Tag Archives: Childhood

“FINDING DORY” Review (✫✫✫✫)

Just keep swimming.

There is absolutely no reason why a movie called Finding Dory should be this good. Absolutely no reason. The last time Pixar attempted a sequel/spinoff, we got Cars 2, a cheeky and unnecessary addition to the Pixar universe. Finding Dory is equally unnecessary, but the good news is that it knows that. So instead of trying to follow up from its first film, it chooses to focuses on telling its own story rather than trying to expand upon another one. What we get is something truly rare: an animated sequel that is every bit as good as its predecessor. Considering that’s Finding Nemo, I think this is the best possible movie you could have gotten from Finding Dory.

Years before Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) met Marlin (Albert Brooks), Dory was just a baby fish happily playing with her parents. Just as forgetful and funny as her older self is, Dory was trained by her parents to say 10 words to any new fish she meets: “Hi, I’m Dory, and I have short-term memory loss.” (Or “reromry”, as she likes to pronounce it). Happy and comforted around her parents, baby Dory is afraid what might happen if she was ever separated from them, or worse, if she even forgot them.

Fast forward many years later, after the events of Finding Nemo. Dory suddenly remembers her parents and her life before meeting Marlin and Nemo (Hayden Rolence). Now determined to find her parents and be reunited again after all these years, Dory, Marlin, and Nemo embark on yet another journey across the ocean to find Dory’s family.

The first time I watched Finding Nemo, I was completely entranced by everything about it. The characters, story, animation, colors, and environments immediately swept me from my theater seat and plunged me 100 feet in the ocean to witness this story about a father and his son. At originally hearing about Finding Dory, all I felt was concern. Minus the Toy Story franchise, Pixar hadn’t handled its sequels as well as its first entries. I was really worried they were about to turn Finding Nemo into a cash-grabber, something that Finding Nemo is worth much more than.

Turns out I had no reason to be worried. Finding Dory is not only a smart homage to its origins, but also a funny, unique, and emotional roller coaster of a film that stands very well on its own two feet (well, fins). The screenplay, co-written by director Andrew Stanton, displays a fine understanding of everyone’s favorite forgetful fish. So fine, in fact, that this movie truly stands on its own, needing almost no support from its previous entry.

Watch the first scenes of Finding Dory closely. Like Finding Nemo, they pull you into the character’s reality and establish an almost immediate connection with your subject. In Finding Nemo, we watched as Marlin lost his wife and most of his children in one of the most tragic openings ever. In Finding Dory, we witness the opposite as a child loses her parents, although not in the same way. The same feeling is established in both cases: a deepened sense of loss, confusion, and grief. You look at baby Dory swimming around aimlessly in the ocean, and you can’t help but feel a deep sense of sympathy for this poor baby fish, alone and with no sense of direction or security.

This sympathy lasts throughout the entire movie, and that’s because Stanton has a clear understanding of Dory and how to get us to care about her. We don’t see Dory as a supporting character in Finding Dory, and we shouldn’t either. This is truly her story, and she appropriately takes center stage as we’re wrapped into her journey and emotions.

I have absolutely no gripes with this film. No criticisms. No recommendations to improve it any further from where it already is now. If we had to compare, then Finding Nemo is clearly superior, but that’s only because we’ve had more time to appreciate it. If Finding Nemo never happened, Finding Dory not only makes sense without it: it stands on its own and functions as its own entry. That’s because Stanton knows how to masterfully guide his audience without manipulating them, and we get caught up into Dory’s story not because we have to, but because we want to.

What we have left is an unchallenged successor to Finding Nemo: a movie that replicates the same appeal of characters, animation, wonder, and amazement as we’re completely engrossed into this story, not once feeling like it’s artificial or incomplete. When Pixar prepares to make the third entry, I officially now want it to be titled Finding Marlin. I trust Pixar enough that they’ll take it in the right direction.

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“INSIDE OUT” Review (✫✫✫✫)

A lot going on inside Riley’s head.

Pixar movies have a way of transcending fantasy and translating it into a form of reality. Does that make any sense? Of course it does, because you’ve seen many of Pixar’s masterpieces before. Up’s fantasy is about a man building a floating house about balloons, but the reality it’s portraying is an elder man dealing with personal loss and finding happiness in unexpected places. WALL-E’s fantasy is about a clumsy dumpster robot, but its reality is about discovering humanity and protecting our home and history. And Toy Story. Ooff. That’s a fantasy about one boy’s childhood with his toys and how they’ve impacted him into his adulthood. That is also its reality.

Here we have another colorful Pixar masterpiece that uses reality as its springboard for creativity and fantasy, using a human being as a setting, and her emotions as its characters. The human is Riley Anderson (Kaitlyn Dias), an 11-year-old girl who just recently moved from Minnesota to San Francisco. Her emotions are Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black), and their memories with her make up the core of Riley’s personality and how she reacts in different situations. After the move-in, Riley gets all shaken up from all of the new adjustments she has to get used to, from being the new kid at school, to moving in to a home smaller than her old one. It’s up to her vibrant and unique emotions to try and keep Riley together and make her new life a happy, sad, fearful, disgusted, and angry one.

Written and directed by Pete Docter, who also helmed Pixar’s Monsters Inc. and Up, Inside Out is a clever, original animated feature that uses the human psyche as its playground. The best thing about the movie is seeing how creative it is in re-creating the human brain for a child’s mind, and seeing children react to all of the colorful adventures going on in this infinite cranial wonderland.

The first thing you notice with the film is its animation: vibrant colors and character models reach out to you in vivid details, even more so without the dimmed effects of 3D. Memories come in the form of small bowling ball spheres, colored after the fashion of each of Riley’s emotions. Different parts of her life are modeled into vast theme-park-like islands, from Family Land all the way to Goofball Island. Each island is also jam-packed with its own sleek features and gadgets that make you feel like you’re in the wonderful landscape of Disney land. Be honest: you would love to ride the literal “Train of thought” if it existed, wouldn’t you?

The film’s creative landscape, though, is to be expected. We’ve seen dozens of vast, colorful settings from many of Pixar’s films before. Andy’s room in Toy Story. Paradise Falls in Up. The AXIOM in WALL-E. You can probably name one setting that struck your eye in each movie, from the world of self-aware automobiles in Cars to the anthill in A Bug’s Life. Pixar has never failed in creativity, and I doubt anyone expects them to start failing now.

What I’m most impressed with is how the film handles its vastly ambitious premise, even with the film’s somewhat purported flaws. For instance, in Riley’s mind, a lot of childish, silly things go on that might make adults go on “offline” mode while the kids laugh at the overt goofiness going on the screen, like double rainbows and processed boyfriend machines. The characters are mostly one-dimensional, and for a film that has five emotions in it, the movie primarily focuses on only two of them: Joy and Sadness.

In any other movie, these quote-unquote “flaws” would make the film a weaker experience for me. It didn’t here. Why? The film’s premise, setting, and execution constitutes a need for each of these elements, making them contributors to the plot instead of distractions degrading from the experience. I would knock the film for being really silly and goofy at times, but it’s taking place in a kid’s mind. What else would be in the ecstatic and excited mind of a child? Doom, gloom, and misery? The characters are mostly one-dimensional and go through little change in the motion picture, but isn’t that kind of expected? I mean, what emotions do you think characters named Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger are going to feel? Woe, Delight, Calm, Desire, and Peace? That would break their characters, and detract from the personalities and make them who they are. Finally, there’s the greater focus of using Joy and Sadness as the film’s key players instead of the others. There’s a specific reason for doing this. It’s because those are the core emotions any human being is going to experience: positive and negative.

In the film, Joy and Sadness conflict with each other with their contrasting personalities, each one trying to help Riley in the best ways that they can. Joy wants everything to be happy and optimistic, and for Riley to feel the enjoyment out of every situation. Sadness focuses on the reality of each situation and on the raw reactions one may feel from those that are less than happy. While both emotions conflict with each other in the ways they want to help Riley, they are ultimately the most essential for her. They allow her to express her emotions in their purest forms: in either pure Joy, or pure Sadness.

This is the ultimate meaning of the film, in that there are different things that make up each human being. Some has more anger in their bodies than others. Some may be filled with more Fear than others as well. But like the animated, wacky emotions in Riley’s curious little head, we’re all unique to each other and in the ways that we handle life’s problems. It’s how a baby will react differently to a traffic jam in how a taxi driver would. It’s how a fully-grown man will react differently to broccoli-covered pizza than a toddler would. It’s how a young, maturing boy will react differently to meeting a girl for the first time, and visa-versa.

As human beings, we are all made up of different emotions and personalities, but being different doesn’t mean being bad. Sometimes we need to experience the rawness of certain emotions for certain situations, and that’s not a bad thing. Sometimes, we need the help of Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger to get through life. How we express those emotions is what makes us who we are, and we end up being human beings as unique and diverse as Riley’s wonderful emotions are because of them.

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“THE LEGO MOVIE” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

Bricks, businessmen, and Batman.

The last thing I expected from anything titled The Lego Movie was anything good. How could I? The trailer had the reeking stench of an advertisement, barely differentiating itself from the Lego set commercials that air on children’s cartoon networks. Believe me, I went into this movie expecting an artificial, brainless experience looking only to profit itself from the name of it’s toy line. Boy, do I love it when I am proved wrong.

Based in a colorful world full of Lego bricks, buildings, and set pieces, The Lego Movie follows Emmett (Chris Pratt), an average, regular, 100% ordinary minifigure who loves coffee, people, Taco Tuesdays, cats, cars, work, television, and just about everything else under the orange Lego-bricked sun. If any of the characters in the film knew that they were in a movie, none of them would expect Emmett to be the main character: he has the personality and the appearance of a background character if anything.

One day, while working at his construction job, Emmett comes into contact with a strange red object called “The Piece of Resistance”, and passes out. When he wakes up, he is recruited by Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), a punky and feisty master builder who tells Emmett that he is part of a prophecy that declares that a powerful being called “The Special” will find the Piece of Resistance and use it to overthrow Lord Business (Will Ferrell) and his plans to conquer the Lego-verse. As a result, Emmett gets catapulted into a decade-long conflict between wizards, robots, businessmen, DC superheroes, crazy cats, cyborg pirates, spacemen, and Batman.

Good God, where do I start with this? The Lego Movie is by every definition, a surprise; a fun and wacky little adventure that is just as original and audacious as it is clever and funny. Written and directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the same guys who co-wrote and co-directed Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs, these filmmakers worked to instill the same sense of energy, youth, and entertainment from that movie into this one. It’s surprising that the movie is not just good: it’s borderline great.

One of the things I love most about the movie is the animation. Like any great animated film, it reaches out to you in vivid, eye-catching detail, it’s beautiful colors and visuals striking out to you like a panel on a beautifully-crafted graphic novel. But it’s not just how the animation looks in itself: it’s also in how Lord and Miller achieved the effects they were going for. Nearly everything in the film was modeled from lego bricks and pieces, and I do mean everything. The buildings, the vehicles, the space stations: even seemingly trivial things such as the water, lava, and clouds are all made out of lego pieces, with explosions literally showing red-and-orange lego studs as they blow up. It would be so easy just to be cheap and give basic effects for the wind, the water, fire, sky, and everything else in the film, but Miller and Lord didn’t want to go that route. They wanted to make an authentic, accurate world jam-packed with lego pieces and objects. To put anything else in there would just cheapen the effects, and their persistence made for the best visual result that they could possibly have had.

Just as much though, I love the characters Lord and Miller wrote for this movie. Like the animation and lego bricks, they all have variety to them, and they all have colorful, unique personalities that make you want to relate to each character. You have Benny, a 1980’s space astronaut who is so obsessed with spaceships that he could build one from a pile of garbage bricks if you dared him to. You have UniKitty, a unicorn/kitten that has such a split sweet/violent personality that she would scare little children if they were locked in the same room with her. There’s Metal Beard, a pirate-turned-cyborg whose body literally blows up like a amalgam of lego bricks like a real lego mini figure. Also, Batman is in the movie.

The key character here, however, is Emmett, a sweet and charming little mini figure with intentions so pure, he at times can seem like a child with his quirky little antics. Emmett is the epitome of childhood in this movie: innocent, curious, creative, passionate, and at times a little too immature for his own good. His strengths and his flaws both make up for a very interesting character, a mini figure that we can all relate to because of his average nature and his desire to be greater than he already is. He may be made out of Lego pieces, but Emmett is more human than most of the live-action actors you’ve seen in motion pictures this year.

The movie does suffer from a slight drag in run time, and like it’s protagonist, the movie is at times too childish for it’s own good. That doesn’t change the fact that this movie is a clever, funny, original, and heartfelt take on childhood and what it means to be grown up, but always remain young at heart. The Lego Movie is much more than just a movie. It’s a celebration of creativity.

Post-script: Did I forget to mention that Batman is in the movie?

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“BOYHOOD” Review (✫✫✫✫)

A scrapbook by Richard Linklater.

The main character’s name in Boyhood is not Mason. His name is also David. And Connor. And Warren. Aaron. Stacey. Tony. Eric. Steven. Ben. Richard. And so on and so forth until you’ve listed every masculine name in the dictionary. I probably went eight names over how many I needed to list, but you get my point. We’re doing more than just watching one boy’s journey into adulthood here. We’re watching ourselves grow with him.

Strange, I think. I don’t normally sympathize with characters to the point where I feel like I AM them. Relating to protagonists is a somewhat straightforward task; you merely need to introduce the character along with their conflict, and then let the filmmaker do his work to bringing their arc to life.

But with Boyhood, I face an interesting prospect: there is no one conflict that Mason faces in the story. Like myself and my closest family and friends, Mason’s conflict is life itself, complete with all of its blessings, gifts, challenges, and turmoils alike. If you’re still not getting the picture, let me put it to you this way; if I were a filmmaker, and I were adapting the full story of your life, would I be able to condense it into one or two events?

The answer is no, I couldn’t. There is a whole multitude of issues you’ve faced in your life, just like I did, and I’m sure we could turn those issues into ten or twelve more movies if we tried. Director Richard Linklater chose not to do that. With Boyhood, he took one boy’s life, a small child he found named Ellar Coltrane, and followed him from age six until age 18, gradually showing his life progress and the challenges he faced as he grew into a man year, by year, by year.

It’s fascinating I tell you, to watch a movie progress from one generation to another. I look at Ellar as a young boy obsessing over cartoons and action figures while his sister, portrayed by Linklater’s daughter Lorelei, constantly talks about makeup and Britney Spears. I look at these children’s parents, played by a significantly younger Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, as they struggle to connect and be there for their children and to be the best parents they possibly can be. It’s interesting to see these children mature from young, simple-minded beings to young adults, trying to find their own paths in life while their parents mature from being those young adults to the older, more mature parents that have faced, and survived, every difficulty they could have ever faced.

It’s pointless to describe what the plot of the movie is like. What is the plot of the movie? Fill the movie with your life experiences, and you have the plot. I caught myself many times reliving past memories while watching the movie, sympathizing with Mason as I remember how I too faced issues such as bullying, peer pressure, puberty, growing up, and finding a place where I belonged.

It’s not so much a movie as it is a scrapbook of memories, and Linklater is merely showing the memories on screen like he’s pulling a photograph out of a book.

What of the performances then? Patricia and Ethan are the most emotive performances out of the movie, but that’s to be expected considering they’ve been working on this movie, among others, for literally a decade. Lorelei is cute as a child at the beginning of the film, but as the movie continues on, it begins to focus more on Ellar while Lorelei, more or less, fades in to the background.

That being said, Ellar isn’t the most compelling actor in the film. As a child at the beginning, he is the most believable, but that’s because he’s living, not acting, in the moment. When he’s playing with his friends or when he’s dressed up for the Harry Potter premiere, you know that’s him being excited in the moment, similar to how Drew Barrymore believed E.T. was real during the filming for E.T: The Extra Terrestrial. As he gets older, however, he gets less emotional about things and more or less goes through the motions wherever Linklater guides him.

At first, I thought this was an obvious criticism to the film, because how is a kid going to maintain his acting ability through 12 years of his life? As I look deeper, however, I realize that Ellar isn’t intended to give a performance. He isn’t meant to be an actor, but a surrogate, a character whose emotions and memories we fill in the film and then we sympathize with because those are the same emotions we faced when we were his age.

Mason goes through a lot in this movie. As a toddler, he witnesses his parents go through divorce. As a child, he faces abuse from his alcoholic stepfather. As a teenager, bullying. As a high schooler, heartbreak. This movie is so tangible that it made me want to grab hold of Mason. It made me want to hold him and hug him, telling him the same thing my mother told me when I was going through my own issues at his age.

I want to grab him and say to him, “You’re going to be okay, Mason. You’re going to be okay.”

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“MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO” Review (✫✫✫✫)

My name isn’t Totoro, kids.  It’s Hayao Miyazaki. 

Now this is what we’re supposed to get when we go in to see an animation picture.  My Neighbor Totoro is everything you expect it to be, and equally as much everything you don’t expect it to be.  This is definitely a kids movie, intended to fulfill the needs of the most innocent and simple-minded of younger viewers.  But this is a rare treasure for adults too, a film that is equally fulfilling and emotionally appealing to older audiences as it is upbeat and joyous for the younger ones.

Taking place in 1950’s Japan, My Neighbor Totoro follows the story of two young sisters named Satsuki and Mei (English dub by Dakota and Elle Fanning), who are moving into their new home with their father Tatsuo (Tim Daly) in order to be closer to their mother in the hospital, Yasuko (Lea Salonga).  Their mother has been sick with an unknown disease for quite some time, and it really concerns the girls because they can’t even get her home for a visit.  Most affected is Satsuki, because her father is always busy, Mei is painstakingly afraid that her mother will leave them, and Satsuki is forced to be the strong one during this time of hardship.

Deep in the forest though, the girls encounter strange beasts of wonder and splendor.  There are these small, darkly black fuzz balls called soot spirits, who hibernate from one dark spot to another.  There are two bunny-like creatures, one white young one who can phase through objects like a ghost, and an older blue one who carries a knapsack of acorns with her everywhere.  Most fascinating though, is a giant, loud, gray beast called Totoro (Frank Welker), a gentle-hearted forest spirit who loves nothing more but to sleep and play on his flute in the silence of the night.  The girls are at first afraid of Totoro’s large, intimidating appearance, but through his gentle, kind-hearted spirit, learn to appreciate him and become friends with Totoro and the forest creatures.

Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, My Neighbor Totoro is a rare animated film where the characters are as vibrant and colorful as the beautiful animation that is being expressed on screen.  You really just need to see these little girls in action: they’re one of the most energetic, emotional, endearing, and inspiring little characters I’ve ever seen.  I knew from the first moment I saw them that I would like them: they are these little oddballs of energy, two cute girls who are literally exploding with energy and enthusiasm as they run across the front lawn, or explore the mysteries of their upstairs attic.

The best moments, however, come from when the little girls encounter Totoro.  Looking from a straightforward perspective at Totoro, its a case of what you see is what you get.  He’s a big, fluffy creature who loves to eat, dance, fly, talk (and by talk, I mean roar loudly), and more than anything else, sleep.  If this were any other animated film, I would say the character was another interpretation of Garfield.

I, however, think Totoro is required for more fervent analysis.  I can’t help but look at Totoro like an emotional recompense for the girls, almost like an imaginary friend to distract them from the pain they experience everyday through their sick mother.  Kids with only one parent will know what I’m talking about: when the one you love is in pain or worse, they want everything in the world to distract them from the reality of what they are experiencing.  Its simply too painful for them to take in all at once.  They need something to distract them, to divert them from reality, and so the younger ones try to focus on something fictional that will put their mind at ease, like an imaginary friend for them to talk with.

Totoro reminds me of that imaginary friend.  Unlike an imaginary friend, however, Totoro is real, and this is proven through the interactions he has with the girls.  He is not just a simple-minded, unintelligent forest animal.  He is considerate towards the girls.  He cares for them.  He expresses real and genuine affection for the girls, and he shows this by dancing with them in the middle of the night, growing trees with them in their backyard, or by letting them ride his Cat Bus in cases of emergency.  Even though Totoro is fictional, he’s the most real thing in the movie, taking the girls story filled with hardship and tragedy and filling it with energy, enthusiasm, and life that cannot be faked in a movie.

Every single fiber of me wants to look at this movie and say it is a perfect film, but something stops me.  What is it?  It certainly isn’t the characters, the animation, the story, or the emotion being expressed on screen.  What is it then, if its none of the above?

Of course, I think.  Accessibility.  The weakness with this film, much like the stark foreign language films and the ancient black-and-white silent films, is that it strictly appeals to a certain audience.  You know what I’m talking about: what is the typical american viewer going to see, a boisterous and explosive action movie with big name actors starring in it, or some independent animated film made by some guy whose name they can’t even pronounce?  The weakness here is this: people who don’t like anime won’t like it, and probably shouldn’t see it, because this film mainly appeals to that same audience and culture through its story and through its execution.  Because of that, Totoro will lose some viewers in its audience.

But even then, is that the fault of the filmmaker for not conforming to their tastes, or the audiences for not being open about it?  Regardless of what you think, My Neighbor Totoro is a magical little film, an uplifting and wonderful fantasy that taps into the inner child in all of us, and in many ways reflects the behavior of children: animate, lifelike, endearing, sincere, and visually expressive.  It’s a movie whose characters are so precious and lifelike that a live-action portrayal couldn’t have been as real as this.  It’s a film that allows us to believe in miracles, even if we don’t necessarily believe in them.  And at the heart of it all is Totoro, a warm, fluffy forest spirit that only loves children more than he does sleeping on his favorite moss bed.

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