Friday, January 27, 2017
To say that The Good Dinosaur is an odd film is kind of understating it a little. It's definitely a film that makes some strange choices, and I think those are what lessen it as a film, especially considering that two of them really don't have to be made at all.
It's probably the first Pixar film I can really recall where people asked 'Why?' (okay, I said that with both of the Cars films and I'll say it again with the third one, but I know the answer, and that is marketing). The Good Dinosaur had mildly traumatised children walking out of screenings, some of them didn't even make it to the film's ultimately happy ending.
The first question I asked was why was a film that was clearly an homage to the Western about dinosaurs? The film's explanation is that the meteor that struck the Earth millions of years ago and caused the demise of the dinosaurs, narrowly missed, so the giant creatures evolved to raise crops, cattle and families. Whereas humans did appear, but never got past the animal stage, which is why they behave more like dogs than advanced primates.
My own personal theory here is that Pixar were working on an homage to the Western and probably had included something about the friendship between people and dogs. Before they could complete that idea the dinosaur boom hit (Jurassic World) and Disney wanted something about dinosaurs, so they shoehorned them into the Western concept and made the dogs into primitive humans. Spot, being basically a dog that resembles a person is one of those odd ideas that didn't need to happen. He never speaks and most of the time he moves more like a dog than a person, so why not just make him a dog?
Then there's the issue of Henry, the father of Arlo the central character, dying. This really shocked and upset a lot of younger audience members and it simply didn't need to happen. Here's where the inner writer in me rewrote the film. Basically at the heart of it The Good Dinosaur is about Arlo getting lost and discovering himself and finding the courage to make his mark on the world, while trying to get back home. The entire scene with Henry falling into the river and drowning simply doesn't need to be in the film. Arlo can run off after Spot when he finds that he's been raiding their crops again and get lost. He can be mad at Spot for getting him lost, he can still have sympathy for Spot losing his parents, just because he still has parents doesn't mean he won't understand what it is to not have them, after all he's completely lost with only the slimmest of hopes that he's ever going to see his family again. Just because Henry is still alive doesn't mean that the farm can't fall on hard times and need Arlo more than ever before, in fact that would give Arlo the impetus to chase after Spot.
The presence of the cattle herding dinosaurs only seemed to be there to help establish the film's Western cred. I still don't understand the vicious, opportunistic pterodactyls, who also more than likely entered the nightmares of young film goers. Again they could have engineered a dangerous, desperate situation for Arlo and Spot to find themselves in without those characters.
Now having said all that I have to take my hat off to the animation again. Not so much the dinosaurs and Spot, who were very cartoony (in fact Spot kept reminding me of the vicious baby caveman from The Croods, another animated prehistoric tale), but the scenery was amazing. I had difficulty believing that it was animated and not simply film stock that they superimposed their animated characters onto. Pixar and animation in general had come a long way from Toy Story in 1995.
The humour and heart that had characterised even the worst of the Pixar films (and there were really only two of those for mine) was largely absent from this one. Audiences tended to agree with my views on The Good Dinosaur. It was Pixar's lowest grossing film ever.
I think they went for strong casting to try and make up for the film's other shortfalls. The excellent Jeffrey Wright voiced the ill fated Henry, which as a homesteading farmer dinosaur was a departure for the actor having previously played roles like CIA agent Felix Leiter in two Bond films and the technical savant Beetee in two of the Hunger Games films.
Frances McDormand's considerable talents were wasted with her playing the rather predictable mother figure as Ida.
Steve Zahn was well cast as the insane leader of the pterodactyl's; Thunderclap. He plays crazy well.
Not really sure why Anna Paquin was cast as a female cowboy T-Rex. Every time she spoke I kept seeing Sookie Stackhouse. A clever move might have been to get Joan Cusack to do this. Would have tied nicely into her voicing of cowgirl Jessie in the Toy Story franchise, and as we've seen Pixar like to use actors they're familiar with.
Sam Elliott as the crusty old patriarch of the herding family was perfect casting. I could just see Elliott in this role, shame that they couldn't find a way of giving the T-Rex a handlebar moustache.
John Ratzenberger played a cameo as Earl, one of a member of cattle rustling velociraptors.
Friday, January 20, 2017
After another related work in Monsters University I had been hoping for something new and different from Pixar and I got it with Inside Out. Like Up and WALL-E, the title was maddeningly vague, and Pixar don't do a whole lot of detailed pre release work, because they don't need to. What I could get about Inside Out made it look like an animated version of Herman's Head.
Herman's Head was a fairly short lived sitcom that focused on average guy Herman and the four 'emotions' that lived in his head. Inside Out does a similar thing, only Riley is an 11 year old girl and she has five people that live in her head and control her emotions, thoughts and memories. They are Joy, who seems to be the leader, Sadness, who the other 4 (especially Joy) seem to try and marginalise, Fear, would have been known as Anxiety in an adult, Disgust, a trendsetter and Anger, a short squat fireplug whose head explodes and catches fire whenever riled up, which is often.
When Riley's Dad gets a new job in San Francisco and takes his family from Minnesota to California, the girl's life is turned upside down. She has to leave her friends and the life she's always known and start all over again at the other side of the country, being 11 and transitioning from childhood to puberty is hard enough without adding that on top of it.
Inside Out did something that I don't think Pixar had ever attempted before, it told 3 stories concurrently. There's the story of Joy and Sadness, accidentally removing themselves from headquarters and having to navigate Riley's mind to get back there and take control again, being helped, or hindered depending on how one looks at it, by Riley's old imaginary friend Bing Bong. An unusual character; a mix of cat and elephant with a bit of dolphin, composed on fairy floss and who cries tears of candy.
Story 2 concerns the remaining 3 emotions, trying to run the show on their own and generally doing quite badly at it, especially when Anger takes the reins.
And the 3rd story is that of Riley dealing with the outside world and her own life, as well as her relationship with her parents. On that note, Pixar finally did some realistic looking people. The temptation would have been to focus on Mum's glasses or Dad's moustache and make them into caricatures, but they didn't. While I think Disney benefited more from Pixar's expertise than Pixar did from Disney's, the partnership between the two may have helped with animating people.
For the first time I think they actually 'killed' a character, with Bing Bong being lost and disappearing in the memory dump. The journey through Riley's mind was an adventure in creativity with abstract thought, the world of imagination, dreams and subconscious all making an appearance, and I almost forgot the train of thought. I did also appreciate Riley's imaginary boyfriend from Canada.
Inside Out took chances and it reminded audiences that the company could still produce intelligent, amusing films that appealed all both children and adults for different reasons. It is a joy to watch and for me actually improved on rewatches. It was a welcome return to form.
One thing I did find interesting was that when we got a peek into other people's heads they had the same 5 people, but they all had a characteristic of their host in common (Dad's all had moustaches, a teenage boy's all had his curly hair, a classmate of Riley's had the blue streak in their hair) and they were all the same gender as their host, but Riley's had no distinguishing feature in common and they were also of different genders, with Joy, Sadness and Disgust all being female and Fear and Anger being male. It may change when they press the Puberty button which appears at the end which Joy dismisses as not being important.
Getting the emotions right was important and Amy Poehler was a great choice as Joy, the character being similar to the one that made her name in Parks and Recreation. I suspect Phyllis Smith's Sadness was not unlike the character she played on The Office. Diane Lane and Kyle Maclachlan were a good pair as Mum and Dad, and I could see them playing the same roles if they'd done a live action version of the film.
A Pixar stalwart in Richard Kind got the biggest role he'd had since A Bug's Life as Bing Bong. John Ratzenberger's cameo as Fritz passed almost unnoticed, and to be honest this time I wouldn't have noticed if he hadn't appeared at all.
Sunday, January 15, 2017
After the disaster that was Cars 2, Pixar released Brave (I’m not covering that in these posts, as I did it a couple of years back when I did a Disney animated feature blog series). It received generally favourable reviews and I think it really helped with animating realistic looking people. Admittedly the king and his vassals and their suns were exaggerated caricatures, but Merida and her mother looked fairly realistic. Even now a lot of people (myself included) think this is a Disney release. It’s total Disney – it features a cartoon princess, magic and all sorts of hijinks, not as many songs as in the standard Disney Princess film, but it does have some and to clinch it all Merida was coronated and is part of the Disney Princess franchise. This is where the lines between the two companies became very blurred.
Anyway that brings me to Monsters University. I do wonder if the Pixar ideas factory was starting to run dry. Brave aside, their last 3 releases had been sequels or in the case of Monsters University a prequel.
The story of the monsters and the scarers had pretty much been neatly wrapped up in Monsters. Inc, so to get a new movie out of it they mined the characters back stories. How did Sulley and Mike team up? Why is Mike so obnoxious?
The second question is answered at the start of the film, when a young Mike goes on a class field trip to Monsters. Inc. He’s small and not particularly scary, so he covers it all up by being loud and rude and pretending that he knows a lot more than he really does.
He does eventually realise his dream and make it to Monsters University where he enrols in the Scaring Program with the aim of become a top Scarer. Sulley’s in the same class, he has a family name and reputation to live up to. This is also where Sulley and Mike met Randall and ultimately why they became rivals in Monsters. Inc.
The plot of the film very quickly becomes a version of the 80’s college classic Revenge of the Nerds with nerdy monsters in place of nerdy humans. Mike and Sulley are kicked out of the Scaring program and their only way back in is to win at the Scaregames, however to even enter the Scaregames they have to be part of a fraternity, so in desperation they join Omega Kappa, the only fraternity that will accept them, it also being full of non scary outcasts.
Predictably they do manage to stay in the competition by the skin of their teeth and utilising some of their nerdy frat brothers individual talents. It all comes down to a final scare from Mike and he aces it, only to find out later that Sulley rigged it for him so that they would win.
This prompts Mike to take dangerous action and nearly results in the destruction of the entire program, if not the university. That also set up a possibly continuity error with Monsters. Inc. Sulley and Mike spent time on the other side of a door and this was never mentioned in the other film, and it would have had to be something that was known about by then. It gets them expelled by the scary Dean Hardscrabble. She is hands down one of the scariest, if not the scariest monster, the franchise has created.
The closing credits sequence see them start in the mailroom of Monsters. Inc and work their way up. There’s also an appearance by the Yeti as their supervisor, which is another possible continuity error.
Even as recently as Toy Story 3 Pixar had been getting better at doing realistic looking people and it hit a high in the camp sequence of Monsters University. Another interesting thing I noticed which I think was intentional is that the colour of Sulley’s fur alters depending on the light.
Weirdly enough, despite its lack of originality I prefer Monsters University to Monsters. Inc (which I personally think is overrated), maybe that’s because I liked Revenge of the Nerds and the many imitators it spawned. I do long for some originality from Pixar, though. Something that has been kind of lacking since Up.
The original cast returned to reprise their roles including cameos by Bob Peterson as Ros and John Ratzenberger as the Yeti. I particularly liked Ratzenberger’s role as the mailroom supervisor. It referenced why he was banished in the first place and also made fun of the role of dedicated mailman Cliff Klaven in Cheers, which was the role most people knew Ratzenberger from before he voiced Hamm in Toy Story.
Someone at Pixar must have been listening to me when I asked if Helen Mirren was considered as the Queen in Cars 2, because she’s cast here as Hardscrabble and her voice is perfect. She just has the right pitch and manner for it.
The other name member was Nathan Fillion as Johnny; the leader of the ROR fraternity and the guys who make the OK’s lives hell. It was an interesting role for Fillion who with the exception of Caleb in the final season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, generally played good guys like Johnny in Two Guys, A Girl and a Pizza Place, Malcolm Reynolds in Firefly and author/detective Richard Castle in the popular whodunit series Castle. He channeled his inner nerd hating jock here and did a fine job at it.
Thursday, January 12, 2017
The only reason that Cars 2 even exists as a film, let alone being part of the Pixar canon, is that the Disney marketing department realised with the success of selling Cars themed toys to kids that they had a very lucrative and demanding market to tap into.
I don’t think many people at Pixar really wanted to make Cars 2. I know when I mentioned to people that Cars 2 was going to be the studio’s next release I was met with a disappointed look and the question of ‘Why?’ Even now Cars 2 has a ranking of Rotten on Rotten Tomatoes, it is the only Pixar film to get this, even Cars rated higher.
The spy/espionage component of the film gives it a more interesting story than Cars, which was all about Lightning McQueen learning to be a better car both on and off the track, and it’s a tired old cliché that has been done many times before. Part of the problem there was that now McQueen had won the title and lost his arrogance and hubris, he didn’t have a lot else to accomplish professionally and he was a pretty bland character without being brash and obnoxious.
So seeing that the film was now aimed squarely at a younger audience who would pressure their parents into buying them associated merchandise what character would they focus on. The answer was Mater. Kids like Mater, mainly because he’s rather childlike and amusing. However adults (maybe it’s just me, but the reactions to Cars 2 support me) find him tiresome. He’s tolerable as comedy relief, but to carry a whole film it doesn’t work.
McQueen’s part of the story centred around him being involved in a series of races in various exotic locations (outside of the continental United States) pitted against the egotistical Francesco Bernoulli, a flamboyant Italian Formula 1 car. That in itself is ridiculous. I’m not even a fan of car racing and Formula 1’s against Nascars, or V8 Touring Cars as we call them down here just does not happen. They’re vastly different machines and they generally compete very separately. By and large they even appear to have different fan bases.
Anyway it does happen and this allows Mater to go overseas with McQueen and get involved with two British spy cars – Finn McMissile and Holly Shiftwell. They think he’s an undercover American spy car and that his whole bumbling, country hick tow truck act is just that an act, never realising that that’s exactly what he is. The British cars are investigating the races, because cars are mysteriously blowing up and it all seems connected to the revolutionary environmentally friendly fuel being supplied by British billionaire Sir Miles Axelrod. Mater in true country cop fashion eventually works out that Axelrod is sabotaging his own series, because he’s the money behind the bad guys who want to continue using fossil fuel. It really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but that could be because I had well and truly lost interest by that point.
Even the animation in this one seemed flat and lifeless, like many of the jokes. Despite the critical panning it did well at the box office and the toys were successful, prompting Disney to release two further films (Planes and Fire and Rescue – these were both made by Disney and do not bear the Pixar name, and they’re not part of the Pixar canon, so thankfully I don’t have to watch them for this) and cash in on their related toy lines. Unfortunately it’s also made Disney force Pixar to release Cars 3 mid 2017. Having just heard the vague outline of the story line and seen the teaser I’m not expecting to be pleasantly surprised by this.
Another sequel is up next, but it can’t possibly be worse than this mess.
The original cast, with the sad exception of Paul Newman, returned. I was glad that they acknowledged Newman’s absence and didn’t exactly say that he had died, but implied it, and also didn’t attempt to replace him with a different actor. John Ratzenberger reprised his role as Mack and Richard Kind did the same thing with his part as the crabby tourist car.
Notable newcomers for this one were Michael Caine as Finn McMissile. I have to give some kudos to the animators here, McMissile actually looks like Michael Caine. They somehow made an animated car look like the actor. McMissile was more James Bond than Harry Palmer, and it makes me wonder if they also spoke to Timothy Dalton about the role, but in the end elected to go for the better known name to lend the film some badly needed cred.
John Turturro had a ball hamming it up as Francesco Bernoulli. Turturro loves being over the top and the Italian car let him do that.
British comedian and actor Eddie Izzard provided the voice of Miles Axelrod, but he doesn’t do much with it that any other actor with a decent upper crust British accent couldn’t have done.
I liked the inclusion of Bruce Campbell in a far too short cameo as the tough talking American spy car Torque Redline, it fitted his public persona nicely. They could have beefed it up a little and made jokes about the size of his front bumper.
Screen veterans Franco Nero and Vanessa Redgrave were Uncle and Mama Topolino respectively and Redgrave doubled up as The Queen (shame Helen Mirren wasn’t available). In the Italian dub Sophia Loren does Mama Topolino’s voice.
As a few films have started to do they included things that were region specific. Well known drivers voiced cars. For Australia we got Frosty, who was voiced by Australian V8 driver Mark ‘Frosty’ Winterbottom.
Monday, January 9, 2017
After a slew of startlingly original work, blighted only by Cars (and even that was an original idea, just not in my opinion a particularly good one), Pixar made their second ever sequel and they decided to finish off what we now see as the Toy Story trilogy.
It began, as the other 2 had, with one of Andy’s original stories with all of his favourite toys having their parts to play, whether they were heroes or villains. The first film had featured an old west jailbreak scenario, the second was a computer game that was largely Buzz’s story and this one went back to the old west, but centred around a train robbery, perpetrated by Mr Potato Head and his wife, being aided and abetted by their three adopted children, the triple eyed aliens from the claw machine at Pizza Planet.
It was however a fakeout. This was a long ago game that Andy had played with the toys. Andy’s now 17 and getting ready to go to college. He hasn’t played with Woody and the gang for a long time. They’ve even lost a few of their number (Bo Peep, Etch and Wheezy, which makes me wonder why they made him such a central part of the previous film to write him out in the next instalment). The toys have been shut in their box for all that time, they’ve got each other, but the future doesn’t look bright. Andy’s sister Molly is too old to be interested in her brother’s old toys, she doesn’t even want her Barbie any more. Buster is still around, but he’s old, fat and gray and doesn’t play much now.
The toys, except for the unfailingly optimistic Woody, believe they are facing a bleak future. The best they can hope for is to be boxed up and stored in the attic, the worst is to be simply thrown out. There is a 3rd option. Andy’s mother supports a local day care centre and they’re always looking for donations of pre loved toys to keep the kids entertained. Woody hits the jackpot, Andy puts him in the college box, indicating that’s one part of his childhood that he simply cannot part with. Through a series of events which almost sees everyone else, Woody aside, be junked, they end up in the box that Andy’s mother is donating to the day care centre. Woody in an effort to save the others, winds up in the same box.
Initially the day care centre looks like heaven on earth for the toys. Kids play with them all day, every day, except for weekends, and then when those kids leave the centre, they get a whole new bunch of kids. This is of course before the true colours of The Lots-O-Huggin Bear (generally called Lotso) come to the fore. Lotso was lost and then replaced by his little girl, and he’s been bitter and twisted about it ever since. He rules the day care centre with an iron fist. New toys wind up in the Caterpillar Room where the very young kids play with them roughly, because they simply don’t understand how to play any other way due to their age. The more favoured toys get older kids, who play with them gently, not dissimilar to how Andy treated his toys. Any dissenters spend the night in the sand box. Lotso’s rules are mostly enforced by his companion in abandonment, a life size baby doll called Big Baby.
Woody escapes in an effort to get back to Andy, but is found by Bonnie (a young girl whose mother works at the centre and lives near to Andy). Initially Woody becomes part of Bonnie’s games with her own toys: a hedgehog called Mr Pricklepants, a classically trained actor, a unicorn (Buttercup) and a triceratops (Trixie). There’s also a rag doll (Dolly) and a clown (Chuckles). Chuckles was one of Lotso’s friends and tells Woody how things really are at the day care centre. Woody returns to save his friends.
The escape is elaborate and filled with adventure and near peril. In fact the toys do give up and believe that they’re all going to be burned to death in the furnace at the junkyard until the three eyed aliens rescue them with the junkyard’s giant CLAW. Buzz provides a lot of the humour, he was reset and until a TV fell on him and knocked the setting loose could only speak in Spanish.
The toys make it back to Andy and he gives them to Bonnie. He even plays with them one last time before Bonnie accepts them and integrates them into her own set of toys and dolls.
The animation was as always excellent and they even seemed to have made advances with real people, they still look a bit plasticky, but they were more realistic than previously.
This to me was the perfect ending for the story that began in Toy Story, being released 25 years after the original. I’m a little disappointed that there are plans for a Toy Story 4 to be honest.
The original cast all returned for this one, with the exceptions of Annie Potts' Bo Peep, who was written out of this for unexplained reasons, and of Jim Varney as Slinky, he had unfortunately passed away in between the making of the two films, Slinky was voiced by actor and Varney’s friend Blake Clark.
Newcomers included: Ned Beatty as the sinister Lotso. Beatty’s a big cuddly guy, but has a growly voice which suited the duplicitous bear who could turn in an instant. Michael Keaton after voicing Chick Hicks in Cars came back and did a great turn as the weaselly, fashion obsessed Ken. Jeff Garlin also came back and provided the voice of Buttercup the unicorn. Richard Kind had a cameo as the Bookworm (he’s almost as much a part of the Pixar films as John Ratzenberger is, he was again wonderful as Hamm), Whoopi Goldberg played the octopus who helps Lotso; Stretch (again it says a lot for Pixar’s power that they can get an actress of Goldberg’s profile for such a minor role). My personal favourite bit of casting former Bond actor Timothy Dalton as the pompous Mr Pricklepants. When the hedgehog lays claim to being classically trained the joke there is that Dalton is a classically trained actor, he was part of the Royal Shakespeare Company before being cast as James Bond.
Sunday, January 8, 2017
When I first heard about Up I thought Pixar had lost the plot. What on Earth sort of name was Up? What did that mean?
Despite this I went and saw it fairly close to when it was released. I was hooked after the opening 10 minutes. I defy someone to watch that and not cry. If that opening doesn't move you, then you don't have a heart.
I also really liked the idea behind the dream of Carl and Ellie. Sparked by a newsreel about a Percy Fawcett style gentleman adventurer they wanted to go to Rainbow Falls in South America and find lost civilisations, Only life kept getting in the way and they never got the chance to do that, although they did forge a pretty nice life together.
As the world changes around Carl Frederickson and soulless developers build high rises around the house he shared with Ellie, it seems that his life is over until a well meaning kid called Russell offers to help him in order to gain his Helping the Elderly badge; the last one he needs to become a fully fledged Wilderness Explorer.
At first Carl treats Russell pretty much how he treats everyone else and sends him off on a wild goose chase after a non existent bird called a snipe. It is that fruitless chase that leads Russell under Carl's house, believing that what sounds like a rat is actually the snipe. Of course poor Russell is hiding out on Carl's porch when the old man turns his little suburban cottage into a dirigible.
What follows is a wonderful odyssey to the land of adventure fiction with long lost explorers, lost worlds, unknown species of animal and plant and of course talking dogs. Doug is the star of the dogs, and I have to agree with Russell who exclaims 'But he's a talking dog' when Carl suggests ditching Doug.
Carl finds out that his childhood hero was nothing of the sort and risks his dreams and life to save Russell, the 'snipe' Kevin and Kevin's babies.
He then forges a new life as a kind of surrogate father to Russell, who was apparently abandoned by his own father and has grown up without that influence.
It's a heartwarming and heartbreaking odyssey.
There was only one major name amongst the cast and that was Ed Asner as Carl. Carl was apparently based on Spencer Tracy, and there is some resemblance, but I more saw him as a cartoon version of Asner himself and particularly the grumpy old newsman Lou Grant that Asner is best known for portraying.
Christopher Plummer, best remembered as the father in The Sound of Music was cast as 'gentleman' explorer Charles F. Muntz. Charles Lindbergh, Howard Hughes and Percy Fawcett have been cited as inspirations. The only connections with Lindbergh and Hughes I can see are that Muntz was an aviator (dirigible rather than plane, though) and seemingly fabulously wealthy. Fawcett however is dead on. Fawcett, like Muntz, went missing while looking for a lost city in the wilds of South America. Unlike Muntz he probably perished in the wild.
Jordan Nagai, the unknown child actor who voiced Russell deserves special praise, his unaffected portrayal of the sweet kid is one of the things that makes Up a great film. He hasn't done anything of note since, but as he's only 16 there's plenty of time.
John Ratzenberger had an almost blink and miss it cameo as one of the workmen on the site around Carl's house, and was probably only included because he now has to be in every Pixar film.
Could the originality last?
Wednesday, January 4, 2017
How does one even try to describe WALL-E? Extraordinary is a good start. The animation, or rather what Pixar achieved with it, had never been attempted before and it's never been achieved since. The desolate, deserted, garbage covered Earth looked real. WALL-E, the dedicated little trash robot didn't look like a cartoon, he actually looked like a machine made out of steel and glass. The love of his life, the sleek, ovoid EVE, does look more cartoonlike. I think it's her shape and the fact that she hovers and has no visible connection between her egg shaped body, arms and head.
WALL-E shows a rather frightening future. Earth was largely taken over by a giant corporation called Buy 'N' Large, we eventually created so much garbage that the planet became uninhabitable. Those that could afford to leave took off for the stars in a giant spaceliner. The intention was to stay in orbit until the WALL-E garbage units could clean up the planet and make it liveable.
That was 700 years ago. The planet is still broken. The rest of the units have given up. There's only WALL-E left. He spends his days collecting, compacting trash into cubes, then stacking them up where he can find the space to do so. He's created entire skyscrapers of these cubes. His one and only friend is a cockroach (that's a reference to the adage that no matter what we do to the planet somehow cockroaches will survive). WALL-E's nights are spent locked up from the nightly dust storms, in a decorated storage unit, watching an old recording of Hello, Dolly!
Then one day EVE appears and WALL-E falls in love with her. EVE can be a BAMF when she needs to be too. She finds a small plant that WALL-E has discovered and stored with his other treasures and this is her directive, to find evidence that organic life can survive on Earth, take it back to the ship and they can return.
In the time they've been in space, the ship's auto pilot has taken over and while there is a captain, he's a figurehead who just does what the auto pilot tells him to. The presence of WALL-E and EVE and their relationship, which overrides any programming they may have had forces the captain to take independent action and with the help of a bunch of broken robots and a few aware passengers they return to Earth. I doubt the ability of these people to survive, let alone rebuild humanity, but the ending is upbeat, for what is a fairly bleak outlook for a feel good cartoon.
The weird thing about WALL-E is that there is hardly any dialogue until WALL-E and EVE get on board the ship and interact with the captain and a couple of passengers. For most of the film the only words spoken are WALL-E and EVE and these in robotic voices. WALL-E is the achievement, though. Somehow the animators made this character sympathetic to audiences. We were genuinely concerned for the humble little robot, he made us laugh and cry and pull for him the entire time.
Pixar have always worn their heart on their sleeve in their films, especially when there are ecological concerns (another thing that was surprising about Cars, it glorified fuel consumption and consumerism) and this has never been more evident than in WALL-E, despite the hopeful ending.
Because the main characters are robots with limited vocabularies, the casting mirrored that. There are only 4 real casting choices I can talk about.
One is the captain of the ship played by actor and comedian Jeff Garlin. At the time Garlin had done Curb Your Enthusiasm, although I know him as Murray Goldberg in The Goldbergs, and it didn't matter what his cartoon version looked like I kept seeing Murray commanding a star cruiser.
Another cast member was Sigourney Weaver as the voice of the ship. Casting Sigourney Weaver, beast known for her role as Ripley in the Alien franchise just seemed to work for some reason.
Kathy Najimy had a cameo as Mary, one of the passengers on Axiom and kind of representative of the women on board. John Katzenberger as John was her male counterpart.
For technical achievement at least as well as depth of feeling I couldn't wait to see what Pixar would do next.
Tuesday, January 3, 2017
As my last review indicated it would have been hard to top the marketing exercise that was Cars for sheer suckiness. I think Cars actually had a few people wondering if Pixar had lost the magic. Ratatouille would prove that they hadn't.
The idea is as off the all as anything they'd done in the past. A rat that likes cooking and can actually perform as a chef in a 5 star Michelin restaurant. That Brad Bird was involved should also not have surprised.
Remy, the cookery inclined rat kind of reminded me a lot of an old Warner Bros cartoon. In that one a musically inclined mouse lives in a house and plays the piano whenever he can. The household cat finds him and chases him. Eventually the owners of the house think that their cat can play the piano. The ruse is eventually exposed and while they can't perform outside of the house the householders enjoy beautiful music privately (the cat cannot play piano, but he is a whiz on the drums).
A series of events lead Remy to Paris. We know we're in Paris, because pretty much every shot from inside a house or apartment gives an excellent view of the Eiffel Tower. Apparently in films and cartoons no matter where you are in Paris if you can find a window you can get a really good view of the Eiffel Tower.
Not only does Remy wind up in Paris, the home of the world's best cooking, he lands at Gusteau's, the chef he most admires. Gusteau is long dead, but his restaurant still survives and Remy is guided the ghost of Gusteau, although even this 'ghost' is at pains to point out that he is actually a figment of Remy's imagination.
Also recently arrived at Gusteau's is a rather awkward young man by the name of Linguini. Linguini is actually the illegitimate son of Gusteau and is therefore entitled to inherit the restaurant. Something that the diminutive, oily head chef Skinner does not want to happen, he's close to getting the restaurant himself and also launching a line of fast food frozen products bearing Gusteau's name and likeness.
Linguini can't cook, he's initially hired as the kitchen's garbage boy, but Remy can and with the rat's help Linguini becomes a famous cook and also falls in love with the restaurant's driven junior chef Collette. Also with Remy's help Linguini inherits his birth right and Skinner who knows about Remy tries to bring the whole thing undone on the night that world famous critic and Gusteau hater Anton Ego visits. It doesn't work because Remy's ratatouille is the best thing Ego has ever tasted since his mother's ratatouille, the very thing that started his lifelong love affair with food.
The backgrounds really brought Paris to life. During the chase scene my wife and I were watching and saying 'we've been there!', 'yeah, I remember that too.' As with his previous Pixar film The Incredibles, Bird didn't attempt to make his people lifelike, they were caricatures. The artists picked a feature (Skinner's height, Linguini's gangly frame, Collette's nose, Ego's sunken eyes) and made that the focus of the character. The rats were also quite cartoony, which meant that they didn't really move like actual rats, but anthropomorphic versions.
Remy and Linguini were likeable multi layered protagonists in the way that the shallow Lightning McQueen wasn't, and while they bounced off other characters there was no need to add in a laboured comedy relief character to detract from the facts that your main character isn't interesting or likeable.
Whatever it was, it all worked in every way that Cars didn't.
Patton Oswalt wasn't as well known as he now is when he did Ratatouille and voiced Remy, but I honestly can't think of anyone else who could have done better. I'm a big fan of The Goldbergs and now every time I watch the show and hear Adam's voiceovers I'm going to see a large rat.
Brad Garrett, who had previously been the puffer fish in Nemo's tank was Gusteau and with the fake French accent was almost unrecognisable.
Brian Dennehy was cast as Remy's uncouth father, and they gave him the right amount of size to immediately put the viewer in mind of the well known character actor.
Janeane Garofalo played Collette and this tied into the unconventional romantic leads that the actress was known for at the time.
John Ratzenberger had his now obligatory cameo as Mustafa, the head waiter at the restaurant. The French accent masked his normally distinctive voice.
I know Peter O'Toole voiced Anton Ego and he did a good job, but I think this role was written with Vincent Price in mind, he even looks like Vincent Price, who as well as being an actor was also a gourmet chef. It's just a shame he had been dead for over a decade when they made Ratatouille.
This was going to be a hard one to top.
Monday, January 2, 2017
I'll start this by saying that I rate Cars and it's sequel as two of the poorest things Pixar have done (I'm at a loss as to why they're doing a 3rd one).
The cynic in me says that now Disney had complete and total ownership of Pixar they wanted to put out something that they could market to the hilt, and whatever other failings Cars has, it is extremely marketable, especially to the young boy market. My nephew loved everything Cars related at that age and had more than a few Lightning McQueen toys. Apparently, Cars had been on Pixar's radar for a while, it just hadn't been greenlit until this point.
It was for me, a major disappointment that Pixar followed up the absolutely brilliant The Incredibles with a rather lack lustre effort about humanised Nascars. Maybe if you're a car fan, which I am not, it strikes more of a chord, but Cars and it's sequel seem to rate low down on most people's estimation.
I found the race sequences extremely boring. My favourite bit was Guido; the little Italian forklift, showing up all the mocking experienced forklift pit crew up by changing Lightning's tires in double quick time, the film could have gone up in my estimation if it had been about Guido and not Lightning McQueen.
I will say that the animation, especially the scenery in and around Radiator Springs, was stunning and far away the highlight of the movie.
The storyline about the brash driven newcomer finding himself a fish out of water, learning about his craft and a bit of humility and turning out to be a decent person/car afterwards was very trite and not what audiences expected from Pixar. It didn't help that for most of the film Lightning McQueen is a fairly unlikeable protagonist (none of Pixar's previous heroes were). They tried to fill this with Mater, the old red neck tow truck being comedy relief, and like with many characters of this sort, I found him tiresome rather than funny.
The best bit of the film actually comes at the end, during the credits where they show clips from other Pixar films, but car themed ones. That's a fair indictment on the film that the best part is the credits joke.
Whatever else they got wrong, the casting was as always excellent. Owen Wilson as Lightning McQueen was dead on. Wilson was forging a career playing this sort of character and he was white hot at the time.
Although Paul Newman, himself a car enthusiast, was well cast as the old, wise, retired racecar Doc Hudson, I always found it kind of sad that documentaries aside, Cars was his last film.
Michael Keaton as the highly unpleasant Chick Hicks was well done, although I'm not sure why they had to cast as well known and high profile an actor in that particular role.
Cheech Marin (of Cheech and Chong fame) played to type as Ramone, an Impala lowrider with appropriate paint job, as did George Carlin in the role of a hippie 1960 VW bus.
John Ratzenberger as Mack, McQueen's truck, had his biggest role since Toy Story 2, and was part of a nice joke when the cars watch the other Pixar movies, pointing out that they keep using the same guy.
I loved the cameo from Jeremy Piven as Harv, Lightning's agent. It was a nice little gag for those who watched Entourage and loved Piven as the amoral talent agent Ari Gold.
Richard Kind also has a cameo as a lost car who refuses to ask for directions.
Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Billy Crystal, John Goodman and Dave Foley all reprised their roles for the end credit sequence and that was a sign of how big Pixar had become that they could call on this sort of talent for a almost throwaway joke sequence at the end of a film.
The next film has to be better than this.
Sunday, January 1, 2017
How do you follow up an amazingly successful animated film about searching the ocean for a missing young clownfish? Simple, you do a fast paced comedy about a family of superheroes.
The Incredibles came out in 2004, just before the superhero boom really kicked in. I personally love it. I love everything about this film. It just does not hit a bum note for me.
I read a lot of comics as a kid and I did often wonder about the logistics of superheroes. What did they do when they got older? Could they not be superheroes? Who paid for the damage that they often caused in discharging their duties as super powered people? Could they get married and live normal lives? Would their kids have powers, would they be the same powers as their parents or not? The Incredibles set out to answer all these questions and more.
Bob Parr is Mr Incredible, a retired superhero (he didn't retire by choice, it was forced on him by the government), he works for a soulless insurance company and longs to return to his glory days. His wife Helen, was once Elastigirl, she's now a stay at home mother, who has issues trying to deal with two super powered children (their daughter Violet can make herself invisible and project force fields, their son Dash has super speed), they also has a baby Jack Jack, but as yet he hasn't manifested any powers, and Helen is hoping that he won't.
Secretly Bob goes out with his old friend Frozone and does some vigilante work. but even Frozone wants to give it up and do normal things with Bob, like go bowling, which is what they tell their wives they're doing.
Bob is contacted by a mysterious and beautiful woman who calls herself Mirage and offers him a chance to get back into the game. He passes her tests and after getting a new suit from his old costume designer, the delightfully acerbic Edna Mode, goes off to do a mission on a volcanic island where his new benefactor makes his home.
Helen works out that something is going on, is supplied with costumes for herself and her family by Edna and leaving Jack in the care of a teenage babysitter, flies off to go find out what Bob has gotten himself into. I should point out that it was not Helen's choice to leave Jack with the unprepared adolescent, that happened when Violet and Dash stowed away with their mother.
In the process the kids will discover how to use their powers and not be afraid to do so, Bob and Helen will realise that they both love superheroing and should never have given it up and how much they love each other and their family.
The villain of the piece is someone who calls himself Syndrome, he's kind of an evil genius inventor, who always wanted to be a superhero, but never had powers, so in revenge he killed all the old heroes and set himself up to be one.
The Incredibles take him down, but then he takes Jack Jack hostage, only for the babies powers (of which he seems to have not one, but many) to manifest in a startling manner. This causes his cape to become caught in his aeroplane's exhaust and underlines Edna's point that capes have no business being part of anyone's costume.
The animation in this one was crisp and clean, but cartoony throughout. I believe Pixar still had problems drawing realistic looking people, so decided to make them look like cartoons. It works. What also worked were the frequent nods to James Bond. The island is remiscent of Dr No's residence in that film, the approach to it is directly lifted from The Man With the Golden Gun and the fact that the base is in a volcano is from You Only Live Twice. Syndrome himself is not dissimilar to Blofeld.
There's also a great short cartoon on the DVD about what happened while Kari was trying to babysit Jack Jack.
Craig T. Nelson often played the tough guy parental figure, so this made him perfect for Bob, plus he has one of those deep superhero type voices.
I best remember Holly Hunter from Raising Arizona, where she desperately wanted to be a mother, so to cast her as a mother/superhero made perfect sense.
Samuel Jackson was cast as the retired Frozone years before he played Nick Fury, and like with nearly everything Jackson does he makes it work.
The best bit of casting was director and writer Brad Bird voicing Edna Mode. With her appearance and even the voice I always saw her as being based on Linda Hunt, although I can't find anything that says so, however Bird does a great job.
Pixar regulars Wallace Shawn and John Ratzenberger were cast in cameos as Bob's boss Gilbert Huph (who weirdly enough both looked and sounded like a cartoon version of former Australian Prime Minister John Howard) and a tiny role at the end as a villain who went by the name of The Underminer.
By 2003 Pixar had become the masters of doing the unexpected in terms of what they chose as subject material, and their 2003 release Finding Nemo was no exception.
They did actually give a little hint at the end of Monsters, Inc. with the clownfish doll in Boo's room, one of the few times they've done something like that, but I still don't think it prepared anyone for the visual feast of the senses that was Finding Nemo.
Those incredibly lush colourful underwater shots are on display right from the beginning and they continue throughout the film. I don't think I've ever seen anything as lushly animated.
Most of the action happens in waters close to Australia, so for me I got to see things that I was more familiar with.
The story is fairly simple. Bereaved clownfish Marlin dotes on his son Nemo, as he is the one thing Marlin has left after a barracuda attack takes his wife Coral and all of their eggs, bar the one containing Nemo. Even the name is a remembrance of Coral, she wanted to name all of the babies. Marlin suggested naming half of them Marlin and the other half Coral, but she wanted at least one to be called Nemo.
Marlin is the male equivalent of a 'smother'. The animators did do some research here, because generally the male clownfish is the one who cares for the eggs. He follows Nemo to school and is there when Nemo defies him and touches a boat, only to be taken by a diver and wind up in a fishtank in a dentist's office in Sydney. He must be a pretty decent dentist, too, because he looks after the Prime Minister's teeth.
Marlin predictably goes after his son and the journey takes him from his home on the Great Barrier Reef to Sydney Harbour. Most of the time he''s accompanied by a blue tang called Dory. Dory has major short term memory issues, but she's unfailingly cheerful and optimistic, and she can read, which means that she can work out from a lost diver's mark where Nemo has been taken.
Marlin will meet vegetarian sharks, escape from an old minefield, a terrifying lanternfish and ride the East Australian Current with a group of very cool seat turtles. Pretty much everything Nemo had never thought his father would do, Marlin does.
Nemo helps his fellow tank fish to escape, something they do with the assistance of a pelican named Nigel. The little clownfish with the damaged fin rides the drain from the dentist's drain (he plays dead and manages to escape down the bowl where patients rinse) to the harbour, and is luckily reunited with Marlin.
As often happens with Pixar films, everything in Finding Nemo seems to work, the animation especially and with that they conquered another obstacle that had confounded animators; water. The characters, the settings, the simple story with layers and it takes the viewer and sweeps them along with the characters just like the current they are swimming through.
Albert Brooks already had quite a body of work behind him when he did Finding Nemo, those credits included an Academy Award nomination for Network News in 1987. He had the right sort of voice and image for the cautious worried Marlin.
The makers of the film got the idea to cast Ellen Degeneres as Dory when they saw her do a sequence in her comedy series Ellen where she covered a large amount of topics in a very short space of time. That was pretty much how the comedienne did things, it was her schtick. I found it kind of annoying in Ellen, but endearing as Dory in Finding Nemo. She would later go on to host one of the biggest talk shows on the planet.
Willem Dafoe, better known for serious dark work voiced Gill, the cagy old, scarred cage fish determined to escape. He was surrounded by actors like Alison Janney and Brad Garrett.
One thing Finding Nemo did was cast Australian actors in roles. The sharks were played by Barry Humphries as Bruce, the great white shark, he was also the biggest and possibly the meanest when he smelled blood. It was interesting casting as Humphries, a talented actor, is best known for dressing up in female clothing and playing Dame Edna Everage housewife super star. His fellow sharks, a mako called Chum was played by Bruce Spence (best known as the gyro captain in Mad Max 2) and a hammerhead by the name of Anchor was Eric Bana, he'd already done Black Hawk Down by this stage so had quite a high overseas profile. Nigel was voiced by Geoffrey Rush and one of Australia's most beloved actors; Bill Hunter was the voice of the never seen dentist who captured Nemo.
Pixar managed to get their favourite John Ratzenberger in there as a school of fish.