Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Pixar Rundown

Toy Story (1995)

I was "too old" for "cartoons" when it came out, but saw it because of all the hype. From the get-go, it was groundbreaking, inventive, the concept was sharply exploited and executed, it had genuine wit stemming from the characters rather than contrived setups and, most importantly, it was touching.

Not a kid’s flick at all, but a grown up movie about being a kid that kids can also enjoy. Together with The Lion King, it cemented the fact that I would never be too old for good "cartoons".

***** – for changing the industry

A Bug’s Life (1998)

It never managed to lure me into the cinema, but I caught it years later on an overnight flight.

Technically groundbreaking for its time (the crowd scenes), although it’s hard to believe now. There’s nothing wrong with it, and plenty right with it, but there's just not enough that makes it shine as a classic. Basically, it's The Seven Samurai retold for kids. As always, it’s sharp, witty, very entertaining and caters well for both kids & their parents. But it lacks the maturity and sensitivity of the Toy Story franchise.
***1/2 – superior kids entertainment, if a bit dated

Toy Story 2 (1999)

Pulled the rare trick of successfully expanding the template of the original, resulting in an even slicker, funnier and more emotional film.

Amazingly, it never feels redundant or superfluous, even years later. It's a tribute to the strength of the characters that they manage to stay fresh and never overstay their welcome. The Sarah McLachlan abandonment montage is the only detractor for me, although I seem to be in the minority. When there's singing, I have flashbacks of Pocahontas and disengage instantly. To TS2's credit, they won me back again almost instantly, before I even noticed.

**** - a perfect sequel

Monsters Inc (2001)

I didn’t see it in theatres because it struck me as a kiddies flick. I saw it on video a few years later and, yes, it is a kiddies flick, but a very good one.

Technically superb and, once again, groundbreaking (the fur). A smart idea, an inventive world and lovable characters make it a fast-paced, easily-funny adventure with well judged tenderness. The sequel threatens to dull the charm of the original, and the integrity of its studio.

**** – superior kids entertainment, not much dated

Finding Nemo (2003)

Nemo is the moment Pixar became PIXAR to me. TV promos on the crafting of the seascapes got me in the cinema, the pure experience of it got me back for a second helping.

One of the most perfectly judged family films ever - genre regardless. A compellingly simple story, a vividly inviting underwater world and high quality laughs cater to grown ups without isolating the kids. Enduringly classic comic elements – Dory, the seagulls, the dude turtles – made it into the pop zeitgeist, while the script mines truth from simple family dynamics.

Although it has plenty to say, it never preaches and significant production choices – grounding the visuals in reality, hiring Thomas Newman to score – set it distinctly apart. Why tamper with a second instalment?!

***** - a classic

The Incredibles (2004)

One year after its killer pre-Finding Nemo promo, The Incredibles was everything it promised to be – a smart, witty subversion of the superhero mythos into the real, often underwhelming world – and more; its slick, vintage spy adventure vibes shamed the James Bond franchise of its day for thrills and invention.

Plenty of serious, family stuff is blended with a perfect espionage tone and an original perspective. Really more of a grown up film that kids will also like, it’s perfectly entertaining, but also slyly angst-ridden.

****1/2 – A very well disguised, daringly grown up animation

Cars (2006)

Cars lacks the vitality and freshness of Nemo and The Incredibles, but it’s a glossy, highly enjoyable family outing none the less. This one's more for the kids (and only time would tell that Kids freaking LOVE Cars) but there’s plenty for adults to enjoy.

The plot is not hard to guess upfront, and it does tend to drag, but that's partly the point. John Lasseter quietly digs deep into the homespun goodness of forgotten small towns and offers a convincing argument for the slow, good old analogue way of life. The film admirably takes its time with its story, as it suggests you do with your life.

Once again, the studio outdoes itself with truly breathtaking scenery - from the glitzy race course to the vast arid landscapes - which elevates the film. The epic success of Cars’ merchandising is both a blessing ad a curse, as it sowed the seeds of Capitalism, and Cars 2. 

***1/2 Solid and thoughtful

Ratatouille (2007)

Pixar's annual feature, together with the pre-feauture short and next year's feature teaser, had become an event. The talky Ratatouille promo had promised a return to form after Cars, and boy did it deliver.

A creative concept well realised and beautifully played out with Parisian charm. It follows a familiar outsider-makes-good trajectory, but has such a fresh and distinct voice, and is filled with so much smouldering pleasure and feeling, that you never notice the smooth plot mechanics clicking away – you just enjoy the ride. Every time.

It paints a lovely story with searching questions on the place and role of artists in a violent and often desperate world. Remy’s goofy, defiant passion transcends plot mechanics and reaches for a touching vitality: should he bother trying so hard to be different? Is he causing more harm than good refusing to accept things the way they are?

To top it off, like Nemo before it and, particularly, Wall-E after it, you feel there should be a cinematographer to be showered with awards for the lush visuals and tone of the film. Soups, sauces and Paris have rarely looked so delicious.

***** – Classic animation, classic foodie film

Wall-E (2008)

From the moment I first laid eyes on Wall-E, I was in love. An impossibly adorable creation, the only challenge would be to keep him from saccharine fatigue throughout the span of an entire film. But Wall-E's mechanical E.T. look and enticing clicks and bloops are just the shell for a massively endearing, endlessly charming character that never leaves you wanting for dialogue.

It may be an unlikely one, but Wall-E is a masterpiece – kicking off with the same balls and brio that saw No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood open with twenty or so minutes of an isolated character in a desolate landscape with no dialogue. The story that follows is genius, following its character along a series of sharp left turns that leave you entirely unsure where it is all headed, right up to the last 15 minutes.

A classic, silent love story; potent sci-fi and a film of quietly profound ideas with a message that smartly conceals itself until the final, racing conclusion. Impeccable film making on every conceivable level, it is an uncompromising work of art which somehow endears itself to kids as well. Genius.

***** – Masterpiece

Up (2009)

It’s mix of pathos and slapstick is a bit uneven, but also daring and fresh. It’s not perfect, but manages to lives up to Pixar’s impossibly high standards.

The  nfathomably effective opening 10 minutes and the surreal melancholy of its central concept earned it its place as a Best Picture contender (although it should have been Wall-E that broke the ice), despite the sometimes misfitted humour.

A bold, poetic and welcome addition to the Pixar body of work

**** – it’s originality and pathos overshadow the uncomfortable comedy vibes

Toy Story 3 (2010)

With every reason to be redundant, Toy Story 3 is instead possibly the most thrilling of the franchise.

It very notably puts Toy Story in the very rare class of perfect trilogies, with each film building on the former, legitimately adding more depth and scope to the franchise. Even Star Wars and The Godfather faltered in the final instalment, but Toy Story ends on a high note you didn’t know it had.

The premise and characters are kept fresh with a dramatic change of location, new characters are hugely enjoyable, every joke flies (Spanish Bud soars), and the emotion of the former films is effectively heightened to breaking point, without breaking. Includes scenes of suspense almost too thrilling for kids film and an overwhelming finale built on deep, expansive, perfectly judged nostalgia and a somehow profound understanding of toys, imagination and childhood. Epic. Nervous for the fourth instalment, though.

****1/2 A trilogy doesn't deserve to be so good

Cars 2 (2011)

Why? Oh yes, merchandising. This one's for the kids. Which is forgivable, provided they alternate with films back on form for the rest of us.

Brave (2012)

Fantastic for a Disney princess outing, but disappointing for Pixar. Despite an enjoyable lead character and some potent ideas, Brave's script just doesn't gel. With five writers on board and a mid-production handover, it may be a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth, but Brave feels like a promising set up and a solid, if foreseeable resolution, with a few random scenes thrown in the middle.

It's a pity, because Brave has a lovely magic realist surrealism; a rich, gorgeous setting; plenty of funny jokes and endearing supporting characters. It also has a noteworthy lead - the first Disney princess since Mulan not defined by the finding of a husband (quite the opposite really) and a significant warrior heroine in a year filled with warrior heroines (Merida ranks far above Kristen Stewart's vacant Snow White, but beneath Jennifer Lawrence's selfless Katniss Everdeen).

It only really fails to live up to the studio's impossibly high expectations, particularly painful as it should have atoned for Cars 2's sins, but remains a highly enjoyable and haphazardly inventive family fable with an important heroine for young girls.

***1/2 Its flaws redeemed by its charm