Coco (2017)

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2018 #109
Lee Unkrich | 105 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Coco

Pixar’s 19th feature is an American-produced animated fantasy movie that co-opts a foreign culture to tell a story about a guitar-playing kid remembering his dead family — wait, doesn’t that sound familiar? Yes, in broad strokes, Coco is Kubo and the Two Strings Pixar-style. But, instead of Japan, this is Mexico, based around the famed Day of the Dead festival — which has also already been the subject of an American animated movie, The Book of Life. But that didn’t get the best notices, and Kubo didn’t get the respect it deserves, and this is Pixar in non-sequel mode, and so Coco has been praised to the high heavens. And it is good. But I didn’t think it was that good.

So, to start again: Coco is the story of Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), a kid who desperately wants to be a musician like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Unfortunately for Miguel, all music is banned in his family, due to his great-great-grandfather abandoning his wife and young daughter to pursue it as a career. On the Day of the Dead, a convoluted and overlong first act eventually gets us to a point where Miguel finds himself actually in the Land of the Dead, surrounded by the skeletal form of everyone who’s passed away. To get back to the land of the living he must go on a quest, accompanied by downtrodden Héctor (Gael García Bernal), who’s being forgotten by the living and needs Miguel to reestablish his memory in the real world. More or less. I mean, the rules get more fiddly and complicated than that.

The magic of music

Frankly, the rambling length was my biggest problem with Coco. It’s not badly flabby, but it’s not as taut as I’d’ve liked it to be either, especially during stretches where you’re waiting for it to get to an inevitable plot twist or development. That’s not to say it’s without surprises — it pulls quite a dark plot twist about an hour in — and surprise isn’t the only virtue a story can have, of course, but it did reach a point where I was virtually shouting at the screen for them to finally get on with what was inevitably going to happen. Surely that’s a sign of something not working.

Maybe that was the music — quite a central part of the storyline, as you may’ve inferred, but I can’t say I was a fan. Mostly it’s fine, but there’s the occasional musical number that just slowed things down. It’s not a musical in the strictest sense either, so the film does stop a bit in order to get each song underway (at least it usually then tries to progress the narrative while the song continues). The big number is the Oscar-winning Remember Me, which has grown on me slightly since I first heard it but, again, I’m not particularly a fan. I don’t know what it is, really, because when I’ve come across mariachi-style music in movies before I’ve often quite liked it. I guess it’s this particular set of tunes, then.

Naturally it looks great — it’s Pixar, would you expect anything less? The colourful Land of the Dead stuff is the best visually, wide shots creating epic vistas, with stunning architecture that suggests quite a world… not that we get to explore it very thoroughly, even though the quest narrative takes us to a few different locations. We certainly don’t get any indication how it functions for the other 364 days of the year. Zootropolis showed us a glimpse of a well-imagined full-scale world, teasing enough that I wanted to explore it comprehensively in further stories. Coco’s just looks pretty.

Colourful vistas

Maybe I’m being too picky? Maybe I’m just trying to work out what it was everyone else loved so much, when I saw a pretty standard Pixar buddy quest story with new surface flourishes. Or perhaps I’m right, and other people were blinded by the emotional ending? The final few minutes are certainly effective at tugging at the heartstrings — even though I hadn’t fully invested in the rest of the film, even I felt a pang… albeit slightly undercut by once again having to yell at the characters to get on with what they were inevitably going to do. Not everything should move at a mile a minute, but c’mon, sometimes you’re just being languorous.

Reportedly Coco had the longest active production of any Pixar movie, with work beginning in 2011 and (obviously) being completed in 2017. There are quite a few deleted scenes included on the Blu-ray which (from a brief flick through) seem to suggest the story once went in quite a different direction. I saw one person say those scenes suggest a much worse movie, too. I guess they kept tweaking the plot, then, maybe until it eventually resembled that familiar broad Pixar shape that dates right back to the original Toy Story.

Coco is a good, but I certainly wouldn’t say it’s perfect. And I think I might go watch Kubo again now, actually.

4 out of 5

The UK becomes probably the last major market to get Coco on disc with its release on DVD, Blu-ray, and 3D Blu-ray today.

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Batman: Gotham by Gaslight (2018)

2018 #105
Sam Liu | 77 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Batman: Gotham by Gaslight

I was all up for this adaptation of Gotham by Gaslight when it was first announced — I’m a fan of the original book, as well as the sequel (which they’ve also used parts of); and, I thought, even if they chose to deviate from it then I like the basic concept of “Batman meets steampunk”. But then the last few DC animations I’ve seen have been subpar, and the trailer for this one looked rather bland, so I decided to opt for a rental instead of purchase. Well, I never got round to doing that, and then Amazon slashed the price of the Blu-ray, so I ended up buying it — it still cost more than a rental, but if I liked it I’d save money in the long run. Fortunately, that turned out to be the case.

If you’re not familiar with Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola’s original tale, it involves Batman battling Jack the Ripper in late 19th Century Gotham City. It’s regarded as the first Elseworlds story, which is DC’s branding for stories that take place in different times, places, or “what if” scenarios — “what if Superman had landed in Russia?”, for example. This animation is a rather loose adaptation, which takes the basic concept from Augustyn and Mignola’s work but otherwise almost completely rebuilds it, mixing in a lot of ‘Easter egg’ stuff (like appearances from many more well-known Bat-characters) and some elements of the sequel comic, Master of the Future.

Fisticuffs!

So anyone expecting a straight-up adaptation may be disappointed, but taken as a film in its own right, for the most part it works. Having all the different familiar characters pop up makes it feel like a proper Batman tale, rather than a Ripper story that happens to have a costumed vigilante in it. Most prominent is Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman, although she isn’t really the latter here — Batman gets fully suited up, but the most Miss Kyle gets is a whip. The relationship between Bruce Wayne and Selina is one of the film’s best aspects, in fact, with the Elseworld setting seeming to allow a different focus than the usual antagonism that pairing has in screen adaptations — as one of the filmmakers says in the audio commentary, “it’s not a movie about Batman and Catwoman, it’s about Bruce and Selina.” Jim Krieg’s screenplay is good across the board, with several nice passages and scenes, even if at times it rests too heavily on exposition and speachifying.

The one change that didn’t work for me is that it glosses over the bit about Bruce have recently returned from Europe, his return to Gotham coinciding with the Ripper’s arrival, thus making Bruce Wayne a suspect. Perhaps this isn’t a major point, but it’s a grace note that helps sell the whole concept for me. This wasn’t an oversight, however: they consciously decided to make Jack the Ripper a Gotham serial killer in this universe, so his London crimes never happened. But surely the point of using Jack the Ripper is the crimes he’s famous for? I think everyone knows he was a London serial killer, but the film does nothing to dispel this prior knowledge, nothing to establish that this version emerged for the first time in Gotham.

The idea behind the change was to widen the suspect pool for the “whodunnit” element — if the Ripper had just come from London, his identity has to be someone who’s just arrived in Gotham. I can see where they’re coming from, but there are other ways round the problem — for example, the Gotham Ripper could’ve turned out to be a copycat, which would’ve added to the twist. As it stands, the identity of the Ripper (which has been changed from the book) is a huge twist, and, fair play to them, they pull it off. I’ll say no more because of spoilers, but I’m surprised it didn’t seem to cause outcry online. Maybe after the furore around The Killing Joke people just stopped paying attention.

Miss Selina Kyle

As with most of these DC animations, the quality of the visual is more TV than feature film, but they make the most of what they’ve got. There’s a squareness to the character designs, using few and simple lines, that is almost appealing. Perhaps it was inspired by Mignola’s artwork, though it does still feel sanitised compared to his exaggerated style. Also, a lot of effort is put into establishing this version of Gotham, with plenty of wide shots and scenes set in many different locations. Those were both deliberate choices to help make the city a major part of the film, and to give it life and texture as a Victorian metropolis. It’s an admirable effort considering the new era was a bit of a production headache: on their other movies, things like generic background characters and props can be recycled from film to film, but here every single element had to be designed and created from scratch.

Voice casting is mostly spot on. Again, effort was put into evoking the period without wanting to go overboard — they didn’t want the voices to sound modern, but they didn’t want everyone doing English accents or something either. Bruce Greenwood makes for a dependable Batman and Anthony Head is perfectly dry as Alfred, but the foremost performance is perhaps Jennifer Carpenter as Selina. She’s most famous for Dexter, where she’s such a tomboy, but here she conveys a kind of Victorian elegance, with a hefty dash of feminism, very well. Inspired casting. Just as good is Scott Patterson as Commissioner Gordon. Best known for his modern, working-class character in Gilmore Girls, I didn’t even realise it was him until the credits rolled. Well, partly this is a problem with billing — only Greenwood and Carpenter get it. They’re the leads, so of course they’d get top billing, but Head and Patterson have sizeable roles and are surely just as famous? I guess it doesn’t matter, but it was a bit of a surprise to hear a recognisable voice crop up when they hadn’t been announced (as it were) by the opening credits.

The Ripper approaches...

In other merits, there are some surprisingly decent action sequences — a mid-way one atop an airship is the highlight — plus a nice music score by Frederik Wiedmann, which was partly influenced by Hans Zimmer’s work on the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films, but I swear I heard some overtones of Danny Elfman’s Batman in there also. In all the film is only an hour-and-a-quarter long, but it doesn’t feel like too much of a quickie — there’s enough incident here to fuel a ‘proper’ movie. I mean that in a positive way.

As I said at the start, I expected very little of Gotham by Gaslight, for various reasons. I came away pleasantly surprised. In the commentary they talk about how much they enjoyed making it — how everyone involved, from the executives down to the storyboarders, all thought it was a particularly special project — and how they’d like to make a sequel, and they’ve got an idea for one involving the Joker. I’ve no idea how this has performed commercially, but I hope they get the chance.

4 out of 5

Another Elseworlds-y Batman animation, Batman Ninja, is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK this week, and will be reviewed in due course.

Shrek 2 (2004)

The 100 Films Guide to…

Shrek 2

Not so far, far away…

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 93 minutes
BBFC: U
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 19th May 2004 (USA)
UK Release: 2nd July 2004
Budget: $150 million
Worldwide Gross: $919.8 million

Stars
Mike Myers (Wayne’s World, The Love Guru)
Eddie Murphy (Beverly Hills Cop, Norbit)
Cameron Diaz (Charlie’s Angels, The Holiday)
Antonio Banderas (The Mask of Zorro, The Skin I Live In)
John Cleese (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, A Fish Called Wanda)
Julie Andrews (Mary Poppins, The Princess Diaries)
Jennifer Saunders (Muppet Treasure Island, Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie)
Rupert Everett (An Ideal Husband, St. Trinian’s)

Directors
Andrew Adamson (Shrek, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian)
Kelly Asbury (Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Gnomeo & Juliet)
Conrad Vernon (Monsters vs Aliens, Sausage Party)

Screenwriters
Andrew Adamson (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Mr. Pip)
Joe Stillman (Shrek, Planet 51)
J. David Stem (The Rugrats Movie, The Smurfs)
David N. Weiss (All Dogs Go to Heaven, The Smurfs 2)

Story by
Andrew Adamson (Shrek the Third, Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away)

Based on
Shrek!, a picture book by William Steig — even more loosely than last time, though.


The Story
Newlyweds Shrek and Fiona travel to meet her parents, the King and Queen of Far Far Away. They’re less than pleased about their daughter marrying an ogre, especially as the King made a deal with Fairy Godmother for her son, Prince Charming, to be Fiona’s husband — and she insists that bargain be fulfilled.

Our Heroes
Shrek and Donkey, off another whirlwind adventure! After Shrek has a lover’s tiff with his new bride, he sets off to try to make himself what he thinks she wants: human.

Our Villain
Fairy Godmother might seem sweet and helpful, but she actually runs a factory with oppressed workers (they don’t even have dental!) and is manipulating the King so her son can become his heir.

Best Supporting Character
When Fairy Godmother orders the King to deal with Shrek, he seeks out a renowned ogre hunter: Puss in Boots. He may look like an adorable little kitty, but he’s a devil with a sword.

Memorable Quote
“It looks like we’re up chocolate creek without a Popsicle stick!” — Gingerbread Man

Memorable Scene
As a party begins at which Prince Charming will kiss Fiona and make her fall in love with him, Fairy Godmother entertains the guests with a rendition of Holding Out for a Hero — as Shrek and friends storm the castle to rescue his wife.

Memorable Music
The use of pop songs was a defining characteristic of the first Shrek, so naturally that continues here. However, there are also a lot more diegetic songs this time: Jennifer Saunders gets two musical numbers as Fairy Godmother (one an amusing riff on typical Disney numbers, the other mentioned above), plus Tom Waits and Nick Cave both sing (as the same character). The film also includes two really good covers of Holding Out for a Hero (the second, by Frou Frou, plays over the credits), which is some kind of achievement.

Making of / Letting the Side Down
For the UK release, two minor roles were redubbed: Doris the Ugly Stepsister, voiced by chat show host Larry King originally, was replaced by chat show host Jonathan Ross; and the red carpet announcer, voiced by Joan Rivers in the US, was replaced by Kate Thornton, who also must’ve done red carpet stuff at some point, I dunno. I guess it seemed like a fun idea at the time — the idea, presumably, was to localise famous voices with ones that would be better-known in other countries — but they shouldn’t’ve bothered: it’s just distracting, and neither replacement gives a very convincing performance. I think this was the first time such voice localisation had been done, and it seemed to kick off a minor fad for it. I thought it had gone away, but they recently defaced Kung Fu Panda 3 with a similar trick.

Previously on…
Shrek 2 picks up pretty closely from the end of Shrek — you probably need to see that to make full sense of this one.

Next time…
A further two sequels followed, plus a spin-off movie (which has its own spin-offs, including a six-season TV series). There’s also a 4D theme park attraction (which uses a plot that was rejected for Shrek 2) and numerous TV specials. There are always rumours of the franchise getting resurrected, too.

Awards
2 Oscar nominations (Animated Film, Original Song (Accidentally in Love))
2 Saturn Award nominations (Animated Film, DVD Special Edition)
7 Annie Award nominations (Animated Feature, Animated Effects, Directing, Music, Storyboarding, Voice Acting (Antonio Banderas), Writing)
Nominated for the Palme d’Or (again!)

Verdict

Having said Shrek has aged and dated, I think Shrek 2 has fared better. Arguably the first one has more pure originality, giving birth to an irreverent fairytale meta-verse, but Shrek 2 expands on those building blocks and plays with the ideas. There are lots of fun movie spoofs (though many are from the same era, so their effectiveness could partly be nostalgia), the climax is a legitimately good action sequence (see Memorable Scene), and there’s even a decent thematic throughline about what you’re prepared to do or give up for the one you love. Plus the animation looks a lot more polished — three years makes a huge difference in computer animation, especially in the early noughties. The first one has its moments, for sure, and perhaps some of them are better or more memorable too, but as an overall film I prefer the sequel.

Shrek (2001)

The 100 Films Guide to…

Shrek

The greatest fairy tale never told.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 90 minutes
BBFC: U
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 16th May 2001 (USA)
UK Release: 29th June 2001
Budget: $60 million
Worldwide Gross: $484.4 million

Stars
Mike Myers (Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, The Cat in the Hat)
Eddie Murphy (Coming to America, Dreamgirls)
Cameron Diaz (There’s Something About Mary, Gangs of New York)
John Lithgow (Cliffhanger, Rise of the Planet of the Apes)

Directors
Andrew Adamson (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe , Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away)
Vicky Jenson (Shark Tale, Post Grad)

Screenwriters
Ted Elliott (Aladdin, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl)
Terry Rossio (The Mask of Zorro, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest)
Joe Stillman (Beavis and Butt-Head Do America, Gulliver’s Travels)
Roger S.H. Schulman (Balto, Mulan II)

Based on
Shrek!, a picture book by William Steig.


The Story
When his swamp is overrun with fairytale creatures, ogre Shrek sets off to confront the man responsible, Lord Farquaad. To get his land back, Shrek must rescue the Princess Fiona from her dragon-guarded castle, so that Farquaad can marry her. But all is not as it appears…

Our Hero
Shrek is a grumpy Scottish-accented ogre who just wants to be left alone in his swamp, but events conspire to get in his way. Of course, as things transpire, he really has a heart of gold.

Our Villain
Men of his stature are in short supply, though there are those who think little of him — it’s Lord Farquaad, who wants Fiona to be his bride primarily so he can become king.

Best Supporting Character
Shrek’s new best friend (whether he likes it or not), wise-cracking ass Donkey, gets many of the best lines.

Memorable Quote
Gingerbread Man: “Do you know… the Muffin Man?”
Lord Farquaad: “The Muffin Man?”
Gingerbread Man: “The Muffin Man.”
Lord Farquaad: “Yes, I know the Muffin Man. Who lives on Drury Lane?”
Gingerbread Man: “Well, she’s married to the Muffin Man…”
Lord Farquaad: “The Muffin Man?”
Gingerbread Man: “The Muffin Man!
Lord Farquaad: “She’s married to the Muffin Man…”

Memorable Scene
As Shrek, Fiona, and Donkey travel back to Lord Farquaad, they’re jumped upon by Robin Hood (who, for no apparent reason, has a French accent) and his Merry Men, attempting to rescue Fiona by, in part, singing a merry song. But she doesn’t want rescuing and so goes all Matrix on their merry arses.

Memorable Music
As part of its generally irreverent take on myths and fairytales, Shrek is laden with contemporary popular music. It was all very modern at the time, but, 17 years on, it’s obviously dated itself, sounding distinctly early-millennium-y now.

Technical Wizardry
The overall animation quality may be looking a bit dated now, but Shrek hails from the era when every major new computer-animated movie was breaking ground in the field, in one way or another. In Shrek‘s case, it was the ability to realistically animate hair and grass.

Next time…
To date there have been three sequel movies, a spin-off movie (which then has its own world of attendant spin-offs, including a six-season TV series), a 4D theme park attraction (which was included in 3D on some DVD releases of the film), plus numerous TV specials and the like, as well as a stage musical version. There are constant rumours of the franchise getting a big-screen continuation, too.

Awards
1 Oscar (Animated Feature)
1 Oscar nomination (Adapted Screenplay)
1 BAFTA (Adapted Screenplay)
5 BAFTA nominations (Film, Supporting Actor (Eddie Murphy), Music, Sound, Special Visual Effects)
1 BAFTA Children’s Award (Film)
1 Saturn Award (DVD Special Edition)
4 Saturn Award nominations (Fantasy Film, Supporting Actor (Eddie Murphy), Writing, Music)
8 Annie Awards (Animated Theatrical Feature, Individual Achievement for Directing in an Animated Feature, Individual Achievement for Writing in an Animated Feature, Voice Acting by a Male Performer in an Animated Feature (Eddie Murphy), Individual Achievement for Effects Animation, Individual Achievement for Music Score an Animated Feature, Individual Achievement for Production Design in an Animated Feature, Individual Achievement for Storyboarding in an Animated Feature)
4 Annie Award nominations (Individual Achievement for Character Animation (x3), Individual Achievement for Production Design in an Animated Feature)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation
Nominated for the Palme d’Or (seriously)

Verdict

DreamWorks’ irreverent riff on fairytale animations was a breath of fresh air back in 2001, allowing them to net the first Best Animated Feature Oscar ahead of Disney or Pixar. A decade and a half of imitators have taken the shine off that somewhat, as have advances in technology (old CGI ages worse than old cel animation), but it remains an amusing and quotable film, with a surprisingly strong moral message at its heart.

The Boss Baby (2017)

2018 #12
Tom McGrath | 97 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | U / PG

The Boss Baby

The Boss Baby was one of the top 20 highest grossing films of 2017, which earnt it a place on my ’50 Unseen’ list, thereby ensuring it would remain in my consciousness for as long as I referred to said list (i.e. for the rest of time). Then it went and got nominated for an Oscar too, displacing the likes of The LEGO Batman Movie and Ghibli heir Mary and the Witch’s Flower in the process. With those factors combined, I felt I had to witness it for myself. I chose to do so in 3D, to hopefully ameliorate at least some of the anticipated discomfort of watching the film itself. I needn’t have worried: despite what many people will tell you, I thought The Boss Baby was actually pretty good. Well, most of it.

It’s the story of Tim (voiced by Miles Bakshi and in narration by Tobey Maguire), a seven-year-old only child with a hyperactive imagination and two doting parents. But then a new baby arrives… As Tim’s parents’ affection shifts to their attention-demanding bundle of joy, he’s the only one who can see the truth: that the baby wears a suit, carries a briefcase, and is clearly a businessmanbaby on some kind of undercover mission. Obviously no one will listen to Tim, so he sets about exposing the truth.

Sibling rivalry

For all its daft humour, the reason The Boss Baby is so successful (for an adult viewer) is that it’s actually a really neat way of tackling the whole “sibling displaced by new baby” thing, from the kid’s point of view. That’s the thematic and subtextual meat that makes it more than just “wouldn’t it be funny if a baby was a businessman!” As part of this, it has a nice line in juxtaposing how an imaginative seven-year-old sees the world versus how it really is — showing us both Tim’s fantasies and the actual events they’ve launched off from. It allows the film to have exciting and kooky stuff (like talking business-babies and elaborate action scenes) while also remaining grounded. Watching in 3D heightens this further, incidentally: as with most computer-animated films, the 3D effect is generally pretty nice, but it really comes alive during the fantasy and action sequences.

If that all sounds oddly serious, it isn’t. Arguably best known nowadays for his Trump impersonations, Alec Baldwin is an obvious choice to voice an infantile businessman. This one’s actually competent, though, so Baldwin plays it straight and thus is dryly witty. There are also plenty of amusing visual gags, one-liners, and so on to fulfil the expected comedy remit. Okay, some don’t land or are a bit juvenile, but it is a kids’ movie after all.

Parents are so gullible

Unfortunately, what works in the early sections begins to go awry later on. By the third act it’s lost the connection to plausible reality that made Tim’s imagined versions such fun — it’s impossible to translate the OTT action we’re witnessing into what might be really happening. I know it sounds daft to talk about plausibility in a film about a baby who’s a businessman, but it’s the relationship between Tim’s fantasies (i.e. the business-baby stuff) and real-life (i.e. really he’s just a new baby) that makes the earlier parts work.

Arguably worst of all is the epilogue, which takes a very serious emotional issue (the loss of a baby) and tosses it aside to expedite the resolution the filmmakers want to reach. Maybe it’s a bit much to expect a kids’ movie to attempt to tackle the realities of losing a child, especially when it only introduces that element in its closing minutes, but then surely the solution is to not even go there; to find a better way to wrap up the story?

It’s this increasing lack of attentiveness that ultimately led me to give the film a 3 instead of a 4. If it had kept up the early quality through to the end, I likely would have looked more generously on it. Nonetheless, thanks to the bits that worked really well, I generally found the film to be a pleasant surprise.

3 out of 5

Spin-off TV series The Boss Baby: Back in Business is available on Netflix from today.

Cars 3 (2017)

2018 #54
Brian Fee | 102 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | U / G

Cars 3

At this point I think it’s fairly well known that the Cars movie series continues not because of any artistic desire on the part of Disney/Pixar, but because the toys the films generate sell like hotcakes. Indeed, that situation hasn’t necessarily changed with this third instalment: apparently Cars 3 features 65 different individual racers, more than both the previous films combined. And several of those appear kitted out in different paint jobs. Disney gotsta make that toy money! The disregard with which they hold the actual movies is perhaps demonstrated by the fact this third one is helmed by a first-time director, Brian Fee, whose previous credits are as a storyboard artist on a couple of Pixar productions. Maybe they lucked out, then — or maybe they actually knew what they were doing promoting him — because I think this is easily the best film in the Cars trilogy.

Beginning with nary a reference to the events of Cars 2, racer Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is back doing what he loves: racing. That’d be American-style racing, i.e. constantly turning left for hundreds of laps. Anyway, turns out there’s a new generation of hot young racers, who are less on their way up and more already here, led by Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). They use advanced training techniques and statistics to beat the old guard — soon all of Lightning’s contemporaries are choosing to retire or being forced out, leaving him the last one standing… until he crashes in the final race of the season. Is his career over? Well, what do you think? With the backing of a new sponsor, Sterling (Nathan Fillion), and all the latest high-tech gear, Lightning sets to work training with young wannabe-racer-turned-coach Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo). But as he struggles to regain his mojo, perhaps there’s something to be said for the old ways after all…

Storm vs Lightning

Although I wouldn’t say sports movies are my bag, I think Cars 3 probably benefits from taking a more clean approach to that genre, ditching all the spy hijinks distractions of the last one. That purity of genre keeps it straightforward and focused. It also re-centres itself on Lightning McQueen, shoving Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) back into a cameo-sized supporting role, which is about where he belongs (I wouldn’t say he’s likeable in small doses, but he’s tolerable). It still finds room for humour and levity, just in a more natural, less goofy way.

Around that, it actually takes a run at some weighty themes — specifically, old age and obsolescence — and carries through on them too, with a finale that goes for more of a “finding worth in what you do next” ending rather than a “still got it (for now)” one. Such maturity means it’s perhaps more suited to Pixar’s grown-up fans than their young ones — it’s a surprisingly serious movie, in fact, without being po-faced about it. That said, you could probably play down the thematic stuff and just be entertained: there are still good set pieces, both action-based and comical, to keep the right family-friendly tone.

It makes for a winning combination. Cars 3 may not trouble the upper echelons of Pixar’s greatest achievements, but it is the best of their Cars movies — the first of the trilogy I remember genuinely enjoying, rather than just finding tolerably okay. That might sound like a low bar to set, but Cars 3 clears it admirably.

4 out of 5

Cars 3 is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Long Way North (2015)

aka Tout en haut du monde

2017 #33
Rémi Chayé | 78 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | France & Denmark / French | PG / PG

Long Way North

I can’t remember what brought this French-Danish animation to my attention, but I’m glad something did because it’s a beautiful little film that deserves to be better known. Set in the late 19th century, it’s about a young Russian girl, Sasha, who embarks on an adventure to the North Pole, following in the footsteps of her missing grandfather.

Regular readers may recall I ranked it among the top movies I saw last year, when I cited the “understated beauty in its deceptively simple visual style”. Indeed, the animation initially seems so plain that it feels like watching a draft animatic, but that conceals its ability to reveal subtleties when needed. In the end, the distinctive look is part of the film’s considerable charm.

I also mentioned its “equally subtle but strong feminist streak”, another positive aspect. Sasha is strong-willed and capable, but not without her faults, which makes her an engaging heroine. The film doesn’t overplay its “girls can too” side, which only makes it more successful, I think.

There’s none of the epic action sequences or broad humour that most English-language animation assumes kids need to keep them engaged, but instead Long Way North offers good characters on a proper old-fashioned exploration adventure. Highly recommended.

5 out of 5

Long Way North placed 13th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters (2017)

aka Gojira: Kaijū Wakusei / Godzilla: Monster Planet

2018 #13
Hiroyuki Seshita & Kôbun Shizuno | 88 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | Japan / Japanese | PG

Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters

Two of Japan’s most successful cultural exports meet for the first time here as the King of the Monsters, Godzilla, gets the anime treatment. Originally conceived as a TV series, the box office success of Shin Godzilla prompted studio Toho to restructure the project as a trilogy of movies and release them theatrically (in Japan, anyway — the rest of the world gets them via Netflix). Part 2 is due later in 2018 and Part 3 in early 2019.

The standard plot of a Godzilla movie, as I understand it, is a giant monster (aka kaiju) turns up, stomps all over some cities, then we find a way to destroy it; or, if it’s one of the ones where Godzilla is a good guy, he fights it and, presumably, wins. Planet of the Monsters uses its animated form to do something new with the concept. The opening credits montage informs us that, in the final years of the 20th century, kaiju suddenly sprung up all over the planet and mankind were unable to defeat them. Fortunately some aliens rocked up and offered to help by evacuating what was left of humanity. Twenty years later this mission to the stars is proving a failure, with minimal chance of finding a habitable planet and the survivors decimated by diminishing supplies. The best course of action is deemed to be a return to Earth — it’s estimated thousands of years will have passed there (thanks to relativity) and the hope is the monsters will have died; and if not, hotshot young captain Haruo Sakai has come up with a new plan to defeat Godzilla once and for all.

Good God

If that reads like a lot of setup, it’s because Planet of the Monsters contains a lot of setup. It takes about half the movie before they’re back on Earth and… well, technically this is a spoiler, but if you’re intending to watch the movie it might help you manage expectations: Godzilla doesn’t properly show up until the final half-hour. This has led some reviewers to accuse the movie of being slow and light on what we came to see, i.e. giant monster action. They have something of a point. However, contrary to most opinions I’ve read, I actually enjoyed the early space-bound stages of the movie better.

It feels like the makers had a ton of interesting ideas about the politics and social situation aboard the evacuation ship, especially with multiple races and some kind of alien religion involved too, but there’s no time to really explore or develop those facets. Maybe they planned to get into that in the series. Either way, I find it funny that others have criticised that part for being slow and talky while I felt it had to race past a lot of potentially-interesting stuff to keep the plot moving. I guess I just ought to go watch Battlestar Galactica again, because it’s broadly similar territory.

Back to Earth

But, as I said before, there’s a rub: this setup provokes interest as a Galactica-style sci-fi, but as a Godzilla movie? There’s far too little of the big guy. And when he does turn up for the big climactic action sequence, that was the bit I found kinda dull. There’s a lot of whizzing around on hoverbike-things and blowing up forests and whatnot — plenty of sound and fury, but signifying what? And then… well, still avoiding spoilers, but there’s a twist in the final few minutes that renders this whole film prologue. Perhaps that should leave us hopeful for the next two? Perhaps this is all effective world-building for where things will go in the sequels? Conversely, it could be revealed as unnecessary background info once all the monster smashing starts. Only time (and the next two films) will tell…

3 out of 5

Saludos Amigos (1942)

2017 #161
Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Ham Luske & Bill Roberts | 40 mins | download | 4:3 | USA / Portuguese & English | U / PG

Saludos Amigos

The sixth film in Disney’s official animated canon was the first in a run of cheap “package films” that span the gap from 1942’s Bambi to 1950’s Cinderella. Frankly, if Disney hadn’t decided to make it part of their animated canon whenever that list was first settled upon, I very much doubt it would be remembered today.

It’s called a “package film” because it bundled together a handful of animated shorts, linked by live-action footage of Disney’s team on location researching the films, to form a feature-length movie (though in the case of Saludos Amigos it barely qualifies as feature-length). This particular set depict various aspects of South America, apparently in an attempt by Disney to improve US relations with its neighbouring continent during World War II. According to this item of trivia on IMDb, it worked — but thanks to the linking documentaries, not the animation: by “featuring footage of modern Latin American cities with skyscrapers and fashionably dressed residents [it] went against the then-current perception of the American audience that Latin America was a culturally backwards area, predominately rural, and mostly inhabited by poorly-dressed peasants. The film is credited with helping change the American perception of Latin America and its inhabitants.”

No stereotypes here

Viewed today, it’s largely fine — one or two parts are likeable, even — but there’s not a great deal to it. The live-action linking segments are meant to show what inspired the short animations, but sometimes that goes a little too far and they seem to convey the same Educational info twice over. And unless you’re looking into, say, North American perceptions of South America in the 1940s, there’s not a great deal of value left in it as a factual piece.

So my score errs on the harsh side, because it’s not a bad film per se, but I think it has very little to offer the modern viewer, either in terms of entertainment or education.

2 out of 5

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! (2012)

aka The Pirates! Band of Misfits

2018 #8
Peter Lord | 88 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | U / PG

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!

After a foray into CGI with the decent-but-not-exceptional Flushed Away and Arthur Christmas, Aardman took this adaptation of Gideon Defoe’s comedic novels as a chance to return to what they know best: stop-motion animation.

It stars a ragtag band of misfits— ugh, don’t get me started on the title change… but if you did, I might say something like the opening few paragraphs of this review. Anyway, as I was saying, it stars a ragtag crew of pirates, who are led (appropriately enough) by the Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant). His greatest desire is to win the Pirate of the Year Award, an honour he’s never achieved because, frankly, he’s a bit of a rubbish pirate. When he bumps into Charles Darwin (David Tennant) he stumbles upon a possible route to victory, but first he’ll have to contend with pirate-hating monarch Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton).

Naturally it’s a tale not so much of derring-do as of humorous shenanigans, though in truth it’s not the studio’s most hysterical offering, ticking along with a level of gentle amusement rather than outright hilarity. That said, some parts do spark considerable mirth, like a trained monkey who ‘speaks’ through word cards, and there are background gags aplenty for the keen-eyed viewer. Plus it’s all carried off with the ineffable charm of Aardman’s hand-crafted puppetry, and that goes a long way (at least for this reviewer).

Band of misfits

I’ve always thought the Pirates of the Caribbean movies (especially the first one) more-or-less nailed the tone I would’ve wanted from an adaptation of the beloved Monkey Island games, but I read a commenter somewhere say The Pirates is probably the closest we’ll ever get to a Monkey Island film and, thinking about it, he’s probably right. The Monkey Island games are mostly cartoonish comedies, with a fair dose of irreverence and anachronism, and The Pirates offers up a similar brand of humour. (Maybe this is a niche comparison to make, given the height of Monkey Island’s popularity was over 25 years ago now, but, hey, these things are always ripe for rediscovery).

Despite being the fourth highest-grossing stop-motion film ever made, distributor Sony judged The Pirates to be a flop and the sequel Aardman were planning got canned. That’s a pity, because you feel this motley crew could’ve led us on another amusing adventure or two yet.

4 out of 5

Aardman’s new film, Early Man, is in UK cinemas now.