When 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.
Last night, I had the immense pleasure of full immersion into the merry old land of Oz the way it’s never been seen before. Revealed by the vision of the great and powerful Sam Raimi and his master tinkers, from opening curtains it was clear that this was going to be a dazzling display that succeeds in recapturing the magic of the moment original audiences must have felt when first watching The Wizard of Oz in 1939. Nothing beats the fun and anticipation of a wll crafted title sequence to get you started on your journey, especially when your companion on that journey is Danny Elfman, who has and still does do some of his very best work with Raimi (Darkman, A Simple Plan, Spiderman). The score is immediately recognizable to any Elfman fan as classic Danny in his prime. Ad to that the stunning black and white photography and you are locked in for the ride.
Oz the Great and Powerful is every inch made for a Real 3D experience and delivers the most colossal spectacular any team of Hollywood magicians can offer. It’s no wonder that the ever-changing scenery and many elaborate sets are to be drunken in slowly as the epic adventure of a carnival con man drags him the yellow brick road toward possible redemption. Aside from the stunning spectacle of magnificent scenery and Sam Raimi’s keen vision and incomparable sense of balance between fresh innovation and familiarity with the classic, the big seller for this film is James francos impeccable depiction of Oz. Franco does for the character what RDJ does for Tony Stark and what Johnny Depp did for Jack Sparrow in the first Pirates of the Caribbean; only he handles the character with such finesse and discipline that he creates a more three-dimensional character than anyone is likely to have seen on the silver screen. The complexity of the man has so obviously been thoroughly explored by Raimi and Franco that he becomes such a flesh and blood human it seems astounding that he could ever be a wizard. Franco’s depiction of Oz is such that he ceases, as an actor, to be a medium to the character, and fully becomes him in a way that every look and every utterance comes from the heart and soul of Oz himself.
The amazing story of the redemption of Oz (both the land and the man) starts out in Kansas, where we find our trickster little more than a petty thief with some theatrical flair and a weakness for the ladies. The black and white photography is some of the crispest most beautiful I have ever seen and Raimi’s first action sequence of the film is harrowing, desperate, comical and brilliant, as is the predictable, but no less illuminating first glorious glimpse of the land of Oz in full color, mirroring of course the moment of Dorothy’s arrival 73 years ago. As a stranger in a strange land, Oz struggles with the opportunity to start fresh and the irresistible urge to take advantage, especially when the chips are down, but before he is even fully aware of his predicament, the choices he makes upon his arrival begin to seal his destiny and shape the people he meets.
It’s an epic journey full of great humor and powerful imagery that marks a monumental technical and artistic achievement. Danny Elfman’s score is so perfectly in tune with the production and a must have, especially for fans of his work on Big Fish and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Peter Deming, Director of Photography, gets to play with every trick in his trunk and creates a seamless and believable atmosphere where fantasy knows no bounds.
The rest of the cast is terrific, but my favorite supporting performances come from Oz’s primary companions, played by Joey King and Zach Braff. These characters lit up the screen and really played a part in Oz’s transformation as opposed to simply adding comic relief.
Oz the great and Powerful in Real 3D will envelope you in a world unlike any other, so real and so imaginary it is a sensation that is unique to cinema alone and yet only the highest of aims and the loftiest of dreams can harness it. It provides sufficient enjoyment of these gifts yet never treads away from the story. So you can ease on down the road with little urgency, but no less compulsion to move forward. This is a great piece of art that introduces one of the greatest characters in cinema history to one of cinema’s oldest and most timeless worlds.
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…
As a fan of all genres that provide high quality entertainment and good writing, I am not the least bit twitchy about renting (or even going to see) a family film if I think it will deliver. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island is definitely one of those films. As a sequel it transcends the original with great humor that any kid at heart can enjoy. It’s a simple story about fatherhood, family bonds, and appreciating those you can rely on to be in your corner.
Far from the typical storyline about oblivious parents who don’t understand their out of control kid, Journey 2 offers a refreshingly interested and helpful stepfather Hank (Dwayne Johnson). Despite being pretty much the perfect parent, Sean (Josh Hutcherson) and his grandfather (Michael Caine) refuse to accept him at first. Dwayne Johnson is always awesome and he brings everything to the table for Journey 2. Despite Johnson’s mass and proven comedic skills, the bulk of the comedy comes from other father in the film (Luis Guzman), the pilot who agrees to fly Hank and Sean to the island. His silly shenanigans are a delight and make this just a good fun movie to enjoy if you want some really light entertainment.
The film is never bogged down or overburdened with a message. The message is clear, but it’s packaged cleverly within the unfolding drama and never becomes preachy as these films often can be. The special effects were good enough, but not prize-winning. All in all, it was a well-balanced family adventure that is definitely worth watching with or without kids, if you are in the right mood. A