Animation

Finding Nemo

From its dazzling opening scene to its last, “Finding Nemo” is the crown jewel in Pixar’s 8-year association with Disney. Ever since “Toy Story” in 1995, Pixar has consistently pushed the boundries of digital animation while managing to tell clever, inventive stories, and “Nemo” is their most sublime balancing act yet. Coral reefs and marine life of every size and stripe burst forth with startling vibrancy, their textures and movements so vivid and lifelike that it seems Pixar has raised the CGI bar to spectacular new heights.

On the storytelling front, writer-director Andrew Stanton breathes fresh life into a familiar genre—the Quest Film—with a brisk and spirited script. What makes Pixar’s productions a cut above the rest—and “Nemo” is several notches above that—is not just that they take their cue from the fears and fascinations of childhood, but that they do so with such a genuine sense of awe and wonder. It’s what nourishes their stories and makes them consistently involving, even for those of us made jaded and cynical by adulthood.

Marlin, a hapless, overprotective clown fish, voiced with neurotic gusto by Albert Brooks, loses his son, Nemo, to a scuba diving dentist, eager to stock up his office fish tank. What follows are Marlin’s anxious, frenetic efforts to track down his son. Along the way, he’s joined by addle-brained Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), herself a bit of a lost soul, and, together, they brave various undersea perils in a journey that takes them from their coral home in the Great Barrier Reef to the Sydney waterfront. Meanwhile, having befriended his motley bunch of fish tank inmates, Nemo plucks up his nerve and schemes with them for a way to foil their white-coated overseer and escape back to sea.

Stanton mines the tropes of the episodic adventure yarn and comes up with memorable sequences and characters at every turn. A fish tank has never felt so oppressive till seen through Nemo’s eyes, and it’s certainly never been the setpiece for a daring jailbreak till its hatched by the cunning, resourceful Gill (Willem Dafoe). Likewise, Marlin and Dory’s run-in with a trio of sharks at a Fish-eaters Anonymous meeting, their precipitous jam inside a whale’s mouth, and their encounter with a colony of sea turtles migrating through a winding, twisting oceanic current are among the delights that keep us rooting.

“Finding Nemo” is a flat-out visual marvel and an inspired summertime entertainment. Best of all, it secures Pixar’s place as perhaps the greatest and most ambitious animation studio since it mouse-eared distributor was in its heyday.

Grade: A

Directed by: Andrew Stanton
Written by: Andrew Stanton, Bob Peterson, David Reynolds
Cast: Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, Alexander Gould, Willem Dafoe, Brad Garrett, Allison Janney, Geoffrey Rush, Andrew Stanton, Eric Bana

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole

For its rapturous imagery and mythical sensibilities, director Zack Snyder’s “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole” aspires to something akin to “Avatar” or the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. In fact, the attention to texture and detail that Snyder and his team have invested in depicting everything from the film’s painterly landscapes to every individual feather of its largely avian cast is downright impressive. Rendered in 3D, “Guardians” can often be a breathtaking experience approximating James Cameron’s work in his above-mentioned saga.

Writers John Orloff and Emil Stern adapt Kathryn Lasky’s popular children novels about two warring kingdoms of owls – the noble Guardians and the evil Pure Ones. From the looks of it, Orloff and Stern do their best with an overload of characters, numerous by-plays, back-story and incident, but, finally, the job of condensing the full scope of a novel into a 90-minute fantasy flick asks both too much of the form and of the audience.

“Guardians” follows two plucky young barn owl-brothers, Soren (Jim Sturgees) and Kludd (Ryan Kwanten), who find themselves on opposite sides in the story’s mythic clash of owls. While testing their fledgling wings, Soren and Kludd are captured by agents of the Pure Ones and whisked off to their nefarious stronghold. Rather than be added to the Pure Ones’ legion of brainwashed soldiers, Soren escapes the clutches of its leader, Metal Beak (Joel Edgerton) while Kludd – always jealous of Soren’s flying abilities – vows allegiance to Metal Beak and his queen, Nyra (Helen Mirren).

Soren, meanwhile, teams up with the tiny but intrepid Gylfie (Emily Barclay) and the buffoonish but well-meaning pair, Digger (David Wenham) and Twilight (Anthony LaPaglia). Together, they seek out the storied Guardians and warn them of the Pure Ones’ imminent invasion, and of Metal Beak’s vaguely explained ploy that involves bats and unleashing the destructive energies harnessed from a rare metal. Deception in the Guardians’ ranks and an obligatory final act beak-and-talon throw-down round out a script that packs in far too many emotional and expository beats for anyone unfamiliar with the source material, frankly, to care.

A game cast featuring established thespians like Mirren, LaPaglia, Geoffrey Rush, Hugo Weaving together with newer talents like Joel Edgerton and Ryan Kwanten all manage to breath dramatic fire and a sincere gravity to the proceedings. That added to the story’s inherent sense of fantasy, and its genuinely felt moments of exhilaration (as when Soren discovers his perceptive gifts) and of danger (as when the “Guardians’” scrappy heroes struggle to fly through a dangerous ocean storm) keep us engaged – for a time, at least.

But one question I kept coming back to was, “Who’s this movie made for?” It’s too violent and scary for very young children. And I wouldn’t expect tweens and teens to be jonsing for a fantasy adventure about owls. For older crowds, the movie doesn’t have rich enough story and character development – though it teases with potential in both – to make the material truly involving. That leaves the fans of Lasky’s books, but they too might be turned off by Snyder’s rushed, fevered telling. “Guardians” may be trying to please all the above equally with the end result that everyone leaves the theater feeling a bit gypped.

Grade: C+

Directed by: Zack Snyder
Written by: John Orloff, Emil Stern
Cast: Jim Sturgess (voice), Emily Barclay (voice), Abbie Cornish (voice), Hugo Weaving (voice), Geoffrey Rush (voice), Helen Mirren (voice), Joel Edgerton (voice), Sam Neill (voice), Ryan Kwanten (voice), Anthony LaPaglia (voice), David Wenham (voice)

The Simpsons Movie

The big-screen incarnation of The Simpsons plays like an extended episode of the show, chock full of plotting, sight gags, and eliptical story turns, and funnier than the average episode from the past several seasons. Groening calls to service his cadre of veteran writers — an army of them, an Apollo moon mission’s worth. True, there is a smattering of laugh-out-loud jokes, no question, but the project never quite blasts into sublimities of the show’s early high-comic stratosphere. The Simpsons‘ enduring appeal lies, ultimately, in its spirit, not in how inspired the laughs may or may not be. Groening, Brooks, and company’s attitude, to their great credit, never seeks to pander to the multiplex crowd. Instead, they’re as deadpan and workmanlike as ever, trying to fit together the funniest feature-length’s worth of The Simpsons as they can. The plot shifts into gear after Homer disposes his pet pig’s waste into the local, already overpolluted lake. The resulting environmental catastrophe spurs an EPA bureaucrat into taking Draconian measures against Springfield (read: annihilating the town) and the townspeople to grow hostile towards Homer. Eventually, Homer must embark on an odyssey — one he has taken, in form or another, umpteen times on the TV series — which leads him to take personal responsibility for his destructive buffoonery, and face off against the Capitol Hill enemy himself. The plot is suitably manic, cramming every type of gag into every last space of the screen, and as many as will fit into its 87 minute running time. Most of the humor here is smile-worthy, largely for how it references The Simpsons’ cultural universe, with seemingly throwaway asides that end up eliciting the biggest laughs. The funniest, sharpest moments in the The Simpsons Movie, indeed, may rank up there with the best over the latter half of its twenty-year rein (the first ten years are peerless).

There is enormous joy, not to be discounted, in seeing one of your favorite cartoons blown up for the big screen. The candy-bright colors, the crude-yet-fluid animation style — Groening’s cartoon revolution was the flip-off to the decades old Disney-driven tradition of realistic animation. And here it is in its big-screen glory, the animation as goofy and dippy as ever as Groening and company ply through the show’s standard themes: The ties between father and son as Bart, stung by Homer’s incompetent fathering, takes to the church-minded goody-goody Ned Flanders; between husband and wife as Marge, fed up with Homer’s environmentally insensitive antics, decides to part ways, leaving the loutish husband to endure a trial by fire — a typically hilarious nod to mysticism, personified by a buxom medicine woman — towards achieving the necessary epiphany; all while Lisa, ever politically conscientious, crushes on an Irish boy who’s not only cute, but as savvy as she is about cleaning up the environment. Millhouse continues to pine after Lisa, Ralph (Chief Wigam’s son) continues to bemuse with his dim-wittedness, and Mr. Burns glowers, as implacably as ever, ready to “release to hounds” on all trespassers. This is all territory we’ve traveled before, over umpteen seasons of the show, but it’s a testament to how much we love Groening’s creations that we’ll watch Homer and his clan jump the (same) hoops again. And though Homer himself chastises us, near the start of the movie, for paying for something we can watch on TV for free, I consider the money I put down my contribution to Groening’s good cause.

Grade: B

Directed by: David Silverman
Written by: James L. Brooks, Matt Groening, Al Jean, Ian Maxtone-Graham, George Meyer, David Mirkin, Mike Reiss, Mike Scully, Matt Selman, John Swartzwelder, Jon Vitti
Cast: Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Harry Shearer, Hank Azaria, Marcia Wallace, Joe Mantegna, Albert Brooks, Tress MacNeille

Cars

Anyone with a passing familiarity with the 1991 Michael J. Fox vehicle Doc Hollywood will experience a twinge of unwelcome déjà vu while watching Pixar’s latest animated juggernaut, Cars. In that early ’90s “gem,” a cocky cosmetic surgeon, en route to Los Angeles in his sports car, got sentenced to community service after ramming into and destroying public property while speeding through a small town. The moral realignment of the doctor followed a predictable, easily digestible course as he got in touch with his civic-mindedness, and fell in love with a spunky small-town beauty. Cars borrows the Doc Hollywood template, but replaces its human characters with their anthropomorphized car equivalents. There are many problems with this, regardless of how you feel about anthropomorphic cars.

Till now, Pixar’s had a pretty spectacular track record in terms of pure storytelling–their product’s deftly blended visual imagination and technical virtuosity with Spielbergian sentiment spiked with a mild, kid-friendly sarcasm. That narrative cocktail has been wildly popular with audiences ever since Toy Story, but, as Cars so dreadfully proves, Lasseter and company have mixed this one once too many times. For the first time, Pixar’s storytelling feels thoroughly by the numbers, as if these CGI mavens finally decided they hit on a tried-and-true formula worth repeating ad nauseam. Their latest project feels at every level on cruise control. True, Pixar has delivered its share of lukewarm material, but even its till-now weakest movie Monsters, Inc. had its moments of freshness and exhilaration (the roller-coaster-like finale in the fright factory, the run-in with the Abominable Snowman, in particular). Cars, on the other hand, conjoins the Doc Hollywood beat sheet with Pixar’s moral dictate that all their movies chart the same moral arc and contain characters who learn the same tripe about humility and friendship.

Cars’ fill-in-the-blank screenplay concerns a cocky rookie racecar, Lightning McQueen, who dreams of winning the upcoming championship and luxuriating in the fame, riches, and celebrity endorsements that come with success. En route to the race in California, Lightning gets stranded in the ramshackle hamlet of Radiator Springs. Sentenced to repairing the road that he tore up upon his arrival in town, Lightning’s initial moping and whining transforms into a realization that, in life, it’s not whether “we make good time” that matters, but rather–are you ready?–that “we have a good time.” Everything else about Cars is just as trite. The middle section of this plodding 116-minute clunker involves Lightning’s budding friendship with a slow-witted hillbilly tow truck, and a romance with a sweet-but-spunky Porsche. Finally, it’s McQueen’s admiration for a washed-up former racing champion (voiced by Paul Newman), now living bitterly in the backwater, that turns him on to the beauty of loyalty and friendship.

What troubles me more than the obviousness of Cars’ screenplay is that it took eight people to patch it together: Lasseter and three co-writers, two guys credited with “Story,” and two more credited with the hoity-toity moniker of “Additional Screenplay Material.” That’s seven more than it took to write Chinatown. Perhaps the most unfortunate decision behind Cars was conceptual. The NASCAR storyline seems of little interest to its 5-year-old target audience (halfway through the screening, the child beside me began snoozing), the pre-teen crowd just doesn’t jive to Pixar’s too-cute cartoonishness, while the adults will all groan and squirm at the movie’s stale tricks.

Lasseter conceives of the Cars universe as inhabited totally by various types of four-wheelers–a concept not only aesthetically monotonous (as the shots of a coliseum packed with these equally ugly-looking things testify), but imaginatively sound only on the surface. Unlike Toy Story, wherein the fate of its man-made protagonists, sometimes hinged on the actions of their human masters, there isn’t a single acknowledgement of a human being here, which is rather ridiculous considering that humans are the only reason cars exist. Had Lasseter and his co-writers drawn on the fears and conflicts that humans represent to their fossil-fuel burning existence, then we might’ve had the rudiments of an interesting screenplay.

As slick, richly detailed as its CGI design is, Cars is just another leap forward in animation’s baffling march towards photorealism: Its images come to us buffed and waxed. Yet all that resplendent realism gets us no closer to smart, chancy storytelling and towards the inner illumination in the specatator that is the destination of all true art. Instead, we find the obligatory sweeping shots of race tracks, desert buttes, and “you are there” POVs of racecars zipping along chasis-to-chasis, all of it noisy, boring, and, frankly, smug. Smugness pervades Cars top to bottom and wall to wall, aggravated by the tired shticks turned in by its cast.

Owen Wilson has now officially overstayed his welcome, having plied his lovable doofus bit once (twice, thrice?) too many times. Newman’s turn as a redeemed old fogy is as tired as his character. A greater cause for concern is that Lasseter feels content to play up for laughs stereotyped variations of his “non-white” cars. For example, we get Flo, the sass-talking “black” classic with the fins, and Ramone, the hydraulically tricked-out cruiser who seems the multiplex version of the Hispanic gangsta. This is Disney/Pixar’s version of ethnic diversity–stripped of context and paraded on view for whitebread amusement. Cars is a steep step downwards for all and everything concerned, unless you’re a Caucasian sports car.

Grade: D

Directed by: John Lasseter
Written by: John Lasseter, Dan Fogelman, Philip Loren, Kiel Murray, Robert L. Baird, Dan Gerson, Jorgen Klubien, Joe Ranft
Cast: Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, Larry the Cable Guy, Cheech Marin, Tony Shalhoub, Guido Quaroni, Jenifer Lewis, Paul Dooley, Michael Wallis, George Carlin, John Ratzenberger, Michael Keaton, Joe Ranft

Up

Up_pic

It’s pretty much a given that each new Pixar film is going to blow minds away with its rapturous digital artistry, and Up is no exception. With its clever, gorgeously textured evocations of everything from early American newsreels to misty, sub-tropical vistas, Up is every bit as ambitious and amazing as Pixar’s animation milestones as it spins its fable about retired balloon-seller and curmudgeonly widower, Carl Frederickson (voiced with gravelly gusto by Ed Asner), who looks the spitting image of the latter-day Spencer Tracy (think Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner).

The death of his wife, Ellie, has left Carl a sorrowful and bitter septuagenarian, nursing regret that he was never able to make good on Ellie’s dreams about one day going to Paradise Falls, a mysterious, exotic place somewhere in South America. Refusing to give in to real estate developers coveting his home as well as to the retirement-home orderlies who show up to take him away one morning, Carl takes off — literally — with the aid of a gigantic bouquet of candy-colored balloons and jerry-rigged sails, his sights set on Paradise Falls, vowing finally to honor Ellie’s lifelong wish.

No sooner has Carl soared over treetops and cityscapes — another of Pixar’s trademark vibrant montages — that he discovers he’s got a stowaway, the sweet, comically dim Russell (Jordan Nagai), a rotund boy scout who’d shown up on Carl’s doorstep the previous day and never quite gone away. Eager to win his final merit badge — to be earned after he helps out a senior citizen — Russell offers his services to the surly, petulant Carl.

This sets off a consistently engaging adventure yarn as Carl and Russell arrive at Paradise Falls and encounter a dapper, eccentric coot named Charles Muntz (Christopher Plu bmmer), an explorer-adventurer cut somewhere between Erroll Flynn and Howard Hughes. Carl has idolized Muntz since his boyhood. Indeed, in the wonderfully pitch-perfect mock newsreel that opens the film, we’ve learned how Muntz was the discoverer of the legendary Paradise Falls, from where he’d brought home the skeleton of a fabulous bird. When the authenticity of the skeleton was called into question, the zealous and disgraced Muntz embarked for Paradise Falls again, vowing to bring a live specimen. Ever since, Muntz has been on the hunt for the rare bird, using his spectacular Hindenberg-like airship as his base of operations, and a team of dogs as his assistants.

In perhaps the most obvious concession to the kiddie-movie crowd, Muntz’s dogs are all outfitted with collars that vocalize all their thoughts in a variety of cartoonish voices. It’s here that Up threatens to teeter into the pedestrian pandering of lesser studios’ animated fare (i.e. Paramount’s Ice Age franchise or Dreamworks’ Shrek). That the talking dogs are often so endearingly funny, and the jokes cute and clever without ever feeling derivative or infantile is a testament to Pixar’s high standards relative to its industry peers.

Of course, Carl and Russell promptly encounter the very bird — a dopey hybrid of a dodo and an ostrich — that Muntz has been seeking for decades. As reluctant as Carl is to befriend the creature, he resolves to help Russell save the bird once they catch wind of Muntz’s sinister motives towards it. Hence, Up locks itself inevitably into the groove of a by-the-numbers chase-and-rescue picture, embellished — thankfully! — by the vertiginous imagination and clever plotmaking of Pixar’s storytellers.

As entertaining as Up’s second-half is, it’s a far cry from the cinematic and emotional tour de force that opens this film: A lovely and telling montage of Carl and Ellie’s lifelong romance and married life, alternately tragic and joyous. These vignettes richly and efficiently portray lives of dreaming, togetherness, loss, and disappointment that would make cinema forebears like Griffith and Chaplin proud. Indeed, the first 20 minutes of Up rank as the best thing to roll out of the Pixar factory, perhaps ever.

Up deflates a bit of its early potential once it recognizes itself as a mass market film and, hence, falls into the familiar devices of an action-oriented, beat-by-beat plotline to keep the multiplex audience interested. Paradise Falls, for instance, loses the early sense of awe and wonder that cloaked it to become simply a backdrop to the plot-driven antics that power the bulk of the movie. Luckily, when it’s all said and done, Up lingers in the mind with its tale of an old man’s redemption, his honoring of the love of his life, and the rejuvenation of his own spirit, proving that, where it counts, Pixar’s magic still has sparks to spare.

Grade: B+

Directed by: Pete Docter, Bob Peterson
Written by: Bob Peterson
Cast: Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai, Bob Peterson, Delroy Lindo, Jerome Ranft, John Ratzenberger, David Kaye, Elie Docter, Jeremy Leary