REVIEW: The Good Dinosaur

21 03 2016

Pixar charted course for a brave new world in 2015 by creatively mapping out the mind in “Inside Out.” Oh, and they also released “The Good Dinosaur.” Perhaps in a different context, the film might feel like less of an afterthought for the animation studio. In reality, though, this lovably sweet movie is roughly on par with “Brave” or “Monsters University.”

If the 2015 Pixar films were siblings, then it could be said that “Inside Out” got the brains and “The Good Dinosaur” got the looks. The former seems to have hoarded the brain trust and story department, while the latter monopolized the visual technicians. Neither severely lacks in one area – though their strengths are definitely distinct. “The Good Dinosaur” probably represents some of Pixar’s most photorealistic animation to date; several scenes looked as authentic as Disney’s 2000 film “Dinosaur,” which placed CGI creatures in scenes shot by real cameras.

While the trademark Pixar creativity and ingenuity might not be on vivid display in the film, at least they got that same heart. “The Good Dinosaur” refers to Arlo, an apatosaurus who was the runt of his litter and thus struggles to prove himself among his more able-bodied siblings. He makes for a true underdog, yet the Pixar team somehow finds a way around the lazy assumption that audiences will just automatically rally behind his improbable journey which has become de rigueur in filmmaking these days.

No matter toys, robots or emotions, Pixar finds the humanity in each of their characters. This truth is especially ironic in “The Good Dinosaur” given that the dinosaur is the loquacious one and the human is the non-verbal, primal creature. The film takes place in an alternate reality where the big meteor that scientists believe wiped out the dinosaurs failed to make impact, allowing humans and dinosaurs to coexist. A little silly, sure, but the gambit works for plot purposes as the young feral caveboy Spot becomes necessary for Arlo to find his way home after getting separated from his family. As it turns out, the uncivilized and the civilized have something to offer each other after all.

Their adventures might not reach the heights of previous Pixar classics, but “The Good Dinosaur” is still authentically sweet and truly genuine through and through. Even outside of their game changers, Pixar’s indisputable charm is still worth the time to experience and enjoy. B2halfstars

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REVIEW: Inside Out

20 06 2015

Pixar has long reigned as the champion of both intelligent, creative storytelling and emotionally potent filmmaking.  Something about their computer-rendered world always seems to strike a chord with the one we have experienced, mostly because the purest of hearts beat within the lines of their ingeniously designed characters.

Inside Out” may well be the most vivid realization of the animation powerhouse’s strengths.  Writer/director Pete Docter’s film marks their most innovative vision since 2001’s “Monsters, Inc.” and their most heartstring tugging piece since 2009’s “Up.”  Every second of the film captures the complexity of the human experience, inspiring laughter, smiles, and tears.  Often times, I responded with all three reactions simultaneously.

In what may inspire the next generation of psychologists, Docter (along with fellow Pixar brain trust members Ronaldo Del Carmen and Josh Cooley – as well as Meg LaFauve) takes on the ambitious task of visualizing the mind.  And not like the opening credit sequence to “Fight Club” or anything, either.  They map out the logic, rationale, and functionality of just about every cognitive process in the brain, both conscious and subconscious.

Remarkably, the thought of “Inside Out” as some kind of cinematic adaptation of a neuroscience textbook never occurs for a second.  As it enlightens us, the film also entertains.  The premise starts off extremely straightforward: five personified emotions vie for control in the mind of a young girl, 11-year-old Riley.  These distinct characters take on additional vitality and vibrance through expert voice casting that draws on the established strengths of the performers.

Amy Poehler channels Leslie Knope into Joy.  Lewis Black brings his trademark tirades (minus the profanity) to Anger.  Bill Hader lends his motormouth to the ever-adapting whims of Fear.  Mindy Kaling adapts her defensive, often put out television alter ego into Disgust.  And Phyllis Smith selects the sad sack elements from her good-natured but sometimes mopey Phyllis from “The Office” and transfers them into Sadness.

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REVIEW: Monsters University

7 08 2013

Monsters UMonsters University” may not scale the emotional heights of Pixar’s most recent towering achievements “Up” and “Toy Story 3,” but that doesn’t mean the film isn’t moving, charming, or sweet in other ways.  It’s a movie that will be special and touching to anyone who has ever felt like an impostor or an underdog in their own life.  And for those big kids who have been to college themselves, it’s especially meaningful to anyone who has struggled to find their place on campus.

The film opens with a sight to make your heart melt – a tiny Mike Wazowski, the most adorable little nugget with big dreams to become a scarer at Monsters, Inc.  He’s got plenty of book smarts but lacks the intimidating frame to take the Scare Floor by storm.  Mike (Billy Crystal) meets quite the foil in a cocky young James P. “Sully” Sullivan (John Goodman), a dumb party animal who slacks off because he’s blessed with natural skill.  It’s a pretty standard nerd vs. jock dichotomy, in case you hadn’t already figured it out.

But the Pixar plot machine doesn’t have them battle in conventional ways.  Rather, after a big mistake lands them in hot water with Dean Hardscrabble (the ever-intimidating Helen Mirren), Mike and Sully are forced to team up to earn their stripes in the scare program.  They have to win the prestigious Greek Scare Cup to gain reentry into the class, leading them join up with a lovable band of misfits, Oozma Kappa.

The oddballs of Oozma Kappa, a fraternity house that’s also someone’s mom’s house, bring a lot of the vitality and humor to “Monsters University” that we don’t get in spades from seeing our old friends Mike and Sully (and Randall, who’s thrown in for good measure).  The novelty of these myriad new characters, however, does tend to overpower our reliable staples.  It’s still an enjoyable romp with astutely observed characters that offer very applicable life lessons for everyone.

And I think the fact that I’m currently in college led me to feel especially endeared to the film, which so accurately captured a key aspect of my own experience.  It’s easy to come into college expecting that we’re going to be one person, yet we so often find ourselves inexorably and immutably changed by unexpected people and events.  And thanks to Pixar’s great storytelling genius, they find a way to expand this valuable nugget of wisdom beyond the campus of Monsters University and into a larger reservoir of human experience.  B+3stars





REVIEW: Brave

21 06 2012

While I personally have yet to strongly dislike any Pixar release, the animation powerhouse clearly does have two tiers of films: emotional films with powerhouse stories like “Toy Story 3” or lightweight breezy fun pictures like “Cars 2.”  “Brave,” resisting easy classification within the Pixar canon, straddles a very happy median between the two.

The humor is definitely more of the “Cars” variety, zany and perhaps a little sophomorically silly.  Though it’s not a tearjerker like the “Toy Story” movies, “Brave” most definitely boasts the present, beating Pixar heart that has made them the preeminent name in animation for nearly two decades.

Boasting a spunky, independent hero looking for satisfaction, wisdom, and maturity who just happens to be a girl also makes “Brave” the feminist movie of the year.  The film doesn’t forcibly adhere to any of the conventional coming-of-age conventions for girls, nor does it degrade her femininity by deriving all her strength from manliness.  It’s a nice reminder that self-discovery and self-realization is not relegated to one gender.

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Random Factoid #518

28 12 2010

I’m a movie ticket collector, not a stamp collector.  But I must say, given this announcement, I may take up the incredibly common pastime.  (Not likely, but I just like saying that.)

The USPS announced today that in 2011, they will issue Pixar-themed stamps!  There will be 5 stamps in the collection from the “Toy Story” movies, “Cars,” “Ratatouille,” “Wall-E,” and “Up.”  I’ll probably run out and buy a bunch next year and forever make my letters festive, but I have to hesitate some since postage is always going up!

I’m ecstatic that these stamps are going to be arriving on my mail next year!  It makes me excited to receive snail mail.  But I do have to point this out – where is “Monsters Inc.” among the stamps?  It’s a lot better than most of the movies that made the stamps!

 





Random Factoid #325

18 06 2010

Rejoice!  “Toy Story 3” opens today!

However, it will be without one familiar face.  Wheezy, the lovable penguin that Woody risks his life to rescue, does not appear in the latest installment of the beloved series.  His absence is quickly explained, but it’s easy to let out a sad “aww” when the news is broken.

Why is there no Wheezy?  Unfortunately, there’s some tragedy behind that.

Joe Ranft, the Pixar animator who lent his voice to the character, passed away in a car accident in 2005.  He was 45 years old with a wife and two children.  Ranft was the head of story at Pixar beginning in 1991, helping to craft every story from “Toy Story,” for which he received an Oscar nomination, to “Cars.”  He also lent his voice to many Pixar characters, most memorably Wheezy, Heimlich the caterpillar in “A Bug’s Life,” Jacques the Shrimp in “Finding Nemo,” and Red the shy firetruck in “Cars.”

The movie “Cars,” which he co-directed, was dedicated to his memory.  And I’d like to dedicate today’s random factoid to Ranft, who stole our hearts with Wheezy 11 years ago.

As part of my tribute, enjoy Wheezy’s song from the end of “Toy Story 2” (although it’s sung by Robert Goulet – also RIP – and not Ranft).





REVIEW: Toy Story 3

17 06 2010

Pixar and “Toy Story” have really come to define the cinematic landscape for animation in my lifetime.  When I was 3 years old in 1995, they rolled out the first full-length animated film made entirely with computers.  At the time, it was an anomaly.  Now, I can hardly imagine a world where every movie isn’t made with computers.

In some ways, you could even say I’ve grown up with “Toy Story.”  It’s a movie whose characters I have grown very attached to, and not just on the screen.  I had countless “Toy Story” action figures and toys in my childhood, from the hand puppet Rex and Hammy to the stuffed Woody to the Buzz Lightyear transformer.  Like any good toy does, they provided countless hours of entertainment and stimulation for my imagination.

So needless to say, I had the highest of expectations for Pixar to once again create not just a movie but another authentic piece of childhood bliss enjoyable for kids and kids at heart.  The “Toy Story” crew has been up in the attic for 11 years, and they could have easily gathered some dust over time.  But as soon as they appear on screen, they win you over with a charm that feels fresh out of the box.  Pixar preserved them all in near mint condition, and “Toy Story 3” quickly reminds you how easy it is to fall in love all over again with these plastic pals.

Pixar once again demonstrates their incredible capacity for creativity by keeping the story king and fully fleshing out characters that we can really care about.  Their simple formula has worked flawlessly for 15 years and has never gotten rusty.  But the Pixar magic isn’t limited to the screen.  The spirit of the movie spreads through the theater, inspiring a new generation of “Toy Story” fans and reminding all of the untold power imagination can have.

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