Sally Forth! (Onward, 2020)

Onward_PosterIt is Ian Lightfoot’s 16th birthday. Shy and reserved, he really has no friends and has always felt like his life was missing something very specific.  His dad.  When his mother was pregnant, Ian’s father died.  Sixteen years later the family has rebuilt itself with his big brother Barley and mother and his centaur stepfather.

Oh, yeah, by the way, Onward is set in a universe where the world is populated by elves, centaurs, ogres, mermaids, goblins and unicorns. Years ago there was magic, but as it was not something everyone could do, technology developed, starting with electricity…eventually, magic was largely forgotten.

On his sixteenth birthday, his mother hands him a gift from his father.  What they find is a wizard staff, a jewel and a spell that will bring their father back for one day so he can see who his sons have become.  Things go wrong and they bring him back from the waist down…this sets Ian and Barley on a quest to find a new jewel to complete the spell before sundown robs them of their time.

Onward keeps its world building deceptively simple.  The opening couple minutes set up exactly why we basically see a world a lot like our own, just with mythical creatures.  They have a lot of fun with a concept where technology has caused natural things to the different creatures to atrophy, so when Barley tries to tell people how things used to be, they laugh at him (why would a centaur need to run up to 70 miles when they have a car?) or become angry (are you telling pixies they are lazy for not flying?). And Barley seems easy to write off, all his knowledge is based in a Dungeons and Dragons style game that he claims is historically accurate.

I really found the characters endearing.  The side plots are also engaging, especially the boys’ mom who teams up with the Manticore (Octavia is delightfully manic) to secure a sword that can end a curse the boys are on track to unknowingly release.

The character designs are solid, though not groundbreaking for Pixar.  But they are fun to watch and the voice cast gives them a vivid life.  I also love how colorful the film it.  Even when they are contrasting the world without magic with a more grimy look, it is really nice looking.

I had a great time watching Onward and think people of all ages will really enjoy it.

Meet the New Kids (Toy Story 3, 2010)

Toy_Story_3_PosterWhile Pixar had pushed the Cars franchise at an aggressive rate, their other films had been allowed to remain largely untouched.  In spite of the second film’s success, it was not until 2010 that we saw the third installment of the Toy Story films.

This time, we find Andy getting ready for college.  When the toys are accidentally mistaken as trash, they decide to stow away in a box marked for the local daycare center.

Woody promises them it will be terrible, and shortly after they arrive, he tries to sneak out to return to Andy. However, on his way, he is found by young Bonnie, who brings him home.

 

The other toys are greeted by Losto (a stuff bear) and the other toys.  They sell our old friends on what a paradise the daycare is. But the truth is much darker. Lotso is pretty much the Godfather of the joint.  He runs the show and force new toys to be played with by the youngest kids in the daycare…regardless of whether these toys are meant for that age or not.

This is a pretty crazy story, but it works pretty well. Lotso is charming at first, but you learn he has turned dark from rejection.  Meanwhile, his henchman Ken is taken with Barbie. At first she is smitten, but when she discovers what Lotso does to the other toys, she rejects the cushy life Ken offers.

Meanwhile, Woody is also living a good life with Bonnie and her toys, but he wants to return to Andy…and when he finds out the truth about Lotso and the Daycare, he is determined to save the other toys.

The animation in this is pretty terrific and has come far.  Textures, vibrant colors, hair…everything looks great.  And this time around they have opted for a more stylized look to the human characters which is some much more pleasant to watch than the humans of the previous films.

As usual, there is a lot of heart to this film…it is a bit heavy as the toys contemplate death and complete destruction…but still, it really tugs at the heartstrings.

Again, the performances of the voice cast bring this to life in a way a lot of films fail.  Even the stunt casting never feels like a mere stunt.  The performances feel full of care, and everyone delivers.

Somehow, Pixar managed to keep the same quality in three films, avoiding the dreaded failure within the franchise that each announced film brought.  Toy Story three would have been a perfect cap off to the series, really.  You would have had a high quality trilogy.  It is full of love, humor and even grown up fears and emotion.  Toy Story 3 is a great continuation of the Toy Story Series.

 

 

Collectability (Toy Story 2, 1999)

Toy_Story_2_PosterToy Story had almost cemented itself as a classic in the public mind within a few short years.

This time, they open with a massive space adventure sequence which introduces Buzz’s arch nemesis Evil Emperor Zurg.

When Woody gets stolen by a collector at a yard sale, Buzz mounts a rescue mission. But for Woody, it turns out to not be as simple.

Woody discovers that he is not some random doll…but that he was originally part of a popular fifties toy and TV show combo.  And he finds out he was the last piece of the puzzle for a toy collector who plans to sell his collection to a museum in Japan.

At first, Woody is terrified by the notion.  But the rest of the collection (A cowgirl named Jessie, a horse named Bullseye and Stinky Pete-a toy still in his box, never opened) slowly convinces Woody that maybe life in a museum would not be so bad.

The film has a lot of fun, expanding both Woody and Buzz’s respective worlds.  They also find a new way to advance the story and give us “Buzz Does Not Know He is a Toy” in an entertaining way.

Jessie and Bullseye are engaging and lovable, making it easier to understand why Woody might consider abandoning Andy. Kelsey Grammer gives Stinky Pete just the amount of charm at the beginning to hint there may be more for him than we think. Admittedly, he is a bit of an indictment of collectors, as being left in the box plays a major motivation for Pete.

The animation shows some improvement here, though the human characters look…uh….freakish.  However, with Wayne Knight’s toy collector Al and the old man are much more cartoonish.  And it works more effectively when we see them on screen.

Toy Story 2 is a terrific follow up to the original, improving some things in the technical aspects and giving us a pretty tale revisiting characters we have come to love.

The Secret Life of Toys (Toy Story, 1995)

Toy_Story_PosterIn the 80s Pixar’s team thought that computers could usher in a wave of new animation….animation by computer.  They made their name in the industry with the  short The Adventures of André and Wally B. A few years later it was followed up by the Tin Toy.

When it came to their first feature, the team at Pixar looked at their limitations and based the film in those parameters.  They chose to focus on characters that did not need to look “realistic”.  Toys are made of plastic and fabric.

The concept is that toys are living things that have a purpose…and that purpose is to be a friend to the child to which they belong. And in this case, it is the toys of a kid named Andy.

Life in Andy’s room is full of adventure.  Andy Imagines scenarios in which his toys, ranging from a slinky dog to a dinosaur to cowboy named Sheriff Woody.  Woody is Andy’s favorite and the “leader”.  But all that changes on Andy’s birthday when he receives the exciting new Buzz Lightyear action figure.  A futuristic action toy that can shoot lasers, Woody wonders if he has lost his place in Andy’s heart. The other toys are in awe of Buzz and this only compounds Woodys fears.

Jealous, he ends up alienating himself…and then when he accidentally causes Buzz to be lost, the other toys no longer trust him.  This forces Woody to go on a rescue mission, facing himself and also needing to consider the possibility that a change in status is not bad.

A lot of what sells this film is the performances.  Especially Hanks as the slightly uptight Woody and Tim Allen as the toy who does not realize he is a toy, Buzz Lightyear.

The movie has a ton of fun with the conceit of living toys.  Most of the toys are generic (outside of Mr. Potato Head and a couple much older toys) but this works pretty well.  It allows the voice talent and script to imbue the toys with some genuine personality.

Even now, the animation holds up.  Sure, compared to later films even within the franchise everything is much simpler to look at, lacking a lot of texture…and when we do see people’s faces…well, let’s just say they look like the 2019 Chucky.

But this is a film that manages to overcome those limitations with solid storytelling and performances.  There is both heart and humor that has made this film a classic of modern animation.

Back In Action (The Incredibles 2, 2018)

Incredible_2_PosterRight before the film starts, the cast and crew pop up on screen to tell us the fourteen year wait for the sequel will totally be worth it. Not exactly needed of course. Hey, my butt is already in the seat.

The original Incredibles film was a fun comic book film that was doing that Marvel type of action four years before we got Iron Man.  Probably of all the Pixar films, the Incredibles was one of the few that readily seemed to be set for sequels. But when asked, Pixar tended to defer to the availability of Brad Bird.

After the collapse of the highly anticipated Tomorrowland…Pixar got their chance.

Set shortly after the end of the first film, we discover things did not go so well. People still feel that the heroes do more damage than good. Enter brother and sister Winston and Evelyn Deavor. They want to convince the world that super-heroes are necessary, and so they convince Helen Parr to resume life as Elastigirl (noting she had a much lower history of property damage). Bob, on the other hand, becomes a stay at home dad. Bob really wants to be fighting as Mr. Incredible, but he is trying to step back and be a supportive husband ad father.

A lot of the moments I enjoyed most were with Bob and the kids. While the first film revealed baby Jack Jack to have a variety of powers, the Parr family never actually witnessed it. While Bob is initially excited, he finds it taxing, one more problem along with trying to help Dash with schoolwork and Violet come to terms with a frustrating love life. There is a genuinely sweet moment when Bob is exhausted and apologizes for not being the father he wants to be…Violet has a look of kindness as she reaches out to reassure him. It is a really sweet moment.

Flipping the situation for Helen and Bob works very well in the film. The Elastigirl scenes are fun and exciting.  There is a great fight scene where she is in the position of having to keep her eyes closed to avoid being hypnotized. Bird and company make this quite exciting.

The film also gives us something new, which is other Supers beyond the Parr family and Frozone. This leads to an action packed finale where saving everybody actually falls onto the Parr kids.

The Brad Bird voiced Edna Mode returns for a fun sequence that explores Jack Jack’s abilities.

I feel Pixar has created a pretty successful sequel here that compliments the original film quite well.

To Not Be Forgotten (Coco, 2017)

CoC0_PosterMiguel comes from a family that has erased music…and their great, great grandfather… fro the collective memories. But Miguel loves music.  He wants to sing like his idol, the late Ernesto De La Cruz. On the Day of the Dead, Miguel decides to take to heart De La Cruz’s motto of seizing your moment by performing a song at the talent show that evening.

When his grandmother discovers him with his guitar, she smashes it, angering Miguel. He discovers that his unknown great great grandfather is actually De La Cruz and so, after being unable to obtain a guitar from other musicians,  he tries to borrow the guitar from his great great grandfather’s crypt. Suddenly, he finds himself invisible to all around him…until he runs into skeletal beings…who seem to recognize him.  Miguel finds his relatives who have died have come to visit the land of the living for the celebration of the Day of the Dead.

He is brought back to the Land of the Dead, where his family works to get him back to the land of the living.  His Great Great Grandmother Mamá Imelda was held back by by their being no picture of her set out for the Day of the Dead.  When they find out that this is the fault of Miguel, she gifts him the blessing to return…but with the condition that he never seek to play music again. Miguel cannot help himself and ends up back in the Land of the Dead. But instead of accepting his Mamá Imelda’s blessing again, he refuses and seeks to find his Great Great Grandfather De La Cruz, certain he will give him the blessing he so needs, without condition. A con artist named Hector offers to help Miguel get to him in exchange for bringing his picture back to the land of the living and setting it out for the Day of the Dead.  But they are racing against time.  His family is trying to find him both in the Land of the Dead and the Land of the Living, and if he does not get back before sunrise? Miguel will be stuck in the Land of the Dead forever.

One might gripe that there is little about this story that is new.  Many, many times we have seen the story of the young kid or character who is out of step with their family or society in general. Pixar and animated kid movies have capitalized on this notion of the kid (or kid at heart) who has a dream and it really falls on the family (or society) to learn how wrong they were.  And there are elements of that here. His family reasons for erasing the existence of his Great Great Grandfather are understandable.  He walked away from the family…from his wife and daughter…never to be seen again.

But Coco has a much greater lesson for both Miguel and his family. Miguel must learn how important his family truly is to him.  Both Hector and Mamá Imelda express a disdain for musicians, and yet harbor beautiful talent.  We find both have been hurt by the musician’s life.

The infusion of music to the film is an infusion of emotion and life (I honestly cannot picture another artistic love for Miguel that would feel quite as powerful here). The songs connect us to Miguel, Mamá Imelda, Hector and De La Cruz.

Visually, the Land of the Dead is so celebratory and vibrant, it pulls you in, and the character designs allow for the quick adjustment to the fact that Hector is surrounded by decorative skeletons that are fun to watch.

Coco is a wonderfully beautiful fest for the eyes that is full of heart.

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