Category: Best Animated Feature


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(A quick aside before I start my actual review. I am on a comically absurd amount of cold medicine at the moment and “high as a kite” is the best description of my state of mind. So, this review may be bad. My apologies.)

Occasionally, I will tell people that I think The Incredibles is the greatest superhero film of all time; they think I’m crazy. And when I say that the film adaptation of Watchmen is the only one that comes even close, they start looking for mental institutions to house me in. But, I also believe those two statements whole-heartedly, but having not seen The Incredibles since high school, I was worried that the film wouldn’t have aged as well as my exceptionally fond memories. Thankfully, it’s like fine wine. It’s only gotten better. With a dark and mature thematic complexity that manages to exceed even director Brad Bird’s earlier masterpiece, The Iron Giant. Though the film doesn’t reduce me to a sobbing, blubbering mess like Up and Toy Story 3, this earlier Pixar entry marked the beginning of the peak of Pixar’s new Golden Age and represents one of the finest children’s films of the 2000s.

More than any traditional comic book superhero film (even the best ones like The Avengers or Spiderman 2), The Incredibles not only captures the spirit of modern heroic storytelling and the grandiose mythology inherent therein, it becomes a meta-commentary on superheroes in general and both deconstructs and then reconstructs society’s need for heroes and those who are truly exceptional. With an explicit as well as implied body count that rivals Titan A.E., Brad Bird doesn’t shy away from examining the consequences of one of the most sadistic and evil villains in the Disney or Pixar canon. It creates a thrilling story that offers a lesson on the nature of truly being special without talking down to the audience or offering artificial, feel-good plaudits. The Incredibles succeeds as a spectacle-fueled children’s adventure tale as well as a philosophical examination of family and potential for the older members of the audience.

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In a situation not entirely dissimilar to Watchmen, The Incredibles takes place in a world where all superheroes have been forced to retire by a government and public distrustful of their powers and their place above them in society. Before he was forced into retirement, Bob Parr (Poltergeist‘s Craig T. Nelson) was the super-strong Mr. Incredible but now his job entails him being the opposite of hero, working as an insurance claims adjuster where he’s yelled at by his boss (My Dinner with Andre‘s Wally Shawn) for not screwing over their customers as much as humanly possible. Before Bob retired, he married fellow super, Helen/Elastigirl (Raising Arizona‘s Holly Hunter), and post-retirement the pair are not-so-happily married with three children, the ultra-fast Dash, the shy Violet (with Sue Storm’s powers from the Incredibles), and the seemingly non-super-powered infant Jack.

Bob does not adjust well to civilian life and whether he hates himself for his job or is simply bored sitting in his cramped car on his commute to work. And though Helen has come to terms with her new life, it’s clear that the life of a stay at home mom isn’t for her either and forcing her children to hide their superpowers is causing tensions at home as Dash acts out in class cause he has no way to vent his energy. Bob has even taken to, in a story meant to parallel marital infidelity, sneaking out with an old friend from his superhero days, Frozone (Django Unchained‘s Samuel L. Jackson), to fight crime while telling his wife he’s out bowling. But, when Bob gets an offer to break out of the doldrums of retirement, it’s not long til he discovers it’s a trap from a mistake from his past that has now put him and his entire family in danger.

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The voice performances from all of the principal leads are all (lame pun incoming) incredible. Craig T. Nelson’s career has been, to put it gently, non-existent since Coach got off television with only some small bit parts here and there, and it’s probably not much of a stretch to call Mr. Incredible the role of his career. He captures the frustration and ennui of an exceptional man forced into a life of mediocrity. Holly Hunter is an excellent and accomplished actress in her own right so clearly Elastigirl isn’t The Piano or Raising Arizona but she too finds herself railing against her domesticated lifestyle. And there are great supporting turns from Jason Lee as the villain of the piece and Sam Jackson as Frozone. Though, let’s face it, is it ever possible to hear Sam Jackson’s voice and not get excited?

Alright, you know what. I’m too buzzed on cold medicine to do this review justice right now. I thnk I’ve been working on it for like two and a half hours now and I’ve only written 800 words. I would usually have written two reviews of comparable length in that time. Needless to say, The Incredibles is not just one of the best children’s films of the last ten years but arguably of all time and few superhero movies get superhero storytelling as well as it does (if any). The movie is unremittingly dark for a Disney film and when many of its sugar-coated peers will start to fade into the mist of memory, The Incredibles will be around for a long, long time. I just wish I’d had the chance to review it when I was capable of stringing more than two coherent sentences together without subsequently staring at the ceiling for about five minutes in a medicinally-induced haze.

Final Score: A

 

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Brave1

(A quick aside before I begin my review proper. It’s been a relatively busy weekend for me. After having essentially all of last week off, I actually worked Friday and Sunday, more or less the whole day. And on Saturday, I went to the movies with my little sister and her roommate [there will be two movie reviews in quick succession since I allowed myself to get backed up like  a dumbass]. We went to go see the new Evil Dead movie. More on that in it’s review. Anyways, I watched 2012’s Best Animated Feature Oscar winner, Brave, in the wee hours of Friday morning so forgive me if this review is shorter/hazier than what you usually expect from me).

When Don Bluth’s films disappeared from the public eye by the end of the 90s, Pixar was there to pick up the slack with increasingly thematically complex and mature children’s entertainment. If films like All Dogs Go to Heaven and An American Tail were the definitive children’s movies of the 1980s, Disney had a brief resurgence in the 1990s with Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King before Pixar arose from their umbrella to define modern American animation. Toy Story 3, Up, and The Incredibles aren’t just the best children movies of the last decade; they’re some of the best movies period of the last ten years. The first 15 minutes of Up is arguably the most emotionally powerful sequence in the last five years of cinema. One almost has to pity Pixar at this point because they have set the bar so impossibly high for themselves. Any thing short of making me curl up in a ball and making me sob uncontrollably becomes a disappointment. 2012’s Brave is a good film, but it’s high on the adventure and low on the emotional impact that has grown to define the best of the Pixar experience.

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Following the well-trod path of rebellious princesses unhappy with the arranged marriages set up by their parents, Brave forges its own identity with a cast over-flowing with memorable characters and a stunning visual sensibility. Merida (Choke‘s Kelly MacDonald) is the bushy-haired tomboy daughter of the boisterous Scottish King Fergus and the strict but loving Queen Elinor (Stranger than Fiction‘s Emma Thompson). Merida would rather be in the woods with her horse Angus shooting her bow and arrow and exploring the wilderness than learning how to be a proper princess. And when she learns that her mother and father have arranged suitors from the three most powerful clans in the kingdom to seek her hand in marriage, she quickly runs away where she encounters a witch in the forest which grants her a wish to change her fate. And clearly, that wish comes with a price.

Let me get my biggest compliment towards the film out of the way because it is a massive reason why this score isn’t lower (that and Kelly MacDonald’s performance and the movie’s consistent sense of humor but I’m getting ahead of myself). Brave is one of the most beautifully animated films that I’ve ever watched. Apparently, Pixar had to completely remake their animation software (which they had never done before; it had simply been upgrades not a complete overhaul) for Brave and it shows. While the character animations are par for the course for Pixar (though the hair, obviously, is exceptional in this film), the consistent scenic panoramas of the Scottish countryside are just stunning. I could watch this movie with the sound off at times because it was just that gorgeous. The film never stopped stunning me with its sheer beauty.

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And Kelly MacDonald remains a criminally under-appreciated talent (though her recent turn on Boardwalk Empire seems to be raising her level of American pop culture infiltration). Still, for anyone who’s seen Trainspotting, Choke, or The Girl in the Cafe (an indie film that my dad weirdly really enjoys), you know she’s a supremely talented actress. You only hear her voice in this film, but she does a wonderful job of bringing Merida to life (although she sounds very grown-up in her opening narration though I forgot about that as the film progressed). Emma Thompson is just one of the greatest actresses of her peer group, and she brought a wonderfully subtle interpretation to Queen Elinor. And there was a whole host of great performances although another shout out would be for Harry Potter‘s Julie Walters as the Witch whose powers have a higher price than Merida could have expected.

The film could also be very funny. Merida has triplet little brothers, and they are perpetual comic motion machines. There was barely a second where they were on screen where they didn’t have me laughing my ass off (and the film used them for some surprisingly dirty jokes for a kids’ movie). There’s a brilliant set piece halfway through the film where Merida has to sneak something out of the castle (I can’t say what for fear of spoiling some of the major twists in the film) and the triplets serve as the distraction. It could have came out of a classic Benny Hill routine for sheer slapstick value. And it’s a shame that the Witch had such small time on screen because she was without question the liveliest and most hysterical part of the whole film.

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Sadly, the the film’s plot has been done to death. How many Disney princesses (of which Merida is certainly one although she may be the first Disney/Pixar princess) have been upset about being forced to marry someone they don’t want to? Way too god damn many is the correct answer, and there’s not much that Brave does differently (well, there’s one big thing at the end but I can’t say for fear of spoilers, yet again). Merida just seems like the cliche tomboy fantasy princess, and it’s only her mother, Elinor, that seems to break the major genre conventions. Up until the film’s final climactic encounters, Brave failed to elicit even the most remote emotional reaction/sympathy, although the final moments did wind up bringing a tear to my eye. Ultimately, Brave is a film about the relationship between mothers and daughters, and perhaps that is why I failed to connect to it. That would be a fair argument.

I’ll draw this to a close since I have to review Evil Dead tonight (it’s now one of a handful of remakes I’ve reviewed where I’ve also reviewed the original but I’ll talk about that in my Evil Dead review). Let me simply say that it isn’t that I didn’t enjoy Brave. It is a passable and highly enjoyable kid’s movie. However, Pixar has trained me to expect more from their movies. They have trained me to expect films that are as enjoyable for the kids in the audience as they are for the grown-ups. Brave fails to meet that standard. However, as far as children’s adventure movies go, Brave is an exciting and often frighteningly dark tale. One only wishes that the emotional stakes had been higher.

Final Score: B

 

I am way too excited about the upcoming days to really do any more meaningful writing this week. Every time I’ve sat down to the typewriter for the last week (I don’t know why I said typewriter there since I use my computer and its keyboards) I’ve been distracted by thoughts of Bonnaroo. It’s a miracle I’ve been able to churn out any meaningful reviews. I leave tomorrow (around 11 AM) to head down to Tennessee and I am excited beyond words about the possibilities of my exciting adventure to the coolest music festival (after Coachella anyways) this year. This will be my last movie review until at least a week from now. I might get one more review of a TV series done. That depends on whether or not I decide to watch another episode of Mad Men tonight and at a reasonable enough hour that I have the energy to review the first disc of the show before I go to bed. Considering the fact that my Mad Men reviews have started to get as in-depth as my Game of Thrones reviews, I don’t see that happening just because I don’t want to make that mental commitment. There’s going to at least (with certainty) be one more Song of the Day post before I go, and then this blog is going on a week long hiatus. I’m going to write an official hiatus post later though. Anyways, I just finished watching Shrek and while I didn’t really enjoy it as much as when I was a kid (though I certainly caught more of the dirtier jokes this time around), it was still a fun children’s movie which has earned its place in cinematic history as being the first kid’s movie to win the Best Animated Feature category at the Academy Awards.

Based off of William Steig’s children’s book (though the film franchise will be remembered far longer than its source material), Shrek is an affectionate parody of nearly all of the children films to come before it. Shrek (Austin Powers‘ Mike Myers) is a solitary and irritable ogre living by himself in the swamps surrounding the kingdom of Duloc. When the evil Lord Farquaad (Dexter‘s John Lithgow) of Duloc relocates all of the fantasy creatures in the kingdom onto Shrek’s swamp, the stolid but basically decent ogre sets off on a quest to get his swamp back for just himself. Reluctantly dragging along the talking donkey, named Donkey (Eddie Murphy), Shrek agrees to rescue the Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) from a treacherous and dragon-guarded castle for Lord Farquaad in exchange for getting his land back. After Shrek and Donkey rescue the beautiful and feisty Princess Fiona, it’s only a matter of time before Fiona and Shrek begin to bond, and we learn that ogres aren’t the only ones like onions (i.e. they have layers. That joke only worked if you’ve seen the movie), and that Princess Fiona may have some secrets of her own.

I have complicated feelings about Shrek. I’m not going to lie. I remember this movie being so much funnier when I was little. Unlike say Up or Toy Story 3, I don’t feel like this film aged as well as I did. You can put in the best Pixar movies, and they’re going to turn me into an emotional wreck by the end of the film regardless of how old I am. Seriously, if you play that opening montage of Up at any point in the rest of my life, I will cry like a baby without fail. I understand that Shrek was meant to be more of a comedy than a serious film, and while I picked up on a lot more of the jokes directed to the grown-ups during this particular sitting (there was a lot of sex and penis jokes in this movie. Like wow.), I didn’t necessarily think all of them were that clever. Most of the adult-themed humor in the film was as broad and obvious as the jokes geared towards the kids. There were some subtle pop-culture nods here and there that I thought were fairly clever. But, if I want to watch a Shrek film with an endless stream of pop-culture allusions, I can put Shrek 2 in. Still, perhaps as a film meant to be enjoyed by children, my memories of how funny I thought it was as a kid are more than enough to recommend showing it to a whole new generation of children.

The film’s animation though has aged much better than I expected. While all of the people look like plasticine dolls ripped out of the in-game engine of a particularly mediocre current-gen videogame, everything else about the film dripped with style. Shrek is an intentionally ugly world, yet there was a surprising amount of beauty in the landscape work as well as some really exceptional particle effects during important scenes. Much like Rango (though ultimately a far better film), Shrek revels in perverting (in a fun way) and subverting all of the standards of children’s animation. That to me will always be the film’s ultimate legacy. It has become one of the most influential children’s films of the last twenty years simply thanks to its art style alone (well also its occasionally adult sense of humor). Shrek and Donkey were especially well-animated and while the script certainly gave the pair plenty of life and character, the animation team must be given an extraordinary amount of credit for their iconic status in the animated pantheon. Many films have aped Shrek‘s style but few have come close to matching its original magic.

One last comment before I draw this to a close (and do my song of the day post). With the exception of the original Beverly Hills Cop, this was probably the best comedic performance of Eddie Murphy’s career. He was the only part of the movie that was still able to consistently make me laugh and his non-stop zingers, non-sequitors, and neurotic ramblings were always able to keep me in stitches. If you’re a young adult like myself and considering re-watching Shrek for the first time in years, it’s still an enjoyable film even if the years might tarnish your cherished memories of this movie. My sister and I still somehow managed to know all of the words to the movie and were calling them out as the film was happening like we were watching Rocky Horror Picture Show. It definitely has the best soundtrack of pop and rock music in any kids movie I can think of whose name isn’t Fantastic Mr. Fox. This was the film that introduced me to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (though it’s performed by Rufus Wainwright in the film and my favorite version is Jeff Buckley). And if you’re thinking about showing it to your kids for the first time, you have my whole hearted approval. Just come up with a clever distraction if they ever ask you to explain some of the dirtier jokes.

Final Score: B+

There’s nothing more disappointing than when a film has a ton of individual pieces that seem like a recipe for success but it turns out to be a near total dud instead. 2011’s Rango, directed by Gore Verbinski (which should have been the warning sign that it wasn’t going to be very good), seemed like a surefire success. It was a big budget animated feature from Dreamworks Studios (the studio behind Shrek when they were still a subversive and cutting-edge take on the animated film and not a formulaic cash cow franchise) that won the Best Animated Feature Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards. It starred Johnny Depp (who had worked with Gore Verbinski when creating arguably his most iconic role as Captain Jack Sparrow in the original Pirates of the Caribbean). It was a children’s take on the Western genre. It has an astonishingly original art style and looks amazing despite the intentional ugliness of the characters. Yet, despite all of this, the plot and humor in Rango often falls unfortunately flat, and in the wake of the mature and deep characterization offered in Pixar films like Toy Story 3 and Up, Rangois far too shallow to be the most celebrated animated film of 2011.

Rango (Johnny Depp) lives a perfectly “ordinary life” as a lizard inside his terrarium. Along with the props in his homes, he explores his desire to be an actor by putting on low-rate theatrical productions that even he realizes are crap. His life is turned upside down though when his terrarium is accidentally jettisoned out of the car it was traveling in and he finds himself without food, water, or shelter in the middle of the Nevada desert. It’s not long before he winds up meeting Beans (The Wedding Crashers’ Isla Fisher), another lizard, who drops him off in the ironically named town of Dirt. Dirt is suffering from a water shortage though the shady Mayor (Deliverance‘s Ned Beatty) claims to have everything under control. When his manhood is questioned at the bar, Rango constructs a series of elaborate lies to embellish his image (and to practice his acting), and after he accidentally saves the town from a murderous hawk, his legend only grows and the Mayor makes Rango the sheriff. It’s not long before Rango finds himself drawn into the investigation of where the town’s water has gone and into an adventure well beyond his control.

Let’s start with the good. The art style makes for one of the best looking and most intriguing (artistically) CGI films ever made. I love the Pixar films, but everything (and everyone) in their films has to be cute. Even Monsters Inc. was full of adorable and huggable “monsters.” Rango isn’t afraid to make its characters a little more stylized and ultimately more distinct. A lot of the characters are downright ugly, but the attention to detail (and the obvious western stereotypes they were drawing on) makes the character art seem much more lively than your average homogenized children’s fare. The characters are animal versions of iconic roles from Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns and more modern fare likeDeadwood, and if I forced myself to forget about the film’s forgettable story and characters (in terms of their personalities), I could just bask in how well done the film’s visuals were. There are also several explosive action sequences, and Gore Verbinski’s experience directing live-action epics really shows in how thrilling and well-choreographed those scenes were.

The voice acting is also top-notch. Johnny Depp is great in every film of his I’ve seen (except for The Nightmare on Elm Street but that was his debut and doesn’t really count. It wasn’t really a demanding role), and while his interpretation of Rango could get a little too kiddy for me at times (his voice took on the annoying high-pitched trait that I associate with poor English dubs of anime on some occasions), he was able to infuse the film’s rare dramatic moments with considerable heft. Johnny Deppy is very much a physical actor in the vein of Dustin Hoffman, but it still impresses how much he can accomplish with his voice alone. Ned Beatty made as a particularly sinister villain (and Bill Nighy disguised his voice supremely well as one of the smaller antagonists). However, the really shocking voice-acting discovery of the film was Timothy Olyphant. He essentially played Clint Eastwood’s character from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and I actually thought it was Clint Eastwood voicing the character for a minute before I realized I was hearing Raylen Givens. Who knew that Timothy Olyphant could do such a pitch-perfect Clint Eastwood impersonation?

Unfortunately, the film’s story and characters were utterly predictable and completely forgettable. Outside of Depp’s Rango, none of the animal’s made enough of an impact to be remembered as anything other than “the cat,” or “the dog,” or “the mouse.” Maybe, I’m expecting too much from a children’s film but the main cast of Toy Story 3 felt very well-fleshed out (and not just because there were two films preceding it to craft their backstories). By the film’s end, you were taken on a very specific (but still plot-driven) emotional journey that left me in tears. Similarly, think about how much character-based storytelling was accomplished in the first twenty minutes of Up when there were hardly any words spoken? Rango may serve as a passable children’s adventure and comedy (though most of the jokes for the kids fell flat), but in two or three years, no one will be speaking about this film again except perhaps to mention its dazzling artwork. In actuality, the only jokes in the film that really found their marks were meta-textual references to Johnny Depp’s career (and other Western in-jokes) such as Rango flying into the windshield of a car that was obviously being drive by a Raoul Duke stand-in from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Even with my weighty complaints, Rango still has its moments, and its surrealistic art style was a revelation. I don’t think I’ve seen a children’s film loaded with more pop culture references since Shrek 2 blew my “freshman in high school” mind with its never-ending stream of meta jokes. Still, in this Pixar age, I expect more from my children’s films especially one that is deemed the best animated film of the year by the Academy Awards. I’m a Western film fanatic, and I still couldn’t invest myself in the bare-bones plot in Rango. This film has generated a very polarizing response among audiences, and at the end of the day, I have to throw my hat in with its critics. Still, it showed a remarkable amount of potential, and I hope that it’s team of animators go on to do great things in the future. They just need a better script to truly fashion a classic.

Final Score: B-

 

While the actual first film that I can remember seeing in theaters was A Muppets Christmas Carol, one of the other earliest pictures that I can remember seeing at the movies was Pixar’s debut feature, Toy Story. The first full-length film to be made using computer-generated graphics, Toy Story has stood the test of the time and has always held an incredibly special place in my heart. When I heard a couple of years ago that they were finally making the long talked about Toy Story 3, I was justifiably concerned, since Disney’s record of releasing sequels to its classic films is less than stellar. However, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Toy Story 3 ranks alongside Up and the original Toy Story as being one of the greatest animated films that Pixar has produced, and I’m absolutely positive that if you were a child that grew up with the original films but is a grown up now, then the emotional strength of this film can hardly be under-stated.

Toy Story 3 picks up pretty much in universe with the number of years that had passed since the release of Toy Story 2, which was about 11 years or so years before. Andy, the owner of cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks) and space ranger Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), is all grown up and about to head off to college. The few remaining toys that haven’t been sent off in yard sales or thrown away haven’t been played with in years, and they concoct elaborate schemes just to have the opportunity to see or hear Andy. Due to some confusion, the toys are accidentally sent to a daycare center instead of being placed in the attic. The daycare is run by an autocratic stuffed bear who uses new arrivals as cannon fodder for toddlers who don’t know how to properly take care of toys. What follows through the film is a very powerful meditation on abandonment, growing up, and continuing the cycle of love, play, and imagination. And it is guaranteed to bring grown men into inconsolable tears.

I’m probably not saying anything too controversial when I say that with The Incredibles, Up, and Toy Story 3, Pixar took the opportunity to place really mature and deep themes in what are other wise children’s movies. You place the site gags, the animated look, and some of the more childish aspects of plot and pacing to keep the children interested and appeased, but then you throw in some deep and moving moments and messages for the parents, and right now, no one does that better than Pixar. The beginning sequence of Up is one of the most powerful 10 minutes or so of any movie I’ve ever seen, animated or live action. The last scene of Toy Story 3 had me just convulsing with tears. It was embarrassing. I’m glad there wasn’t any women around to see me weeping like I was at a funeral for a loved one. And they weren’t even sad tears. It was tears of recognition of such a fantastic celebration of childhood and the transition from childhood to adulthood. It’s heavy shit. I’ve talked to so many of my friends who agree whole-heartedly when we feel like this movie wasn’t even made for the kid audience but it was made as a celebration of growing up for all the millions of kids who grew up with these films and are now finally grown-ups ourselves.

Besides the emotional weight of the film, it’s fantastic for a myriad of other reasons, particularly the endless jokes and tight plotting that keep you laughing as well as crying. Any scene with Ken and Barbie is hilarious. The sight gags where Mr. Potato Head looks like something out of a Dali painting are great fun for the adults. The film’s last act is structured like The Great Escape. It has some genuinely dark and terrifying moments that I’m sure scared the piss out of the kids in the audience. It has a pretty fantastic use of a Deus Ex Machina at the end of the film. The film’s opening sequence is a brilliant bit of ridiculous anachronism in how it combines the old west with science fiction with just the beautiful imagination of a hyper-active child who hasn’t had life sucked out of him yet by growing up.

This is one of only three animated films to ever be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and that should hopefully speak volumes towards the quality of the picture (the other two being Beauty and the Beast and Up). While I probably still believe that Up and The Incredibles are better movies, it’s a damn close race and Toy Story 3 is still one of the best animated pictures ever made. If you were ever a child and especially if you were a child when the original Toy Story films were released, then you owe it to yourself to watch this movie. If you finish it and haven’t spent the majority of the film in tears, then you are probably a heartless automaton. To infinity and beyond!

Final Score: A