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

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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?

Toy Story 2


Mesmerized by the boob tube.

Mesmerized by the boob tube.

(1999) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Kelsey Grammer, Don Rickles, Jim Varney, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Annie Potts, Wayne Knight, John Morris, Laurie Metcalf, Estelle Harris, R. Lee Ermey, Jodi Benson, Jonathan Harris, Joe Ranft, Andrew Stanton, Jeff Pidgeon, Sheryl Bernstein. Directed by John Lasseter and Ash Brannon

It’s not often that a sequel turns out to be better than the original, but Pixar’s computer-animated Toy Story 2 definitely fits into the exception category.

Woody (Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Allen) and all the gang are back with a few charming new additions. Woody is kidnapped by a dastardly toy collector (Knight) to complete a group of “collectables” (remember when they were just plain ol’ toys for playing with?) that he intends to sell to a Japanese toy museum. His pals, of course, take a little trip out into the world beyond Andy’s room, once again, to rescue their friend.

Except that Woody isn’t sure he wants to be rescued. See, he’s discovered that he used to be a BIG star – his own television show and a pretty impressive array of merchandising (remember when we used to call it toys?) – Yo-yos, lunchboxes and, of course, the precursors to action figures, or what used to be called “dolls.”

The other three figures in the set – Stinky Pete the prospector (Grammer), the hyperactive bronco-bustin’ cowgirl Jesse (Cusack) and the faithful steed Bullseye – have been languishing in storage waiting for their set to be completed. They are initially chagrined that Woody wants to return to his owner. A particularly poignant song, “When She Loved Me,” illustrates the lot of toys (and makes me wish I’d treated my own better) and leads into an examination of the nature of love, disguised as the relationship between kids and their toys. It is thought-provoking scenes and songs such as this that elevate this film above the average kid movie.

Eventually, Woody chooses to go back to Andy but to get there he must surmount the Evil Emperor Zurg (don’t ask), another Buzz (again, don’t ask) and a traitor amongst his friends (gasp!). Woody’s sentiment – “I know he’ll grow up,” says Woody in a moment that really defines the movie, “and I want to be there for every minute of it” – turns out to be a metaphor for parenting in general. Who knew?

There are a lot of great gags that will be appreciated by kids of all ages. Kids will dig seeing their heroes in action again, and parents won’t be bored with much of the action taking place at a level that reaches the young and old alike. Da Queen and I took our then ten-year-old son with us to the theater back in the day and I’m pretty sure we enjoyed it at least as much as he did, if not more.

Toy Story 2 requires a few leaps of faith in its own internal logic, and there are a few in-jokes that may sail over the heads of the terminally unhip, but beyond that it’s nearly perfect entertainment for the entire family. Unlike some of the other big kidflicks from roughly the same era, parents can actually enjoy this together with their kids, instead of having to go in knowing they’ll be subjected to ultra-violence, dumbed down to the lowest common denominator and made with the express purpose of making money off of spoiled kids and their parents determined to demonstrate their love by how much they spend. Ain’t that a poke in the eye?

Here is a win-win situation for families who want to head to share a movie night as a unit. Heck, you’ll enjoy it even if you don’t have kids.

WHY RENT THIS: Something both kids and parents alike will love. Sophisticated, layered story that respects kids. Chances are you’ll want to own this one, especially if there are kids in the house.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A few minor lapses in the movie’s internal logic.

FAMILY MATTERS: A couple of scenes of toy peril but otherwise suitable for the entire family.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The address of Al’s Toy Barn in the movie is the same as Pixar’s animation studio at the time in Richmond, California.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The 3-Disc Ultimate Toy Box edition from 2000 that combined both Toy Story films at the time includes the outtakes shown at the end of the movie and the classic Pixar short Luxo, Jr. The 2-Disc Special Edition includes these as well as an introduction by co-director and Pixar chief Lasseter, an excerpt from the Japanese game show Ponkickies involving Woody, a music medley, some interviews from the film’s 1999 release and a couple of games. The Blu-Ray edition includes all of this as well as some features on Pixar and the late Joe Ranft, a preview of Toy Story 3 and a look at Buzz Lightyear on the International Space Station.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $485.0M on a $90M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Up

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: The Truth About Romance

Blackfish


Tilikum performing.

Tilikum performing.

(2013) Documentary (Magnolia) Tilikum, Samantha Berg, Dave Duffus, Dean Gomersall, John Hargrove, Carol Ray, Jeffrey Ventre, Kim Ashdown, Dawn Brancheau, Daniel Patrick Dukes, Ken Balcomb, Howard Garrett, Keltie Burns. Directed by Gabrielle Cowperthwaite

Children are for the most part fascinated by the animal world. Animal parks like SeaWorld and Animal Kingdom as well as traditional zoos and aquariums are well aware of it – the animals on display in these parks are siren calls to kids and their parents. Performing animals can bring oohs and aahs to kids of all ages.

However on February 24, 2010 things got serious. SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, one of the most respected and safety-conscious trainers in the business, was killed in an incident during a “Dine with Shamu” performance at SeaWorld Orlando. The incident involved Tilikum, an orca (popularly known as a killer whale) who was one of SeaWorld’s mainstays and a veteran performer.

As time went by, there began to be questions asked about SeaWorld’s policies. One of the first facts to come out was that this was the third human death that Tilikum had been involved with; one involving trainer Keltie Burns in Sealand of the Pacific where Tilikum had been brought as a young whale and then later a bizarre incident when Daniel Patrick Dukes apparently entered Tilikum’s tank illegally after hours and was found the next morning naked and draped across Tilikum’s back.

Filmmaker Cowperthwaite examines Tilikum’s story from the time he was taken from his family as a young whale until the incident with Brancheau and its aftermath. She interviews a number of former SeaWorld trainers as well as orca experts to discuss behaviors of orcas both in the wild and in captivity. She also looks at several incidents in which trainers were injured or killed, including a particularly gruesome incident at Parque Loro in the Canary Islands.

It is clear that there is an agenda here as there is with most documentary films. Cowperthwaite’s point is that the captivity of these animals is inherently wrong and inhumane and that the motivations for SeaWorld and parks like it is profit rather than the education and appreciation of those animals. While I think that there is room for argument there, there’s no doubt that SeaWorld does make plenty of profit through park admissions and merchandise sale with the visage of the orca Shamu being essentially SeaWorld’s corporate identity.

SeaWorld in fact has gone to great pains to portray themselves as good corporate citizens and it is true that they have a rehabilitation program that has helped over 22,000 injured, orphaned or abandoned animals in the wild and nursed them back to health for re-release in many cases or permanently cared for those that were deemed unfit to sustain themselves in their native habitats. They have also contributed to and encouraged contributions to conservation causes and preach respect and care for the animals that they display. These are points not brought up in the movie.

However, it is also true that SeaWorld hid from their trainers Tilikum’s dangerous past and his part in the death of Keltie Burns. It is also true that they have misrepresented the life spans of orcas in the wild vs. orcas in SeaWorld’s care (studies show they do live longer in the wild, contrary to SeaWorld’s claims). SeaWorld has an interest in maintaining their image in that the perception of cruelty or inhumanity might adversely affect their bottom line, so their willingness to go to great lengths to preserve that image is at least understandable.

In the case of Dawn Brancheau, OSHA stepped in to litigate against SeaWorld, accusing them of violations of safety standards. SeaWorld denied those allegations and defended themselves vigorously (testimony from the trial is presented in the film). OSHA did eventually win the case although it is currently being appealed. This is why if you visit any SeaWorld park, you won’t see the trainers directly in the water with the orcas; there is a barrier between them. SeaWorld’s allegations that Brancheau was dragged into the water by her ponytail wasn’t proven; it also seemed to me (although the filmmakers didn’t say so outright) that given how many cameras are stationed throughout SeaWorld that if the footage had shown without a doubt that the ponytail was the culprit, they would have brought that footage to court. Since they didn’t, we have to assume that the footage showed otherwise. Certainly the eyewitnesses to the event were clear that Tilikum had grabbed Ms. Brancheau’s arm and dragged her into the pool.

For my part, I’ve always wondered what the allure is in trained animal shows. Maybe I’m just weird but I always get more of a charge watching an animal in its native environment doing the things it does naturally. The shots of orcas swimming in waters off the coasts of Washington state peacefully and majestically was far more thrilling to me than watching one cruise around a tank waving a fluke at the audience. However it is undeniable that the audiences in the footage looked awfully thrilled at the various behaviors of the orcas here.

Cowperthwaite’s assertion that the deaths depicted here were essentially the results of psychosis largely brought about by captivity is well-presented and certainly backed up by the experts she brings in. I would have like to hear some dissenting opinions, although there was one ex-trainer who did seemingly disagree with the filmmaker’s conclusions. Still, we are told that there are no records of an orca killing a human in the wild which is misleading – there have been attacks on humans in the wild although no fatalities have been recorded which doesn’t necessarily mean that none have occurred.

The documentary is a compelling one and the love and respect for the animals is clear in both the filmmakers and the scientists and former trainers that are interviewed. There’s no doubt that the orca is a magnificent creature, graceful and gentle but capable of great power and violence. We have our own human history to refer to when discussing the adverse affects of  being taken out of one’s natural environment and placed forcibly and without permission in an alien and strange environment, separated from all that one loved. That’s not a recipe for harmony and love. While the movie may not necessarily make fans of SeaWorld think differently about the animal shows, hopefully it will give everyone pause to think about the high price that entertainment can sometimes cost.

REASONS TO GO: Communicates the trainers and filmmakers love for these animals. Some beautiful footage of orcas.

REASONS TO STAY: No rebuttal viewpoints (although SeaWorld declined to allow their executives to be interviewed for the film).

FAMILY VALUES:  Some of the subject matter and images are far too intense and disturbing for Shamu’s target audience.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The ending of the upcoming sequel to Finding Nemo was altered after Pixar executives viewed this film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/20/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Cove

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Baghead