Tag Archives: Pixar

On chameleons, gnomes and the Pixar Continuum

My family and I saw a pair of animated movies in the last few weeks that we rather enjoyed, but for entirely different reasons. And their difference got me thinking about what is really the Sweet Spot for a family movie: That place where kids and parents are entertained, enriched and engaged, and no one feels talked down to or force-marched to keep up.

The first subject was “Gnomeo and Juliet,” which had quite possibly the most humorless trailer a cartoon movie could muster. (Proof: One character tells a mushroom-shaped fellow, with the broadest possible delivery, “You look like a fun guy!” Uncle, I cry.)  When I realized how much recycled Elton John music was waiting within, my skip-o-meter had dipped past AVOID all the way to RENOUNCE. But a President’s Day holiday (concealed in plain sight on our calendar) pounced on us from out of nowhere, and my desperate plan to keep the masses entertained came to this: the only animated movie in theaters. Apparently, every other parent in Chicagoland had the same idea, and so we sat lickably close to the giant screen. Strap in for 90 minutes of misery, I thought.

To my surprise, the flick wasn’t bad. “Gnomeo” had my kids laughing from the get-go. In Shakespearean fashion, the movie opens with a prologue from a helium-voiced gnome: “The story you about to see has been told before. A lot.” For some reason this made my children laugh. The speech, coupled with de rigeur slapstick, warmed us up on all of our various levels of expectation. Could the Sweet Spot lie ahead?

Not quite, but respectably close. “Gnomeo” proceeds with a very light hand, going for the easy comedy of cutesy-poo lawn ornaments behaving unspeakably one moment and adorably the next. It squeezes plenty of juice from the low-hanging fruit of dialog humor, most notably a Latin-talking flamingo who brings a  “Puss In Boots” vaudeville to the proceedings. If you put a gaggle of writers in a room and asked, “What are some funny things you’d like to see lawn ornaments do?” you’d get a reasonably amusing collection of gags very much like this movie. Nothing aiming too high, with most of the punchlines landing below the belt — that is to say, upon the shortest of the crowd.

So with the interests of its LCD fulfilled, “Gnomeo” kept us highfalutin adults (or me, at least) engaged by reminding us that the source material really is, you may recall, a tragedy. Echoing the original play, hot-tempered Tybalt gravely wounds rival Mercutio (renamed Benny here for some reason; an unfinished “… and the Jets” reference, perhaps?). Romeo responds rashly to avenge his clan, which ends up in Tybalt’s death (!) and Gnomeo’s apparent fatal smashing. I almost began to wonder if this light flick had the cojones to go all the way with its homage to the original.

It didn’t, of course. But where I enjoyed “Gnomeo” the most was when it faced its namesake directly and decoupled itself from a tragic trajectory. Gnomeo ends up having a heart-to-heart with another inanimate statue, a Shakespeare in a public park, where Will insists that Gnomeo’s familiar story is destined for doom. Gnomeo vows to break tradition. Shakespeare laughingly dismisses his optimism. Clever stuff, and a smarter way to diverge from the story’s foundation than simply by ignoring it.

Sometimes the best movie-going experiences come from expecting the worst, and not finding it. Unlike most heartless critics, I enjoyed enjoying this movie with my kids.

Which brings us, a few weeks later, to another ninja-like holiday, “Casimir Pulaski Day,” which Chicago-area school children celebrate by wondering who Casimir Pulaski was. In honor of this Polish hero of the Revolutionary War, we took in more cinema distraction: “Rango.”

As John Cleese might say, “and now for something completely different.” This dusty spaghetti Western is practically masochistic in its insistence to take the hardest route possible.  The characters are ugly. The theme is dark. The plot is convoluted. The visuals of drought and desperation are downright uncomfortable. What humor there is feels as dry as the desert, and as distant as the setting sun. And “Rango” makes regular use of spirit-quest hallucinations and what them folks with book-larnin’ call “magical realism.” Case in point: the talking roadkill.

Cuddly it ain’t.

“Rango” isn’t an easy movie to love. It’s as if director Gore Verbinski walked into his producer’s office with a presentation enumerating the standard gags, pratfalls, crotch jokes and too-cute sidekicks expected of a modern animated film, then closed by saying, “And I promise not to give you any of that.”

As a card-carrying Cynical Hipster, this means I should be gaga for “Rango.” And after a fashion, I am. I think I’ve established that I enjoy movies that make daring choices, and vow to do something I’ve never seen before. “Rango” is a shoe-in for my Missouri Hall of Fame, an honor for movies that respond to the challenge: Show Me Something.

But “Rango” is as scaly and prickly as its desert-dwelling characters, to the point of becoming off-putting. It walks a line I can’t quite define, meandering between “The Apple Dumpling Gang” and “Unforgiven.” The results feel as murky as a bottle of sassafras. Like it’s daring me not to like it.

So was it wrong to take such dares? No. Though critics are a little mixed on “Rango,” I will always support entertainment that pokes holes in genre. But I wish it had been closer to that Sweet Spot in what I am now calling the Pixar Continuum. Consider for a moment, Pixar’s masterpiece, “Up.” This is a movie that:

* featured an 80-year-old misanthrope as central protagonist

* gave us miscarriage, a lonely widower, and unfilled dreams in the first 10 minutes

* fantasized about dropping children from great heights, and

* pitted its heroes against talking dogs, blimps, biplanes and yet another cranky senior citizen.

“Up” was stuffed to the gills with surprising choices, some of them pretty dark. On a continuum between fluff and heft, it lands far, far from the bearable lightness of “Gnomeo,” while peering down the line at the distant and dolorous “Rango.” It seems almost as if “Rango” hurled itself from a catapult in Candyland, hoping to touch down near “Up,” but overshooting by a fur piece.

Pixar knows that sweet spot. Not only did they stick the landing with “Up,” but they’ve gotten some Kerri Strug finishes from surprising fare like “Ratatouille,” “Finding Nemo,” and “Wall-E.” These are movies that make original, unusual choices, steer clear of cliche and take chances that might alienate the audience. Though I feel like “Wall-E” landed closer to “Rango” on the overshot-the-mark end of the continuum, you can see the confidant Pixar hallmark nonetheless. Pixar makes movies with a vision, and no amount of comparison to The Way Things Have Always Been stopped them from machete-hacking new paths in storytelling for kids.

My kids sure didn’t laugh during “Rango.” They all gave it favorable marks afterward (ages 6, 8 and 10), but the real test will be if they request to see it again when the DVD comes out. If we give it a second viewing, I’m going to bring a tall glass of cool, cool water and see if it dissolves my crusty heart.

Though perhaps a whiskey in a dirty glass is what I really need.

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Three-Word Review of ‘Tangled’

Stylish cut above.

Captions don't count: Surprisingly more depth and wit than I expected from a Disney princess movie. And don’t be fooled: Even though the marketing campaign shows swashbuckling adventure and boy-friendly pratfalls, the meat of this story is full-on, teen-girl yearning. Which should trigger my schmaltz reflex. As should the typical self-loving scoundrel of a hero who falls in with her in meet-cute predictability. Or the adorable animal-companions-cum-comedic-relief. My eyes should have rolled out of my head and escaped the theater. And yet, they didn’t. I bought it all. And I liked it. Here’s are four reasons why: 1.) Rapunzel’s backstory is set up with the fearless go-for-the-gut instincts of a Pixar film (and it’s no accident Pixar founder and current Disney tree-shaker John Lasseter is the producer). Rapunzel’s mother nearly dies in childbirth, only to lose her newborn to a kidnapper. Then the grieving royal parents launch thousands of candle-powered lantern kites each year on her birthday -- lights that Rapunzel can see each year from her captivity. She is entranced by their beauty while ignorant of their meaning. That’s not quite “Up” levels of pathos, but it’s damn good enough to make me truly care that this wrong is righted. 2.) The animation is punchy, evocative and plum funny. I don’t know what kinds of crippled grips the animators suffered around their digital pens in achieving this, but they wrung every tic, glimmer, wince and furrow for maximum effect in each facial expression. It’s remarkable, especially when your heroine has an alarmingly high eye-socket-to-skull ratio. Rapunzel’s conflicting emotions, her heartbreak and joy, are each hung like portraits in an exhibition. The expressiveness of the supporting cast is just as crisp and humorous. 3.) The villain is the very worst kind of all: A regular human. A bad mom who belittles and whittles away at her daughter’s esteem one slight at a time. She’s no wicked witch (there’s only one spell in the whole Rapunzelverse, and it belongs to the namesake); she’s no wicked stepmother (as in the cartoonishly evil shell of a character from ‘Cinderella’); she’s only this greedy old woman who expresses something like maternal love, dripping with the kind of casual, passive-aggressive malice you’d find at a million American Thanksgiving dinners. It’s very pedestrian, very real, and so much more dreadful than a typical cartoon mustache-twirler. 4.) “Tangled” does the full Joseph Campbell with its hero mythmaking. As you might know, the author of “Hero with a Thousand Faces” identifies death itself as a key milestone in an archetypal hero’s quest, and “Tangled” delivers with gusto. One hero makes the sacrifice of life, which delivers an emotional payoff grander than any Disney fairy tale since “Little Mermaid.” And I think that’s the perfect comparison. Just as Ariel grandly opened the Era of the Disney Princess, Rapunzel closes it with a bookend worthy of the royal bloodline.

 

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Eats shoots & robots: Why the Panda trumps Wall-E

Dreamworks recently released their upcoming slate of movies for the next several years, and I notice that Master Po makes a return: “Kung-Fu Panda: The Kaboom of Doom” is, as Industry toppers say, skedded to bow June 2011.

Reportedly, this sequel will return the original cast to face a new villain who “has emerged with a mysterious weapon so powerful it threatens the very existence of kung fu, but Po must also confront his long lost past.” Original helmers Mark Osborne and John Stevenson are replaced by Jennifer Yuh Nelson, though scribers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger seem to be back for the second round.

No matter how much fun Variety slang makes it sound, the news fills me with neither optimism nor skepticism, but a sort of ambivalence. No matter what pieces of the original they retain, Dreamworks is unlikely to repeat the perfection they achieved with “Kung Fu Panda,” a movie that is, to me, so beyond itself it needs no reprise.

I’ve mentioned here before my somewhat lonely opinion that KFP was a far more Oscar-worthy movie than “Wall-E,” which took the 2008 Best Animated Picture award. Fresh in the flush of my post-“Up” euphoria, it seems like blasphemy to say an ill word about Pixar. They know their stuff, and I know they know their stuff. Heck, Wall-E director Andrew Stanton gave the world “Finding Nemo,” another particularly perfect piece of moviemaking that will still be watched and discussed in 100 years.

But the fam and I, inspired by the fun of “Up,” re-watched KFP this weekend, and I was reminded why my candle of enthusiasm burned at both ends for this flick. I have to get this out of my system. Here’s why the Panda mauls the Robot:

1. Simple story. Kung fu tales tend to be straightforward: “You killed my master. Prepare to die.” That excessive simplicity is one reason fu movies are so easy to dismiss. Even though KFP’s plot isn’t much more complex, it delivers so much more depth: “A very unlikely hero dreams of being a kung fu master. Destiny gives him a chance to be the hero of his fantasy.”

Compare this to “Wall-E.” It began like a wordless dream, with indelible loneliness and yearning, and all the makings of an eternal questing tale for the ages. Then about halfway through, these folks showed up:

"Ray, what did you do?" "I tried to think of the most harmless thing. Something I loved from my childhood. Something that could never ever possibly destroy us...Mr. Sta-Puft."

Our future fat selves brought layers of preachy plot with their layers of flesh. They don’t know what Earth is? Fred Willard originally wanted them to return home but now he doesn’t? And the machines agree with the second Fred Willard, not the first? And if the robots put the seedling in a special Good Machine, that will make the Bad Machines go bye-bye? Bah. Muddy.

2. Theme of lasting value. Kung Fu Panda: “To make something special, you just have to believe it is special.” This gives us a way to cheer our hero —and ourselves —on to our various victories.

Wall-E: “Don’t be lazy, or you’ll get fat. Don’t consume so much stuff; recycle if you can. Also, love is good.” If it had just been a story of love conquering all in its way, maybe this movie would resonate with me more. But as I said: Muddy.

3. Hero’s depth of character. Whatever you think of Jack Black’s goofy man-boy persona, he’s a perfect match for the enthusiastic Po, an outsider who wants inside so very desperately. Black brings Po to life with spirit and spunk, and for all his verbal “hiyaah”s and hijinx, it’s actually quite a nuanced performance. Po is capable of great joy, but also of great disapppointment when he can’t please himself, his master or his persnickety father. Black’s delivery isn’t comedy, it’s just true: He’s the nerdy hero with infectious enthusiasm, but little hope of seeing it pay off. And we all want our enthusiasm rewarded.

Po is a character to believe in, because he’s a character we want to be.

4. Superior action. If KFP’s kung fu choreography were simply a matter of jabbing fists and sweeping legs, it might not be so remarkable. But this movie plays it so much smarter than that. The action makes brilliant use of animal physicality, realistic environment and comedic gags to deliver sequences that are mesmerizing, funny, and memorable.

Mesmerizing like Tai-Lung’s escape from prison (a treat to have seen in Imax)…

When you use flying crossbow bolts to fashion a ladder for your escape, you are officially a member in good standing of the Badass Club.

… funny like a battle for a dumpling using mere fingers and chopsticks …

Battle of the bao bun.

… memorable like a villain completely stymied by his foe’s inelegance and inexperience …

Yes, the panda actually sits on the leopard's face, qualifying for what would normally be an Inexcusable Butt Joke; HOWEVER, this butt joke actually fits its context and fulfills a pretty good joke set-up: "What are you gonna do, Big Guy, sit on me?"

… and for my money, the most satisfying defeat of a villain ever. Without giving anything away, I’ll say I found the defeat of Tai-Lung to be the perfect solution to every overblown, uber-aggressive Act Three Shootout, the ones that set themselves up for so much slambang they can’t possibly live up to their own hype at the final moment of the antagonist’s fall. KFP may be an archetype movie, but it turns the archetype on its ear with a final, funny, fulfilling “ska-doosh.”

The Wuxi Finger Hold is like the kung-fu version of 52 Card Pick-Up.

5. Superior music. Hans Zimmer and John Powell provide a score of subtle beauty and power that moves me as surely as any John Williams march. The songs evoke Eastern melodies without being grating (no Peking Opera gongs!), hokey (no Peking Opera gongs!) or too much like Peking Opera. Instead, the boppy zither tunes and joyful festival-like dances swirl us up in some moments, calm us down in others, and generally place an indelible king’s-signet seal over the whole package of this film. Hummable ditties, all.

Dreamworks had big success pairing modern rock hits with its “Shrek” franchise, but they wisely relegated the obligatory “Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting” remake to the credit sequence where, incredibly, it matches well with the silly, bouncy visuals.

*********

In other words, “Kung Fu Panda” was the Complete Package, delivering all the heart, all the wish-fulfillment and all the action I could have hoped. It’s so much more than just another kung fu movie … and more than just another talking-animals movie. (Yes, there IS one shot-to-the-nuts joke, but it’s short and not too odious; plus, in a Hollywood first, not one talking animal farts.)

I get some solace knowing that I wasn’t the only one who preferred Po to the trash-compacting andriod. “Kung Fu Panda” shut out its chief competish at the  2008 Annie Awards. Those awards are handed out by an international conglom of animators — specialists who know their stuff — and they saw through these two movies better than anyone. But raise your hand if you tuned into the Annie telecast. And your other hand, if you remember who wore the daring gold lame sausage casing on the red carpet.

Exactly. Everyone remembers the Oscars. Which leaves me to evangelize to the wilderness.

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Three-word review of “Up”

Pixar’s perfect picture.

Captions don't count: Seriously staggering. The best movies, as always, are more than one kind. Action, comedy, drama, romance, tragedy, documentary, mockumentary, snuff — whatever genres you combine, the sum of their parts exceeds the whole shootin' match when artfully combined, and man ... MAN, does Pixar know how to do this in spades. This movie ranks up there with "Ratatouille" as a story so inventive and original and *true* that I can't believe Hollywood made it at all. Only if we see it by the millions will we ensure that more movies like this get made. (Plus, I submit that the early sequence showing the courtship of Carl and Ellie is the best romance Tinsel Town has *ever* conceived.) Up with "Up!"

Captions don't count: Seriously staggering. The best movies, as always, are more than one kind. Action, comedy, drama, romance, tragedy, documentary, mockumentary, snuff — whatever genres you combine, the sum of their parts can exceed the whole when artfully combined, and man ... MAN, does Pixar know how to do this in spades. This movie ranks up there with "Ratatouille" as a story so inventive and original and *true* that I can't believe Hollywood made it at all. Only if we see it by the millions will we ensure that more movies like this get made. (Plus, I submit that the early sequence showing the courtship of Carl and Ellie is the best romance Tinsel Town has *ever* conceived.) Up with "Up!"

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Three cheers for tears: An “Incredibles” reflection

I admire Peter Sagal, host of “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me,” because he is both funny and eclectic, and I imagine him living the kind of reflective, cerebral life perfected in the salons of the Age of Voltaire.

A recent Chicago Tribune article prompted me to look up an old blog post of his about children’s movies that don’t play down to kids. Sagal’s post is a nice homage to Brad Bird, the director of two Sagal favorites, The Iron Giant and The Incredibles. Sagal also makes a pretty daring admission for us Men Among Men: he tears up at the end of both movies.

Which led to a moment of reflection for me. Yeah, I get an inexplicable moistness at the corners of the eye sockets when a story connects with my most genuine emotions — and for me, it usually involves family. Truths about the joys and pains and perseverance of family. So yep, The Incredibles got me, too.

But we differ, Sagal and I, on the moment for choking down that lump in the throat. He cites the scene toward the end when Mr. Incredible tells the missus: “I’m not strong enough to lose you again.” As he points out, this movie isn’t about defeating a villain, it’s about repairing a family, and this moment is the climax of that theme.

The moment that got me misty in theaters, and which even upon repeated viewings I still can’t take my eyes off of, comes much earlier in the movie. It’s a perfect two minutes of filmmaking, of character development, of jeopardy, of failure and consequence. In it, Mrs. Incredible is jetting off to save her husband, and discovers her children have stowed away aboard the plane. As the villain’s missiles close in upon them, Mrs. Incredible must ask for help from Violet, her daughter, who has been taught her whole life to repress her powers:

Raises my heart rate every time.

Sagal is right, this movie is about a fractured family, or at least an unhappy one getting dangerously close to unraveling. This exact moment in the film (aside from being a film-school case study for building tension) is the intersection of all the mistrust, unhappiness and ennui of the Parr family. And it all rests on the shoulders of an insecure teenage girl. Look at the expressions on her panic-striken face! It wrenches my heart every time — what child can handle that kind of failure? Even Dash has his innocence-shedding moment, when he realizes the depth of the trouble they’re in, and he calls for his mother.

The Incredibles builds on this scene with the precision of a Mies van der Rohe blueprint: Violet is sullen and shaken after she fails to save her family, Dash is feeling cocky and invulnerable. The children go on to renew faith in themselves, and ultimately, in their family. That shot in the jungle where the family finally strikes a classic superhero pose together remains one of the most emotionally satisfying moments in movie history for me — I could feel it when watching it in theaters with Oldest Boy, and it’s still there every time we watch it as a family on DVD. (It’s one of Youngest Daughters favorites. She’s so perfect.)

Also awesome? That moment when Dash looks down and realizes he's running on water. He just laughs and carries on. Cinema gold.

How does Pixar do it? How does it consistently deliver such interesting and captivating movies that seem to know Story better than some of the oldest storytellers in the Hollywood biz? Maybe this quote from an interview with Up director Peter Docter is really the secret:

There are always new ways that the story conspires to trick us, to fool us into thinking we have the right solution. It’s only with a lot of reworking—and reworking and reworking—that you get good stuff.

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