Times of quarantine can benefit from a little elf help, as a major animated theatrical release careens quickly to the home screen with video-on-demand and Disney+ providing a safe social distanced landing. Dan Scanlon’s Onward (B-) is mid-tier Pixar, no doubt, filled with fanciful frames of kid-friendly highjinks before culminating in the emotional payoffs adults will dig. The medieval pixels are summoned for brotherly buddy comedy as two elf siblings in an alternate modern suburbia filled with formerly magical and mythological characters invoke an ancient spell and embark on a quest to bring back their deceased father for just one day. The story and script are a bit bland, the character renderings and landscapes a touch unappealing and the adventure pedestrian at best, but then every once in a while there’s magic in this gathering. A charming dance moment and a heartfelt hug just may touch the heart and tickle the tear ducts. Tom Holland and Chris Pratt perform the two main voice roles, and what they lack in interesting things to say is often eclipsed by solid enthusiasm. The half-dad effect, the elves themselves and a dragon-infused denouement all fail to impress, but even a sometimes lackluster lark can pass muster and time in a moment of uncertainty.
Welcome to playland purgatory as Woody and his island of misfit toys ponder the post-Andy afterlife. Josh Cooley’s Toy Story 4 (B+) explores what lies beyond for the playthings of yesteryear as their very reason for being – the owner who needed them for years – fades to a distant memory. The characters must heed their inner voices to summon what comes next. Told through the joint metaphors of a creepy antique store populated by capricious and dead-eyed vaudeville dummies who cling to the past and a kaleidoscopic carnival full of color, imagination and possibilities, there is more subtext afoot in the film than meets the very entertained eye. Lushly rendered and tenderly told, this tale takes a moment to gain momentum but ultimately delivers solidly. Although most of the usual ensemble members are sidelined so the cowboy protagonist can seek his fortune while playing guardian angel to the timid little girl Bonnie, mentor to her Gumby-esque arts and craft project Forky and potential love interest to Bo-Peep, the streamlined approach enlivens the quality of storytelling. Bunny and Ducky (played by Key & Peele) are hilarious additions as mischievous mavens of the midway. This is a splendid family film with messages at work for multiple generations about the stories we still have to tell, about trashing assumptions and treasuring the next chapter.
As both writer and director of Incredibles 2 (A), Brad Bird’s mastery of the animated form is on display in delirious grandeur. Far surpassing his original film in wit, creativity and subtext, the auteur has delivered one of the most engaging films of the year. The retro comic book style provides a delightful backdrop for adventure and comedy, with an onslaught of fun flourishes appearing like cinematic confections from whiz!bam!pow! frame to frame. It’s a message movie in superhero disguise, of course, with much to say about gender and workplace, societal obsession with technological screens and protecting equal rights of individuals with unconventional origins. And the sequences with the super-baby discovering his new powers are comic gold. The film is fun from start to finish and showcase’s the filmmaker’s maturity and evolution. Hollywood will be hard-pressed to showcase a more satisfying sequel blockbuster this year.
Lee Unkrich’s animated Disney Pixar adventure Coco (B) is alive with vibrant detail in painting a compelling Día de Muertos fantasia of light, color and music. The story of a Mexican boy torn between heeding a duty to family and following his clarion call to become a mariachi musician, the film toggles between Lands of the Dead and the Living in which the young man’s ancestors, sometimes skeletal relatives, help guide him to his destiny. Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal and Benjamin Bratt are among the voice actors breathing life into wholly original characters. The story starts and ends strong with fun surprises around every turn, even though there’s a long portion in the film’s center that drags with too much exposition. It’s such a breakthrough to secure inclusion of so many specific Latin traditions that the film sometimes seems overstuffed in its own bounty, with superfluous characters and a few too many bells and whistles. Also for a film about music, there could have been more of it, and it could have been better. Ultimately it’s a thoughtful and positive entry into the Disney Pixar kingdom, and it could have only been accomplished via animation.
Andrew Stanton’s animated aquatic sequel Finding Dory (B-) succeeds as a message movie about inclusion of characters with disabilities – showcasing a fish with short-term memory loss overcoming the odds – but stumbles in terms of its only mildly engaging protagonist, its flagging adherence to its own intrinsic logic and the lack of originality of its storyline. The film strives to deepen the Finding Nemo saga with Godfather II style flashbacks to back story while Dory searches for her parents but ends up closer to Evan Almighty territory with a minor character inexplicably nudged to the forefront. Despite noted objections, there are still imaginative touches involving the intricacies of a marine life refuge and an amputee octopus with clever camouflaging effects. We know we’re working in a talking animal universe, but there’s a jump-the-shark moment that might be termed invertebrate on the interstate or the mollusk motorcade and simply gets sloppy. Nemo and his dad are rendered rather ineffectual sidekicks while Ellen DeGeneres does what she can to squeeze out the waterworks of the film’s few poignant moments. The first film felt effortlessly entertaining, and this one more of a chore.
Pete Docter’s animated Inside Out (B) is like a really inventive improv skit that wears out its welcome. It plumbs the goings-on inside a tween’s mind through the antics and skulduggery of five personified interior monologues. Color coded to match the memory marbles that the protagonist is losing, these sensory sprites (Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear) must summon every trick in the book to help the young lady keep it all together when her family uproots from Middle America to the West Coast. TV comedy stars Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith shine brightest as polar opposites; others such as Mindy Kaling are a bit wasted in underwritten voice roles. The overall conceit is intellectually stimulating as the film ponders how life’s most profound memories graft a combination of laughter and tears. Therapists will have a field day with the insider cognitive references; the rest of us may struggle to remember if the film had any big laughs or payoffs aside from set pieces and set-ups that mildly amuse. There’s a fine line between tickle and treacle. Aside from some delightful sentiment conjured up by the hero’s childhood imaginary friend (Richard Kind), there wasn’t much of an emotional arc. And the characters in the brain are lost a bit too long in the poppy field of forgetfulness as they race to re-unite and provide mental balance for viewers to remember why we’re supposed to care. Disney has done this cranium command before, but Pixar has made proceedings a bit too clever by half. Overall it’s got lots of great qualities but doesn’t quite win best personality. [Note: The animated short Lava that appears before the film is an enchanting take about the ballad of a lonely volcano and made all the better with new immersive Dolby technologies in select theatres].
A Word About #DolbyCinema:
I had the good fortune of viewing Inside Out courtesy of friends at Dolby. My screening was held at the new Dolby Cinema at AMC Prime now open at AMC North Point Mall 12 in Atlanta.
Dolby Cinema at AMC Prime combines Dolby Atmos, the highest quality immersive sound system, with the dazzling, colorful images of Dolby Vision. Journalists who have been to early Dolby Cinema screenings are calling the experience revolutionary. Geoffrey Morrison of CNET called Dolby Cinema “a breathtaking cinema experience.” Ryan Waniata of Digital Trends said the combination of Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos is “mind-blowing.” This movie is one of the first titles shown in the Dolby Cinema format, so it’s a perfect way to be introduced to this revolutionary new movie experience. #DolbyCinema
Lee Unkrich’s Toy Story 3 (B) delves even deeper into the emo treasure box of this CGI animation universe, with elegiac and nostalgic results. This is the installment of the family franchise that plumbs themes of putting away childish things, playing on the heartstrings without yielding as much fun with the playthings. Woody, Buzz and friends are donated to a daycare when owner Andy is preparing for college, and more melancholy moments and farewells happen than in Return of the King. The farewell tour is about as final as a Cher concert (see Toy Story 4). There’s still plenty of comedy and cleverness, but this entry tries hard to be capital “I” Important.
Pete Docter’s Up (A-) is a lovely animated film that peaks in its first ten minutes but then opens up to a variety of rich vistas of imagination. The story of an old man and a kid who drift off in a helium balloon bouquet propelled house to a magical world is a true original. I could have done without the talking dogs and some of the stock villains, but it was mostly gorgeous and moving.
Andrew Stanton’s WALL-E (B) is a fantastical futuristic fantasy in which the earth is filled with garbage and a tiny, adorable clean-up robot is awakened from his drudgery by a beautiful girl droid and a chance to blast off into adventure. The lyrical earthboard sequences are far superior to the latter ones, but this is another Pixar original that will have something to offer both kids and adults.
Building on a legacy that includes anthropomorphic toys, fish and cars, Brad Bird’s entry into the Pixar universe, The Incredibles (B-) is one of the first to feature human protagonists. Like The Flintstones or The Jetsons, this animated situational comedy features a one-of-a-kind family. Because The Incredibles are all undercover superheroes, there’s a fun dichotomy between domestic bliss and all-out adventure. It’s all pretty fantastical but a touch forgettable, even with all the clever flourishes. Bird includes some deft touches and nostalgic homages, but ultimately I hoped this one would leap more tall buildings with a single bound.
Andrew Stanton’s Finding Nemo (A-) is a computer-generated treasure trove of aquatic animation featuring a winning school of voice talent including Albert Brooks as a cantankerous clownfish and Ellen DeGeneres as the forgetful regal tang named Dory. The story centers around losing your community and finding it again and sweeps the viewers along an amazing journey through the world’s oceans. Like the best Pixar films, the humor is double-edged so adults and kids can both enjoy immensely. The faces on fishes obey the rules of film school, so you can truly follow their dramatic and comedic interactions. It’s an epic adventure to cherish.
John Lasseter’s Toy Story 2 (B) expands the emotional landscapes of Pixar’s playscapes. The animation is stronger and the story more expansive, but the novelty isn’t quite as nifty. The energetic ensemble faces displacement due to Woody’s discovery of his origins in a televised Western puppet show, and adventure ensues. Woody gets a countrified love interest in Jessie, accompanied by plaintiff music. This series has a habit of piling on new characters to mixed effect. All in all, it’s a fun sequel.