Thursday, January 21, 2016

I Saw This!! (2015 Unreviewed) - Kidstuff

I Saw This (double exclamation point) is our feature wherein Graig or David attempt to write about a bunch of movies they watched some time ago and meant to write about but just never got around to doing so.  Now they they have to strain to say anything meaningful lest they just not say anything at all.  And they can't do that, can they?

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Watership Down (1978, d.Martin Rosen, John Hubley) - Criterion blu-ray
Inside Out (2015, Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carmen) - in theatre
The Book of Life (2014, d. Jorge Gutierrez) - Netflix
The Peanuts Movie (2015, d. Steve Martino) - in theatre
The NeverEnding Story (1985, d. Wolfgang Petersen) - Shomi

Tomorrowland (2015, d. Brad Bird) - Netflix

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I place Watership Down in the category of "Kidstuff" because everyone I know who has seen it first saw it as a child.  The film was released in an era where "animation" meant "cartoon" which meant "kidstuff", a perception which still hasn't quite left the general consciousness today (in spite of 20+ years of Simpsons, Adult Swim, and countless not-for-the-younger-set television counterprogramming).  Also, everyone I know who saw it as a kid said it left a lasting impression, generally in the form of a traumatic scar.

I never saw Watership Down as a child...most likely because it was released when I was 2 and didn't seem to have much of a life on weekend television where kids would see most older movies.  I imagine the more mature nature and shocking moments of violence would be rather jarring to a younger viewer.  It's not gratuitous violence, mind you, but more natural, real-world violence, as the hares in the film get caught in traps of square off in territorial conflict.

It's been almost a year since I watched it for the first time, the particulars of the story are quite faded, but the imagery of the film, the hand-painted animation, has stuck with me.  It's a gorgeously illustrated film, designed with a naturalistic brush, rather than brighter, more vibrant tones seen in most other children's animation.  Elements of the film feel a bit dated, like the timbre of the voice cast (which at times makes the film feel like it was animated to an audio drama) and the necessary animation tricks to keep budgets down (which lead to repeated cells and cyclical movement).  But the reputation it has earned as a classic in animation (as well as being at times dishearteningly severe) is well deserved.

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Those jarring moments in Watership Down are definitely a large part of what make the film memorable, just as all the great kid movies tend to have something within them that elicit a strong emotional reaction.  Disney often treads in this water, straight back to Bambi where the titular deer's mother is gunned down by a hunter.  When the harsh realities of the real world creep into fantasy, it's almost too much, but I think it's rather vital.  Pixar at its best (which is almost always) has these types of moments, starting with Buzz's realization that he is indeed just a toy in the first Toy Story to the heartache of the first ten minutes of Up

2015's Inside Out, however, is a fantasy fully designed around creeping reality and it's brilliant.  The film creates a fantastical world out of our minds, a vast storage repository of memories as influenced by our emotions.  Those emotions are distilled down to five primaries, Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust.  In the mind of Riley, an 11-year-old girl, Joy rules all.  But when Riley's life is uprooted as her family moves from Minnesota to California, Sadness begins to unintentionally intervene, turning happy memories into bitter ones, and uncontrollably tinging most new experiences.  The film posits that there are a few fundamental memories that make us who we are, and when Riley's fundamentals get accidentally dumped, her very nature is threatened.  Joy and Sadness venture through the recesses of Riley's mind to find those core memories, and in the process Joy comes to understand that sadness is as important an emotion as happiness.  It really is a long-form story to say it's okay to be sad, and it's beautiful.

As an adult, the film effectively captures the spirit of youth, of those final days where you're still somewhat oblivious to the realities of life, but also shows us the difficult transition that takes place when the awareness of those harsh realities comes crashing in.  It helps connect adults to the challenges of childhood, challenges which we all too often dismiss, and have lost our frame of reference for (that Riley's dad's inner emotions have all taken the form of Anger is quite telling).  Nothing represents the loss of childhood more than Bing Bong, Riley's imaginary friend, left hiding in the shadows of Riley's inner recesses, mostly forgotten, but not yet completely gone.  At first blush Bing Bong appears as ill-conceived comic relief, but he very quickly proves to be something other.  Bing Bong's journey in this movie is perhaps as heart-wrenching as those opening ten minutes of Up, but it hammers home the film's point about how essential an emotion sadness is. 

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Outside of the majority of Pixar's rather stupendous 20-year output, there hasn't been a tremendous amount of animated films that stack up.  Dreamworks' Kung-Fu Panda and How To Train Your Dragon series have built exciting worlds with characters easy to connect to, but they tend to avoid emotional gut-punches.  The Lego Movie succeeded in bringing reality crashing down upon the fantasy in brilliant meta fashion.  Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs doesn't have the creeping reality, but is one of the best comedies of the past decade.  Japanese animation has long been granted acceptance in its native country as a viable storytelling format, and many of the films of that country, like Tokyo Godfathers are all beautifully stylized crashing reality, but the wares of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki tend to be the equals or betters of Disney and Pixar's best but lose just a little in the translation. 
 
There's never a lack of trying anything different in animation styles, which is something I respect about the medium, and The Book of Life takes pains to bring many traditional elements of Mexican folklore to the big screen, including a respectful reverence of death and the Dia de los Muertos festival, through a bit of Telenovela melodrama.  The animation style of the film is easily its standout feature, exceptionally lush and colourful without leaning too heavily on primaries.  The character design, emulating wooden puppets, is unusual but wonderful, adding unique texture to an already lavish film. 

I like that The Book of Life employs a cultural distinctness that works in its favour, as well as deals with death in a much different manner than most films (not just animated or children's movies).  And yet, it's an eminently forgettable film, with no standout characters (for a film with such a decidedly unique background, the characters feel so stock), no standout moments that continue to resonate with me many months after watching.  It's effectively a musical but, like the recent Strange Magic, it largely utilizes popular music rather than original compositions to almost an annoying degree.  Covers of Radiohead's "Creep", yet another iteration of "Can't Help Falling In Love", and an ill-advised rendition of "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy" are all to the film's detriment. 

The animated musical, at this point, seems a hokey cliche.  The success of Frozen should denote that what people want is to hear something new, not just a recycling of old pop tunes.  Frozen's song structure isn't even that innovative, it was just surprising and unusual to hear something fresh, and, moreover, have the words of the song have direct (rather than vague) relevance to the character and his or her emotions at that moment.   The Book of Death would have benefited from either a fully original roster of songs, or just avoided the songs altogether.

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The Peanuts Movie mercifully never has its characters bust out into song, but when the film is at its worst is when contemporary music breaks its way in.  It only happens twice throughout the film, but in both cases it destroys the wonderfully tranquil illusion that the movie otherwise creates.  Despite Charlie Brown's seemingly ever-perpetual angst, there's a serenity to animated Peanuts that popular, uptempo music just has no place.  For decades Peanuts was animated to the soft jazz stylings from Vince Guaraldi, and it's as integral to a moving Charlie Brown story as anything.  Composer Christophe Beck effectively emulates Guaraldi's style, bringing it bigger with orchestral overtones, but still retaining a peaceful delicateness.  When Meghan Trainer's "Better When I'm Dancin'" ramps in over a montage of Charlie teaching himself to dance, it's constantly at odds with the visuals on the screen.  Likewise a track from Flo Rida seems to be more about trying to establish Charlie Brown and company as having some modern relevance rather than be meaningful to the scene of the film.

Despite these two rather rude interjections, the film manages to avoid most of the deadly trappings of modernizing an older property.  I was worried that merely being CGI-rendered would take something fundamental away from the Peanuts aesthetic.  Charles Schulz's designs for the characters lasted 65 years relatively unscathed, so I was anticipating globular, three-dimensionally animated figures tarnishing what was so effective for so long.  But much credit to Blue Sky Studios for figuring out a way to digitally render these figures so that they held true.  Beyond one notable exception, the figures never seem like they're illustrated in a way that would compromise their two-dimensional background... it's like Blue Sky studied the comics and cartoons and figured out all the angles that Schulz and prior animators had ever used and didn't want to break outside that.  On top of that, while the CGI allows for a wonderfully vibrant and complex color palette, Blue Sky doesn't try to make the world realistic.  They brilliantly still used hard lines for their figures and still had those stark black exclamation lines emanate from the figures, a trope of cell animation but something you haven't seen in CGI before. 

The world of Charlie Brown (outside of two invasive pop songs) remains relatively unscathed.  It's still feels like 1950.  Technology hasn't advanced, phones still have circular dials and cords, and school desks are still suitably old-timey.  Like any Peanuts special or feature, it's largely made up of vignettes, circling back regularly on certain topics or character journeys, with the central one being Charlie Brown's crush on the Little Red Haired Girl.  Peppermint Patty gets some focus time in the third act and is really the highlight of the film, while Sally gets some quality Little Sister/Big Brother moments in, and Snoopy has his own side plot that pits him against the World War I fighting ace in rather spectacular fashion (adding some not necessarily needed but welcome fantasy action and excitement to the film). 

If The Peanuts Movie falters it's in sticking the landing, providing a finale that sees poor old Charlie Brown not only befriending the Little Red Haired Girl (who gets a name and a face) but also momentarily gaining the respect of his peers.  Charlie Brown's triumphs have never been this big, and given his continued state of misery through much of the movie, it goes too far in the other direction in its conclusion (for old Charlie Brown, it should be the little victories that get him through).  This is a film that teaching audiences about soldiering through disappointment, with the lesson that in the end there is a reward, which wasn't exactly what Schulz generally preached.  But still only the most hardened of Peanuts purists will dislike this film, it overall captures what has made Schulz's world so distinctive and inviting for so long.

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Fantasy was never my bag as a kid.  Star Wars was (and kind of still is) king and everything else was measured against that.  Fantasy never had the same draw for me as science fiction.  Fantasy never seemed to escape the terrestrial.  Magic always seemed to be bound to the land or the seas or sky.  There always seemed to be a sense of longing for medieval-style adventure, free of technology, free of the comforts of modern day.  I found that unappealing and regressive.  So even though I saw a bunch of fantasy movies as a child, The NeverEnding Story most certainly among them, few, if any, stuck with me.  So rewatching The NeverEnding Story was pretty much like watching it again for the first time.  Certain visual elements were familiar, certain characters, but the overall story was rather fresh and unfamiliar.

The film is a curious meta-tale about a young boy, Bastian, his mother recently deceased and a neglectful father, who happens upon the book of the NeverEnding Story.  The story he finds terribly engrossing, a little too much, as it seems his emotions have an impact upon the tale.  The tale within the tale is that of Atreyu, a youthful but fabled hunter in the land of Fantasia, who is sent on a dangerous mission to find the cure crucial to saving the ailing, age-appropriate Empress from death.  As with most fantasies it plays out from set piece to set piece, magical land to magical land, strange creature to strange creature, only the NeverEnding story continually checks in with Bastian as he reacts and influences the events he's reading.  Inevitably Bastian is the key to saving the day, sucked into Fantasia himself.

The film is a mixed marvel of astounding practical effects and a few that have aged poorly (poor Falkor).  It's the effects of the film (Wolfgang Petersen's first English language production, despite being German-produced) that intrigued me the most as the film is almost perpetually rife with some effect or another.  Despite the fantasy trappings, I found myself rather enamored with the design and execution of the world of Fantasia.  After I finished watching it, I wanted to watch it again almost immediately, only with my kids to see how they would engage with it.  Sadly I've yet to do that.  I'm less curious about the sequels, though I suspect the second (starring Jonathan Brandis and John Wesley Shipp) is the one that would play more frequently on television as a kid and thus the one I'd be more familiar with. 

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Tomorrowland got pretty dire reviews when it arrived in theatres mid-2015, and certainly didn't perform as well at the box office like that other Disneyland attraction-turned-blockbuster Pirates of the Carribean (but then, neither did The Haunted Mansion, The Country Bears or Tower of Terror).  With much distance from the reviews (having just watched the movie this past week) I don't recall off-hand what the main criticisms were, but I suspect much of it was about it being less adventuresome, less "Tomorrowland"-filled, and ultimately the first disappointment of Brad Bird's immense filmmaking talent.

I think David nails it in his review: "...once they actually get to Tomorrowland.... then the movie seems to fall kind of flat, with a destiny to be fulfilled, worlds to save and hand wringing bad guys to be defeated".  All that, plus it gets pretty darn preachy about how terribly we have treated our Earth, how little we respect the scientists and inventor that try to understand and better our world, and that very Disney-fied message of it only takes one person to make a difference.  Not that the messages are at all wrong, but they seem to come into relevance almost too late in the film to be anything but preachy.

 I imagine had I went to see this in the theatre, brimming with Brad Bird love and enthusiasm, I would have been disappointed too. Though there's lots of fun little gadgets and kooky contraptions throughout, I would have thought the film should have largely been set in the titular land, rather than having the characters talk a lot about it and attempt to find their way to it.  It's not that grandiose exploration of a retro-futuristic domain that it should have been (a live action story taking place in Bruce McCall's Marveltown would be so cool), an effectively sugary piece of old-timey nostalgia for a future that never happened.  But the writers and director had something else in mind, a message movie rather than a straight up blockbuster.

Like David, I too rather enjoyed the film.  Going in with the expectation of being disappointed, I found it to have a rather likeable cast, plenty of suitably weird events and images, as well as containing an engaging journey, even if the final destination is a little tepid.  We get a sense of Tomorrowland in its prime, with an introduction to Frank Walker as a child in 1964 visiting the New York World's Fair to show off his rocket pack and earn a $50 prize, only to find his way with the help of Athena into an alternate dimension where science rules.  50 years later we meet Casey, a genius-level student whose engineer father is on the cusp of losing his job with NASA as a result of defunding (point being as a culture we're losing our sense of adventure and fascination with the world and universe around us).  Casey's efforts at extending her dad's job's lifespan winds up getting her arrested (but also getting her noticed) and she winds up with a fantastic pin that very near kills her three times over, as it seemingly transports her into Tomorrowland.  It turns out it's pretty much just advertising, and that something has gone wrong. there  Athena, unaged all these years, recruits Casey to seek out Frank and get to Tomorrowland.  They are the last hope.

Frank, meanwhile, has grown into George Clooney, a reclusive, antisocial tinkerer whose reluctant to listen to Casey or adopt Athena's mission.  It's not until Frank sees a glitch in his prognostication machine (one which foretells the end of the world) that he associates with Casey that he finally sees hope, that with positivity we can change our destiny.  Upon entering a virtually desolate Tomorrowland they're greeted immediately by Hugh Laurie's Nix, the man in charge of the once great city of science.  Nix rails on them with a speech about how humanity has embraced nihilism, they revel in doomsday stories and apocalyptic tales, and how that acceptance of an inevitable end is a self-fulfilling prophecy that will see it happen.  It makes people docile and ineffectual, and Nix is using Tomorrowland as the last refuge for humanity, but only on his terms as he's in charge (as David said, he turns the corner into mustache twirling rather quickly).

I'm wondering if Tomorrowland would have been more effective if it embraced the positivity of the idealized future of the 1960s, if it hit home on what we lost in reality by becoming so cynical and disconnected from our environments and each other by showing us what the glorious world would be had Americans embraced their destiny as scientific pioneers instead of consumers and self-righteous, warmongering, industrialized hoarders.  The film could have shown a leader like Nix infecting the populace with negativity and distraction, and how quickly people are willing to accept it.  There's definitely a more exciting, visually stunning film to be made out of much the same concept.

One aspect I truly loved was George Clooney's performance, how as a late-50-something year old man he was so able to convey his youthful love for Athena (as portrayed by a pre-teen actress) without making it creepy, and also without making it chaste.  He manages a tenderness of emotion that implies fondess and youthfully innocent romance, avoiding any gross undertones and also not going paternal.  It's quite a fantastic tight-rope-wire walk he does amazingly well.