Coco (2017)


Life’s a long song.

(2017) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Adrian Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renée Victor, Jaime Camil, Alfonso Arau, Herbert Siguenza, Gabriel Iglesias, Lombardo Boyar, Ana Ofelia Murgula, Natalia Cordova-Buckley, Selene Luna, Edward James Olmos, Cheech Marin, John Ratzenberger, Luis Valdez, Carla Medina. Directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina

 

There was a point in time when I could confidently state that each and every movie that Pixar put out was of the highest quality and were all amazing in their own right. That is no longer possible; there have been some less-than-stellar sequels and even a few new movies that haven’t exactly been critical successes. The latest Pixar effort could consider the cold streak – or it could be a return to the legacy that they’ve been building.

Manuel (Gonzalez) is a 12-year-old boy who wants nothing more than to sing and play music but he has the sad misfortune of being part of, as he grouses early on, the only family in Mexico that hates music. That’s because years early, his great-grandmother (Victor) had been deserted by her husband who left to go become a musician and had never returned. The experience had scarred her and ever since her decree that there would be no music in the house had been continued by the matriarchs that followed – Manuel’s mother (Ubach) being the most recent one.

But Manuel’s hero Ernesto de la Cruz (Bratt) who has long since passed on urges him from old movies not to give up and follow his dream. However as the family prepares for the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration, Manuel and his mother have a confrontation, smashing his guitar which Manuel absolutely needs to compete in a musical competition that might be the first step on the road to attaining his dreams. Desperate, he decides to take the guitar hanging in the crypt of Ernesto de la Cruz. When Manuel strums the guitar to make sure it’s in tune, he is magically transported to the Land of the Dead.

It is a place where Manuel definitely doesn’t belong and the longer he stays, the more likely it is he will never leave. He needs a relative’s blessing to send him home but his great-grandmother won’t give it unless he promises to renounce music, which is the same as renouncing himself as far as Manuel is concerned. Then, to Manuel’s amazement, signs point to the identity of his true father – Ernesto de la Cruz himself.  Getting to see the great star in the afterlife is no easier than getting to see him was in life so Manuel enlists the aid of Héctor (Garcia) who claims to know him which Héctor agrees to give provided that Manuel makes sure that Hector is remembered by the living which keeps his skeletal spirit from drifting away (which is what happens to his pal Chicharrón (Olmos) in one of the most emotional scenes in the film).

But there are no easy paths to one’s dream and especially, no easy paths to the Land of the Living. The fall-out of a crime that happened decades earlier begins to take possession of the narrative and Manuel wonders if he is not learning the value of family too late for him to practice it in the Land of the Living. And the most intriguing question of all is to be answered – why is this movie named Coco?

This is absolutely a return to form for Pixar, one of their best ever and certainly their best in at least five or ten years. Unkrich and Molina have crafted a vibrant world that is both fascinating and fun. Kids will love the bright colors, the spirit guide animals and the goofy Tim Burton-esque skeletons, while adults will be partial to the family-friendly message, the genuinely moving scenes (particularly in the last act) and some of the beautiful images such as the flower-strewn bridge from the Land of the Living to the Land of the Dead.

The movie is inevitably going to be compared to Fox’s similarly-themed Book of Life and there is some justification to that. The Fox film had the benefit of the participation of Guillermo del Toro as a producer; some say that his input made that film just a little bit more magical and perhaps that’s true but to be honest I’m not certain how much input he had into the creative aspect of the film. I’m not saying he didn’t have any, I’m just saying I don’t know how much involvement he had in it. The music of Coco has also been unfavorably to that of Book of Life which is absolute malarkey. The Fox film used mariachi versions of American pop hits; Pixar opted to go with original music written in the Ranchera style. The exception is the execrable hit “Remember Me,” which was written by the Frozen team; the rest of the music is absolutely amazing and enjoyable.

Pixar’s animators took a lot of time watching guitar virtuosos play the music that was actually used in the film; therefore the fingering that is onscreen is the correct fingering for that song. Nobody does the details quite like Pixar does and you might think “what does it matter?” Trust me, it matters.

There are a couple of things that stand out as unusual for modern animated features. First off, we have a plucky young boy in the lead. Disney tends to prefer their princesses to their pirates when it comes to animation; it is refreshing to see a young lad getting to shine in an animated feature. On a second and far more important note, the movie is culturally sensitive to the point it has resonated not only with Hispanics here in the United States but it has been a massive hit in Mexico and other Latin American countries. Not only is that a smart financial move on Disney’s part but it’s the right thing to do at a time when our President has characterized the people of our neighbor to the South as rapists and thieves who live in a s***hole country. I’m all for teaching our kids tolerance and acceptance of different cultures.

One part of the Mexican culture that every other culture can relate to is the importance of family and that lesson is brought home in a heartwarming but not too sweet way. I was misty-eyed at various points of the film but particularly near its conclusion. I genuinely cared about the characters and about what they meant to each other. I’m generally not one for purchasing Disney films for our digital video library – my wife is the Disneyphile in our family – but this one I’m going to insist we get.

The only quibbles are that Gonzalez is a little bland and unremarkable as Manuel and some of the plot is absolutely predictable although to be fair there are some really good twists that come along – like for example why the film is named Coco in the first place. I have to say that this is my favorite Pixar film since Up and although not quite up to that standard completely, it comes quite close and may over time usurp that film’s position as my favorite Pixar film ever.

REASONS TO GO: The music and songs are outstanding. Beautiful, colorful backgrounds make this a visual treat. A genuinely heartwarming film, especially near the end.
REASONS TO STAY: Gonzalez is a bit nondescript.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some cartoon violence and a few serious thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Coco is currently the highest grossing film in Mexican box office history, surpassing The Avengers.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/30/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 00/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Book of Life
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Cars 3


A couple of rivals get personal.

(2017) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Chris Cooper, Nathan Fillion, Larry the Cable Guy, Armie Hammer, Ray Magliozzi, Tony Shalhoub, Bonnie Hunt, Lea DeLaria, Kerry Washington, Bob Costas, Margo Martindale, Darrell Waltrip, Paul Newman, Isiah Whitlock Jr., John Ratzenberger, Cheech Marin, Katherine Helmond, Paul Dooley, Jenifer Lewis. Directed by Brian Fee

 

It’s generally agreed that the Cars franchise is the weakest in the Pixar line-up, especially after the godawful sequel Cars 2. That film seemed to exist mainly to sell merchandise and indeed the Cars franchise has consistently been one of the top merchandise sellers for the Mouse House over the decade plus since the first film debuted. It is also, not uncoincidentally, one of the few franchises in the Disney animated firmament that seems deliberately targeted at young boys rather than the princess-wannabe crowd.

The new film is absolutely a big step up from the first sequel, leaving the incomprehensible spy movie elements behind and concentrating on the things that did work in the first film; the clever and engaging world of the anthropomorphic autos, the clear love for Americana and of course, Paul Newman. In many ways, the movie exists as a tribute to the late icon and he figures heavily in the plot; in fact, Newman’s voice is featured in the film utilizing stories Newman told that were recorded in between takes of the original Cars as well as unused dialogue. Newman’s fans will get a kick out of hearing his voice one last time.

The plot seems heavily influenced by Talladega Nights as well as other racing movies with the hero Lightning McQueen (Wilson) who played the young upstart in the first film being overtaken by younger, faster cars in this one. His rival is an arrogant high-tech machine who reminded me a great deal of the Sacha Baron Cohen character in the Ferrell film only without the European accent and gay overtones. The ending is heartwarming but a bit on the “really?” side.

Like the other Cars films, I got the sense that the really young children (particularly the boys) were much more into it than their parents were. As an adult, I generally don’t have a problem with Pixar films who have something for everybody which further distinguishes them from their animated competition; however, I could see why a lot of parents in the audience had a glazed over expression on their face. Maybe if we were a little more in touch with our inner toddler we might have appreciated it more but all in all this is definitely a big improvement over the last one.

REASONS TO GO: You really can’t complain about a love letter to Paul Newman. The world created here continues to be clever and engaging.
REASONS TO STAY: While the really wee kids were digging this, their parents were less entertained. Some of the plot elements seemed to have been lifted from Talladega Nights.
FAMILY VALUES: The film is completely suitable for family audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All three Cars films were released the same year as a Pirates of the Caribbean film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cars
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Wonderstruck

WALL-E


Apparently a robot can have more humanity than any presidential candidate.

Apparently a robot can have more humanity than any presidential candidate.

(2008) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, Fred Willard, John Ratzenberger, Kathy Najimy, Sigourney Weaver, Teddy Newton, Ben Bergen, John Cygan, Pete Docter, Paul Eiding, Don Fulilove, Teresa Ganzel, Jess Harnell, Laraine Newman, Andrew Stanton, Jeff Pidgeon, Jim Ward, Sherry Lynn, Lori Alan. Directed by Andrew Stanton

800 years from now, Earth is an empty, dead garbage dump. It is no longer capable of supporting life. In this whimsical, magical animated tale from the geniuses at Pixar, it is tended to by WALL-E, who compacts the trash and stacks the bricks, trying to tend the planet until its human inhabitants return, but it is another robot – EVE – who returns and discovers a tiny little plant growing. She and WALL-E miraculously fall in love with each other, but EVE must report back to the Axiom that it is time for humanity to return.

Humanity, however, has become obese and lazy their every need tended to by robots who have a different program in mind. Beautifully animated with tons of heart, this is one of Pixar’s finest animated films and clearly one of the best animated features of all time. The slapstick humor may be a little much for some (reportedly director Andrew Stanton and many of the top creative people behind the movie watched scores of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin movies for inspiration) but there is virtually no dialogue which helps make the magic even more…um, magical. This is definitely one of my favorite movies ever and it bears plenty of re-watching. Even Peter Gabriel’s closing credits song is perfect.

WHY RENT THIS: This is simply one of Pixar’s best ever. There are some big ideas made palatable for all ages. Love is front and center here. The characters are memorable and cute.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some may find it a little too slapstick for their tastes.
FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly suitable for all ages.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When WALL-E has fully recharged his solar batteries, he makes the same sound as the Apple “Boot-Up” chime which every Apple computer has made since 1996 but is finally being retired later this year.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The 3-Disc DVD set includes the short Presto which was shown before the theatrical release of WALL-E, as well as a short focusing on the welding robot BURN-E, a series of promos for the Buy ‘N Large corporation (including a training video), a kid-friendly guide to the 28 robots shown in the film as well as a digital storybook read by Kathy Najimy featuring the characters from WALL-E. The 2-disc Blu-Ray also includes the full length documentary The Pixar Story and several 8-bit arcade-type games featuring the characters of the film.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $533.2M on a $180M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Silent Running
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

Finding Dory


Hank and Dory are informed there is a sushi chef nearby.

Hank and Dory are informed there is a sushi chef nearby.

(2016) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O’Neill, Kaitlin Olson, Hayden Rolence, Ty Burrell, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy, Sloane Murray, Idris Elba, Dominic West, Bob Peterson, Kate McKinnon, Bill Hader, Sigourney Weaver, Alexander Gould, John Ratzenberger, Torbin Xan Bullock, Andrew Stanton, Bennett Dammann, Katherine Ringgold. Directed by Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane

 

People with mental and emotional issues are all around us; sometimes within our own families. We see people who have these issues and sometimes they are the butt of jokes, sometimes objects of pity but only rarely do we see them as fellow human beings even if they’re fish.

A year after Dory (DeGeneres) helped reunited Nemo (Rolence) with his father Marlin (Brooks), they are all living in the Great Barrier Reef seemingly as happy as…well, clams, but Dory feels there is something missing. She has vague memories of a mother and a father in…California! Yes, that’s it! California!

If you saw the first film Finding Nemo you’d know what a big deal that is. Dory has a short-term memory issue that prevents her from remembering things that happened even five minutes earlier. In fact, she can barely remember anything at all. But this is the first time that she’s had a very real memory and she feels the need to go to California and find her mom and dad. Though the journey is long, Marlin and Nemo feel that it’s the least that they can do to help her be reunited with her mom and dad the same way she helped Marlin and Nemo reunite.

So off they go with the help of the Pacific current and Crush (Peterson) and Squirt (Dammann) get them to the Marine Life Institute – think the Monterey Bay Aquarium if it were a theme park (initially the movie was to be set at Sea World but that was before Blackfish was screened for the animators). Dory gets separated from Marlin and Nemo, and manages to get caught and brought into the Institute’s rehabilitation wing. There she meets the octopus Hank (O’Neill) who points out he’s actually a septapus – he lost a limb in an accident.

The Marine Life Institute, as narrated by Sigourney Weaver often throughout the film, has a three-pronged mission; rescue, rehabilitate, release. Hank wants nothing to do with release; he doesn’t think he could make it in the open ocean. Dory has been earmarked to be sent to an aquarium in Cleveland and Hank wants the tag she’s been given that’s her ticket to Cleveland, which may be the first time in history anyone actually wanted to go to Cleveland. Clevelanders, I kid…I kid because I love.

Anywho, Hank agrees to help Dory find her parents but they are elsewhere in the complex so it will not be an easy journey, particularly since Dory can’t, y’know, breathe air. But she and Hank are nothing if not inventive and they find ways to travel around the Institute, but can they find Dory’s parents? Are they even still there? And will Marlin and Nemo manage to find Dory?

The sequel to the second (now third) largest grossing film in Pixar history is dominating the summer box office this year. It has already pulled in a billion dollars in global box office, one of only 24 movies in history to achieve that feat (and ten of those are Disney films). This is the year of Dory and you can bet it will be a lot sooner than 13 years before the next sequel is released (which is how long it took for this to get made).

In the interest of transparency, I’m not a big fan of the original movie. I recognize the technical proficiency (which is of course even more apparent here) but I never connected with it the way most others did. I also found the character of Marlin extremely irritating. Fortunately for me, he takes a backseat in the film to Dory and Hank, both of whom are far more interesting and far less neurotic. Dory has been described as a one-joke sidekick, but she is really front and center here and is a lot more than that. DeGeneres is one of the most empathetic people in show business and that empathy is very much apparent in Dory.

One of the biggest drawbacks to the movie is that the plot is essentially the same. There are some major differences, but I personally would have appreciated a little more inventiveness when it came to the storyline. I suppose for small children who have had the first movie around their entire lives, the familiar is somewhat comforting.

Certainly the movie should get some props because it gives kids, parents and teachers a discussion point to talk about people with mental and emotional problems, and how to deal with people who are different than they are. Kids are used to being cruel to anyone they perceive as different; perhaps having characters like Dory around will give them pause the next time they want to say something mean to the kid with a stammer.

As I said, I am not a fan of the first movie, although I found this one slightly better in many ways, both from an animation standpoint and from the standpoint that I find Dory far more likable a character than Marlin or even Nemo. That the characters and the environment appeal to mass audiences is abundantly clear and I’m sure that most people would give the movie a higher rating than I am. Take it therefore with a grain of salt and know that you’ll probably find Dory a lot more interesting than you found Nemo.

REASONS TO GO: Less Marlin, more Dory.
REASONS TO STAY: Seems to be very much a rehash of the first.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for everybody. There is a tiny bit of peril but even the very young will be enchanted.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Elba appears in three different Disney movies this year, all as animals.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/12/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Finding Nemo
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Now You See Me 2

The Good Dinosaur


Fireflies sold separately.

Fireflies sold separately.

(2015) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Sam Elliott, Steve Zahn, Anna Paquin, John Ratzenberger, David Boat, Carrie Paff, Calum Grant, Jack McGraw, Maleah Nipay-Padilla, Ryan Teeple, Marcus Scribner, Peter Sohn, Steven Clay Hunter, A.J. Buckley, Mandy Freund. Directed by Peter Sohn

What kid doesn’t like dinosaurs? They’re big, they’re extinct and they capture a child’s imagination like almost nothing else. But what if dinos were still around?

In the latest Pixar animated opus (the studio’s eighteenth), the asteroid that caused the mass extinction of the dominant lifeform on earth skips off the atmosphere and zooms past the world, startling a group of grazing dinosaurs. Flash forward an indeterminate number of years and the dinosaurs have become an agrarian society, with an Apatosaurus family running a farm. Poppa (Wright) and Momma (McDormand) Apatosaurus are expecting with three eggs about to hatch. Out pops Buck (Scribner), Libby (Nipay-Padilla) and lastly Arlo (Ochoa) who turns out to be something of a runt.

As on the farms most of us are familiar with, the entire family is expected to help. Arlo tries his best, but as the runt of the family he’s afraid of everything and despite his father’s patient efforts to make a man outta him, Arlo continues to be ruled by fear. When it is discovered that a critter is stealing corn from their grain silo, Arlo is given the task of trapping the critter, which he does, and killing it, which doesn’t quite work out when the critter – which turns out to be a young human boy, scares him and gets away.

Exasperated, Poppa gives chase, bringing along Arlo but the movie takes a Disney turn – you’ll understand when you see it . Things grow a bit desperate on the family farm after that and Arlo is asked to step up. He does his best – at least his heart is in the right place – but he doesn’t have the strength and stature to make much of a difference.

When a freak storm washes Arlo away in a raging river, he is saved by the human child. Nicknamed Spot (Bright) by Arlo, the two begin a journey back to Arlo’s home. Along the way they’ll traverse a beautiful but dangerous landscape full of nature’s fury but also of other dinosaurs, like colorful velociraptors, rootin’ tootin’ T-Rexes and opportunistic pterodactyls. They’ll also form a unique and lasting bond that only comes from enduring the worst that nature can throw at you and surviving.

This is something of a dino-Western, which is just as bizarre as it sounds. Essentially, think of this as a John Ford Western with dinosaurs in the saddle (although they actually don’t ride anything – well, Spot rides Arlo but that doesn’t count since the horses in Ford’s films generally didn’t talk). That fusion of dinosaur story and Western is the most inventive thing about the movie story-wise – more about that in a moment.

This movie can really be categorized as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Starting with the good, this is the most beautiful looking of all of Pixar’s films, with gorgeously rendered landscapes that are nearly photorealistic, looking very much like Big Sky country – I’m not sure what landscapes inspired the artists at Pixar but wherever it was, I wouldn’t mind going there myself.

The bad is the story. There’s nothing that really distinguishes it from plenty of other Disney and Pixar films; young protagonist overcomes adversity and personal tragedy, discovers the value of friendship and/or family and makes a journey – physical or otherwise – to reunite with his/her family. The only thing missing is a princess singing a song to the woodland animals.

The ugly are the dinosaurs (and humans) themselves. Amidst all the photorealistic grandeur are these cartoonish looking humans and worse, dinosaurs that look more like action figures than dinosaurs. I’m thinking that Disney didn’t want to frighten kids unnecessarily – after all, Dinosaur isn’t considered one of Disney’s big hits – so they made them as non-threatening as possible. That’s all fine and dandy – Disney’s gotta sell merch, after all – but why go to the trouble of creating such amazing environments and then filling it with creatures that don’t match? It makes the plastic look of the dinosaurs here even more glaring, along with their goofy cartoon expressions. It would have made more sense to create a more cartoon-y environment for these action figures to play in if they were intending to go this route.

And why is that a problem? Because it comes off very cynical, like the movie is an excuse for Disney to sell toys. And, to be honest, nearly every movie aimed at kids is just that. But it’s so glaring here that it leaves a bad taste in the mouth, particularly of parents who will exit the theater knowing they will have to shell out hundreds of dollars for The Good Dinosaur-related toys and games this Christmas. My advice; just say no. It’s good for a kid to learn the lesson that they can’t always get what they want. As long as they get what they need, which isn’t anthropomorphic movie-related toys.

Usually with Pixar I’m as entertained as the children around me – certainly Inside Out from earlier this year was a film that I enjoyed as an adult perhaps as much and maybe even more than the kids in the audience. That story was imaginative and the environment equally so. There isn’t any of the magic from that film here. What we have here is one big commercial for action figures in the most beautiful backyard ever. Caveat emptor.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous environments. Plenty of Christmas toy-buying opportunities.
REASONS TO STAY: Pedestrian story. Characters are surprisingly weak-looking.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally slated to be released over the Thanksgiving holiday in 2014, but due to production problems which led to original director Bob Peterson being replaced, the movie was pushed back to the spot that Finding Dory was originally slated for, prompting that movie’s delay until 2016.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/1/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cars 2
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Can You Dig This?

Inside Out (2015)


Antonin Scalia reacts to recent Supreme Court decisions.

Antonin Scalia reacts to recent Supreme Court decisions.

(2015) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan, Paula Poundstone, Bobby Moynihan, Paula Pell, Dave Goelz, Frank Oz, John Ratzenberger, Josh Cooley, Flea, Carlos Alazraqui, Laraine Newman, Rashida Jones. Directed by Pete Docter and Ronaldo del Carmen

Growing up can be a dangerous thing. There are no manuals on how to deal with our emotions; we just have to do the best we can, which is generally not good enough. All we can do is learn from our mistakes and realize that it is okay not to be happy and cheerful every minute of every day.

11-year-old Riley (Dias) and her Mom (Lane) and Dad (MacLachlan) have moved to San Francisco from Minnesota and the usually cheerful Riley is not happy about it. She misses her friends, she misses playing hockey – a sport she loves and excels at – and she misses the shall we say less urban environment of her old home.

Up in her head, Riley’s emotions are working double time. In charge (more or less) is Joy (Poehler), a sprite-like being who wants all of Riley’s memories to be happy. Working alongside her are Sadness (Smith), Anger (Black), Disgust (Kaling) and Fear (Hader). Sadness is a squishy blue teardrop, Anger a red brick who sometimes blows flames out of his head, while Disgust is broccoli-green and Fear is a twitchy pipe cleaner with a bow tie.

The emotions work in Headquarters, the part of her brain where the emotions exert control and memories are made and separated into storage – long term, short term and core. “Islands” are formed by her core memories, helping to establish Riley’s personality – love of hockey, honesty, love of family, imagination and so on. A variety of workers keep the memories stored and occasionally, dump them to disappear (Phone numbers? Doesn’t need them. She keeps them in her phone) and make room for new ones. The memories manifest as little globes like pearls, colored by whatever emotion is associated with that memory although Sadness has discovered that when she touches a memory, the emotional hue can change.

Not long after that, a series of accidents strands Joy and Sadness together in the long term memory area of Riley’s head. Worse yet, the core memories have accidentally been sent there, which will slowly lead to her personality islands crumbling away. Joy and Sadness will have to work together to get those core memories back to Headquarters. They’ll be aided by Bing Bong (Kind), Riley’s imaginary playmate whom she hasn’t thought of in years. But they’ll have to hurry; Anger, Disgust and Fear have been left in charge and their decision-making process is, to say the least, untrustworthy.

This is one of the most imaginative animated features in years. Say what you want about the execution of the movie (which is, by the way, pretty dang nifty) but the concepts here are much different than any animated movie – or movie of any other kind – you’re likely to encounter.

The vocal performances are solid, albeit unspectacular although the casting of Black as Anger was inspired if you ask me. He steals the show whenever his rage button is pushed, which is frequently. Poehler gets the bulk of the dialogue as Joy but Kaling, Smith and Hader also get their moments and all of them encapsulate their emotional counterparts nicely.

True to its subject matter, the movie moves from whimsical (as when Bing Bong, Joy and Sadness move through the subconscious and change forms to two-dimensional and into Depression era animated figures) to downright moving (Bing Bong’s plaintive expression of his desire to make Riley happy, despite the fact that she’s forgotten him). While the emotional resonance of Wall-E and Toy Story 3 aren’t quite there, it still packs quite a powerful emotional punch in places. Softies, beware and bring plenty of tissue.

The only real quibble I have with the movie is that from time to time the story is not as straightforward as it is with other Pixar films and it might be a tad difficult to follow for younger kids, who will nonetheless be quite happy with the colors and shapes of the new characters that are likely to dominate the toy merchandise this summer (at least, until the new Minions movie comes out). It also has a tendency to set us up with what appear to be rules to follow only to do something a bit different. I’m not a stickler for such things – this is an animated feature, not a documentary – but some people who are anal about it might have issues.

The lesson to be learned here for kids is that it’s okay to be sad, or angry, disgusted or even afraid. It isn’t a requirement to be happy all the time – nobody is. We all must, sooner or later, deal with all of our emotions, even the not so nice ones. All of them are there for a reason.

Despite the minor flaw and given all of the movie’s strengths I found this movie to be beautifully rendered with a wonderfully imaginative setting and characters I could get behind. The storyline isn’t earth-shattering – essentially it’s about a disgruntled 11-year-old girl who wants to go back to the home she’s used to and acts out because of it – but all of us can relate to dealing with emotions, either because we know an eleven year old or at least been an eleven year old. Pixar has been on a bit of a cold streak as of late but this movie reminds us of how great this studio is and how much they have contributed to the animated feature genre. This is a gem, destined to be another in a long line of Pixar classics.

REASONS TO GO: Imaginative and different. Moving in places. Teaches kids that it’s okay to have negative emotions as well.
REASONS TO STAY: Can be confusing.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the thematic elements may be a bit much for the very small; there is also some animated action and a few images that might be frightening for the less mature child.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mindy Kaling was reportedly so moved by the script that she burst into tears during the initial meetings with director Pete Docter.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/5/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Up
FINAL RATING: 8,5/10
NEXT: Ted 2

Monsters University


Mike Wazowski gets an eyeful.

Mike Wazowski gets an eyeful.

(2012) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Nathan Fillion, Helen Mirren, Steve Buscemi, Peter Sohn, Joel Murray, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Charlie Day, Alfred Molina, Tyler Labine, Aubrey Plaza, Bobby Moynihan, Julia Sweeney, Bonnie Hunt, John Krasinski, Bill Hader, John Ratzenberger, Frank Oz, Lori Alan. Directed by Dan Scanlon

College is a nifty place. While we’re there, we’re kind of in a neither-nor phase of life – our responsibilities are few but we get to hang out, goof off and drink beer at fairly unreasonable rates. Of course, we’re supposedly learning things as well but college often teaches us more about life than about the vocation we’re about to embark on.

Mike Wazowski (Crystal) has dreamed of being a scarer ever since he was a little eyeball. Now he’s a teenage eyeball with one eye on his future and one eye on his dreams which can be complicated when you only have one eye. Oh, in case you didn’t see Monsters Inc. which is the movie this is a prequel to, scarers are monsters who enter dimensional doorways into the rooms of children in the human world. Said monsters scare the little vermin into screaming and those screams are used to power the monster world. I say little vermin for a reason; to monsters, human children are toxic and to be avoided at all costs.

His roommate is James P. Sullivan (Goodman), an eight-feet tall furry blue Bigfoot who comes from a long line of scarers and as a legacy at Monsters University expects to sail through – he shows up at class without book, pen or paper. He is immediately snatched by the high and mighty ROR fraternity whose preppy devil of a leader, Johnny Worthington (Fillion) sees a kindred spirit in Sully.

Overseeing all of this is Dean Hardscrabble (Mirren), a kind of cross between a dragon, a centipede, a scorpion and the demon of Bald Mountain with a patrician British accent. She herself is an ex-record breaking scarer and started a Greek games kind of competition to discover the best scarer on campus.

Mike and Sully take to each other like Mariah Carey and Nikki Minaj, only more civilized. A rivalry forms between Mike, who is brilliant and hardworking but has no natural scariness, and Sully who has all the tools he needs but none of the drive or the work ethic. When their shenanigans get them expelled from the Scarer Program at MU, they realize that the only way back into the program is to win the Scare Games and in order to do that, they’ll have to join a frat. The only one that will have them are the misfits of Oozma Kappa, led by Squishy (Sohn) mainly because the frat house is his mom’s house; new student Don (Murray), an old school car salesman who after being laid off returns to college to get a better education and better life prospects, Art (Day) who looks a little bit like an I-Beam with legs and finally Terry (Foley) and Terri (Hayes), a two headed monster one of whom is a dance major and the other one isn’t. Leading these misfits to the title is going to involve making a team out of them but how can they when both Mike and Sully are way too involved in their own selves to create a team out of individuals?

First, this isn’t as good as Monsters Inc. although it really doesn’t need to be – in my opinion that is one of the best movies to come out of Pixar ever and it really never got the respect it deserves. This isn’t on that level but the good news is that it doesn’t need to be. This is a solidly entertaining effort with plenty of great visual gags and as is usually the case with Pixar movies, enough detail that the movie can be watched a whole lot of times without getting tired – while discovering something new each time you watch it.

Part of the secret to the first film’s success (and this one’s as well) is the chemistry between Crystal and Goodman. They make an excellent yin and yang and banter like they’ve been doing it forever which they kind of have. Both are naturally funny guys with Crystal the manic Borscht belt guy and Goodman the easygoing jock who throws off an occasional killer one-liner when you least expect it.

I have to say I’m not sure it was a good idea to do a prequel; I think that seeing the monster world after the events of Monsters Inc. would have made a far more interesting movie than this one was; the hoary old cliché of best friends starting off as worst enemies (and vice versa in the case of Randall Boggs, the chameleon-like creature voiced by Buscemi) – is there anyone in your life that you started out hating but then wound up as best buddies? Do you know anybody who has a friendship like that?

As their impressive weekend box office figures showed, a lot of families were just waiting on this film to come out and it’s likely to have a pretty strong two week run before Despicable Me opens up over the Independence Day holiday weekend. There has been a dearth of family films this year and it’s about time there was something moms and dads could go see with their kids to get out of the summer heat. Do be aware however that some of the littler kids in the screening at Downtown Disney that we attended had some problems with a couple of the scarier aspects of the monsters (Sully’s roar for example) and while most of the monsters are of the cute ‘n’ cuddly variety, if your child is extremely sensitive you might want to take that into account before going. After all, you can always get the Blu-Ray and let your progeny see the movie after they’re a little older. In any case, I think this is pretty much ideal summertime family entertainment so get your little rug rats dressed up and load up the station wag…err, minivan…and head out to the multiplex if you haven’t already. And maybe again if you already have.

REASONS TO GO: It’s Pixar – even their worst films are better than most animated features.

REASONS TO STAY: May disappoint those looking for something as good as Monsters Inc.

FAMILY VALUES:  Suitable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Pizza Planet truck can be found parked outside the ROR frat house during the party (it has appeared in every Pixar film since Toy Story). Also, the Professor Knights’ scarer 101 course takes place in room A113, a reference to the room at CalArts where animation is taught and another item that appears in every Pixar film

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/27/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100; solid reviews, the critics definitely liked it.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Accepted

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Sixth Sense