Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

aka Hauru no ugoku shiro

2016 #193
Hayao Miyazaki | 114 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | Japan / English | U / PG

Howl's Moving Castle

Director Hayao Miyazaki’s first film after he won the Oscar for Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle is another fantasy adventure about a young girl encountering a magical world. Well, I’m bending that similarity a bit — the heroine is considerably older than the one in Spirited Away (a young woman rather than a girl) and she already lives in a world where magic exists (but she doesn’t seem to have encountered much of it).

Adapted from a novel by British author Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle concerns Sophie Hatter (voiced in the English version by Emily Mortimer), who works in her family’s hat shop in a fictional Mitteleuropean country in a steampunk-y past (anime really gets away with launching you into these subgenre-mash-up worlds in a way no Western work ever dares, doesn’t it?) After a brief chance encounter with famed wizard Howl (Christian Bale), Sophie is attacked by the wicked Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall) and transformed into an old woman (now voiced by Jean Simmons). She goes hunting for Howl’s titular abode/transportation, wherein she meets sentient fire Calcifer (Billy Crystal), Howl’s young assistant Markl (Josh Hutcherson), and alongside them gets swept into a brewing war with a neighbouring country.

Frankly, the plot is a bit messy, flitting from one situation to another in a way that feels in need of some streamlining. The climax is particularly hurried, underpowered, and under-explained. For example, there’s a missing prince who suddenly turns up to resolve the whole war storyline — a prince who was only mentioned in passing in some background dialogue nearly two hours earlier.

Running up that hill, no problem

However, much of the film is enjoyable in a moment-to-moment sense. The affable characters are quite delightful to get to know even as they’re getting to know each other, and there are some magical sequences. Plus it’s all beautifully designed and animated, as you’d expect from Studio Ghibli, though we should never take such achievements for granted. The English dub is pretty good too, benefitting from Disney picking it up and getting a starry cast, and no doubt the direction of Pete “Monsters Inc / Up / Inside Out” Docter and Rick Dempsey. No disrespect to the professional voice actors who work in anime day-in day-out, but they often perform with a certain stylisation that isn’t always naturalistic.

Apparently Howl’s Moving Castle is Miyazaki’s favourite from his own work, probably because some of its themes (anti-war sentiment, a positive depiction of old age, the value of compassion) are close to his heart. While those are worthwhile topics, they sit alongside the aspects mentioned above as good parts that aren’t wrapped up into a whole that equals their sum. But even if it’s not Ghibli’s finest work, it’s still a likeable fantasy adventure.

4 out of 5

Howl’s Moving Castle was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

Studio Ghibli’s first TV series, Ronja, The Robber’s Daughter, is available on Amazon Prime in the UK and USA (and presumably elsewhere too) from today.

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

2017 #5
Travis Knight | 102 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Kubo and the Two Strings

The latest film from animation studio Laika (Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls), Kubo and the Two Strings is a samurai-action fantasy-adventure inspired by Japanese culture and folklore — but animated in stop-motion and rated PG! Not that either factor in any way undermines what may be the greatest animated movie of last year.

It is, unsurprisingly, the story of Kubo (voiced by Art “Rickon Stark” Parkinson), a young boy in olden-times Japan who regales the folk of his local town with fantastical adventure stories, which he brings to life with origami that he animates using magic from playing his shamisen (basically, Japan’s answer to the banjo). These stories actually come from Kubo’s mother and relate to his own life: Kubo’s grandfather is the evil Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), who they fled from when Kubo was a baby, while his father stayed behind to aid their escape, presumably to the death. Kubo mustn’t go out at night lest the Moon King see him and send his minions, Kubo’s creepy aunts (both Rooney Mara), to capture them. So Kubo never goes out at night and they all live happily ever after.

Not really! When the aunts come for them, Kubo’s mother uses the last of her magic to whisk Kubo away on a quest to find some mythical armour that he’ll need to defend himself against the Moon King. To help him, she brings his wooden monkey charm to life (voiced by Charlize Theron); and along the way they stumble across a man-sized beetle who used to be a samurai (voiced by Matthew McConaughey). Scrapes ensue as the trio hunt for the three pieces of the armour, with the vicious aunts in pursuit.

Monkey, Beetle and Boy

At its most basic, Kubo sounds like an archetypal “fantasy quest” narrative, with a gang of heroes in search of a MacGuffin to defeat a Big Bad. But the devil is in the details — something the folks at Laika know only too well. The Japanese myths they’ve tapped into here make for some fantastic detail; if anything, the familiarity of the broad story arc allows the unique aspects of the mythology to be all the more prominent, including some possibly surprising developments later on. I say “possibly” because I’ve read at least one complaint about the twists being guessable to adult viewers. Well, this is a fable and also, technically, a kids’ movie — just two reasons why plot guessability doesn’t really matter. I mean, if all you want from a movie is to be surprised, why not just watch 90 minutes of things popping out of boxes?

The other aspect massively in Kubo’s favour is the animation. It’s genuinely stunning — beautiful to look at, as well as being technically audacious and consequently impressive. Some of it is so grand that several times I forgot that most of what we’re seeing on screen was built for real and animated by hand over several years. I say “most” because it is augmented with CGI, just as any action-fantasy live-action movie would be these days. The fact there was green screen and compositing and some wholly CG elements doesn’t detract from the technical workmanship on display. That included the largest stop-motion puppet ever built. I won’t spoil what or where it is in the film, but there’s a behind-the-scenes glimpse during the end credits that is breathtaking.

Relatively dangerous

Another area the animation excels is in the action scenes. That’s a field which is rarely animation’s forte, especially stop-motion animation, but Laika took on the challenge and nailed it. Everything from the antics of Kubo’s animated origami to a centrepiece duel aboard a ship at sea are the equal to anything you’d find in a live-action samurai actioner. The character work is excellent too, especially the villains. The aunts are fabulously creepy, mainly thanks to their blank mask faces and the way they float everywhere, seemingly indestructible. There are a couple of other monstrous creatures too, but their wonders deserve to be discovered in situ.

It’s not just scale that Kubo does well: the attention to detail was immense, with Japanese cultural experts called in to inform the tiniest detail, like period-accurate stitching on the clothing. This is background detail on 10-inch puppets, remember, but they went to that much trouble. It’s indicative of the attention paid to every facet of the movie, and while using the correct stitching, or developing appropriate techniques for animating water, or applying genuine principles from Japanese beliefs, do not in themselves make for a great movie, they indicate the level of care taken over this project — which does help to produce a great movie.

Then there’s the music, composed by Dario Marianelli, which integrates the shamisen as well as other appropriate instruments into a consistently lyrical score. And the photography, by Frank Passingham — it’s not just the design work and high-quality builds that make the film so gorgeous to look at, but the quality of the light that’s captured. And I’ve been so busy singing the film’s production praises that I haven’t even mentioned how funny it is, or how emotional, with Mar Haimes and Chris Butler’s screenplay tucking some very positive lessons away in the final act. Indeed, the alternative perspective offered by embracing a different culture means that, for once, they might not just be lessons for kiddie viewers. By the time the credits roll — to a glorious cover version of a perfectly chosen song — the whole experience is completely enchanting.

The quest goes ever on

I think Laika as a name went a bit unnoticed with their first feature, Coraline, because it had the already-headlining names of writer Neil Gaiman and director Henry “Nightmare Before Christmas” Selick. Their two subsequent features seem to have been well-liked but not set the world on fire (I’ve still not seen either). But here, they’re firmly stamping their name as a mark of quality. Come in Pixar, your time may be up. I’m sure Kubo won’t be picking up many gongs in the current awards season, what with three big-name Disney-backed pictures arrayed against it, but I find it hard to believe any of those outdid the artistry on display here, both in its spectacular animation technique and its majestic storytelling. To say it’s 2016’s best animated film is underselling it — it’s one of my favourite films released last year, fullstop.

5 out of 5

Kubo and the Two Strings is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

Ninja Scroll (1993)

aka Jūbē Ninpūchō

2017 #3
Yoshiaki Kawajiri | 92 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | Japan / English | 18

Ninja Scroll

One of the films credited with helping to popularise anime in the West in the wake of Akira (reportedly it has had a greater and more enduring impact in the US than in Japan), Ninja Scroll is a fast-paced fantastical action flick full of gratuitous swordplay, gratuitous gore, and gratuitous nudity.

The story begins with Jubei Kibagami, a roaming ninja-for-hire, who becomes embroiled in stopping the machinations of the Shogun of the Dark after he rescues Kagero (a female ninja whose team were slaughtered by the Shogun of the Dark’s minions, the Eight Devils of Kimon), an event witnessed by Dakuan, a government spy who has been sent to investigate and stop the evil Shogun.

Try not to worry about that too much, though: Ninja Scroll moves like the clappers through a plot that is at once incredibly simple and ludicrously over-complicated. On the one hand it’s an action-driven adventure, as our trio of heroes battle their way through the Eight Devils one by one. On the other, it’s got all sorts of backstory stuff about who the Devils’ leader is and how he’s connected to something Jubei did years earlier and what any of this has to do with Kagero’s clan and… so on.

Samurai snack

Similarly, the pace has its pros and its cons. It certainly keeps things lively, with new monstrous Devils turning up regularly, bringing bursts of exciting action with them; but it makes things bewildering at times, with a flurry of characters and exposition introduced throughout the first half-hour or so. Once it settles down, there’s actually some quite nice character stuff involving Jubei and Kagero, and to an extent Dakuan, who remains a tricksy and unreliable ‘hero’.

That’s not what the film is best known for, though, probably because it’s hidden after a big chunk of the other stuff: ultra-violence and a sex obsession. As to the former, men are literally ripped limb from limb, or cut in half, or quarters, with blood regularly spraying everywhere. Depending on your viewing preferences, it’s either incredibly extreme or we’ve seen the same kinda stuff more regularly since. I wasn’t as shocked as some reviews warned I would be, but it’s not for the faint-hearted.

The same goes for the sex and nudity, which embraces everything from the villains bickering about who’s sleeping with who (if they’re devils then half of them are horny ones) to Kagero being sexually assaulted by a rock monster. In the audio commentary recorded for the 20th anniversary, the writer, director, and animation director debate whether some of that content was unnecessary. One of them (it’s hard to tell which from the subtitles) asserts that there were always gratuitous sex scenes in the B-actioners that partly inspired the film, so it goes toward creating the right atmosphere. I guess individual tastes will vary — I mean, it’s not as if Kagero’s assault is presented as a good thing, but it is still presented. Or it is nowadays: on the film’s first release the BBFC cut that part out. Times certainly have changed.

Kick-ass Kagero

For all that Ninja Scroll feels kinda antiquated in this carefree presentation of repellant acts, it has stood the test of time in other ways. For the faults in what happens to her early on, Kagero emerges as a competent and assured female hero (for the most part). The animation is frequently great, with some painterly compositions inspired by traditional Japanese art, as well as dramatic action sequences. I watched the English dub, which is what it is (I’ve heard better; I’ve heard much worse), but on the aforementioned commentary track they regularly sing the praises of the Japanese voice cast, so maybe the subtitled version was the way to go.

Watching Ninja Scroll is a bit of a conflicting experience nowadays. Its story is both numbingly simple (“introduce villain, fight villain, defeat villain, repeat x8”) and insanely complicated; its sometimes balanced gender politics are offset by some gratuitous and distasteful content; its characters are initially archetypal and generally unlikable, but warm up in both regards as the film progresses. A bit like my opinion of it: I wasn’t entirely sure after my first viewing, but as I watched it back with the commentary I re-appreciated an awful lot of it. Maybe it’s a grower, then.

4 out of 5

Ninja Scroll is on Syfy UK tonight at 11:10pm.

Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016)

2016 #176
Jennifer Yuh Nelson & Alessandro Carloni | 95 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA & China / English | PG / PG

Kung Fu Panda 3Po and co are back in a movie that bucks the sequel trend by being perhaps the best Kung Fu Panda yet.

The two-pronged plot sees Po (Jack Black) finally meet his birth father (Bryan Cranston), while evil warrior Kai (J.K. Simmons) breaks out of the afterlife to hunt down the Dragon Warrior, putting Po’s new-found community in harm’s way.

After the occasionally muddled second film (which I felt improved a little with repeated viewings, at least), KFP3 sets the legendary adventures of awesomeness back on track with an appealing mix of humour, action, and moral lessons for kiddies and adult viewers alike. It keeps things focused and pacey, running just 83 minutes before credits, as well as maintaining the series’ typically stunning animation, which is just as polished whether creating epic scenery or up-close physical combat.

It’s also particularly satisfying when watched alongside its forerunners: it feels like the Po’s story has come full circle, with the film linking in and wrapping up plot points from the first movie (as well as resolving things from the second). Reportedly DreamWorks have three more Kung Fu Panda films planned, but at this point it feels like a completed trilogy.

A downside for UK viewers, though: our localised soundtrack replaces the voices of two palace geese with members of the Vamps, who are a popular music combo, apparently. Wow. Aside from the underwhelmingness of the ‘famous’ guest voices, they’re appalling actors. They only have about three lines between them and they’re still terrible. To rub salt in the wound, some ‘clever’ disc coding means that if you have a Region B Blu-ray player this soundtrack is completely unavoidable, even if you import. Poor region-locked people. Family resemblanceI hope for humanity’s sake the version on Sky Cinema retains the original voices.

There are very few threequels that can lay claim to being a series’ best entry. Whether KFP3 actually tops the original or not is debatable, but it at least feels like a course correction after the somewhat disappointing first sequel.

4 out of 5

Kung Fu Panda 3 is available on Sky Cinema from today, screening on Premiere at 1:40pm and 7:15pm.

The Present (2014)

2016 #114
Jacob Frey | 4 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | Germany / English

The PresentA short film about a boy and his dog, The Present was a graduation short for the Institute of Animation, Visual Effects and Digital Postproduction at the Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg in Ludwigsburg, Germany (yeah, I copy & pasted that), which has since won more than 50 awards after playing at film festivals around the world. Reportedly it also single-handedly landed its animator/director a job at Disney — he went on to work on Zootopiatropolis.

The simple story sees a videogame-obsessed boy given a mysterious box by his mother. Distracted long enough to open it, inside he finds a puppy, and… well, the film’s only four minutes long — you’re better off watching it than having me describe the story.

Regular readers will know I’m a bit of a sucker for cute dogs nowadays, be they real or animated — I gave Disney short Feast a full five stars last year. If you enjoyed that, then I’m certain you’ll like The Present too. There are other similarities: it’s about a guy bonding with his dog; it’s told in near-silence, with the big emotional reveals left for you to pick up through the pictures rather than explanatory dialogue; and it certainly tugs on the heartstrings to a similar degree.

In fact, I don’t think it’s going too far to say The Present may even be the better of the two — though it’s a close call.

5 out of 5

You can watch The Present free on Vimeo.

P.S. A dog is for life, not just for Christmas.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #97

It’s the story of a man, a woman,
and a rabbit in a triangle of trouble.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 104 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 22nd June 1988 (USA)
UK Release: 2nd December 1988
First Seen: VHS, c.1991

Stars
Bob Hoskins (The Long Good Friday, Super Mario Bros.)
Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future, Addams Family Values)
Charles Fleischer (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Gridlock’d)
Kathleen Turner (Romancing the Stone, The Virgin Suicides)

Director
Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Beowulf)

Screenwriters
Jeffrey Price (Doc Hollywood, Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas)
Peter S. Seaman (Wild Wild West, Shrek the Third)

Based on
Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, a novel by Gary K. Wolf.

Animation Director
Richard Williams (Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure, The Thief and the Cobbler)

The Story
When cartoon movie superstar Roger Rabbit is accused of murder, rundown private detective Eddie Valiant overcomes his dislike of toons to take the case — which masks a much bigger conspiracy…

Our Heroes
Eddie Valiant is an alcoholic Hollywood PI who used to work high-profile cases involving toons, but now dislikes them because one killed his brother. Nonetheless, an innate sense of justice (and a pair of handcuffs) brings him to the aid of Roger Rabbit, the manic major cartoon star who’s accused of murder and on the run for his life.

Our Villain
The cheerily named Judge Doom, the sinister and literally-black-hatted judge responsible for Toontown who has developed a special substance especially for killing toons, called “Dip”. Very keen to introduce Roger to it.

Best Supporting Character
Jessica Rabbit, Roger’s human (well, cartoon human) wife. A slinky, sexy, 2D femme fatale, she’s the cartoon character even people who aren’t attracted to cartoon characters are attracted to.

Memorable Quote
“I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.” — Jessica Rabbit

Memorable Scene
When Judge Doom and his henchmen discover Roger in hiding, he and Eddie escape in a cab — an anthropomorphic toon cab called Benny. Cue a chase involving a real human in a cartoon vehicle, which exemplifies the film’s technical chutzpah.

Technical Wizardry
The whole film is a technical marvel, what with many of the lead characters being created in 2D animation integrated into live-action footage. What’s even more impressive is that they’re 2D characters who exist convincingly within a 3D space. Production went to a lot of effort to pull this off, including using life-size models on set. (And if you need proof of how hard it is to do right, watch Cool World.) In total, 326 animators worked full-time on the film, drawing and painting 82,080 frames of animation. Animation director Richard Williams estimates that, after including storyboards and concept art, well over a million drawings were completed for the film.

Making of
With a production budget estimated at $70 million, Roger Rabbit was the most expensive film produced in the ’80s. Animation is expensive, of course, and the team were dedicated: when Eddie takes Roger Rabbit into the backroom of the bar to cut the handcuffs, the ceiling lamp is bumped and swings around, meaning lots of work for the animators to match the shadows between the live-action footage and the animation — something most viewers aren’t even going to notice, at least not consciously. Apparently “bump the lamp” has since become a term used by Disney employees to mean going the extra mile to make something special even when most viewers won’t notice.

Next time…
Three short animations starring Roger Rabbit were made to promote the film and screened with other movies (they’re all available on the DVD/Blu-ray release). Although the original book is very different (and therefore any sequels to it are presumably unlikely to provide suitable movie material), Gary K. Wolf has nonetheless penned two follow-ups: 1991’s Who P-P-P-Plugged Roger Rabbit? and 2014’s Who Wacked Roger Rabbit? Talk of a movie sequel has occurred ever since the original film was a hit — J.J. Abrams met with Spielberg in 1989 to work on an outline and storyboards, for example. Nat Mauldin wrote a prequel titled Roger Rabbit: The Toon Platoon, about Roger and his animated friends having to rescue Jessica from the Nazis in 1941, but Spielberg decided he couldn’t satirise the Nazis after directing Schindler’s List. Retitled Who Discovered Roger Rabbit, the screenplay was reworked to cover Roger’s rise to fame on Broadway. That version got quite far: Alan Menken wrote five songs and test footage was shot that mixed live-action, traditional animation and CGI, but it was abandoned when the budget spiralled over $100 million. Nonetheless, various people involved have expressed their interest ever since, with numerous scripts supposedly in the works. Even Bob Hoskins’ death hasn’t stopped such talk, though it seems to have led to a definite focus on any follow-up being a prequel.

Awards
4 Oscars (Editing, Sound Effects Editing, Visual Effects, Special Achievement Award to Richard Williams for “animation direction and creation of the cartoon characters”)
3 Oscar nomination (Cinematography, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Sound)
1 BAFTA (Special Effects)
4 BAFTA nominations (Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Production Design)
1 Annie Award (Technical Achievement)
3 Saturn Awards (Fantasy Film, Director, Special Effects)
5 Saturn nominations (Actor (Bob Hoskins), Supporting Actor (Christopher Lloyd), Supporting Actress (Joanna Cassidy), Writing, Music)
Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation

What the Critics Said
“This splendidly entertaining film, which craftily combines live action with cartoon animation, […] is an absolutely new and novel motion-picture concept. Illusion on the big screen has never been better executed or more uproarious in effect. Assuming you can withstand the laughs during the first 10 minutes of the film — with its dazzling, breakneck animated sequence and introduction of the goofy star, Roger — then brace yourself; you`re in for the ride of your life, disbelieving all you will see and hear.” — Roger Hurlburt, Sun Sentinel

Score: 97%

What the Public Say
Who Framed Roger Rabbit is not a children’s film; it’s too noir for that; there’s scenes of drinking, smoking, sexual intrigue and murder. The strong animated aspect, however, draws children into the film and these dark overtones engage them in a completely different way. That’s one of the things that’s so special about Roger Rabbit; you feel as if you’re watching a film made for an adult audience using elements that appeal to one’s more childish side. The USA and UK ratings of the film are a PG, so younger audiences can still watch. However, the twisting noir-esque plot focusing on Judge Doom’s attempt to destroy The Red Car trolley service and ToonTown in order to build a freeway can be hard enough for adults to follow. […] This is why the film works so well; everyone is committed and the characters show no awareness that they’re in a PG rated noir with elements of comedy; they commit as if they are in a 1940s, life-or-death, grown-up movie.” — queenieem, the6fingeredblog

Verdict

“Effects movies” used to mean lots of model work and now of course means non-stop wall-to-wall CGI, but you could also apply it to Roger Rabbit, considering the monumental effort involved in animating half the cast, not to mention props and locations. But that would undersell it, because while the technical achievement remains impressive today (bearing in mind the limitations of the time) it’s all in service of the characters and the story. Even as you marvel at the visuals, you’re engrossed by the mystery and kept amused by the gags, including clever and witty references to cartoons and film noir.

I’ve always liked Roger Rabbit, but I re-watched it recently for this project and discovered I really love it. I think it’s underrated, even — it’s a masterpiece.

#98 will be… the beginnings of another stage of human evolution.

Toy Story 2 (1999)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #93

The toys are back!

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 92 minutes
BBFC: U
MPAA: G

Original Release: 24th November 1999 (USA)
UK Release: 11th February 2000
First Seen: cinema, 2000

Stars
Tom Hanks (Apollo 13, The Da Vinci Code)
Tim Allen (Jungle 2 Jungle, Wild Hogs)
Joan Cusack (Addams Family Values, School of Rock)
Kelsey Grammer (Anastasia, X-Men: The Last Stand)

Director
John Lasseter (Toy Story, Cars 2)

Co-directors
Ash Brannon (Surf’s Up, Rock Dog)
Lee Unkrich (Finding Nemo, Toy Story 3)

Screenwriters
Andrew Stanton (Monsters, Inc., WALL·E)
Rita Hsiao (Mulan, My Little Pony: The Movie)
Doug Chamberlin (Bruno the Kid: The Animated Movie)
Chris Webb (Bruno the Kid: The Animated Movie)

Story by
John Lasseter (A Bug’s Life, Tinker Bell and the Pirate Fairy)
Pete Docter (Toy Story, Inside Out)
Ash Brannon (Surf’s Up, Rock Dog)
Andrew Stanton (Toy Story, Finding Dory)

The Story
After Woody is stolen by a nefarious toy collector, the rest of the toys set out to rescue him — but, tempted by the idea of spending eternity in a museum with friends from his TV show, does Woody want to be saved?

Our Heroes
Buzz and Woody are back, and now the best of friends. This time, Woody is confronted with his past when he meets a gang of other toys from the TV series he starred in, but will he stay with them or return to Andy? Meanwhile, Buzz sets out to rescue Woody, but has issues of his own to tackle when he comes face to face with his nemesis, Emperor Zurg.

Our Villain
Al McWhiggin, the owner of Al’s Toy Barn and serious toy collector, who steals Woody when he’s accidentally put in a yard sale box.

Best Supporting Character
Jessie, a cowgirl from Woody’s TV show. Fundamentally an excitable and chipper character, she was left distraught after being abandoned by her owner, and is now scared of being put back in storage — which will happen if Woody isn’t part of Al’s collection.

Memorable Quote
“You never forget kids like Emily, or Andy, but they forget you.” — Jessie

Memorable Scene
On their hunt for Woody, the other toys explore a giant toy emporium, in which Buzz comes across an aisle filled with fellow Buzzes. Spotting one with a new utility belt, he tries to acquire the accessory, only to awaken his double…

Making of
Toy Story 2 was originally commissioned by Disney as a direct-to-video sequel, because they did that a lot back then, and went into production without Pixar’s primary staff, who were already busy creating A Bug’s Life. When early work looked promising, Disney bumped the project’s status up to a full theatrical release. Conversely, Pixar were unhappy with the quality of what they were seeing. The main team took charge, redeveloping the film’s entire story in a single weekend, but still had to meet the release date Disney had already set. Although most Pixar films take years to produce, the production of Toy Story 2 was compressed into just nine months. The pressure got to people: at one point someone accidentally deleted 90% of the film’s files, representing two years work. Fortunately, another crew member working at home had back-ups of all but the last few days’ work.

Previously on…
The original Toy Story was the first computer-animated feature film.

Next time…
Toy Story 3 followed 11 years later, with Toy Story 4 set to come 9 years after that. Also shorts, TV specials, and the Buzz Lightyear spin-off (see last time).

Awards
1 Oscar nomination (Song)
7 Annie Awards (Animated Feature, Directing, Writing, Female Voice Acting (Joan Cusack), Male Voice Acting (Tim Allen), Music, Storyboarding)
2 Annie Awards nominations (Character Animation, Production Design)
2 Saturn nominations (Fantasy Film, Music)
1 Teen Choice Awards nomination (Choice Hissy Fit)

What the Critics Said
Toy Story 2 is a brilliant example of that rarest of Hollywood phenomena — a sequel to a major hit film that’s as good, if not better, than the original. This is mainly the result of a perfect mixture of two essential elements. First, there’s an excellent script by Andrew Stanton and his team of writers […] Second, there’s the remarkable technology developed by Pixar for the film A Bug’s Life. It’s this approach they’ve now taken to even greater heights […] These filmmakers have taken the 1995 characters and given them more depth, creating a new story that lets the toys interact in a larger world. It all comes down to amazing visuals and basic storytelling — and this is one heck of a good tale.” — Paul Clinton, CNN

Score: 100%

What the Public Say
Toy Story 2 is considered, by most, to be a perfect film. The characters are amazing. The stakes are higher than the first film. And the emotional beats hit harder than before. With two successes under their belt, it’s hard to believe that Pixar could not only be consistent with that quality, but somehow also manage to pull off something even more amazing than we thought possible. Expanding the mythology of this world and really making us feel for the toys that we forgot as children, Toy Story 2 is, in the words of Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way.” — Jaysen Headley, Jaysen Headley Writes

Verdict

Sequels are notorious for not being as good as their progenitor. I feel like this is a trend that is increasingly being bucked — with everything Hollywood makes designed to be a franchise, Film 1 is often about setup and Film 2 is where the makers are allowed to do what they really wanted to do in the first place. But when you strike gold first time out, it’s still hard to do it justice second time round. Pixar do that and more here, with a sequel that is slicker, funnier, more exciting, and more emotional than its forebear. Even if it’s happening more often now, good sequels are still hard to do — trust Pixar to have got there ahead of the pack.

#94 will be… transportive.

The Good Dinosaur (2015)

2016 #130
Peter Sohn | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

The Good DinosaurOnce upon a time, Pixar could do no wrong. Then Cars happened; and worse, its sequel. Now, their movies remain an event, and some people still swear by everything they do, but I think there’s a greater awareness that they’re fallible. When it came out at the tail end of 2015, The Good Dinosaur was received as further evidence of that. Especially coming in the same year that gave us the universally praised (*coughoverratedcough*) Inside Out, it was instantaneously dubbed a “lesser Pixar”. But here is where completism has its merits, because I really enjoyed it.

Set in an alternate world where the dinosaurs were never wiped out and so have evolved to the point where they talk, farm, etc, the film tells the story of little Arlo, an Apatosaurus who’s regularly overshadowed by his siblings. When an accident leaves him stranded many miles from his family he must make the long trek home, finding his inner courage on the way ‘n’ that kind of thing.

There’s no denying that The Good Dinosaur contains an abundance of re-heated elements: there are multiple plot beats shared with The Land Before Time, not to mention the general “talking child dinosaurs” thing; a major inciting incident is taken from The Lion King; the episodic structure is reminiscent of The Jungle Book; animated dinosaurs on photo-real backgrounds recalls Dinosaur; and the moral message and main character arc are lifted from any number of children’s animations. While I did find this bothersome at first — especially as the worst offenders are concentrated in the saccharine first act — by the time the film had settled into its meandering middle I came to quite like it.

MalickianPixar have on several occasions produced films with an innovative opening act that descends into derivative kids’ animation runaround territory. WALL-E and Up are the worst offenders for this; Inside Out does it too, though there’s more of a mix of the two throughout the film. For many critics and viewers, the quality of those openings seem to be enough to earn the films heaps of praise. The Good Dinosaur inverts the formula: the easy, overfamiliar material is at the start, while the more meditative, mature content comes later. Clearly this didn’t work for many viewers, so I guess the lesson for Pixar is to put the clever stuff up front if they want universal praise.

Instead, The Good Dinosaur was often dismissed as only being for very young children. Some bits do come over that way, but it has quite a harsh edge at times, and the scene where the heroes get high on rotten fermented fruit is freaky even for adults (or this adult, at any rate). It’s a bit of a tonal oddity in this respect, especially when you also factor in some of the leisurely, silent moments spent admiring nature that evoke a filmmaker like Terrence Malick. No, seriously. That’s helped by the animation being mind-blowingly good. Not so much the character animation (which is still strong — the character models are more detailed than you first suspect), but the scenery those characters are placed in… wow. If you didn’t know better I’m sure much of it could pass for photography. And the way they’ve achieved water, a notoriously hard thing to capture in CGI, is absolutely incredible.

You've got a friend in mePerhaps most powerful of all is the relationship it creates between Arlo and a young human child he befriends, Spot. With humanity in a much earlier state of evolution, Spot is basically characterised as a dog — the way he moves, comes to his name, follows scents, shakes, scratches and enjoys being scratched, and so on — so of course I warmed to him. Nonetheless, though the building blocks used to create their friendship are very familiar, the way the film sells its emotional arc is ultimately immensely effective. It’s resolution may even bring a tear to the eye.

While it may take a while to warm up, The Good Dinosaur is ultimately a very affecting entry in Pixar’s canon. It’s by no means a perfect movie, but I do think it’s an underrated one. And, in all honesty, I enjoyed it more than Inside Out.

4 out of 5

Toy Story (1995)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #92

The toys are back in town.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 81 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: G

Original Release: 22nd November 1995 (USA)
UK Release: 22nd March 1996
First Seen: cinema, 1996

Stars
Tom Hanks (Sleepless in Seattle, Catch Me If You Can)
Tim Allen (Galaxy Quest, The Shaggy Dog)

Director
John Lasseter (A Bug’s Life, Cars)

Screenwriters
Joss Whedon (Alien Resurrection, Avengers: Age of Ultron)
Andrew Stanton (A Bug’s Life, John Carter)
Joel Cohen (Cheaper by the Dozen, Garfield)
Alec Sokolow (Cheaper by the Dozen, Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties)

Story by
John Lasseter (Toy Story 2, Planes)
Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc., Up)
Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Toy Story 3)
Joe Ranft (Beauty and the Beast, Cars)

The Story
In a world where toys come to life when humans aren’t around, Woody is six-year-old Andy’s favourite doll… until he gets Buzz Lightyear, a space ranger action figure, for his birthday. An upset Woody clashes with Buzz, but when the bickering pair are left behind during a house move they must work together to get back to their kid.

Our Heroes
Woody is a cowboy doll, the favourite of his kid, Andy, and consequently the leader of all Andy’s toys. That is until Andy gets a shiny new Buzz Lightyear action figure, whose newness ingratiates him with all the other toys. Plus, to Woody’s continued annoyance, Buzz believes he really is a space ranger and has no idea he’s just a toy.

Our Villain
Sid, Andy’s nasty neighbour kid who does terrible, terrible things to toys…

Best Supporting Character
Mr Potato Head, whose various body parts are slotted on and therefore removable and interchangeable. Hilarity ensues. Also has a nice line in snarky comments.

Memorable Quote
“To infinity, and beyond!” — Buzz Lightyear

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“You are a sad, strange little man, and you have my pity.” — Buzz Lightyear

Memorable Scene
One of Buzz’s claims as a real space ranger is that he can fly, so Woody challenges him to prove it. Buzz closes his eyes, dives off the bed… and, through a series of flukes, bounces and coasts his way around the room, landing back on the bed. “That wasn’t flying,” cries Woody, “that was falling with style!”

Memorable Song
The film’s themes are perfectly reflected in Randy Newman’s Oscar-nominated and endlessly catchy song, You’ve Got a Friend in Me. Both Toy Story sequels have tried to emulate it, with… less success.

Technical Wizardry
Only the whole movie — it was the first feature-length wholly-computer-generated animated film. As such, we have it to thank/blame for the current entire state of popular Western animation.

Making of
The animators perfected the movement of the toy soldiers by nailing a pair of shoes to a wooden plank and trying to walk around in them.

Previously on…
Toy Story was the first feature-length computer-animated film — there is, in that sense, literally nothing before it.

Next time…
Two feature film sequels, both of which are at least as artistically successful as this first, with a fourth set to follow in 2018. Also, three short films and two TV specials to date, plus direct-to-video spin-off movie Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins and the TV series that follows it. You could also argue the entirety of Pixar’s highly-praised output is a follow-up to the success of Toy Story, as well as American feature animation’s almost entire conversion from traditional cel animation to 3D CGI.

Awards
1 Special Achievement Oscar to John Lasseter for “the development and inspired application of techniques that have made possible the first feature-length computer-animated film.”
3 Oscar nominations (Original Screenplay, Song, Musical or Comedy Score)
1 BAFTA nomination (Visual Effects)
8 Annie Awards (Animated Feature, Directing, Writing, Producing, Music, Production Design, Animation, Technical Achievement)
1 Annie Awards nomination (Voice Acting (Tom Hanks))
2 Saturn nominations (Fantasy Film, Writing)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation

What the Critics Said
“Far from just a technological breakthrough, this hellzapoppin fairy tale […] is a magically witty and humane entertainment. It has the purity, the ecstatic freedom of imagination, that’s the hallmark of the greatest children’s films. It also has the kind of spring-loaded allusive prankishness that, at times, will tickle adults even more than it does kids. The moment Mr. Potato Head arranges his snap-on features into a Cubist mash and says, ”I’m Picasso,” it’s clear that director John Lasseter and his team of writer-technicians have taken their most anarchic impulses and run with them. […] In its techno-cool photo-realist way, though, this movie, too, invites you to gaze upon the textures of the physical world with new eyes. What Bambi and Snow White did for nature, Toy Story, amazingly, does for plastic — for the synthetic gizmo culture of the modern mall brat. The film’s wit (and resonance) is that it brings toys to life exactly the way children do in their heads. It molds plastic into pure imagination.” — Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

Score: 100%

What the Public Say
“The Animation is superb. Given that this was one of the first ever feature length computer animated movies, those guys at Pixar really hit the nail on the head. The colours are vibrant and the characters are dynamic. An excellent use of Blues, Yellows and Reds really accentuate the ‘children’ and ‘toys’ feel. There are also beautiful realistic elements such as a scene where Woody and Buzz find themselves under a lorry in a petrol station. With this, I was simply amazed at the attention to detail with the stones, tarmac and oil stains on the textures. It really looks like you are close-up to the ground and I love it!” — Alexander Potter, Pottercraft’s Pictures

Verdict

Just because something’s the first to do something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s any good, but Pixar didn’t strike gold with Toy Story just because computer animation was New. It’s the likeable characters, how they develop and learn, the amusing situations they’re put in, plus some heartwarming messages about friendship. There’s more emotion and character development in these wooden-and-plastic toys generated with pixels in a computer than many a film can achieve with real human beings, and that’s why Pixar came to revolutionise and dominate the Western animation genre.

Some would say “the original is still the best”, and it is up there, but on Sunday I will beg to differ…

#93 will be… a superior sequel.

Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders (2016)

2016 #174
Rick Morales | 78 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Batman: Return of the Caped CrusadersHoly nostalgia hit, Batman! This animated movie reunites the surviving stars of the enduringly popular ’60s Batman TV series (and spin-off movie) for a new adventure in the style of their classic ones — that is to say it’s funny and colourful, a world away from the Dark Knight version of Batman we’re so accustomed to these days.

In some respects, that’s all you need to know in terms of a critical review of this film. If you’ve never seen the ’60s originals, it’s not really ‘for’ you. I mean, it’s perfectly accessible, I think, but it’s loaded with winks and nods to its inspiration. I definitely missed some of those because I haven’t watched the series for a while (I really need to get stuck into the Blu-ray set they released a couple of years back), but, from what I can remember, it captures their tone well. That is to say: on the surface it’s pulp superhero derring-do, but underneath it’s laced with a knowing wit and an awareness of its own glorious ridiculousness. The animated medium is used to push beyond what would’ve been possible in live-action TV 50 years ago, but I won’t go into detail so as not to spoil it for anyone who’s not seen it yet (though it screened in cinemas last month and has been out on disc on both sides of the Atlantic for a bit now).

The voice cast is headlined by — of course — Adam West as Batman, along with Burt Ward as Robin and Julie Newmar as Catwoman. West is nearly 90 now and you can hear that in his voice, but he’s still got it. You soon forget the old-age huskiness and just revel in his consummate skill at delivering his Batman just so; that earnest delivery of humorous material that led some people to miss for decades that the series was actually, Vile villainous verminfundamentally, a comedy. Conversely, Ward still sounds pretty spry, and is gifted plenty of those “Holy [insert something here], Batman!” catchphrases that never cease to be fun. Unfortunately, Newmar also sounds her age, but doesn’t seem to quite have the liveliness that West retains. In the behind-the-scenes featurettes she seems a delightfully kooky old bird (at the recording she’s wearing cat ears, for one thing), so it’s hard to resent her, but the portrayal of Catwoman as slinky and sexy feels a little… odd. On the bright side, it means you don’t get the uncomfortableness of West flirting with a much younger actress, even in animated form.

The rest of the cast has to be rounded out by replacements by necessity. The most famous foes from that era of the Bat — namely, the Joker, the Riddler, and the Penguin — are all in on the action, and voice actors Jeff Bergman, Wally Wingert, and William Salyers do a bang-up job recreating their recognisable tics. However, I think the biggest respect is due to writers Michael Jelenic and James Tucker. They’ve managed to pen something that feels like a tribute without being set in aspic; that’s genuinely fresh and funny in its own right, while also evoking the beloved classic that inspired it, including plenty of in-jokes and nods at other screen iterations of Batman. I also particularly enjoyed the alliteration-addled dialogue, because I do love a bit (or a lot) of alliteration. I’m a man of simple pleasures sometimes.

Batty Batman's back!On the whole, Return of the Caped Crusaders is a resounding success. It’s a fun return to a beloved incarnation of arguably the most popular superhero; a version who’d been somewhat left out in the cold for a couple of decades by a world that grew up a bit too much, but is now being re-embraced and held in deserved esteem. And, even better, there’s already a follow-up in the works. Holy must-see sequel, Batman!

4 out of 5