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Posts Tagged ‘Pixar’

Here comes the first big catch-up release following the cessation of footballing hostilities for another couple of years – Brad Bird’s Incredibles 2. The first Incredibles came out in 2004, a geological age ago in cinematic terms. In that year, Marvel released Spider-Man 2, which was rather good, and also the Thomas Jane-starring version of The Punisher and the third Wesley Snipes Blade movie, which were not; meanwhile DC brought out the Halle Berry Catwoman, proving that they didn’t need Zach Snyder on the payroll to make terrible movies, and there was also Hellboy, possibly one of the best of the bunch but maybe a bit too quirky to really bust blocks. Along with The Incredibles, that makes six films in the genre in the year, only a couple less than in 2018. People complain nowadays about superhero fatigue but the fact is that these films have made up a big chunk of the landscape for a long time.

Fourteen years is a long gap between films (it would have been even longer, had the production period on Incredibles 2 not been unexpectedly cut by a year), and with it comes a significant level of expectation. In this case, the expectation seems to have been that it will contain some kind of commentary on either the superhero genre or our current fascination with it – it’s a Pixar movie, after all, and this studio does have a reputation for making very, very clever films.

The action picks up pretty much where the first film ended, with the Parr family of superheroes – consisting of mighty brick Mr Incredible (Craig T Nelson), stretchy Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), invisible girl Violet (Sarah Vowell), and speedster Dash (Huck Milner) – taking on the villainous Underminer, despite the fact that overtly superheroic activity has been banned for many years. That their encounter with the Underminer does not go entirely to plan, does not help the situation much, and leaves the family in somewhat dire straits financially.

However, it’s not all bad news, for the senior Parrs, along with their friend Frozone (Samuel L Jackson), are contacted by the Deavours, a wealthy brother and sister who are desirous of having the superhero ban lifted. The Deavours’ plan is to get superheroes some good press, for once, and their first step in doing so is to relaunch Elastigirl, mainly because she is likely to cause rather less property damage than her husband. But can the family cope with this change in their dynamic, as Elastigirl heads off to fight crime and Mr Incredible stays home to look after the kids, each one perhaps doubting the abilities of the other…

This is, as noted, a Pixar movie, so it almost goes without saying that it is almost supernaturally beautiful to look at and inspired in its design, retaining the retro sixties-style aesthetic of the first. It also handles the various tropes of superhero fiction with confident deftness, introducing a number of new characters and staging some brilliant set pieces and action sequences. From an aesthetic point of view, this film is another huge achievement for Pixar’s artists and animators.

However, that said – anyone looking for a subversive new take on the superhero formula (such as it is) will not find much meat to chew on. The film retains the same resemblance to Marvel’s Fantastic Four that caused the makers of the 2005 FF movie so many headaches (the two families of superheroes have largely the same power set), while the idea of the superhero ban (surely derived from Watchmen) is also central to the tale. But it doesn’t really do anything new in this respect, perhaps because Pixar and Marvel Studios are both ultimately subsidiaries of Disney, who – one would guess – don’t want to risk appearing to diss a genre which has earned them billions of dollars just this year.

Instead, the film’s central idea is basically the one of gender role reversal – Elastigirl goes off to fight crime, and finds herself caught up in the machinations of a supervillain called the Screenslaver, while Mr Incredible has to contend with various domestic crises, including the baby of the family unexpectedly developing his own superpowers. And, you know, as concepts go it’s okay, although it’s a bit less radical than you might reasonably hope for – early on there’s an interesting scene touching on some quite topical issues, such as how much you should accept the various injustices of the world, and the correct response to unfair laws, but none of this is really developed. Instead we get the Elastigirl-as-a-solo-heroine storyline, which is quite engaging and contains some stunning sequences, and the sitcom stuff with the rest of the family, which is consistently fairly amusing.

The thing is that it never quite sings, with the two plotlines continuing in parallel and not really informing one another much; obviously the stuff about a working mum (and a superheroine to boot) chimes quite well with the Unique Moment, but one has to remember that the long lead times on films like this mean that this is most likely a piece of serendipity more than anything else. It certainly doesn’t feel like a film making a big statement about feminism, or indeed anything else.

As I say, the production process on Incredibles 2 was cut short by a whole year when the film’s release date was brought forward to allow more time for work on Toy Story 4 – I can’t help wondering how much it has suffered as a result. It is, as I say, an incredibly beautiful and well-made film, but it does feel very saggy around the middle, possibly overlong, and it never really engages the emotions in the way that Pixar’s best work does – the supporting film, another wonderful little short called Bao, is much more successful in this respect.

Once again we find ourselves considering the extent to which a film studio can become a victim of its own success – Incredibles 2 is, by any objective standards, a very good film in many ways – often funny, well-played, with a brilliant aesthetic and strong opening and closing sequences. But as a Pixar movie, and especially as a sequel to The Incredibles, it’s just not quite up to the standard that I was expecting. A very good film, but not really a great one, and anything less than great coming out of Pixar really is slightly disappointing.

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Lee Unkrich’s Coco is an animated film from Pixar which concerns itself with the travails of Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), a young Mexican lad. He is a member of a proud family of famous cobblers, who are notable for their hatred of all forms of music, due to Miguel’s great-great-grandfather having abandoned his wife and child for the life of an itinerant mariachi. The no-music ban is a source of some angst for Miguel, as all he wants to do is sing and play his guitar. This inevitably leads to some fretting (thanks everyone, I’m here all week).

Things come to a head when the family discover Miguel’s ambitions and react with predictable negativity. He runs away, and, through a series of plot developments just a little too involved to go into here, finds himself in the Land of the Dead where the spirits of his ancestors reside. (This is partly due to most of the film being set on the Day of the Dead, a celebrated Mexican festival.) They are all delighted to see him, but obviously he needs to get back to the living world before he gets permanently stuck in the afterlife. His family will only send him back if he promises never to play music again, which is obviously unacceptable to our lad, and so he sets out in search of the shade of his great-great-grandfather, whom he believes was a famous musician (Benjamin Bratt), who will impose no such unreasonable conditions. Recruiting the help of Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), a ne’er-do-well in the afterlife, and all the time trying to evade his unsympathetic ancestors, Miguel begins his quest…

I have to confess, the first time I saw the trailer for Coco my reaction was ‘You what?!?’, as the premise of this film – a heartwarming musical family adventure about, effectively, a near-death experience, stuffed with more walking skeletons than a dozen Ray Harryhausen retrospectives – was almost too bizarre and macabre to be credible. I could easily imagine Studio Ghibli making a film like this – and you could argue they already have, for it does share some plot similarities with Miyazaki’s Spirited Away – but not Disney and Pixar. Yet here we are.

Never mind all that, I expect you are saying, exactly why is this film called Coco? A good question and I commend you for asking it. Well, not to put too fine a point on it, my understanding is that Disney’s original plan was to call the movie either Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead (probably the former, to avoid confusion with the 1985 George Romero zombie movie of the same name), but they ran into trouble when they attempted to trademark the name for merchandising purposes, many Mexicans taking exception to what they saw as cultural appropriation.

Well, there’s a thin line between cultural appropriation, cultural celebration, and just plain old national stereotypes, and you have say that Coco does not navigate its way through this somewhat tricky territory entirely gracefully. From the opening blast of mariachi music to an initial gag about luchadore wrestling, it does seem like no stereotype goes unexploited in the course of the movie. One running gag, likely to go well over the heads of the tiny audience, concerns the artist Frida Kahlo and her idiosyncratic creative sensibility (Kahlo is, rather surprisingly, not played by Salma Hayek, but by Yo-Yo from Agents of SHIELD). It’s engagingly bonkers stuff, but not completely respectful to Kahlo or her legacy, I would suggest.

Still, on the whole this is a film which presents a very positive view of all things Mexican. The film may be about the difficulties certain characters have in getting from one world to another, but the film-makers have opted to avoid making any substantial statement concerning US-Mexican relations nowadays (although you would have to say that the film’s sheer positivity towards the US’s southern neighbour puts it rather at odds with certain elements of current American policy).

It also, so far as I can see, plays it pretty safe when it comes to matters spiritual and theological, declining to make any particularly bold statements when it comes to what happens after death. The Land of the Dead is a sort of second-order afterlife, very much like existence as we know it, by no means a final destination: the spirits of the departed only survive as long as the memory of them is sustained by their mortal descendants – once they are forgotten, they wink out of existence (inevitably this forms a plot point), moving on to… well, wherever it is that dead dead people go. The metaphysics here are slightly skewiff, if you ask me, and I doubt it’ll be enough to reassure parents who suspect that Coco has just a bit too much of an occult whiff about it to be suitable as family viewing, but it just about hangs together and serves the story well.

And it is, as you would expect from a Pixar movie, it is a story which hits all its plot beats with laser-guided accuracy. I suppose you could argue that the film’s adherence to a certain model of Classic Plot Structure makes it a little predictable, but there is also pleasure to be drawn from seeing such immaculate craftsmanship, and I doubt most of the audience will care much either way. Regardless of what you think of the script, Coco also has the seemingly limitless visual imagination and gorgeous aesthetics that are also something of a Pixar trademark – this is a breathtakingly beautiful film, only enhanced by the fact that the art department seem to have been at the peyote, going by the surrealism of some of it.

I should probably say that, if you’re a certain sort of person, Coco will grab your emotions and give them a good wringing. For all the wit and jokes, the film is really about family, and loss, and love. Obviously I didn’t Go, but my viewing companion (come on, the two genres of film I never go to see unaccompanied are family-friendly CGI animations and soft-core porno) definitely did. It is undeniably quite moving stuff.

I suppose there are people who instinctively take against Pixar films and avoid them on principle, although quite what that reason is I can’t quite imagine. For everyone else, Coco is another funny, moving, wildly inventive and extremely well-scripted film which I fully expect will delight the vast majority of viewers. Viva Pixar!

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published October 30th 2003:

Pixar Animation Studios continue to add to their formidable reputation as purveyors of top-quality family entertainment with Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich’s Finding Nemo, a film which promises to do for the pilchard industry what Babe did for bacon sandwiches. In the tradition of the Toy Story films and Monsters Inc, this is a computer-animated adventure which really does have something for all the family (with the possible exception of very tiny infants, surly teenagers, and the senile).

Albert Brooks provides the voice of Marlin the clownfish, who is, well, a fish. He is not a happy fish, however: recently widowed in a freak barracuda-related accident, he finds himself the over-protective single parent of disabled baby fish Nemo (Alexander Gould). Honestly, this really is the plot. But Marlin’s haddocks don’t stop there, as Nemo is eager to see the world no matter how his father tries to protect him. (Marlin’s total inability to tell a joke does not make life as a clownfish any easier, either.)

Disaster strikes when on a school trip (for once an unintentional pun. Apologies) to the edge of the reef where they live, Nemo swims out to a nearby boat and is promptly bagged by a passing diver. Marlin must overcome his natural timidity and rescue his son from the dentist’s fish tank where he eventually ends up, helped and hindered by the flakey Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), a – um – a blue fish of some kind. But the hapless duo soon discover that the open ocean can be a dangerous plaice…

There seems to me to be something a bit perverse about the way that nearly all the drollest, wittiest, most off-the-wall and just plain funniest scripts these days seem to be written for films aimed at people under the age of ten. Particular when, judging from the number of advertising tie-ins in the trailers preceding the film, Finding Nemo almost seems to have been designed as a merchandising opportunity first and a work of art second.

But it would be unfair if either of these concerns got in the way of the fact that Finding Nemo is a superbly crafted piece of entertainment. Admittedly, with its slightly predictable story of learning and growing, and declarations of ‘I love you dad’/’I love you too, son’, the plot seems to have been assembled using a spreadsheet, but there are some terrifically good jokes that work on all levels – slapstick, one-liners, sly film parodies, and just plain weird stuff (I particularly enjoyed the twelve-stepping members of Sharks Anonymous). There are loads of memorable characters, brought to life by the vocal talents of a stellar cast including Willem Dafoe (whose CV’s gone a bit weird lately), Allison Janney, Barry Humphries, Eric Bana, and Geoffrey Rush.

For all the script’s wit and verve, the really jaw-dropping element of this film is the animation, which is remarkable, seamlessly combining the cartoonishly anthropomorphic main characters (Marlin looks very faintly like Terry Jones in the opening sequence of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life) with, at times, almost photorealistic backgrounds. The ocean is brought to life with such skill, vividness and texture that at times I almost thought CGI fish were being matted onto film backgrounds. It is quite, quite beautiful and easily worth the price of admission by itself.

Comparisons are inevitably fatuous, but Finding Nemo is at least the equal of the Toy Story films, a very memorable experience and a prime piece of evidence for the ‘traditional animation is dead, long live CGI’ school of thought. Certainly it’s difficult to conceive of a cel-painted film with such charm, energy, and depth. A film with genuine sole.

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