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(Reviews) DisneyFest: Cars 2, Winnie the Pooh, Brave

Entertainment 150By 2011, the fortunes of Disney and Pixar were reversing; while the former had finally scored a critical and commercial success with Tangled, the latter was navigating the second phase of its career after moving past its original stories with the final installment of the Toy Story trilogy. Disney released one movie that year — the small-scale, gentle Winnie the Pooh in July — while Pixar served up Cars 2 in June. The next year, they released the troubled production Brave that same month. While none of these films are golden, especially considering the work the studios had done in the recent past, they’re not bad.

Cars 2 (2011)

Cars 2 is better than its predecessor because it feels like Pixar made the choice to be really creative with its universe. Most of the film is baffling — every scene feels like it answers a question about the setting while simultaneously opening up a ton more questions. What qualifies as a sexual characteristic for a car beyond eyelashes and full lips? How do cars get modified, or have their tires changed? Does it hurt? Do they have nerves, or internal organs, or is the body their skin? How does any of this work??

These questions are so much more maddening because the movie is so much more engaging than the first. Pixar uses the opportunity to take its characters to a wide range of different locations, which allows them to play with so many different lighting effects, environments and road conditions. In the original it was a little easier to accept the world because it seemed so small; in the sequel, with Lightning McQueen and crew traveling all around the world, there are so many more opportunities for questions to pop up.

The crew also meets international racing cars with vastly different bodies, stretching the design choices for the characters in interesting ways. There’s even a scene where cars go to an underground mod shop — obviously where rejected early designs are shown off to see exactly why the cars don’t have their eyes on their headlights. Admittedly, it’s pretty creepy-looking; windshield eyes aren’t the obvious choice when you’re thinking about anthropomorphic cars, but fair point, Pixar — it’s the right one.

It’s clear that this renewed emphasis on world-building rides on the back of the story, which isn’t that great. Mater, the best friend of renowned racer Lightning McQueen, basically signs up the race car for the World Grand Prix, a brand-new event meant to introduce the world to the alternative fuel Allinol. However, there’s some kind of sabotage plot going down to discredit the fuel and return the world to fossil fuels, and Mater gets caught up in the espionage investigation to figure out who’s blowing up cars and why. Imagine a John Le Carre novel, only with talking cars and Larry the Cable Guy as your main character.

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Hey, it’s a buddy CAR movie! Har har har

Mater might be the protagonist, but Lightning McQueen is the person (car?) that gets the narrative arc. At first he’s embarrassed by Mater’s uncultured behavior among his high-class international friends, but over time he learns to appreciate the inherent goodness within his unsophisticated friend. While this is definitely a good lesson to learn, it would have been nice to see Mater develop as well; he is, after all, a tow truck that has never been outside of Radiator Springs. Instead of telling us — for the umpteenth time — that country values are just as great as anything else, it would have been nice to see that cultural shift run both ways. There are worthwhile aspects of the urbane mindset, like an appreciation of the new and different, or a sensitivity for different cultures.

Still, it was hard for me to be too upset with the movie. For all of his cringe-worthy goofiness, Mater is basically a good egg with an earnest desire to help at every turn. He’s enthusiastic and friendly, and incredibly accepting. That good-natured soul covers a multitude of sins for me, even though I realize it might not be the same for most people. If Mater grated on you in the first Cars, there’s almost no way you could enjoy Cars 2 — it doubles down on the tow truck, elevating him from sidekick to star.

And if you’re willing to overlook that, Cars 2 might be entertaining in its own right. Obviously kids will love the film, but adults might be driven enjoyably crazy trying to figure out the inner workings of the world or be impressed with the way the studio has improved its animation from the last outing. It’s certainly one of the minor Pixar outings, but that’s still better than most.

Winnie the Pooh (2011)

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Not sure where Eeyore got his stripes, but I don’t want to ask.

Like most rabbits in my age group, I grew up on the truly excellent Saturday-morning Winnie-the-Pooh series and that’s my biggest relationship with the franchise. The adaptation or “package film” from 1977, The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh, was pretty enjoyable, but in a lot of ways it felt like a prototype for the kinds of stories they told through the series. If you’re like me, then the thought of a brand-new hand-drawn Winnie-the-Pooh movie is exciting, a nostalgia bomb waiting to happen. Maybe it’s the attempts to update the format for Pooh, or the largely different voice cast, or the fact that I’VE changed, but this doesn’t feel like the Pooh I grew up with — and that’s neither bad nor good, but it’s there.

One of the strongest features of this attempt to update Pooh for a new audience is the animation. The hand-drawn character work is warm and charming, fluid and polished without seeming too sterile. There are little touches that give all the characters a sense of weight and texture, that deepens our involvement in the world. That solid foundation allows the animators to play around with a few new ideas that mostly work — most of the action takes place within the frame of illustrations for a children’s book, and Pooh and the gang regularly break the fourth wall by interacting with the text of the book itself. It’s an elegant and clever turn that heightens the humor and creativity really well.

The plot is woven by three separate stories adapted from Milne — Pooh running out of honey and heading off in search of it; a wood-wide panic brought about by Chrisopher Robin’s note and the fear of a mysterious creature called the “Backson”; and the gang (especially Tigger) helping Eeyore with his lost tail. The three subplots fade into one another fairly smoothly, but they also require the characters to behave in ways we’re not quite used to seeing them. They’re dimmer, for example, to the point that it feels like they’re forced to be obtuse for the sake of the (admittedly funny) complications that come from misunderstandings. Owl gets significantly more screen-time, relegating folks like Rabbit and Piglet to tag-alongs, while Eeyore and Tigger actually make for an engaging pair.

All in all, though, it’s just strange to see different characters embodying the toys we know so well. It feels like the writers missed some essential je ne sais quoi that makes Pooh so endearing; in updating the characters for a new generation, something gets left out that I can’t quite put my finger on. It was a notable distraction through most of the film’s 70-minute run time, and by the time I’ve settled in to what this movie actually is — it’s over. I suspect that this one is geared towards an even younger audience than I was when I caught the Saturday morning show (eight years old, by the way), so perhaps there’s just less there for me.

If you’re less attached to Winnie-the-Pooh-based nostalgia, this is worth it just for the hand-drawn animation alone. The story is clever and funny, the look is bright and sunny, and overall it’s an enjoyable way to spend an hour. Still, I’m not entirely sure this is a movie for anyone but completionists or true fans, which is a shame. Pooh is great, and it’d be awesome to go back to the Hundred-Acre Wood again.

Brave (2012)

This was announced with the title The Bear and the Bow with great fanfare for Brenda Chapman, the first woman to direct a Pixar film. It took years for the final product to arrive in theatres, with Chapman removed from the project so Mark Andrews could finish the project. Despite being pulled for “creative differences”, Chapman says that the film executed on her vision and she’s proud of the way it turned out. I’m not sure if that’s putting on a good face or what, but I think about this whenever I think about Brave. Even though a lot of Disney and Pixar projects have had troubled productions, this is the first one where it feels like the seams in the story show.

Not that Brave isn’t a good movie; it’s fine. The animation in particular is wonderful to behold — the landscapes of an ancient, mythical Scotland lend the entire film the gorgeous fairy-tale aesthetic it was going for. The characters themselves are more exaggerated but in a way that doesn’t conflict with the more realistic background; it feels like they inhabit this world instead of performing in it. Again, light and water are really impressive here, and one stand-out sequence of Merida fishing with her mother really underscores how far Pixar had come with fur and environmental textures.

Wait, fur? Yeah, Merida’s mother is turned into a bear by accident. And since bears are nature’s perfect creatures, you’d think I’d be all in on this story. There are a lot of good scenes where Chapman and Andrews get comedic mileage out of juxtaposing the prim and proper habits of Queen Elinor with the shaggy, clumsy bulk of being a bear. Mor’du, the legendary demon-bear, is an extraordinarily impressive sight, every bit the terrifying supernatural villain he should be. But there’s something about the film that doesn’t quite add up, that doesn’t really connect Merida to the audience.

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Mother Bear

Merida is forced to choose between the oldest sons of three allied clans for marriage, but she really doesn’t want to. That’s the catalyst for the story; Merida asking an old witch in a hut for a potion that would change her mother into someone who could understand her. The parallel for this is the myth of Mor’du, the jealous eldest son of an ancient king who decided to split his kingdom among all four of his sons. Mor’du decided that he would fight for the kingdom, and asked a witch for the strength of ten men. Naturally, she turned him into a bear. Mindless but terrible, Mor’du stalks the woods with but a shadow of his human intellect.

Merida’s lesson doesn’t quite scan with the tale of Mor’du, though the structure of the story wants us to think it does. Wanting more than your fair share of a kingdom doesn’t equate to not wanting to be forced into marriage, yet Merida has to learn the lesson that giving up her life to prevent war amongst the clans is the way to go. Her mother, Queen Elinor, encourages her to establish her own timetable for marriage instead.

The arc of her lesson undercuts what makes Merida such a worthy addition to Disney’s Princess canon. She is headstrong but kind, passionate and resourceful. Forcing her to temper that willful spirit in order to satisfy societal demands that we’d never agree with anyway feels off; it’s like the movie is gently chastising us for wanting to march to the beat of our own drum. Elinor eventually learns to appreciate and respect her daughter’s wishes, but the movie treats this as a secondary revelation.

Shifting protagonists can be a tricky thing, especially if remnants of the previous narrative arc are kept in the film. I can’t say for sure that’s what happened here, but with the change in directors it feels like there are artifacts of a previous draft inhabiting the skeleton of the story that made it to the screen. Because of that, the journey of Merida and Elinor is muddied and confused more than it should be — and that means we’re never quite sure where we’re supposed to stand with either of them.

That’s a shame, because if it weren’t for that fundamental flaw Brave would be a fun, beautiful movie. As it stands, it’s one that always feels like it’s not quite comfortable with itself — and that means we aren’t able to get comfortable with it either.

 
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Posted by on June 7, 2017 in DisneyFest, Movies, Reviews

 

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(Reviews) DisneyFest: Cars, Meet The Robinsons, Ratatouille

Entertainment 150It’s strange to think that we’re now in the recent history of Disney and Pixar. Cars was the last production on Pixar’s original contract; negotiations were tense, but ultimately resulted in Disney buying the studio and merging it with its own. In 2007, Disney was beginning to come out of its nadir with Meet The Robinsons, an overlooked film that feels like it was dismissed by association. Pixar released Ratatouille just three months later, dashing any hopes for recognition Disney’s cartoon might have made. The three films are a little strange, reflecting two animation studios struggling to reconcile their relationship with each other and pushing the borders of subject matter for kids’ movies in general.

Cars (2006)
This is one weird movie. Cars is set in a universe of anthropomorphic vehicles where busses, trains, ships and planes are living beings. This raises all kinds of questions that the movie nimbly dodges; it just asks you not to think about the rules too hard and have a good time. On the other hand, there are a lot of jokes and set pieces that practically beg further explanation, like how vehicles can fill the role of people AND animals at the same time. Trying to think through the ramifications of the tractor-tipping scene is really difficult.

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Seriously, is this some kind of post-apocalyptic world, or…?

So, superstar-racer Lightning McQueen is a young up-and-comer on the international racing circuit. His flashy driving (running?) and catch-phrase has captured the imagination of the race-car world and earned him a shot at the season’s championship with two other cars, the veteran Strip Weathers and eternal second-place finisher Chick Hicks. In order to get there in time, Lightning orders his friend (and big-rig pack mule) Mac to drive all night; this ends in disaster, separating the two and stranding McQueen in the dying Route 66 town of Radiator Springs. Lightning has to learn how to slow down long enough to make things right while also winning the big race. Can he do it?

Despite the fact that this movie is straight-up baffling, it has a charm that wears better than I remember it before. The plot is pretty thin but well-told, and Cars is populated with a garage-full of characters that you don’t mind spending 90 minutes with. The production team went out of their way to stock the movie with a wide variety of car models, from super-fast coupes to puttery, sagging Volkswagens. What’s really interesting is how the animators actually imbue each vehicle with a distinct personality that feels organic to their form; you can tell what kind of “people” these are on sight, and the way they move (drive?) reveals a lot about how they see the world and interact with it.

Cars somehow managed to get all kinds of people for their voice cast; Owen Wilson serves as the primadonna Lightning McQueen, with Larry the Cable Guy as his sidekick (and breakout star) Mater. Paul Newman (in his last dramatic role), Bonnie Hunt, Tony Shalhoub, Cheech Marin, George Carlin, Michael Keaton and Jeremy Piven all lend their talents to the movie as well. Race car drivers and car aficionados even make cameos! It’s strange, in hindsight, that so much talent threw in with this movie. By then, the Pixar brand was golden, so I guess everyone wanted to be part of it.

It was Pixar’s lowest-reviewed film at that point, but critics still liked it; it opened well, made a ton of money at the box office and absolutely slayed with merchandise. To this day, the reputation of Cars is something of a debate with Disney fans. Some people dismiss it as juvenile fluff, while others see it as an underappreciated, or at least misunderstood, film.

I’m somewhere in between the two. It’s not as shallow or empty as its detractors make it out to be, but next to other Pixar films it’s dwarfed by its simple story and straight-forward performances. The animation feats are largely hidden, but can we just talk about how hard it is to build an entire world around anthropomorphic cars? And also, how hard it is to take CARS — inanimate objects that are gigantic and heavy — and make them move, speak and have their own body language in a way we could recognize? It’s kind of mind-blowing to think about that alone; the character design is an even bigger feat than the undersea denizens of Finding Nemo.

All of that is in service to a movie that I’m not sure merits that much work. However, considering the scads of money Pixar has made off the movie and its related merchandise, I’m sure the animation studio would disagree.

Meet The Robinsons (2007)
For Disney, getting it right with computer animation was a bit of a process. With Dinosaur, the lush environments were blown up at the end of Act 1 and replaced with drab, beige backgrounds for the characters to trudge through. In Chicken Little, all of their creative energy went to designing the title character and everything else (including plot, dialogue and supporting character design) was an afterthought. With 2007’s Meet The Robinsons, though, they get it mostly right — the animation is sunny and appealing, the plot carries a great message with sure-footed ambition, and most of the characters are people you like spending the time with.

Lewis is a precocious and smart 90s child right out of central casting in a situation you almost never see in children’s movies. He has the messy blond hair, the oversized geek glasses, and the bright smile — but he also lives in an orphanage with a pale, strange kid who loves to play baseball even though he’s terrible at it. Lewis and “Goob” are old hands; between Lewis’ inventions and Goob’s general oddity, they’re having a hard time getting placed in a home. This causes something of a personal crisis for him, and so his latest invention is a memory scanner that he hopes will unlock the only clue to her identity — his infant memories. At the school science fair, a kid claiming to be a cop from the future and a long, lanky man in a bowler hat both try to steal Lewis’ invention and the chase takes them all the way through traveling in time.

It’s exceedingly rare to see a children’s movie tackle the idea of adoption as an important aspect of its plot — at least in the relatively grounded way it comes across here. As an adopted child myself, I really appreciated that aspect of it; the ultimate lesson taken from the film offers a reason for hope in difficult circumstances, and it’s a hell of a lot fun getting there.

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Bowler Hat Guy for President!

That’s because the plot is a bit twistier than most you’ll find in Disney movies of the era. Adding the time travel element will complicate any story, but it’s well-served in Meet The Robinsons; even if you guess a couple of the surprises along the way, chances are good that there are more you won’t see coming. Even though Lewis does a lot of unwise things that complicate the plot, it’s easy to give him a pass — he’s a 12-year-old boy who’s just learned time travel is a reality, and that’s not something one just plays safe. The villain, Bowler Hat Guy, is the real star of the movie; he is a straight-up vaudeville villain, all waxed moustache and overwrought theatricality. He is so deeply weird and revels in it so much that you almost root for him. Every scene with him somehow made me like him that much more, which is a feat in and of itself.

The titular Robinson family doesn’t come off quite as well. They’re a huge and eccentric clan, full of inventors and free spirits, but the whimsy of their lives comes off a little strained. We don’t spend as much time with them as we do with Lewis, his “future-cop” friend Wilbur, or Bowler Hat Guy, so they’re painted with broad strokes that still feel too flat to be engaging.

Once all the cards are on the table, though, the movie wraps up with a surprisingly effective resolution that’s incredibly sweet. Lewis learns how to look for validation within himself, and that self-confidence promises to propel him into a great life. He also learns how to benefit from his mistakes, improving on each attempt until he eventually succeeds in what he’s trying to do. In many ways, it’s a metaphor for Disney’s CG animation; they learned from Dinosaur and Chicken Little to get to a place that mostly works. The mistakes they made here are simply data points for them to build on with their next feature.

Ratatouille (2007)
Ratatouille was the third film written and directed by the amazing Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles) and Pixar’s 8th studio film — its first after being bought by Walt Disney. Set in the romanticized and insular world of Parisian high-cuisine, it pulls together so many disparate elements to create something truly unique. Like every Pixar film that came before it, the animators set out to crack an enormous task just to make the film work; this time, it was figuring out how to animate food in a believable and appetizing way. The creation of Ratatouille, like many of the incredible dishes featured within it, required a small army of specialists at the top of their game to produce an experience that would be truly memorable despite being part of one of the most common activities we partake in, watching movies.

Remy is a rat who is a true artist when it comes to food. He has an incredible nose that allows him to detect subtle spices, whether food has rotted, or if something has been treated with rat poison. Unlike the other rodents in his clan, he chooses to walk on two feet instead of four so he can “taste the food, not everywhere he’s been”. And his mind creates connections that produce a symphony of flavors that most wouldn’t even think possible. His inspiration is celebrated Paris chef Auguste Gusteau, who believed that anyone can cook, no matter what. When the food critic Anton Ego eviscerated Gusteau’s restaurant in a review, it lost a star — and the death of its head chef knocked off another star after that. Since then, the establishment has been trying to stay afloat on the Gusteau name.

Coming in to this situation is a kid named Alfredo Linguini, hoping to get a job in Gusteau’s kitchen — he’s signed on as a trash boy. Remy and Linguini become unlikely friends and partners after the rat salvages a pot of soup and Linguini gets the credit for it. They discover an even more unlikely way to keep the charade going; Remy hides under Linguini’s chef’s hat and controls him like a giant marionette by pulling his hair. As the restaurant’s stock rises and Linguini is subjected to increasing pressure to perform, both rat and man must find a way to achieve success in a way that’s true to themselves.

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Oh my God, you guys, I forgot about that tiny rat omelette ❤

Brad’s specialty is creating characters who somehow remain underdogs while still being uncommonly excellent. Remy is no exception; he can be pretentious and demanding, but his passion and love of cooking is evident in everything he does. Linguini is a kid in over his head, but with a good heart and a strong moral compass. The kitchen of Gusteau’s restaurant is stocked with a wonderful set of supporting characters, from Colette Tatou (the rotisseur and love interest) to Horst, the German sous chef. The space itself feels like another character, full of life and danger, depending on whether you’re seeing it from Remy’s or Linguini’s point of view. Even mean old Anton Ego, the dour critic who relishes the destruction of restaurants, is charismatic in his own terrifying way.

There are so many things in this movie that impress me regarding its animation. The textures of the rats, the people, the clothes and the food are incredibly well-rendered, giving the world a reality and weight that really immerses you in it. The camera navigates the same scenes from the POV of both protagonists, drastically changing the feel of each; the contrast helps us to understand the wide gulf that exists between the lives of Remy and Linguini in a way that feels remarkably organic. The writing is incredibly smart and earnest, but also allows room for physical comedy; Linguini under the control of Remy is a wonderful thing to behold.

Of course, the thing that makes Pixar’s best movies so special is the story. Remy’s dream forces him to break down a barrier that no one on either side wants to be pulled down; he not only has to fight personal and physical limitations, but deeply-entrenched social ones as well. It’s this willingness to forsake everything he’s ever known to pursue his passion that makes us care about him. He’s not blind to the sacrifice and work it will take to do what he loves, and he’s not afraid of it. He plunges ahead.

The film ends with a wonderful epilogue that feels miraculous yet ordinary. On one small block within the middle of Paris, there is a restaurant that stands as a testament to what is possible with enough dedication and willpower. It is modest, perhaps, but everything it is has been earned through hard work and perseverance. Those who appreciate it know it’s much more than just a place to eat — it’s a small example of the way the world could be, the way it should be. It’s a wondrous note to end on, because it tells us that while following our passions may make our own lives better, it undoubtedly makes the entire world better as well.

 
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Posted by on January 30, 2017 in Movies

 

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