 (2018)

June 12, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. In 2004 THE INCREDIBLES became the 6th Pixar film in a row to dominate the box office, and also the 6th straight to “WOW” us with a combination of animation, story, action and characters. All these years later, Brad Bird, the creative force behind the original, is back with the much anticipated sequel. Mr. Bird’s career over those years has featured a blend of other animation (RATATOUILLE, 2007) and live-action (MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL).

Bird is not the only returnee for the sequel. Also back is the entire Parr Family: Holly Hunter as Elastigirl/Helen/Mom, Craig T Nelson as Mr. Incredible/Bob/Dad, Sarah Vowell as Violet, Huck Milner as Dash, and Eli Fucile as baby Jack Jack. The story picks up not long after the original ended. “Supers” have been outlawed, and the Parrs are in some type of Super Protection Program – similar to Witness Protection. Of course when one is a superhero, doing the right thing just comes naturally, and the opening scene finds them battling their old nemesis Underminer (voiced by Pixar good luck charm John Ratzenberger, who voices a character in each of the studio’s films). Our heroes stop the crime, but cause significant damage to the city. This leads to our first social commentary when the powers that be scold the Parrs and inform them that the banks have insurance, and it’s cheaper to let the criminals get away so that the damage is minimized.

As superheroes non-grata, the Parrs try to go “straight” and live a normal life. That is until a powerful brother and sister corporate duo offer a proposal. Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) and Evelyn Deavor (twist that pronunciation just a bit, voiced by Catherine Keener) want to generate a PR plan to help rebuild the reputation of supers. The idea is to make Elastigirl the public face of the program by having her wear a body cam to show off her heroic deeds (in this age of ‘pics or it didn’t happen’). She’s chosen over Mr. Incredible for economic reasons, and he’s relegated to stay-at-home parent (or as we called Michael Keaton in 1983, MR. MOM – an unacceptable sexist term these days).

Elastigirl enjoys her time in the limelight, while Bob doesn’t much like being just Bob. Plus he can’t understand why they changed math, as he gets frustrated trying to help Dash with his homework. He’s also challenged with Violet’s teen angst over a boy, and even moreso over the discovery that Jack Jack has POWERS! In fact, Jack Jack has multiple powers, but as a baby, he has little control – though his battle with a raccoon is not a segment you’ll soon forget.

Also returning is Frozone – voiced by Samuel L. Jackson (minus his trademark “MF’er), and costume designer Edna Mode – voiced by director Bird. Other new voices include (Odenkirk’s fellow “Better Call Saul” castmate) Jonathan Banks as Rick Dicker, Isabella Rossellini as the Ambassador, and Sophia Bush as Voyd, one of the new generation supers (which includes Reflux – one you’ll just have to experience).

The big new villain causing problems for Elastigirl is ScreenSlaver, who hypnotizes large groups of people through their screens – more social commentary on our dependence on technology and the addiction/affliction we have toward device screens. The flood of superhero movies over the years since THE INCREDIBLES exposes the not-so-complex story in this one, but it’s terrific that the film keeps much of the original look and feel, and yet brings something new … baby Jack Jack is a star!

Filled with the beautiful colors and art design we’ve come to take for granted from Pixar, the film also features some of the best action sequences you’ll see in any movie. The train sequence with Elastigirl is simply spectacular – as is the final action sequence. It’s also nice to see the flip in gender roles as Mom (Holly Hunter) takes the lead. Michael Giacchino returns as the composer and he blends in a touch of James Bond theme with his wonderful work. If the film needed extra credit (which it doesn’t), certainly the inclusion of a “Jonny Quest” clip would qualify. Family films don’t get much better than this, and even though it runs 2 hours, the closing credits feature the theme song for each of the superheroes, and could easily have been a short film unto itself.

Speaking of short films, a Pixar tradition is to include one before new releases. This time it’s BAO, a Chinese mother/son and food-oriented story from director Domee Shi (animator on INSIDE OUT)

watch the trailer:


THE GOOD DINOSAUR (2015)

December 3, 2015

the good dinosaur Greetings again from the darkness. Two Pixar films in one year? Earlier this year, the brilliant Inside Out reminded us just what sets Pixar apart from other animation studios … the film was intelligent, insightful, thoughtful, beautiful, funny and emotional enough to bring tears to the eyes of many parents. In other words, it’s a tough act to follow – even for Pixar!

Of course, 2015 was not intended to be a double-header for Pixar. The Good Dinosaur ran into serious production and story issues at the same time the studio was going through layoffs and reorganization. So the six year project turned into eight, as a new creative team was brought in (led by director Peter Sohn), and the story and characters were re-worked and re-imagined. The finished product is likely the most staggeringly beautiful animation to ever hit the big screen, while at the same time being some of the darkest and bleakest material ever presented by Pixar.

The premise is pretty interesting: What would Earth be like if THE asteroid had missed, and the dinosaurs survived? That’s about as sciency as the story gets, other than it does portray nature as a colossal adversary (what’s with the hallucinogenic berries?). We first meet Momma and Poppa Apatosaurus as they work their corn fields (huh?) and wait for their baby eggs to hatch. The runt of the litter is Arlo, who just can’t keep up with his more active siblings and who feels inadequate in comparison to his majestic father.

Arlo and nature are responsible for the tragedy that sends Arlo off on a journey that features the full spectrum: the importance of family, the sadness of loss, the strength of friendship, and the self-discovery that leads to independence. While there are quite a few laughs along the way, the fear and isolation that Arlo experiences takes up most of the movie, and could leave all but the strongest kids feeling anything but upbeat and happy.

There is a life lesson about making one’s mark, and an oddball friendship between Arlo and young boy (named Spot??) who is wise to nature. But this one lacks the charm of most Pixar outings, while at the same time reaching technical levels that are breathtaking to behold. It’s difficult to imagine many kids wanting to watch this one again and again, but for all you Pixar nerds, you can rest easy … John Ratzenberger does make a vocal appearance.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


TMI (1-10-12)

January 10, 2012

TMI (Today’s Movie Info)

 JOHN RATZENBERGER is the only person to voice a character in all of Pixar Animation’s feature films: as Hamm in Toy Story (1995); PT Flea in A Bug’s Life (1998); Hamm again in Toy Story 2 (1999); the Abominable Snowman in Monsters, Inc. (2001); Fish School in Finding Nemo (2003); Underminer in The Incredibles (2004); Mack in Cars (2006), Mustafa in Ratatouille (2007), John in WALL-E (2008), Construction Foreman Tom Up (2009), Hamm in Toy Story 3 (2010) and Mack in Cars 2 (2011).
 
He is best known for his role as Cliff Clavin on the long running TV series “Cheers” (1982-93)  
Clavin was a mailman and frequently entertained the bar patrons with his Little Known Facts.  The classic episode where Cliff appears on his favorite show “Jeopardy” has him with a huge lead heading into Final Jeopardy.  He wagers his entire $22,000 and is stumped by the clue of “Archibald Leach, Bernard Schwartz and Lucille LeSueru”. Cliff’s response of “Who are three people who’ve never been in my kitchen?” is deemed humorous, but incorrect. (The correct response was “What were the real names of Cary Grant, Tony Curtis, Joan Crawford?”)
 
Ratzenberger helped build the stage for Woodstock Festival in 1969 (he was 22 years old)
 
My “Best of 2011” is posted at:
https://moviereviewsfromthedark.wordpress.com/annual-bests-2/best-of-2011/

TOY STORY 3 (2010)

June 21, 2010

  Greetings again from the darkness. Has there ever been a bad Pixar movie? Nope. And as many really good movies they have created, there are now two truly great ones: Toy Story and Toy Story 3. The first one (released 15 years ago) transformed the way animation is made and set the standard for kids’ movies that parents can also enjoy. This third installment takes animated story telling to the next level.

Of course all the great voices are back: Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles, Estelle Harris), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Hamm (John Ratzenberger) and Sarge (R Lee Ermey). Imagine assembling that cast and then adding two fabulous new characters: Lotsa Huggin’ Bear (Ned Beatty), Ken (Michael Keaton); expanding Jodi Benson’s Barbi to a key role, and re-vamping Slinky-dog with Blake Clark taking over for his deceased friend, the fabulous Jim Varney. This is major star power and an over-abundance of talent!

Then again, we have all seen stellar casts fall flat without a worthy script. Fear not as Pixar legend John Lasseter (Exec Producer here) has passed the reins again to director Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc.). This story is brilliant and engaging. I challenge anyone from age 5 to 95 to avoid being drawn in to the themes of separation, friendship, loyalty, and power.

There are some laugh outloud moments along with the usual wise cracks from Buzz and Potato head. This time we are also treated to some darker moments with Lotsa, a power-hungry stuffed bear, and his band of misfits that include a giant baby doll and Chuckles, the creepiest clown this side of Poltergeist, and especially the frightening/funny monkey working security.

Some Pixar touches include the voice of Andy is provided by the grown up voice actor who did Andy in the first, a couple of glimpses of the evil kid Sid (first Toy Story) who has grown up to be a garbage man (same shirt) and the re-use of Randy Newman’s classic song “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”. Too many other “little” moments to mention, but this is pure film genius and should not be missed.