Review: Monsters University 3D

postermuWhen I think of Pixar, I think of some of the finest storytelling to ever grace a movie screen.  I think of the studio not as an animation studio, but as a movie studio that happens to practice animation.  The distinction for me is that the focus is more about the writing first, and as it turns out, these fantastic yarns are best illustrated by the abundant talents of the finest visual artists in the field wielding the best of the best of the best technology.

Pixar has always pushed the envelope in one way or another.  They have always dared to captivate adult audiences as well as children, arguably sometimes favoring the former.  They have pushed the boundaries of how much story a film can contain, how many subplots can be shuffled in between, and how fleshed out and human a character can be, even winning you over by the end after being so unlikeable.

The films of Pixar carry with them a high level of expectations to even the most aloof moviegoer and even ardent fans such as myself are quick to criticize when we feel that threshold has not been met.  Even with such a fearless, focused and dedicated staff of artists an element can sometimes go missing.  Cars 2 was a tremendous experiment in pushing the genre, making it more “spy movie” than “kids movie”, but it did not reach it’s potential to capture the many different settings in a way that would bring as much intrigue to the look of the film as there was in it’s plot.  Brave was the studio’s first foray into folklore, a decidedly more predictable and therefore less interesting form of storytelling without making some key break-throughs and turning points near the end of the script.  Wall-e For all of it’s visual glory and attempt at heart could not really seduce an audience into empathy and really just became an unintentional environmental tale.

If these films had more heart and dimension in their characters, more exciting and daring turns and more ambiance they would easily be among my favorites.  Monsters University is one that has the complete package.  It’s fun, it’s exciting, and while it’s stars already had one hit Pixar film, Monsters University stands alone as a great feature.

The movie is about Mike and Sully’s college days, before they became friends.  First off, I want to address how perfectly college life was depicted while remaining kid friendly.  You won’t see John Belushi chugging a bottle of Jack, but the parties and the cliques, the classroom lectures… well, it’s fun when you don’t have to do it.  The campus is amazing and the rendering really shows off some terrific lighting effects, giving it a very romantic visual appeal.  Don’t think it’s just about frat houses and old buildings, though.  Monsters University is an adventure that takes you to the unexpected.  Dean Hardscrabble is appropriately terrifying, and– true to Pixar tradition– defies the standard good guy bad guy dichotomy, appealing to the notion that however distasteful a character is, there is always potential to go the other way (and vice versa), just like real life people (go figure).

The heart of the story is Mike.  As a wide eyed kid on a field trip, he becomes enamored with the idea of becoming a scarer and devotes his life to that end, working exceptionally hard and finally enrolling in the school of scaring at MU.  Here is where Mike meets all kinds of challenges due to his disadvantage of not being Scary.  At one point he tells Sully he’s worked harder than anyone to get there to which Sully replies “That’s because you don’t belong here.”  Sully, a natural Beast, rides on his fathers name and fails to learn anything.  Of course these two have to work together and when they do, it’s tremendous.  Aside from that the supporting cast of characters are some of the finest and most enjoyable to watch.

Lots of hard work and long computer hours were put into the creation of this monster of a movie, think about all the fur and textures and the massive number of on screen characters at one time.  Think about the hues in the sky and the streetlights, the reflections and the shadows, all working together to create the perfect mood for each scene.  Monsters University didn’t make me cry, but it has it’s touching moments. It is unique, original, entertaining, provocative, cutting edge, state of the art… In short:  It’s a Pixar film.

Movie Review: Wreck-It Ralph

Every once in a while, a movie comes out that is not only incredibly enjoyable to watch, but you have to think how fun it must have been to make.  That’s the way it was when I saw Wreck-It Ralph, the newest Disney film which really feels more like a Pixar production.  Directed by Rich Moore (Futurama, The Simpsons), Wreck-it Ralph is exemplary of what great Disney storytelling is all about.  The eye candy dazzles as this epic adventure sweeps you into the secret worlds of arcade video games on a misguided bad guy’s quest for glory that ultimately brings out the hero within.

Not enough praise can be given to this insightful and very funny film.  The world and its main characters are so entertaining and deliciously constructed that you can’t help but anticipate what is coming next.  Full of references to well known video games of the past and present and some clever new ideas folded into the mix, a potentially confusing concept is ingeniuosly laid out in a simple believable way as Wreck-it Ralph, voiced by John C. Reilly, leaves his own game and travels into others.  Each game has it’s own rules, as does the common space between them that the characters share–Game Central Station– and of course there is the way these games interact with the gamers in ther arcade;  But with all the jokes and the learn-as-you-go game rules, at its heart is a tremendous exploration of what truly makes a hero.  Most likely to be considered a sort of next generation Toy Story, Wreck it Ralph is not unlike Up in it’s epic marvels and storytelling prowess.

Sarah Silverman is perfectly cast as ragamuffin racer Vanellope.  Vanellope is a glitch in Sugar Rush, a Candyland inspired Racing game.  She adds some further grey to Ralph’s complex issues of right verses wrong.  King Candy is another delightfully performed character, voiced by Alan Tudyk.  The heroes, Calhoun (Jane Lynch) and Fix-it Felix (Jack McBrayer) are relegated to the minor character role as they search for Ralph and discover an unseen threat.  Though, they never break from their profile character traits there is just enough of their storyline to pull out a whopping finally.

The story begins with a quick explanation of the Donkey Kong like arcade game Fix-it Felix Jr. from Ralph’s point of view.  Tired of being the outcast, he hears a distressed character from another game complaining about all he has to go through for a medal.  Ralph takes his place in the game with disastrous results and winds up losing the medal in the Sugar Rush game.  Vanellope– the outcast of her game– only wants to race, but the king forbids it.  Ralph teams up with her in order to get back the medal, but soon discovers that fame and glory don’t make a hero.

I have to say, this is the best new film to come out of Disney Animation Studios in a while.  Smart and emotionally deep, the film boasts vivid worlds, terrific character designs, and all the laughter and tears that Disney is so well-known and appreciated for.  Wreck-It Ralph is worth a big screen 3D experience and I can’t wait until it hits the Bluray stands.  Oh, and the Oscar goes to…

Blu-ray Review: The Rescuers and the Rescuers Down Under

Buy The Rescuers: 35th Anniversary Edition double feature Blu-ray/DVD combo

The Rescuers Down Under has the distinguished honor of being the first ever sequel from Walt Disney Animation Studios and it even had a much deserved theatrical release.   It also had the difficult task of following the smash hit The Little Mermaid which marked an amazing come back for the studio.  Mice in animation have always been popular but The Rescuers is a uniquely Disney franchise filled with adventure and fun characters.  From a bayou diamond hunt against Madame Medusa to tracking a poacher in Australia, The Rescue Aid Society sends their best mice, Bernard and Bianca to save children in peril and meet lots of fun and interesting characters on the way.  From the inventive and classic artistry of The Rescuers to the Stunning layouts and CGI enhancements of The Rescuers Down Under, the two films boast the state of the art technology and top-notch storytelling that Disney has always been known for.

Featuring the voice talents of Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor, the stories follow two brave mice dedicated to helping children in need– one, a young orphan named Penny abducted by a wicked pawn shop owner in search of a diamond, the other an animal rescuer named Cody,  kidnapped by a poacher who is hunting an extremely rare golden eagle–  The two award-winning films are packaged together as one of Disney’s recent release of Blu-ray double features and include a True Life Adventure titled “Water Birds”, a sing-along video of the Oscar nominated song “Someone’s Waiting For You”, and the classic cartoon “Three Blind Mouseketeers”, plus a great behind the scenes look at the animation of The Rescuers Down Under.

Movie Review: Cinderella, Diamond Edition Blu-Ray

I had the surprising pleasure of watching the new Blu-ray Diamond Edition release of the classic Walt Disney picture Cinderella.  This is one of the best told and most enjoyable of all of Walt’s fairy tale adaptations.  Some of those long loved Disney Classics are so far removed from the direct to DVD sequels they’ve spawned that returning to those childhood favorites is a real treat.  These films truly stand the test of time.

Cinderella has all the charm, humor and beautiful artwork you can expect from Walt Disney, but it’s also one of his best animated features.  I was never too interested in Cinderella,  I remember some of the comedy bits, the suspenseful climax as the mice lug the key up the tower to rescue Cinderella before the Grand Duke leaves, and the songs, but I was more interested in The Sword in the Stone and The Jungle Book at that age.  Returning to this film as an adult I am really able to appreciate the artistry and the very clean storytelling.

The story of the little girl condemned to a life of servitude to her wicked step mother and two step sisters is filled with wonderful characters, visions, scenes and music that demands respect from an audience that has been exposed to recent cheaper takes on the Disney classics that lack so much of the heart and depth of the originals.  It takes you through a typical day in Cinderella’s life as she trudges through her chores, but when the king announces a ball is to be held as a plan to get the Prince married she must try to find time in her busy schedule to prepare.  Even with the help she receives from her mice friends, the Step sisters ruin her chance to go, but the Fairy Godmother arrives just in time, to give her the magical night that will change her destiny with that memorable song “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo,”.  One of my favorites is Cinderella’s rendition of “Sing Sweet Nightingale” in the bubbles while she washes the floors and the devious cat, Lucifer tracks dust all around her in the mean time.

Among the special features, of which there are many, is a short documentary on the “Real Fairy Godmother”  The woman the character was based on who later became the Fairy Godmother of Burbank, for all of her charity work.  You’ll also be delighted to find the hilarious short “Tangled Ever After” featuring Pascal and Max as the ring bearer and flower– um… lizard.  You’ll also get a sneak peek behind the scenes at the amazing expansion of Fantasyland at Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Disney World.  Let me just say it’s the best use of space since the creation of the park.

 
Buy Cinderella (Two-Disc Diamond Edition Blu-ray/DVD Combo in Blu-ray Packaging) from Amazon.