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A bit late to the table, maybe, but this movie was delayed several times, so it’s only fitting my response is as well.  My initial take on The Good Dinosaur, and I mean my take on it going into the theater, was that it was about to be a damn good movie.  It had to be!  This was Pixar’s last chance to be brilliantly original for the next few years, and despite the bad reviews I read in the days before the movie was released, I really was hoping that it would be a misunderstood winner.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t.

I think one unsettling qualm I had with this film was that it lacked any compelling antagonist.  There’s nobody in this film that you can point to immediately and say, “That guy (or gal [or thing]).”  You might argue that it was the scavengers, and I would agree with you if I they appeared onscreen for more than 12 minutes total.  Outside of those 12 minutes, the birds hardly influenced Arlo’s journey.

Don’t worry, I also haven’t missed the fact that this film is a coming-of-age story either.  I get it, Arlo is learning to fend for himself as he finds his way back home, but that is not at all original.  Keep in mind, the studio that gave us UpWall-E, Monsters Inc., and Finding Nemo is falling back on this extremely patterned, typical, trite story.  True, all of these films have elements of self-discovery, but Pixar was more careful in toeing the line between self-discovery and coming-of-age, and in this case they simply fell on the wrong side of that line.  In past films, Pixar has presented simple stories in new forms.  The Good Dinosaur painfully reeked of The Lion King, and there wasn’t a moment in the film where I felt genuinely surprised or unsure of the next development in the story.  The scene that absolutely boggled my mind was when Arlo and his dad run through the field together at night and wake up the lightning bugs.  It so clearly harkened back to Lion King that I was entirely removed from the film at hand.  If there was any other goal to this scene’s extremely direct extra-filmic reference, it was entirely lost on me.

I don’t want to fully bog down on Pixar, though.  From what I understand, this film had deep troubles, and after passing through the hands of several different directors, as well as seeing its release date pushed back a few times, one might see how Pixar would fall back on a recycled, simplistic storyline.  I also loved the artistic decision to blend ultra-realistic settings with caricatured dinosaurs.  While I can see it would be unsettling for some, I found it visually fascinating, like when Eddie Valiant enters Toontown in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988).  It almost seems to signal that the film is not taking itself too seriously with such a visual contrast.

Overall, I was really excited to see a new, original story from Pixar, but was disappointed that by and large it presented us with nothing all that new.  An entirely predictable story, and any reasonable familiarity with Lion King will automatically cue all viewers back to that film.  Bad move.  I was impressed, however, with “Sanjay’s Super Team”.  While I believe that it would have received a lot more fire had Christianity been featured as prominently in the short as Hinduism was, I really respect Pixar’s effort to present a culture and story that is most likely unfamiliar to many of its audiences.  Especially with their coming line up of sequels, it’s awesome Pixar is able to retain some autonomy in their short subjects.  

“I’m a huge Beatles fan” is one of my least favorite phrases.  Seriously, if liking the music the Beatles made makes you a huge Beatles fan, then who isn’t a big Beatles fan?  If knowing the chronological release order of the albums makes you a huge Beatles fan, then still, who isn’t a big Beatles fan?  My point is, everybody is a big Beatles fan, and I need you, the reader, to understand that I do not fall into this category.  If a pedestrian knowledge of the Beatles makes you a huge Beatles fan, then I am (or at least used to be) of some level much higher than that.

When I was in grades 5-8, I got my hands on every book, disc, and film pertaining to the Fab Four.  I had two passionate interests: The Beatles and Disney.  I truly loved the Beatles (and I still really enjoy their music), and so when the Beatles’ edition of Rock Band was being released on 09/09/09, I built up my excitement for nearly a year and a half awaiting the release of that game.  As you may have guessed, playing the game that first day wasn’t all I had imagined it would be.  A lot of the songs I wanted to be featured were missing, it really wasn’t all that difficult, and after a few hours I just got bored with it.  Gee whiz, that day kind of sucked.

Ever since this incredible let down, I have been careful not to attach my hopes too strongly to any product.  I was careful to do this with Big Hero 6 as well.  About a month before its release, I was visiting Disneyland with a friend when I noticed an extended preview for the film featuring Baymax in the Magic Eye Theater.  Honestly, Baymax and his buddies had really been sitting on the back-burner of my mind up until that point.  Normally, about a month before a Disney release I tend to get truly excited for the upcoming film.  I remember Wreck-it Ralph had me researching video games on Wikipedia for hours in anticipation of viewing it.  However, this time as we walked by the posters, I felt a sort of dread in my stomach.  It was highly unlikely that anything could top the success of last year’s Frozen, but it wasn’t really the success of the film I was worried about, rather just me actually liking the story.

Long story short, I went in with low expectations, and I came out moderately satisfied.

Three major problems I had with this film were: 1) Disney is taking the Pixar approach now of forcing emotion through loss and death, 2) there was a grossly underdeveloped group of semi-major characters, and 3) it overall felt like a re-hashing of a Scooby-Doo episode.

First, Pixar has this strange habit of killing characters or artificially creating a sense of loss so that the audience emotionalizes with the film.  Maybe its a Lasseter thing because it’s popping up in Disney animation now too (the past three Disney animated features have all created a major sense of loss in the last ten minutes of the film).  Before those, take for example Monsters Inc. (2001).  In the final moments of the film, the audience suddenly has this big scare that Sully will never see Boo again after her door is shredded.  Never fear, though!  Mike is able to reconstruct the door and allow his buddy to re-visit his toddler pal just before the credits roll.  Heartwarming, isn’t it?  But wait, didn’t we just see this again?  Big Hero 6 closes off a portal, and poor Hiro will never be able to see his buddy Baymax again after it closes.  Once again, looks like events work out just perfectly so that he can rebuild the robot and restore his programming so that they can continue having adventures together.  This death scare ending is also seen in Finding Nemo (2003), WALLE (2008), Toy Story 3 (2010), Tangled (2010), Brave (2011), Wreck-It Ralph (2012)and Frozen (2013).  Admittedly, it’s a solid tactic to force the audience to buy into the story.  It gains sympathy and interest for what’s taking place on screen, but in reality it’s an empty sense of loss.  The loss of Tadashi — one of the few characters in the film that is actually somewhat developed before he is killed off — pales in comparison to the loss of Ellie in Up (2009) that Carl experiences very early.  However, maybe it’s not fair to compare this film to Up given that the strong emotion that opening montage provokes is rarely found to be executed so quickly and expertly in any film.  Take then Ratatouille (2007), a film that contains the death of two characters, but the difference is each take place from the outset of the film, so there is no artificial, forced sense of loss, nor is any character’s action or motivations really driven by these deaths.  A wonderful story follows without any part of the plot hinging on impending loss.  Clearly, it’s possible for Disney Animation (currently under the control of Pixar staff) to execute a story without reminding its audience of mortality, so that’s a change I’d certainly like to see in the future.

Another issue I had with this film is that several of the characters remain incredibly underdeveloped over the course of the film.  As I mentioned before, the character of Tadashi actually quickly works his way into favor with the audience before he is rubbed out.  It seems like the writers wanted so badly for us to accept and embrace Tadashi before they killed him that they forgot to develop the rest of the story after his death (which is a major 2/3 chunk of the film).  I honestly have a difficult time recalling each of the characters’ names in Hiro’s band of crimefighters, pointing to their lack of presence in the film and the origin story of this group.  Fred, Honey Lemon, Go Go, and Wasabi, the four others in this band of six, simply seem to exist so that we can follow Hiro as he struggles through coping with the loss of his brother.  The problem is that the film is a self-described “origin story,” so focusing instead consistently on struggling through loss confuses the identity of the movie: is it a film about a single character’s maturation or about how a group of characters came together to form a super team.  Clocking in at 102 minutes, it really doesn’t have time to be both.  It’s attempting to do so makes the time fly by, and ultimately leaves the audience feeling not even the satisfaction of a cliffhanger, but the disappointment of a film that never found what story it wanted to tell.

Finally, what I felt was the strangest qualm I had, and I only noticed this after the credits had rolled, was it seemed as though this was a revisitation of the Scooby-Doo concept.  A group of kids gather together with a robot replacing the canine in order to solve the mystery of who is behind the crimes being committed.  For crying out loud, they take a mask off of the villain.  If that doesn’t scream “zoinks” then I’m not sure what will.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Scooby-Doo, but would you really pay $20 to sit and watch an hour and a half of a reincarnation of those meddling kids?  Maybe its an unfounded, opinionated criticism, but once I noticed the similarities, the film lost a lot of depth for me.

All-in-all, as I said before, it’s a mediocre film in terms of story.  In terms of business, Big Hero 6 is doing nicely domestically, crossing its $165 million budget in stateside gross this past weekend.  Internationally, it’s accumulated approximately $225 million, according to Box Office Mojo.  It’s no Frozen, nor is it even hitting the numbers Maleficent put up this past summer, but with little competition ahead these next few weeks in terms of family fare, the film should do plenty of business.  It’s beautifully animated, especially the fluffy, spongy Baymax, but for what it is, the money it has earned thus far is a little more than it maybe deserved.   It was an enjoyable feature that I hope Disney has the decency to resist making a sequel to.

A few things to observe about The Lego Movie:

*It earned $69 million in February.  It’s animated.

*It sits at number two among all-time February openings ahead of Friday the 13th (2009), Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail, Shutter Island, The Vow, Hitch, Ghost RiderValentine’s Day, and Hannibal.  It only trails Passion of the Christ’s $83 million dollar opening.  As it happens, this is the same list for all time opening weekends in the winter, where it sits at number 2 as well.

*It features celebrity heavyweights such as Will Ferrell, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, and other big names including Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Jonah Hill, Charlie Day, Alison Brie, and Channing Tatum.

*It’s looking at a holiday weekend coming up February 14-17.

*Its production budget of $60 million practically guarantees that we’ll be seeing a sequel within the next two years.

*Google worked a nice tie-in during the previews to its Chrome-app version of the Lego Digital Designer, a virtual lego builder that’s been around since I was ten.

This is the next Frozen.  What’s going for Lego is that, like Frozen, its word of mouth capability will carry the picture far.  What’s working against it is the stigma that it’s a product-placement slap to the face for anybody over the age of seven.  Even twelve year-old Ivan Sanchez remarked in an interview with Variety that the movie was for younger kids.  What’s going to overcome this obstacle, however, is word-of-mouth.  In the theater, laughter didn’t come from howling and screeching six year-olds every two minutes, rather there seemed to be a collective satisfaction in the humor on-screen.  Kids would laugh at Superman being covered in a pile of gum; adults would laugh at his misery in being wedged in next to the annoying, useless superhero Green Lantern.  This film has potential for some very strong legs, and I find it promising that, as more people see Lego and find out that it is in truth an ironic criticism of consumer culture and the parents who just buy whatever sets Lego puts out, it will connect with the cynical, grown-up, too-good-for-toys audience (like teenagers).

Something else we can expect from The Lego Movie is an inevitable sequel.  I’d like to think that the film’s central messages on creativity and originality would deter a follow up, but should the original team refuse, another will be hired.  Animal Logic, the animation team primarily behind the movie, has created such superb, specific programming and techniques for animating square, restricted bricks that, should they for any reason not be back on board with any sequel, the product will without question be considerably less than the original.  Look here for an article and here for a video on the making of The Lego Movie (provided by cartoonbrew.com).  Both provide details into the intricate, precise creation of a lego world in an animated movie.

Connections are important.  They are the supply lines of careers that can often act as a springboard for up-and-coming talent in any profession.  In film especially, connections can provide a strong basis on which you can begin a career.  The best way to form these when you live in the middle of nowhere is through email, and over the years, that is exactly what I’ve been trying to do.  I’ve come across some very valuable advice from a woman who has worked as an animator on The Princess and the Frog and Winnie the Pooh.  Just recently, according to iMDb.com, she worked in the visual development of Wreck-it Ralph.  This woman is Sarah Airriess whose blog you can find here.

Following the release of The Princess and the FrogI found Mrs. Airriess’ name listed in the credits as an apprentice animator.  Hoping to find how she had made it to this stage in her life, I emailed her a few questions along the lines of “What advice do you have for a kid who wants to do what you do some day?” I also couldn’t resist asking her what parts she animated.  The response I received was fantastic, and her advice was surprisingly simple.

First of all, she recommended some materials to learn from, specifically a website this website:  The Temple of the Seven Golden Camels .  It is a goldmine in terms of explaining various aspects of storytelling.  The author(s) has posted articles ranging in subject from costumes to character arcs.  Whether you want to better understand movies, or simply add to your writing, this blog will help out invaluably.  In addition to this, Mrs. Airriess recommended the practice of “stop-framing,” as she described it.  Basically, she explained that by playing back animated classics like Snow White or Tarzan frame by frame, a viewer can study character movements and understand better the idea of what animation should look like in the individual drawings.  Through the method of “stop-framing,” you really can get a first-hand look at what animation legends put into their drawings to bring out the life.  I’ve even tried it with Looney Tunes cartoons.  When “stop-framing” a Looney Tunes cartoon however, if it is directed by Chuck Jones, you will find that every few frames contain one of his own key frames, as he would draw out the keys for many of his cartoons, including all three episodes of The Hunting Trilogy.

I also found that Mrs. Airriess animated in The Princess and the Frog many background and crowd shots, as well as a few scenes with Dr. Facilier.  The lesson to be learned from all of this is that a simple email is possibly the most empowering tool for any adolescent looking towards his or her future.  The worst that can happen is your contact may decline or forget to respond due to a heavy work schedule.  All of this valuable advice has come straight from a professional.  It’s safe to say that connections are pretty powerful stuff, and coincidently, they’re in the name of my blog.  (I didn’t mean to do that at all).

Sarah Airriess created this pencil test of Dr. Facilier.  Notice how much energy and flexibility she gave Facilier in this shot, even though the camera angle was in an unfamiliar position.  It’s impressive how visible the energy is in the character, despite the rough form it is presented in the video.  ( http://www.penciltestdepot.com/2011/03/bruce-smith-facilier-patf.html )

The last four years have been torture.  Studios have been attempting to pump out film versions of characters completely unsuitable for the big screen.  First it was Speed Racer, then Yogi Bear, and we can’t forget the forgettable Smurfs.

Now, Sony Animation is feeling Popeye needs to be brought to the big screen, this time in animation (Robin Williams starred in 1980’s awful live-action film Popeye).  There are few circumstances under which I will accept Sony’s Popeye.  Either, a), Genndy Tartakovsky, the appointed director, brings back, from the original 1930’s comics, Hamgravy, Castor Oyl, the Sea Hag, King Blozo, etc., or b) this movie doesn’t get made.

I hate to be so critical of this Tartakovsky project, because in terms of pure entertaiment, Dexter’s Laboratory has always been one of my favorites, but I can’t take any more of these reboots.  Ever since Fantagraphics released the original E.C. Segar comics in six book-form volumes, I’ve become a dedicated  Popeye comic-strip fan.  Segar’s original comics were the greatest adventure stories ever written.  I’d go so far as to say they were the first true superhero stories.  He took on every setting from the old west to foreign countries, and even stretched his stories into the boxing ring on Sundays.  True comic fans also know that Popeye actually rarely ate spinach, and only took on Bluto but a few times in print.

The problem with a Popeye film is the roots upon which the writers will draw.  He was a cartoon genius, but Max Fleischer’s Popeye is not E.C. Segar’s Popeye.  It’s like comparing McDonald’s and Wendy’s: they’re selling the same product, but one is just so much better than the other.  I would feel reassured if I knew Tartakovsky would base his Popeye off of Segar’s, but that just will not happen.  In an interview with Fred Topel of Crave Online, Tartakovksy stated, “You don’t want to put Popeye in a baseball hat and sunglasses and gym shoes, but at the same time he can’t be a pipe smoking sailor.”  I guess that’s reassuring that we won’t be seeing Popeye in “a baseball hat and sunglasses and gym shoes,” but that honestly should be a given.  The problem I have is that in the second part of that quote, he indicates that Popeye will have to lose his iconic pipe.  The pipe in both Segar’s comics and Fleischer’s cartoons was an absolute must.  It is as much a part of Popeye as his one eye or his over-inflated forearms!

It’s the loss of things like his pipe that reveals to me there will be no Hamgravy, no King Blozo, and no Sea Hag.  We’ll just end up seeing a rehash of the Fleischer spinach-eating, Bluto beating, mumbling Popeye.  And if Tartakovsky strays even from that, I don’t think I’ll be able to hold down lunch.  My advice: Skip the movie ticket and buy a Popeye Fantagraphic Collection book instead.