Archive for the Animation Category

Soul

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on December 29, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The meaning of life is a pretty grandiose idea for any movie to tackle and perhaps even more uncommon for a cartoon. However if any studio could rise to the challenge, it’s Pixar. Every release is always highly anticipated. This one is decidedly different because it’s being made available on Disney+ as many theaters are closed. For those who wish to keep track, this is Pixar’s 23rd feature. It takes on some major subjects. This isn’t new for the animation company. Both Coco and Inside Out dealt with similar themes but I’d say that Soul attempts something much grander.

The legendary Pete Docter has yet to fail as a director: Monsters, Inc, Up, and Inside Out are all classics. Here he directs for the fourth time and co-writes the script (with Mike Jones and Kemp Powers). I’m happy to say Docter comes through again — so successfully that I’m willing to bet Soul will be a Best Picture nominee when the Oscars are announced on March 15, 2021. Only three animated films have ever been nominated for the highest honor: Beauty and the Beast, Up, and Toy Story 3 are the others.

Soul is fascinating because it deals with a lot of abstract beliefs. The saga concerns jazz musician Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) who feels unfulfilled as a middle school music teacher. Then one day, a former student (Questlove) invites him to sit in on his jazz band led by respected saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). Unfortunately, while leaving the successful audition he’s so preoccupied with the opportunity that he falls down a manhole and slips into a coma. His lifeless body lays in a hospital room but his soul is taking an escalator ride upward toward the Great Beyond. However, since he just got his big break, he resists by running away in the opposite direction. Joe plunges to another region called the Great Before. Understandably Joe is confused. “Uh hey, is this heaven?” he asks. That is the first and only time the word is ever uttered. “This isn’t the Great Beyond” a counselor (Alice Braga) informs him. “It’s the Great Before” — a place where other souls currently exist before being conceived as human beings . This is where personalities and interests are assigned before going to Earth. Oh, they’re calling it the “You Seminar” now. Rebranding.

There is a lot to unpack here. The screenplay has a definite worldview that it’s promoting. The ancient Greeks and Islam maintain a pre-existence, but it is generally denied in Christianity. For the most part, the filmmakers portray the afterlife without referencing the theology of any denomination. For example, the concept of God is not mentioned. Neither is religion. This is understandable as the teachings have been workshopped to please as many viewers as possible. Instead, we meet counselors all named “Jerry” that manifest as shapeshifting entities. They appear like cubist doodles that Picasso might have drawn. It is here that Joe is paired up to mentor a disagreeable unborn soul named 22 (Tina Fey) who has never left the Great Before. Adults who have well-established convictions about what life after death means will easily acknowledge these designs as a construct. This tale will most definitely inspire questions about heaven in the very young. Parents can use this as a springboard for further discussion with their children.

Soul eventually bestows an admirable moral with universal appeal. The ultimate reveal is a warm fuzzy thought that everyone can enjoy. That universality is guaranteed not to offend. Nevertheless, it keeps the chronicle from offering anything particularly deep or controversial. What the narrative lacks in profundity, it more than makes up for in visual grandeur. When Joe descends into the Great Before, my heart leaped at the sensational marriage of sight and sound. The percolating synthesizer score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is supremely affecting. Pixar has pushed their artistry once again. Their efforts elevate this production in ways that are hard to explain, but easy to appreciate: Joe’s fingers as they grace a keyboard (playing compositions by bandleader Jon Batiste), the judgmental facial expressions of Dorothea Williams regarding a new addition to her musical combo or simply the physical realm of New York City rendered in breathtaking detail. Thematically it aims higher and so the bar is raised to a new level. Soul is an ambitious statement and it delivers some but not all of the spiritual enlightenment it initiates. The story is still endlessly compelling throughout and I enjoyed the film as a spectacle. It’s one of the best of the year.

12-25-20

Wolfwalkers

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Family, Fantasy with tags on December 18, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In mid 17th century Ireland, the town of Kilkenny is at war with wolves. The citizens are currently clearing space in the woods for farming under the direction of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell (Simon McBurney), but the beasts are getting in the way. They attack the townsfolk’s sheep as well. Legend has it these aren’t mere animals. They are led by a much stronger breed called wolfwalkers — individuals who are part human, part wolf — that control these canines. A hunter named Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) has been hired to help aid in the canines’ extinction. He also has a young daughter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) who is eager to help out.

The Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon has a perfect record. They are now four for four in an extraordinary run of fantastic films beginning in 2009 with The Secret of Kells and continuing with Song of the Sea and The Breadwinner. Sure Disney and Pixar are far more prolific but with quantity comes mediocrity. Those studios achieve undeniable highs but the magical spirit of Cartoon Saloon is light years beyond releases like Chicken Little or Cars 3. This sumptuous, hand-drawn saga is an exquisite labor of love that touches the heart as it dazzles the eye. Every one of their movies has been nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars. I do not doubt that this one will likewise get a nod. Perhaps 2021 could be their year. Wolfwalkers is that good.

This is a touching fable of friendship. Robyn encounters a wild bushy red-haired child. The little girl is named Mebh (Eva Whittaker). She is a human by day but can shape-shift into a wolf at night. As an apprentice hunter, Robyn has been instructed by her father to kill the last wolf pack. However, Mebh is a thoughtful soul who shares Robyn’s desire for freedom. Additionally, Mehb wants to be reunited with her mother (Maria Doyle Kennedy). There is a palpable connection — a sisterhood between the girls — that is most affecting. Robyn is conflicted.

If Wolfwalkers has a weakness it’s in the simplicity of the story. The developments have our protagonist encountering hostility for befriending a strange individual. Robyn and Mebh’s relationship is purely platonic, but it’s not embraced by her peers. That idea can be traced at least as far back as Romeo and Juliet. There are similarities to FernGully, Disney’s Pocahontas, Princess Mononoke, Avatar, and — wait for it — Dances with Wolves. There’s an overbearing tyrant who casts dispersions on the “others” as savages too. Yet I won’t hold familiarity against it. At this point, it would be like faulting a romantic comedy because it’s a “boy meets girl” tale.

Wolfwalkers is a beautiful achievement. I cannot emphasize how gorgeous these hand-drawn visuals look given our modern aesthetic of computer rendered images. It is so rare in fact that the mere presentation is stunning. The uniqueness is appreciated. The colors are bold and vibrant. There is an unfinished, rough quality to the artistry of the spectacle. Yes, traditional animation still exists. Anime from Japan and Warner Brothers’ direct to video superhero movies are notable exceptions. However with Disney, Pixar, and DreamWorks’ domination of the market, CGI has been the norm.

Cartoon Saloon has been releasing works of art since 2009. Director Tomm Moore’s first two features were The Secret of Kells (2009), co-directed with Nora Twomey, and Song of the Sea (2014). He also did the segment “On Love” in Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. Now he has returned with Wolfwalkers, a collaborative effort with art director Ross Stewart who makes his directorial debut here. What I value most about this production — and everything Cartoon Saloon does — is their dedication to creating an authentic age. No jargon or references to things in 2020. Disney and Pixar make enjoyable pictures, but they’re usually very much of our time. Wolfwalkers is a journey into another era allowing the viewer to bask in an ethereal mood. I rarely experience that in contemporary films. That’s something to be treasured.

12-02-20

The Croods: A New Age

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on November 23, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I wasn’t especially fond of The Croods back in 2013 when I saw it. I railed against its modern attitude and the antagonistic relationship between father and daughter. I still gave it a passable review because it was mostly pleasant. Now I haven’t re-watched it since, so I’m not sure if I’ve changed or if The Croods: A New Age is indeed a better movie. Don’t get me wrong, this is not deep. It basically coasts on physical comedy. Nonetheless, it’s such a sunny upbeat delight that it was enough to charm me into believing this is an improvement.

It helps that the story is more elaborate than merely “daughter butts heads with an overprotective father.” Everyone in the Crood household is back including Guy (Ryan Reynolds) — the boyfriend of Eep (Emma Stone) — who now lives with the clan. This time the so-called “threat” is a seemingly innocent family who has advanced beyond the Croods in intelligence and evolution. They’re the Bettermans. Psst…..their name is allegorical. Get it? Actors Peter Dinklage and Leslie Mann really bring their A-game in voicing these fussy characters. There’s something acutely absurd in the contrast. Grug (Nicolas Cage) and Ugga (Catherine Keener) Crood are so thoroughly unrefined while Phil and Hope Betterman are upscale types that act like they’re ready to lead a yoga class. They welcome the Croods into their beautiful home and Grug brings the havoc. Grug can’t seem to understand the concept of a wall.

This is a very funny movie. There are plenty of laughs to be mined simply in that dichotomy. Then the narrative develops a little further. The adventure revolves around the Betterman’s daughter Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran) who is comparatively down to earth for a Betterman. She admires Eep and they forge a fast friendship. The fact that they aren’t depicted as rivals is a refreshing surprise. Also, the Bettermans already know Guy. That previous connection makes relationships a bit complicated. The New Age is still a slapstick affair at heart but the zaniness is intelligently introduced and then focused. There’s a glee here that recalls the work of animation legend Tex Avery for Warner Bros and MGM. For example, when Dawn’s hand is stung by a bee it swells to such a puffy cartoonish size it looks like an inflatable balloon. It’s not a profound film. I’ll probably forget the details in a week or two. However, I frequently laughed while watching this, and in 2020 that counts for a lot.

11-20-20

Over the Moon

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy with tags on November 5, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Over the Moon is an early frontrunner for Best Animated Feature at the 2021 Oscars. The hype doesn’t help. Unrealistic hope can affect your enjoyment and this set mine unnecessarily high. Netflix has made it a habit of buying up animated movies and releasing them as originals. Recent titles include The Little Prince, I Lost My Body, Klaus, The Willoughbys, Fearless, A Whisker Away, Animal Crackers, and Pets United. They run the gamut in quality, so I usually temper my expectations.

The production has a pedigree too. It’s co-directed by Glen Keane, the legendary Disney luminary who worked on The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and many others. He won the Best Animated Short Film Oscar for the fawning Dear Basketball co-written and narrated by Kobe Bryant. This release is actually put out by Shanghai-based Pearl Studio who brought us Abominable in 2019. Given the talent involved and the positive buzz, I expected a lot more.

The story sounds culturally adventurous and otherworldly. The tale is adapted from a fable about the Chinese goddess of the Moon. It concerns a 14-year-old girl in China named Fei Fei (Cathy Ang). She believes in the Moon goddess Chang’e (Phillipa Soo) because of stories her mother (Ruthie Ann Miles) told her. Unfortunately her mom is terminally ill. After Ma Ma passes on, Fei Fei yearns to travel to the heavens in a rocket ship and prove to everyone that Chang’e is not a myth and that she does truly exist.

Over the Moon is a mixed bag. On the plus side, this is a beautifully animated saga full of colorful designs and expressive creatures. The impressive spectacle is the production’s greatest asset. Fei Fei does indeed fly to the moon. There she meets a wacky world of alien critters. Yet their personalities would be more at home on an American sitcom. It heavily relies on successful works of the past too. There’s goofy sidekick Gobi (Ken Jeong) with the temperament of Olaf the snowman from Frozen. Meanwhile, the Moon goddess is revealed to be less of an ethereal being and more of a spoiled pop princess. Can you feel my disappointment?

The account begins as sensitive handling of death and remarriage, then presents an unrelated adventure that tidily resolves complicated emotional issues at the end. It’s not hard to see the DNA of other films. The aforementioned Frozen, but also Up, Alice in Wonderland, Mulan, the Pixar short Bao. Chinese culture has been superficially inserted as atmosphere to infuse a very bland and generic screenplay. I sound like a broken record because I made the same “Americanized” critique of Abominable. It’s worth noting the voice cast is Asian American. Representation in storytelling and casting is more important than ever. However, Mulan supported Asian actors (Ming-Na Wen, Lea Salonga, BD Wong, Pat Morita, James Hong, George Takei) way back in 1998 and still managed to promote unique and interesting characters as well. Mulan highlighted some very catchy songs to boot. I appreciate the effort it took to make this a musical. There is a smattering of tunes but nothing is memorable. This is a passable time-filler for adults and a 100-minute babysitter for young kids.

10-16-20

The Wolf House

Posted in Animation, Drama, Horror with tags on October 15, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Wolf House (La Casa Lobo) is like a fairy tale out of the Brothers Grimm. The twisted fables collected by those German authors definitely had an edge. Yet this is even more unnerving. Striking! Innovative! Hypnotic! Bizarre! Mere adjectives aren’t enough to do it justice. If you’re familiar with the work of the Brothers Quay or Jan Švankmajer then you’ll have a reference point at least. For others, this will be unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Regardless, it will undoubtedly be the strangest movie you will see this year. This first premiered in February 2018 at the Berlin International Film Festival. Since then it has won a slew of awards and garnered widespread critical acclaim. It finally received a release in May 2020 in the U.S.

Maria (Amalia Kassai) is a young woman who escapes from a German community in the south of Chile. She takes refuge in a mysterious house in the woods. From that seed of an idea, emerges a stop motion animated tableau that is an unforgettable display of creative ingenuity. Her thoughts progressively infect the walls of the dwelling in which she lives. The surfaces come to life in a nightmarish vision. The Wolf House is a living, breathing physical room that is a painstakingly created tactile world. The art installation combines papier-mâché, puppets, sculptures, paintings, and other artistic methods to create scenes that were staged and photographed in various galleries throughout the world. This was accomplished over the course of several years in full view of the public. Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña are artists turned filmmakers with a series of shorts to their credit. This is their first feature and judging by the warm response, not their last.

This dark tale has its roots in a very sinister reality. Paul Schäfer was a Nazi sergeant that ultimately fled Germany after he was charged with pedophilia. He escaped to South America and it was there that he formed Colonia Dignidad (Dignity Colony), an isolated cult in the Andean foothills of eastern Chile. It was portrayed to the public as a bucolic agrarian utopia but was in fact closer to an authoritarian Nazi police state. Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet used the colony as a detention camp to torture and execute political prisoners.

There are moments contained within this account I will never forget. Despite its disturbing inspiration, nothing presented is even remotely gory or violent. However, the eerie mood gradually works its way into your psyche and the effect can be unsettling. The narrative opens with an indoctrination video of an idyllic residence where the inhabitants live off the land in perfect harmony. The propaganda confers the settlement in a positive light. Supernatural developments ensue. Early on Maria finds two escaped pigs and she mothers them until they turn into human children. However, the ensuing production is not dependent on plot. Maria’s shoddy little shack is a constantly evolving nightmare of shapes and images. I sat there gobsmacked by the spectacle. During the chronicle, “the wolf” (Rainer Krause) is a foreboding presence that haunts Maria even after she escapes. His disembodied but seductive voice intones: “Maria…..Maria…..Maria.” He beckons her to return. It still gives me the chills.

09-03-20

The Willoughbys

Posted in Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on April 23, 2020 by Mark Hobin

willoughbysSTARS3.5“If you love stories about families that stick together and love each other through thick and thin and it all ends happily ever after…this isn’t the film for you, okay?”

That’s how The Willoughbys (available on Netflix) begins.  A narrator introduces this witty riff on classic children tales by authors like Charles Dickens and P. L. Travers.   It turns out, the storyteller is actually a stray blue tabby cat who comments on everything he oversees.  He’s drolly voiced by comedian Ricky Gervais.  The parents (Martin Short & Jane Krakowski) are dysfunctional to say the least.  Apparently, mom and dad have so much affection for each other that they have nothing left to give to their kids.  Unfortunately, these adults don’t hide their lack of affection for their offspring.   There’s sensible eldest child Tim (Will Forte), cheerful middle child Jane (Alessia Cara), and creepy twin boys Barnaby and Barnaby.  Yes, the two were given the same name. Fed up with their parent’s distressing lack of parenting skills, the youngsters devise a plan  to make themselves orphans.  It’s not as gruesome as it sounds.  The kids simply entice their wicked parents to take a vacation that might prove hazardous to their health.  The moppets merely wish to experience their own happy ending.  Nothing wrong with that, right?!

If one word defines this work of fiction, it’s zany.  Director Kris Pearn also helmed Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 in 2013, and this has the same goofy aesthetic.  More sober viewers may struggle to keep up with the account’s frantic pace.  As a matter of fact, I am talking about myself.  The dialogue (screenplay by Pearn and Mark Stanleigh) is rapid-fire and consists not so much of jokes, but a myriad of random plot developments.  One focuses on actor Terry Crews as Commander Melanoff — a merry owner of a candy factory.  Holy shades of Willy Wonka!  Later when the juveniles discover an abandoned baby, they leave the infant on his doorstep.  Another development highlights comedian Maya Rudolph as Linda — a kooky nanny.  She somewhat suggests Mary Poppins — that is if she were a disorderly mess.   In fact, the whole saga is the very definition of chaotic confusion.

I have always appreciated a distinct lack of saccharine in my children’s fables.  Novelist Roald Dahl is an enduring favorite of mine.  The Willoughbys is based on a 2008 novel by Lois Lowry (Number the Stars, The Giver).  This feature has been frequently compared in print to the work of Roald Dahl as well as Lemony Snicket.  Yes, I’ll admit those are valid comparisons.  Yet this is so much more hyper than the works inspired by those writers.  The production is defined by a frenetic narrative that rarely stops to take a pause.    I never developed an emotional attachment to these characters.  However, I did slowly warm up to the film’s wacky approach.  Perhaps I was worn down by the movie’s admitted — albeit relentless — charm.  The creative silliness ultimately won me over.

04-22-20

Trolls World Tour

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on April 11, 2020 by Mark Hobin

trolls_two_ver23STARS3Ok, I’ll admit I saw Trolls in 2016 — at the theater no less — but I wasn’t a huge fan.  Oh don’t get me wrong, it was a lively diversion but it evaporated from memory soon after I saw it.  The prospect of watching a sequel didn’t excite me.  In the original plan Trolls World Tour would have opened against the 25th James Bond film.  No Time to Die was going to be one of the biggest releases of the year.  That’s what I was looking forward to.  Then “stay at home” orders were issued and cinemas across the U.S. were closed indefinitely.  New movie prospects suddenly changed.  Given that theaters are unlikely to reopen anytime soon, Universal Studios course-corrected immediately.  Trolls World Tour is the first major studio offering to bow out of its scheduled theatrical release and go directly to VOD since the Coronavirus outbreak.  That alone makes it noteworthy.

Trolls World Tour is essentially a 94-minute long music video but there is a loose thread of a story nonetheless.  Poppy (Anna Kendrick) has recently been anointed, Queen.  She’s a cutesy hot pink creature with an even darker pink whale spout of hair.  She desperately wants to be a good ruler.  Her intentions are good but her inability to listen to other people will lead to trouble.  One of those is her father King Peppy (Walt Dohrn). He informs the kingdom that other similar societies do in fact exist.  Trolls have always loved music.  However, disagreements in the distant past led to different factions going their separate ways.  They are the “Pop” troll clan. The rest of the tribes each took a magical harp string representing different genres: Pop, Rock, Country, Classical, Techno and Funk.

Each land is host to a slew of new characters in what is substantially a marketing tool for new dolls and toys.  There are far too many celebrities involved to list them all, but Kelly Clarkson, Sam Rockwell, Ozzy Osbourne, Anderson Paak, George Clinton and Mary J. Blige all make appearances.  I had some fun being able to identify their voices.  The proper plot begins when Queen Barb (Rachel Bloom) of the Rock Trolls invites everyone to a big event.  She sports a red mohawk and sings a medley of rock classics: “Rock You Like A Hurricane”, “Crazy Train”, and “Barracuda”.  King Peppy warns to “stay away” but newly-crowned Poppy wants to befriend the other groups in the spirit of peace and harmony.  Joining her is Branch (Justin Timberlake), her closest friend.  He secretly holds romantic feelings for Poppy.

Trolls World Tour is not so much a story as it is a glitter bomb of color and music.  It is a non-stop unending deluge of one melody after another.  In what I can only describe as an assault, its accompanying razzle-dazzle visuals are extremely aggressive.  The spectacle is an unquestionable delight of intensity, but it’s almost akin to eating Pixy Stix laced with Pop Rocks paired with a shot of Mountain Dew.  It gives new meaning to the phrase eye candy.  Young kids will unquestionably be enchanted so I’m not exactly knocking it.  This might be perfect for children craving new entertainment.  There are a few original ditties including “The Other Side”, but it’s the medleys/mash-ups of older tunes that I remember most.  The graphical displays that supplement the songs can be quite beautiful at times, but it’s a lot to process.  I’m just warning adults who prefer a less hyper experience because I’m one of those people as well.  Then again, criticizing a product like this is kind of silly.  It simply wasn’t made for me.

04-10-20

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family, Science Fiction with tags on March 28, 2020 by Mark Hobin

shaun_the_sheep_movie_farmageddon_ver3STARS3.5Aardman Animations is one of those hallowed traditions in the grand cinema of the UK that includes Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, kitchen sink realism, James Bond, Monty Python, and Agatha Christie adaptations.  A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon was released to UK theaters on October 18th, 2019.  In the U.S. Netflix bought the distribution rights and released it to the streaming platform on Valentine’s Day the following February.  This is ostensibly a sequel to the Shaun the Sheep Movie from 2015 but honestly, if you haven’t seen that, it wouldn’t matter.  No prior knowledge is necessary.  This captivating tale stands on its own.

This amalgamation of sci-fi and comedy is such sweet, funny, innocent fun.  A reliable narrative holds few surprises.   If you’ve seen other releases from Aardman Animations, then you know exactly what you’re getting — a lighthearted, stop-motion animated, romp.  They came out of the gate with the huge boffo worldwide success of Chicken Run in 2000.  Since then each subsequent release has earned a little less than the one before.  Yet the quality of their output has always remained high and meaningful nonetheless.

This account concerns what happens when a UFO landing occurs near Mossy Bottom Farm.  Shaun (Justin Fletcher ) immediately gets involved to help an impish alien named Lu-La (Amalia Vitale), from the planet To-Pa, get back home.  I feel like I already lost a few readers.  Yes, it’s silly.  “Farmageddon” is actually the name of the alien-based theme park that Farmer John (Chris Morrell) creates to exploit the situation to make money.  His dependable and sensible sheepdog Bitzer (John Sparkes) is thankfully back as well.

The adherence to no-dialogue still holds.  Communication relies merely on grunts and shrugs, not intelligible conversation.  Instead, the story is advanced through pantomime and visual cues to propel the plot.  It’s all about the sight gag.  Legendary silent-movie star Buster Keaton built an entire career in the 1920s on the comedic style and this production ably honors that tradition in a contemporary era.  There’s a toe-tapping soundtrack too.  The Chemical Brothers and Kylie Minogue (with English indie rock band, The Vaccines) make appearances that underscore delightful vignettes.

Farmageddon is worth your time, but it isn’t for all tastes.  The chronicle depends on a certain oft kilter sensibility that not all viewers will possess.   Perhaps children may comprehend this more than adults as they admirably have the right mindset for a carefree and nonsensical storyline.  I guess I’m a child at heart because I adored this film.  The slender suggestion of a screenplay is essentially an excuse for manic sequences.  There’s an inherent purity in such simple ambition.  Now, who can’t appreciate that in these troubled times?  Shaun the Sheep is a welcome break from our current reality.

03-19-20

Onward

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on March 10, 2020 by Mark Hobin

onward_ver11STARS3.5When I hear the name Pixar I think of some of the best animated films ever made.  Few will deny the entertainment value of Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Up or Inside Out for example.  So the announcement of a new release from that subsidiary of Walt Disney Studios will always be something that I greet with joyous anticipation.  I’ll admit they’re not all classics.  The Cars trilogy, Monsters University, and Brave would land near the bottom in my estimation.  Nevertheless, I have never given a Pixar movie a negative review.  That hasn’t changed with this effort.

Onward is about two brothers who happen to be elves.  They’re the Lightfoot brothers.  Younger teenaged Ian is a dead ringer for Alfredo Linguini in Ratatouille.  Remember how Disney recycled the character design of Baloo the Bear in The Jungle Book (1967) for Little John in Disney’s Robin Hood (1973) or how about Penny in The Rescuers (1977) from Mowgli in The Jungle Book?   I’m ok with it.  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  Ian is articulated by Tom Holland who is fresh from another voice starring appearance in the feature-length cartoon Spies in Disguise from Blue Sky Studios.  Barley (Chris Pratt) is Ian’s stocky older teenaged brother who acts as a mentor.  He’s also partial to fantasy role-playing games.  Together they set out on an epic quest to find a jewel that will allow them to see their long-deceased father.

Ok, so I was worried. Onward didn’t grab me right away.  For the first 20-30 minutes or so I wasn’t feeling this movie.  It simply felt like a present-day sitcom superficially dressed up with fantastical elements.  The individuals may look like magical figures but they act like contemporary people.  There’s a centaur, a cyclops, pixies, elves, and other assorted creatures.  The animation is bright and colorful but it’s hard not to feel like the fanciful critters are frivolously employed to obscure a very pedestrian plot.  Then they go on a road trip and they meet a manticore who owns a restaurant and she’s vocalized by Octavia Spencer.  There’s a joy to the animation and the voice acting with her character that kind of jump-starts this drama.  From then on it gets better.  There a lot of jokes obtained from this fictional world.  Let me tell you, there’s is a depth to the creativity of this world-building that definitely raises the bar.

Pixar is famous for being able to extract emotion. Onward didn’t make me cry.  Although it certainly tries.  Most of the adventure is fine but it’s in the resolution where I was converted into a fan.  During the climax, the chronicle smartly recalls previous events that occurred throughout the saga.  Those episodes didn’t seem so important at the time but the story connects the dots and recontextualizes them.  This touching through-line elevates the denouement into an emotionally resonant finale.   It’s a savvy manipulation.  Director Dan Scanlon – who also helmed Monsters University – wrote the film with Jason Headley and Keith Bunin.  They essentially redeem the entire narrative within the final 15 minutes.  It reconsiders everything that we have seen before.  Onward isn’t anywhere near as affecting or innovative as the studio’s best work but it is pleasant enough.  It just goes to prove that even a minor Pixar release is still pretty enjoyable.

2020 Oscar Nominated Short Films (Part 1 of 3)

Posted in Animation, Awards, Drama, Sports with tags on February 6, 2020 by Mark Hobin

ShortsTV continues to make all three of the Oscar-nominated short film programs (animated, live-action, documentary) available to audiences around the world. To find out where you can watch this year’s Oscar-Nominated Short Films, visit their Theatrical Release and On Demand pages.

Animation

Regardless of how expected the rest of the Oscar races are, the shorts programs have always been the most difficult category in which to predict a winner.  They make forecasting interesting.

With the exception of Kitbull, this year’s selections all have to do with familial relationships but even that short is essentially about the connection that forms a family. They have all been carefully constructed to make you tear up — with either joy or sadness — in some way.

As I do every year, I’ve reviewed and ranked them from my preferred champion to my least favorite.  The results will be announced at the Academy Awards on February 9th.

 

Hair Love
USA/7 MINS/2019
Directors: Matthew A. Cherry, Everett Downing Jr., Bruce W. Smith
hair love
A young black girl is desperately trying to style her hair for a special occasion. She consults an online tutorial video for help but is unsuccessful. She then asks her father for help. This warm depiction highlights a loving bond between father and daughter. But where is the mother? That’s the poignant ending to this heartfelt account.

 

Kitbull
USA/9 MINS/2019
Director: Rosana Sullivan
kitbull
Appealing feature about a cat and a pit bull and the unlikely attachment that develops between them. This was produced by Pixar Animation Studios under their SparkShorts umbrella which gives employees the autonomy to create their own independent films. The characters are quite simply drawn, almost abstract, but the movement is spot on. The way the kitten moves is surprisingly realistic. The story adds depressing elements but it’s quite engaging.

 

Sister
CHINA-USA/8 MINS/2018
Director: Siqi Song
sister-oscar-nominated-animated-short-film
A man reflects back on his childhood memories of growing up with his little sister in China in the 1990s.  She is a constant annoyance to him.  This stop motion entry (there’s 3 this year) appears to be a rather simplistic tale at first.  A haunting reveal ends things on a very serious note.  It has a point and it effectively makes it.  This stayed with me.

 

Mémorable
FRANCE/12 MINS/2019
Director: Bruno Collet
image-louis-alzeimer_court-metrage-animation-memorable-bruno-collet-vivement-lundi_le-blog-de-cheeky
A painterly representation of one man’s descent into dementia.  The stop motion is an artistic manipulation of post-impressionism.  The characters look like living portraits by Van Gogh, Picasso, and other masters.  It holds an undeniably hypnotic quality that verges on calculated preciousness.  Alzheimer’s disease was the theme of last year’s Late Afternoon.  Do I sense the beginning of a trend?

 

Daughter
CZECHIA/15 MINS/2019
Director: Daria Kashcheeva
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This wordless recollection details the strained relationship between a young woman and her father.   The abundance of silence doesn’t help this obtuse chronicle.  The animation is stop-motion but then a handheld camera is used to heighten the movement so hey that’s different.  However, the pointless grudge this woman held her entire life could have been easily solved with a simple conversation.  Try talking to your father.  Narratively frustrating.

01-24-20