Posts Tagged animated

Missing Link

Year of release: 2019              Directed by Chris Butler.        Voices of Hugh Jackman, Zach Galifianakis, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Fry, Timothy Olyphant, and Emma Thompson.

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Since their feature film Coraline in 2009, which remains my favorite film for that year, Laika Studios has been high on my radar. Unfortunately, the subsequent films they released—ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls, and Kubo and the Two Strings—all fell short of the greatness of their first feature, some more than others. At the same time, all of those films had many moments of inspired brilliance and breathtaking awe that endeared all of those works to me in spite of their flaws.

With Missing Link, the fifth film from the studio, they have once again hit a home run on par with their debut feature. Tragically, given its poor box office returns, it seems that American audiences have either lost interest in Laika films or have not heard about this one at all.

Either scenario is a tremendous pity, because Missing Link is not only a return to perfect form (because if we’re honest Laika never lost good form), but it is also a welcome breath of fresh air in the midst of most family entertainment currently being produced.

The list of the film’s virtues includes, but is not limited to:

  1. It showcases the values of self-sacrifice and open mindedness as the narcissistic protagonist learns to overcome his selfishness.
  2. It has no surprise villain. Indeed, there is a moment, when the saturation of that trope in recent family films causes one to think a character is going to be a surprise villain, but thankfully that is not the case.
  3. The villains are not rationalized, (a mistake in two of Laika’s previous films) and their wicked actions lead to their own undoing, and the kindhearted protagonist even tries to prevent them.
  4. There are no dead parents/guardians, although to be fair, the protagonist is an adult. However, that’s another overused trope it is nice to see avoided.
  5. Director Chris Butler writes a compelling, interesting female character, giving her some of the best lines in the film, and he does not sideline her.
  6. It avoids nearly every family film cliché with aplomb by taking interesting and dramatically believable turns whenever it seems a cliché is going to occur.
  7. It features an extremely convincing reexamination of childhood dreams and heroes, acknowledging there is often something far greater we need to acknowledge in order to mature.
  8. The film manages to cross examine and critique toxic masculinity and the sexist, racist patriarchal norms of the 19th century without being preposterously anachronistic or obnoxiously contrived.
  9. It has an all-around fantastic voice cast
  10. It looks absolutely stunningly gorgeous, as all Laika films do.
  11. It even manages to make the requisite poop jokes clever.

The story centers around Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), who longs to be admitted to the elite explores club in London, but is excluded by the sinister Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry) since all Sir Lionel’s adventures concern chasing monsters, which the rigid fundamentalist adamantly refuses to believe exist. The hilarious opening sequence with the Loch Ness Monster proves otherwise.

Sir Lionel receives a note from a fan in America asking him to prove the existence of the Sasquatch. What he finds there is a friendly, fur-covered, 8-foot tall missing link between humans and apes he aptly names Mr. Link (Zach Galifianakis). Mr. Link, whose real name is a funny and touching surprise, wishes to recruit Sir Lionel, who is “the real deal,” to help him travel to the Himalayas so he can live with his cousins, the Yeti, in Shangri-La.

Their Jules Verne inspired journey takes them to Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), a former lover of Frost’s who is still rightly disgusted by his selfishness and vanity. Meanwhile, they must dodge the repeated assassination attempts of Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant), hired by Lord Piggot-Dunceby to prevent Frost from ever proving his discoveries exist.

Following in the steps of Jules Verne, the adventure reaches the glorious climax promised from the beginning. The visuals of that destination are some of the most gorgeous stop motion imagery Laika has crafted, and that is in addition to a Yeti queen voiced by Emma Thompson. However, the cross-examination of those goals brings into relief that when we form our aspirations and choose our heroes for the sake of worldly fame, we will not only be disappointed but that will often prevent us from growing and maturing as well.

Not only does the destination matter, but the manner in which one arrives there is equally important. Missing Link acknowledges the importance of both in a funny, beautifully and painstakingly crafted adventure that celebrates both its destination and its journey.

 

Personal Recommendation: A

Content advisory: Some rather intense peril, sinister villains, and mildly crass humor.                   MPAA rating: PG

Suggested Audience: Kids and up with discernment

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Isle of Dogs

Year of Release: 2018      Directed by Wes Anderson.  Voices of Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Bob Babalan, Koyu Rankin, Kunichi Nomura, Greta Gerwig, and Liev Schreiber.

When the world has become pile of garbage, and humans are seized with paranoia and are searching for a scapegoat to preserve their way of life at the expense of others, is it possible to still find goodness in the world? Wes Anderson barks out a resounding “yes” with this tale of a boy and his dog and the dog’s dogs and a girl and her dog, and many more dogs.

Isle of Dogs is admittedly an over-the-top smorgasbord of characters, elaborate and painstakingly crafted stop motion sets overflowing with Anderson’s trademarks of balanced compositions, quirky dialogue, and deadpan humor. It is also a love letter not only to canines but to Japanese culture, particularly the cinema of Akira Kurosawa.

At times it can seem overwhelming, and with the exceptions of Bryan Cranston’s gruff and scraggly stray Chief, Edward Norton’s pragmatic and talkative Rex who’s basically a canine version of Scout Master Ward, and Jeff Goldblum’s gossip-prone husky Duke, none of the dogs make a particularly strong impression as individual characters, at least not on a first viewing.

However, considering the affection that saturates every detail of the production, for me, it didn’t really matter. The joy and passion that Anderson clearly had for this film, its story, the sets, and the characters was the driving force, and it is such a spectacularly beautiful thing to witness that by the film’s end I wanted to stand up and cheer.

One aspect I have repeatedly admired about Wes Anderson’s past films is the way they portray a broken world while simultaneously showing the characters’ hopes for a more perfect one. It’s what Sam and Suzy are seeking in Moonrise Kingdom; it’s what haunts Zero’s memories in The Grand Budapest Hotel. With Isle of Dogs primarily taking place on a location called Trash Island after the titular animals are exiled there by an evil cat-loving dynasty that wishes to eliminate the canine population, the brokenness of this world could not be more apparent.

At the same time, moments of hope and joy appear throughout this world. The story primarily concerns twelve-year-old pilot Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin) who flies to Trash Island on a mission to find and rescue his dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). A resistance led by a group of students fights courageously and continually for the rights of the mistreated and victimized dogs. Throughout the film we are invited to laugh and celebrate such simple delights as a dog understanding television and the inherent conflict of five alpha dogs all being leaders for the same pack. An adorable litter of puppies features into the story in a way that undermines the cynicism of another character.

Finally, the denouement features one of the most delightfully satisfying triumphs of good over evil, showing a world where people do not fear the unknown and help those in need rather than exile them. And if I’m entirely honest, I find it impossible not to love a story in which corrupt fascists who maintain their power through paranoia and public manipulation, who make disparaging comments about immigrants, and who have creepy, long-faced, soulless ghouls as their right-hand men are then undone by their own sinister schemes.

There are obvious political analogies which the story invites, which may or may not have been intentional – considering the length of time that production took, some of the similarities between the villains and the USA’s current administration are probably coincidental, but for a story celebrating the marginalized and their inherent value as part of the world, Isle of Dogs is a wonderful example of art being a realization of timeless truths.

An opening title card informs the audience that all the humans speak their own tongue, which will sometimes be translated via electronics or a translator; all the barks, however, have been translated into English. It’s an insignificant detail, but the conviction with which it is conveyed makes it both funny and touching. The same could be said for Edward Norton’s frequent, trivial banter and for Jeff Goldblum’s smart-alack catch phrases – mundane and meaningless on their own, but the commitment which the actors give to their parts makes them come alive. It is the same way for every detail this production, and it is in the paying attention to those details that this story shines out as the gem it is.

 

Content Advisory: Some intense menace and peril including a murder, much cartoon violence – might frighten young or sensitive children.                      MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested audience: Kids and up with discernment

Personal recommendation: A

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The Red Turtle (La tortue rouge)

Year of release: 2016                      Directed by Michael Dudok de Wit.

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Every year there are films that get away, films that would have easily made your yearend “best of” list had you seen them in time, but due to late release dates or the crazy influx of new releases during the last months of the year get overlooked until a few months later. For me, The Red Turtle is such a film. I had been hoping to see it in time for it to be included in my 2016 yearend list, and while I do not believe in going back to re-edit top ten lists months after they were published, consider this review my note in favor of its inclusion.

The latest film from Studio Ghibli (My Neighbor Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies) is also the first one not to be produced in Japan. Dutch director and writer Michael Dudok de Wit takes the reins in crafting this gorgeous tale of loss, survival, and celebration of life. The narrative is propelled purely by the animation and the immersive soundscape, as de Wit wisely made the choice to have the film be dialogue-free.

From the first sound of the crashing waves and the imposing image of the blue-gray ocean peaks, the viewer is drawn into a remote world of beauty and danger. The nameless protagonist struggles against a sea storm to be crushed under the waves and thrown to shore. When he wakes up, he finds himself stranded on an island of bamboo trees, fresh fruit, springs of water, rocky summits overlooking the sea, and crabs, lots of crabs.

After surveilling the island, the man devises a plan to escape his Robinson Crusoe-esque fate. However, the island or the sea has other ideas. He quickly builds a bamboo raft and sails off, but the raft is almost immediately destroyed by a massive thud from a seemingly invisible creature. The second and third attempts are met with the same result.

When the man discovers the reason that he cannot leave the island, his anger is understandable, and the choice he makes as a result of that anger is likewise easy to understand. However, the immediate tragedy and loss of that choice is painfully acute, and the consequences of that loss overshadow the remainder of the film, for both good and ill. In the beautiful world of the film, the healing power of nature results in substantially more good than ill, which could be interpreted either as the power of the environment, or as the divinely ordered nature of creation healing any wrongs.

As the film gently unfolds its breathtaking cycle of life, death, destruction, and growth, I spent much of the time thinking about Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si. The connections between the ocean, the island, the man, the eponymous red turtle, and the crabs highlight the beauty in all of God’s creation and the way that they are dependent upon one another. Something that harms one harms all of them, and all of their lives are best when none attempt to thrive at the expense of the others.

The relationship of the red turtle to the man is, in my opinion, best left unspoiled. It’s not hard to deduce, but the precise nature of the relationship has an aura of mystery worth discovering as it is gradually revealed. It is essential to mention that the red turtle is the central catalyst which emphasizes the interconnectivity of all the different characters and creatures.

The simple 2D animations throughout the film give it a richness and poetry that is haunting and gorgeous. The vibrancy of the hues shifts from scene to scene, with grayer tints for scenes of disaster and brighter colors for scenes of hope. Finally, the dark red shell and fins of the turtle stand out magnificently from the blue, brown, and gray background which forms so much of the film.

It is wonderful to see Studio Ghibli expanding their distribution to include non-Japanese films; hopefully, there will be more thoughtful celebrations of life and beauty like The Red Turtle from other cultures as well.

Personal recommendation: A

Content Advisory: Mild peril, potentially upsetting scenes of loss.

Suggested Audience: Kids and up, provided they have long attention spans.       MPAA rating: PG

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Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet

The animation for The Prophet was gorgeous, even if the philosophical themes were too generic.

Full review here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/1morefilmblog/kahlil-gibrans-the-prophet-2015/

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Inside Out

Year of Release: 2015     Directed by Pete Docter and Ronald Del Carmen. Voices of Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, and Kyle MacLachlan.

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I’ll say it right now before I begin this review: Inside Out is one of Pixar’s top three films.

Before Inside Out begins, Pixar reminds audiences why they are one of greatest creators of family entertainment. With the short film Lava, a cute and funny volcano romance, they take the unoriginal idea of a romance between two inanimate objects and turn it into a sequence of witty wordplay and gorgeous 3D animation. There’s not much to the short beyond that, but the story is cute enough to entertain small children, and the presentation is clever enough entertain adults.

Like Lava, Inside Out contains a vibrant colorful world that is enthralling for any age to behold, and while the story can similarly be followed by any age viewer, there are many nuances which will make the film richer and funnier as it awakens memories of growing up in older viewers.

Growing up is very much at the center of Inside Out. The ten minute prologue both establishes the theme of growing up and serves as a mesmerizing introduction to the world of the film. The prologue showcases sweet and funny incidents from Riley’s life as a baby as she grows into an eleven year old girl (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias). Initially, as a giggling smiling baby, she has one emotion insider her head: Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler). However, Joy is soon joined by the other emotion common to infants: Sadness (voiced Phyllis Smith). As Riley becomes a toddler then a child, three other emotions join Joy and Sadness inside her head: Anger, Fear, and Disgust (voiced by Lewis Black, Bill Hader, and Mindy Kaling respectively).

The five emotions are responsible for guiding Riley through each day and storing her memories as brightly colored balls — a different color for whichever emotion dominates the memory. Yellow = Joy, blue = Sadness, red = Anger, green = Disgust, and purple = Fear. According to Joy, a perfect day consists of an entire wall of glowing yellow globes which are then shipped off to long term memory as Riley falls asleep. Watching the humorous interactions which create those globes (Disgust: “It’s broccoli! He’s trying to poison us!”) and the intricate workings of Riley’s mind makes for Pixar’s most breathtaking and spellbinding prologue since WALL-E.

After the prologue, the story focuses on a particularly difficult transition of growing up: moving from Minnesota to San Francisco and the mild tension it creates in the otherwise great relationship between Riley and her parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan). The major upheaval is naturally stressful for the eleven year old Riley, and the five emotions in her head all cope with it according to their functions, which makes it harder for Joy to maintain her perfect days. Adding to Joy’s troubles, Sadness has taken on a new ability, and any memory globe she touches turns blue, appalling Joy that Riley’s memories are now tainted with sorrow.

Initially it seems like Sadness needs to learn not to tamper with the memories and allow Joy to control the headquarters of Riley’s mind as she has always done. “Stay in this circle, the circle of Sadness,” Joy tells her fellow emotion, and that almost seems believable, especially when Sadness touches a memory that leads to an embarrassing incident of Riley crying over the loss of her old home as she introduces herself on the first day at her new school. However, all the emotions have a legitimate place, and Joy’s desire to be the predominant presence in Riley’s mind soon becomes frustrating. After all there are times to celebrate, to mourn, to be afraid, and to be upset.

All the emotions have a useful purpose; Fear stops Riley from being reckless, Disgust stops her from making a fool of herself, Anger gives her determination, Joy keeps her happy, and given Joy’s predominance for awhile it is not clear how Sadness helps Riley. It is clear that all the emotions need to work together to help Riley transition through this difficult phase of her life, and there are hints throughout the film as to how that should be achieved. The answer is far simpler and more ingenious than one would imagine, and director/writer Pete Docter saves the revelation for the perfect moment.

The ancient Greeks believed in four humors, which would be in equal balance if a person were healthy. An excess or deficiency of any one was considered unhealthy. Pete Docter has repackaged that idea as five emotions inside every person’s mind. Any of those five can be absent or over abundantly present, resulting in an ill humor. A major strength of Inside Out is the way it presents a gradual understanding of that balance; Riley’s emotions mature as she does. A humorous episode in which we see the far more mature emotions inside Riley’s parents’ minds furthers that development.

Almost all children see the world very much in terms of black and white, which is one reason it is very rare to see a children’s movie with a morally compromised hero or a conflicted villain who occasionally struggles to do what is right. (With a climax that involves the protagonist apologizing for a serious transgression and a villain having a tragic past, Pixar’s last non-sequel, Brave, is something of an exception to that pattern.) Similarly, explaining to a child how something could be simultaneously happy and sad might not be particularly easy. Inside Out offers an explanation which occurs as a natural result of Riley growing up.

Inside Out‘s climax also shares a similarity with Brave in that the climax of both films is spurred by an overwhelming sense of regret and contrition. The beautiful heart touching scene that follows as a result of that feeling may be my favorite depiction of repentance, forgiveness, family bonding, and maturing in any family film.

In addition to its other strengths, Inside Out provides some very funny explanations for the workings of our brains. When any one emotion gets out of control, the film convincingly portrays how the most illogical destructive decisions seem logical. The pain and awkwardness that many children feel as they approach adolescence is explained by over indulging in one emotion or denying another, both of which are unhealthy.

The film’s coup de maître is showing children (and adults who may need reminding) that all our emotions are intertwined, and that unpleasant experiences are just as important as pleasant ones. Inside Out is not afraid to explore the pain and regrettable decisions which stem from out of control emotions, but it also relishes happy moments with beauty and joy, happy moments which would never exist if it were not for the whole messy and wonderful spectrum that constitutes human nature.

 

Content Advisory: Nothing really, mild family discord, a depiction of a nightmare involving a mean clown, and a humorously bleeped swear word; only the most sensitive kids would be upset.           MPAA rating: PG

Suggested Audience: Kids and up.

Personal Recommendation: A+

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