Friday, June 25, 2010

Pixar Feature Film #5: Toy Story 3

#5: Toy Story 3 (2010)

Director: Lee Unkrich

Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Don Rickles, Ned Beatty, Michael Keaton, Estelle Harris, Timothy Dalton, Bonnie Hunt, Wallace Shawn,

It is complete, dudes. And it was everything I thought it would be. Luckily, I made it through the entire film without needing the tissues, despite the fact that I almost cried watching the trailer.

Toy Story 3 has taken in $41 million on its opening day alone, which has to be some kind of record. Unfortunately, the Tomatometer rating has dropped to 99%, owing to a couple of hacks named Armond White and Cole Smithey, the self-proclaimed "smartest film critic in the word." The criticism is mostly dedicated toward the scary content in the film that deserves a PG-rating. Newsflash! Most Disney movies are scary! Snow White and the Seven Dwarves? Sleeping Beauty? The Lion King? Aladdin? Terrifying, am I wrong?

Unlike the first two films, this one is more plot focused instead of character focused. There is seemingly not much change in the characters as a result of the events and doesn't reveal a lot in the way of backstory. I thought we'd learn more about Woody. Since "Woody's Roundup" last aired in 1957, that would make Woody 53 years old. What was he doing between 1957 and 1995? I had a theory about this; that Woody previously belonged to Andy's father. That's supported by Andy's mom declaring that Woody was "an old family toy" at the yard sale in Toy Story 2. But Andy's dad has never appeared in any film, and isn't even in any of Andy's family photos. So that dashes that theory. However, the Pixar staff was clever enough to plant a YouTube commercial for Lots-O'-Huggin' Bear and distort it to make it look like a VHS recording that came from the 80s. Check it out. It had me fooled; I went in thinking this was a toy that actually existed. The prison break sub-plot is brilliant, though, and that makes it all worth it.

The voice acting is very good, but it's mostly the new characters who steal the show. Ned Beatty is terrific as Lotso, and Timothy Dalton as Mr. Pricklepants deserved a bigger role. Animator Bud Luckey also nails the role of Chuckles the Clown.

It certainly earns its place in the Pixar pantheon. It would have been easy to turn this film into an easy cash-grab. In all the ways that Shrek has gone downhill due to greed, Toy Story keeps its integrity. I'm hoping it picks up a nomination for Best Picture. I think the screenplay deserves consideration (Michael Arndt, of Little Miss Sunshine fame, as well as Stanton and Lasseter) as does Randy Newman's musical score.

I have assigned it the #5 spot, making it just slightly better than Toy Story 2, but couldn't quite match Monsters, Inc. Also, a little disappointed there was no teaser trailer for Cars 2. Come on, Pixar!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Pixar Feature Film #1: WALL-E

Well, it's finally here. In a few short hours, Toy Story 3 premieres across North America as the first midnight showings roll out. I will hopefully be out to see it this weekend, and you'll know I'm there if some nerd starts clapping and cheering when Luxo Jr. hops onto the screen. Early reviews are unanimously positive. It looks like Toy Story 3 may cruise to 100% positive ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, marking a perfect score for the whole trilogy, which would be a record that would stand for all time. At this point, I'm dying to see some risk their credibility by giving this film a bad review. Come on, critics. I DARE you.

And now, for the best Pixar movie made to date:

1. WALL-E (2008)

Director: Andrew Stanton

Starring: Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, Fred Willard, John Ratzenberger, Kathy Najimy, Sigourney Weaver

"Another triumph for Pixar and Andrew Stanton!" was what I wrote in my initial review of this film. And indeed, it is a great achievement for Stanton to have made the top two of the list.

Unlike most environmentally-themed films, WALL-E doesn't disappear completely up its own asshole with messages. It doesn't shove it down your throat. The ecological agenda is plain to see, but the mass consumerism in the film is because of too close a tie between big government and big business. Also, the lack of dialogue in the film allows it to transcend language barriers and make it appealing to both adults and children. The first "conversation" between WALL-E and EVE takes place 22 minutes into the film, and the first human conversation takes place 39 minutes in. There are numerous biblical references as well. EVE is named so because WALL-E's loneliness reminded Stanton of Adam. Eve has also drawn comparisons to the dove in the story of Noah's Ark.

Stanton's own definition of the film's theme is that "irrational love defeats life's programming." We see WALL-E who is cleaning up garbage alone every day for the past seven hundred years, never questioning why. EVE comes in and will initially have nothing to do with WALL-E, instead focusing solely on her objective. Stanton argues that we all fall into our ruts and habits either consciously or unconsciously to avoid messy things like having relationships or dealing with other people.

WALL-E snagged one Oscar for Best Animated Feature and had six more nominations: Best Music, Original Score, Best Music, Original Song (Peter Gabriel's "Down to Earth") Best Sound, Best Sound Editing, and Best Original Screenplay. It certainly deserved a Best Picture nomination and should have WON the damn thing, given the forgettable crop that year: Slumdog Millionaire, The Reader, Milk, Frost/Nixon, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Also, the Los Angeles Film Critics named it Best Picture of 2008. However, this one has the dubious distinction of being shut out at the Annies, and is the only Pixar film to be shut out besides A Bug's Life. The fact that this happened, along with Kung Fu Panda running the table, is unholy. How could they get it so right by picking Cars over Happy Feet and then fuck it up so badly two years later? What, were they smoking crack up their asses?

So this concludes my series on Pixar. If you haven't seen all the films on this list, I would highly recommend you do so. And go see Toy Story 3. I'll comment on it once I've seen it and place it on the list.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Pixar Feature Film #2: Finding Nemo

2. Finding Nemo (2003)

Director: Andrew Stanton

Starring: Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, Alexander Gould, Stephen Root, Geoffrey Rush, Andrew Stanton, Bob Peterson

It seems as though Finding Nemo is Pixar's prestige or flagship piece, as it was their most commercially successful effort, and I believe a lot of people have seen this who maybe haven't browsed the rest of the library. Its gross was $867,893,978, which was nearly unheard of at the time for a G-rated film. It is the best selling DVD in the world with over 40 million sold. Unlike oddball films like Ratatouille and Up, this film is almost universally endearing. It really defined the classic Pixar modus operandi of a character's journey toward self-improvement; the appreciation of friends and family through venturing out into the real world. There is suspense throughout this one, but the real heart of the movie is in the message: the difficulty and importance of letting children develop their own identities. The one flaw that it has is that there are WAY too many characters. It seems like there are many who are in the film for only a minute or two. How can kids keep track of them all? Everyone knows Marlin, Nemo, and Dory, but there's also Crush, Bruce, Gill, Bloat, Peach, Gurgle, Bubbles, Jacques, Nigel, Squirt, Mr. Ray, Anchor, and Chum. Of course, Crush (voiced by Andrew Stanton) kind of steals the show, and even has his own Disneyland attraction.

And do you think I saw it in the theatres? Heck no. As a first year university student who knew everything there is to know about everything, I was still a snob against animated films. But when I rented this one on DVD, it sure smartened me up and reminded me that there is a world outside of live-action.

Finding Nemo won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature; the first win for Pixar in the category. It was also nominated for Best Music, Original Score, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Sound Editing. Should have been nominated for Best Picture, but there was an unusually strong field in the category that year (Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Lost in Translation, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) although it did pick up the Globe nomination. It dominated the Annies, winning 9 against respectable competition (Brother Bear and Les Triplettes de Belleville)

So, only one more left to go, and if you've been paying attention, you know exactly which one it is...

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Pixar Feature Film #3: Up

3. Up (2009)

Director: Pete Docter

Starring: Ed Asner, Jordan Nagai, Christopher Plummer, Bob Peterson

After WALL-E, I think the already high expectations on Pixar got dialled up even more. And Up delivered. Pete Docter bested his first effort.

Up is probably Pixar's lightest and funniest. It has brilliant voice acting (especially by Bob Peterson as Dug the dog,) and is wonderfully written. Its "failed purpose" theme makes it required viewing for crabby old guys everywhere. Hell, it deserves to win based on the the first 10 minutes of the film alone. I almost spit coke all over the theatre floor when we see that Carl and Ellie are infertile. That's a bit heavy for a kid's movie, don't you think?? Despite the outrageousness of some of the plot, there is also quite a bit of emotion in this one, so I think it strikes a good balance. Up was also the first Pixar film to be released in 3D during its initial run.

Up was only the second animated film to be nominated for Best Picture. Of course, it took the category expanding to ten nominees to finally make it happen. Up went on to lose to The Hurt Locker. It did win two Oscars: Best Animated Feature and Best Music, Original Score to Michael Giacchino. It also swept the minor circuit awards shows in these categories. It was also nominated for Best Sound Editing and Best Original Screenplay. However, it was surprised at the Annies, winning only twice, for Best Animated Feature and Directing in a Feature Production. In a very divided field, it lost out to Coraline and The Princess and the Frog in 7 categories. It grossed $731,338,164, making it Pixar's second biggest commercial success.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Pixar Feature Film #4: Monsters, Inc.

4. Monsters, Inc. (2001)

Director: Pete Docter

Starring: John Goodman, Billy Crystal, Steve Buscemi, James Coburn, Bob Peterson, Bonnie Hunt

What a surprise this was! This being the first Pixar feature not directed by John Lasseter meant we had no idea what to expect. And Pete Docter really owns this movie. The premise of the film is just so good: that when a kid says there's a monster in the closet, there really is something there. The fact that the monsters need the screams to power their city is what makes it brilliant. And they top it off with the theme that laughter is more powerful than fear. It goes from being light-hearted, to suspenseful, and then endearing, all in the span of 92 minutes.

The voice acting here is clearly the best of the best. And really, it was a risk to cast John Goodman, who had sustained box office failures in both We're Back: A Dinosaur's Story and The Emperor's New Groove. Billy Crystal provides the hilarious comic relief and makes a great sidekick for Goodman. Steve Buscemi also provides the perfect slimy dirtbag voice for Randall. Bob Peterson, who is equally as talented as a voice actor as he is a director/screenwriter, is the voice of Roz. Even two-year-old Mary Gibbs is good, providing the voice for Boo.

Here's some trivia: Randy Newman's song "If I Didn't Have You" was the first Oscar for Pixar (not including Lasseter's Special Achievement award for Toy Story) and Newman's first win in 16 nominations. It received three more nominations including Best Sound Editing, Best Music, Original Score, and a nomination for the first ever Best Animated Feature Oscar, although it would lose to Shrek. It was also dominated at the Annies, winning only once for Best Character Animation, losing to Sen to Chihiro no kamikakusi and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. It did, however, become the eighth highest grossing animated film of all-time, earning $525,366,597.

I wonder what they'll do for Monsters, Inc. 2. I'm thinking along the same lines as Toy Story 3, where Boo is all grown up. She'd be about 12 when this film releases. But who is directing this? It's a mystery. We can confirm that it's not Docter, Unkrich, Stanton, or Lasseter. Gary Rydstrom perhaps? Bob Peterson?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Pixar Feature Film #5: Toy Story 2

5. Toy Story 2 (1999)

Director: John Lasseter

Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Kelsey Grammer, Don Rickles, Jim Varney, Wayne Knight

Originally intended as a direct to video sequel, this one experienced serious quality issues much like the first film and was overhauled completely in 9 months. Toy Story is definitely a character story, and you have to feel something for these characters to appreciate the film. This one reveals quite a bit of the backstory of three of the main characters. Initially, Jessie was really annoying to watch, but I thought Pixar turned a major corner with Jessie's musical number. "You never forget kids like Emily or Andy…but they forget you." I really liked Kelsey Grammar as Stinky Pete in this one. (He tells Woody that Andy won't take him to college, but if you look at the trailers for Toy Story 3, that is exactly what he does. Oh yeah!)

As mentioned before, this one received 100% positive ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, so why can't I rank it any higher? Well, we're high enough on the list now that finding fault with any of these shows is becoming really difficult. So I guess Toy Story 2 is #5 just because the top 4 were a little bit better. I guess the scenes outside of Al's apartment are just a little bit slow, but that's really the only thing.

Toy Story 2 was nominated for one lousy Oscar: Best Music, Original Song for Randy Newman's "When She Loved Me." However, in one of the rare displays demonstrating that the Golden Globes are ahead of the curve, Toy Story 2 won the Globe for Best Picture, Musical or Comedy, only the second animated film to do so. Toy Story 2 also received 7 Annies. One of those rare instances where the sequel is better than the original. Hopefully, history will repeat itself in five days.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Pixar Feature Film #6: Ratatouille

6. Ratatouille (2007)

Director: Brad Bird

Starring: Patton Oswalt, Lou Romano, Janeane Garofalo, Ian Holm, Peter O'Toole

And now, slightly better than Brad Bird's first effort was Ratatouille.

Before we go further, what's the most important aspect of making a film? Well, good writing, first of all. After that, it's editing, cinematography, and musical score, in that order. Ratatouille beats The Incredibles because the writing was just that much better.

I admit I had some serious doubts about this one when I first saw the promotional display for it in the theatre, Spring 2007. Rats don't make endearing characters, there's zero merchandising potential, and they even had to spell the name of the film phonetically on the poster, for God's sake. However, I was proven very wrong as this one made $623,707,397 at the box office.

I like this one because obviously, they were taking big risks and most of them pay off. It's basically a discrimination tale, told in a highly original format. The Linguini character is a bit bland and started to get on my nerves halfway through, but he redeems himself in the end. He's isn't nearly as bad as Mater. I think most of the dislike comes from the fact that he is the only human character without even a trace of a French accent, so that makes him even more of an outcast. Also, Michael Giacchino's musical score is one of the best around. And, I personally believe the quote at the end that "The average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so" was a direct shot at the (relatively) bad reviews that Cars received.

Ratatouille won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. It was nominated for Best Music, Original Score, Best Achievement in Sound, Best Achievement in Sound Editing and Best Writing, Original Screenplay. It all but swept the Annies, winning 9, only losing in the Best Animated Effects category to Surf's Up.

I will leave you with what is probably my favourite clip from a Pixar film:

Friday, June 11, 2010

Pixar Feature Film #7: The Incredibles

7. The Incredibles (2004)

Director: Brad Bird

Starring: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Jason Lee, Samuel L. Jackson

I haven't seen this one all that much. Maybe it's because the first half the movie is a little bit slow, but well worth it to get to the second half.

Rotten Tomatoes has this classified as the 16th greatest action film of all time, but its underlying themes are what distinguishes it. "They keep creating new ways to celebrate mediocrity" and the line that best sums it up "Once everyone is super, no one will be." I thought Craig T. Nelson was perfectly cast as the burned-out aging superhero Mr. Incredible and Brad Bird as Edna Mode was also fantastic.

Brad Bird had also directed The Iron Giant and I found that The Incredibles has a lot of the same comic book influences. Bird had brought over a bunch of collaborators from The Iron Giant who hadn't worked with the computer before, but they certainly made it work. Out of all 10 films, I'd have to say that visually, this one is my favourite. They took a "nothing is impossible" approach. They were animating hair and fabric underwater, hair blowing through the wind, human scenes…all of which are very difficult to animate. There were also 89 set pieces, triple that of Monsters Inc. There was a different degree of realism to this one.

The Incredibles won the Oscars for Best Animated Feature and Best Achievement in Sound Editing. It was nominated for Best Achievement in Sound Mixing and Best Writing, Original Screenplay. It was nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Picture, Musical or Comedy. It was also nominated for a record 16 Annies, winning 10.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Pixar Feature Film #8: Cars

8. Cars (2006)

Director: John Lasseter

Starring: Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, George Carlin, Cheech Marin, Richard Petty, Michael Keaton

Alright, so Cars is a guilty pleasure of mine. Some would make the argument that this was Pixar's first stumble. It received by far the worst reviews out of any of the Pixar films…75% on the tomatometer, which was still good enough to be considered "Certified Fresh." I think it got a bad rap because it came after The Incredibles and Finding Nemo. Or maybe it's because it's Pixar's shill film; the merchandising alone topped $5 billion. The writing is weak (it directly rips off Doc Hollywood,) the musical score is kind of blah, and the voice acting (with the very notable exception of Paul Newman) is mediocre at best. I mean, Owen Wilson and Larry The Cable Guy were total duds. That Mater character really grated on my nerves by the end. I realize he's the comic relief here, but when you start comparing the character to Jar Jar Binks, that's when you know they way overdid it. And Holy God is this one long! 116 minutes is a real stretch for an animated feature when most kids these days have ADHD. The technology, however, advanced rapidly, as the computers used were 40 times faster than those used in The Incredibles, and 1000 times faster than those used in Toy Story.

I guess for me it has that children's literature charm to it. While it wasn't terribly insightful or original (Lightning McQueen learns some easy lessons, like winning isn't everything, nobody is poor who has friends, etc,) it was a lot of fun to watch. The bygone town on U.S. 66 setting was very appealing to me and well done.

Cars won the Annie, PGA Award, Saturn Award, and Golden Globe, for Best Animated Feature, but lost the Oscar to Crappy Feet, which was highway robbery (pun most certainly intended.) One more glaring example of the Academy being out of sync with the rest of the world! Grammy winner "Our Town" was also nominated for Best Music, Original Song. Cars was also the last film to involve Pixar stalwart Joe Ranft. It earned a comparatively modest $461,982,881 at the box office, Pixar's 3rd lowest total.

Cars 2 looks like a bit of a shitshow. Lightning and Mater involved in international espionage? How is that going to work? But, to be fair, when I first heard about Ratatouille, my reaction was something like "A cooking rat!? Fuck! Come on!"

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Pixar Feature Film #9: Toy Story

9. Toy Story (1995)

Director: John Lasseter

Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles, Annie Potts, Wallace Shawn, Jim Varney, R. Lee Ermey

I'll probably get some flak for this one since it appears in everyone else's top 3. And really now, what is my problem, given that this one is rated 100% on the tomatometer and is the AFI's 99th greatest film of all time?

One thing I did not too long ago was watch Up, and then watch Toy Story right after that. And I came to a realization: Toy Story looks like shit! There's a considerable lack of texture, some of the characters look like plasticine and some of the animation is jerky and exaggerated. Even the lip syncing isn't the greatest. But when it first came on the screen, we shit our pants. Computer animation wasn't anything new, but a feature film had never been done before. It was a huge undertaking just in terms of characters and set pieces.

And it all came so close to never happening. When an early draft was screened, Disney execs hated it so much that they ground the project to a halt and order a total re-write. Woody was originally written as sarcastic jerk because Disney had told Pixar to make the film "edgy."

Toy Story lands at 9th mostly because of the story itself. While it earned a nomination for Best Original Screenplay, I felt it to be a bit tedious during the scenes in Sid's house, and leans on the computer animation gimmick too much. The franchise is definitely made up of character stories, and they're not really well-developed until Toy Story 2, which we will get to further on down the list. The story, however, has become timeless with kids, and is just as appealing now as it was 15 years ago. But, I refuse to accept that they got it perfect on the first try, and I'm sure that most Pixar staff would agree with me. After all, zero complacency and never being satisfied with results is how they got themselves to where they are today.

Toy Story earned a special achievement Oscar for John Lasseter, and was nominated for Best Music, Original Musical or Comedy Score, Best Music, Original Song, and Best Original Screenplay. It swept the Annies, winning eight, including Best Animated Feature, Individual Achievement: Animation (Pete Docter) and Individual Achievement: Writing (Andrew Stanton.) It also picked up a Golden Globe nomination for Best Picture: Comedy/Musical.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Pixar Feature Film #10: A Bug's Life

So, we've got only 10 days until the release of Toy Story 3, so here come's movie #10:

10. A Bug's Life (1998)

Director: John Lasseter

Starring: Dave Foley, Julia-Louis Dreyfus, Kevin Spacey, Denis Leary, David Hyde Pierce

We'll clear something up here right away…I frigging love A Bug's Life. Just because it came in last in this review series does not mean it was a lousy movie.

Call it second film syndrome, call it whatever, but this one just seems to lack the Pixar timelessness. I think they've buried this one underground somewhat, as it never appears in any of their trailers the way some of the other films do (i.e. "From the Creators of Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles…") I spent most of the film feeling sorry for Flik myself, and it was getting a little bit depressing. The Hopper character was also a little too badass to be real. I love going to the movies and rooting for the bad guys, but Hopper just doesn't have any redeeming qualities! Also, a grasshopper named Hopper? Andrew Stanton was coming off an Oscar nom for Best Original Screenplay and that was the best he could come up with?

One thing which hurt A Bug's Life was that Antz came out a month prior (as part of Jeff Katzenberg's ongoing feud with the Walt Disney Company) becoming the second feature length computer animated film. Antz was also critically successful, although A Bug's Life outperformed it at the box office.

Despite all this, it's got witty dialogue and contemporary humor to keep things entertaining for the older crowd, and there's plenty to keep the kids occupied for 96 minutes. There's also a substantial improvement in the animation despite only being three years removed from Toy Story. The crowd scenes were monumental achievements at the time.

A Bug's Life scored 91% on the tomatometer and picked up an Oscar nomination for Best Music, Original Musical or Comedy Score. It was also nominated for four Annies but lost the Animated Theatrical Feature Award to Phil "Brad" Bird's The Iron Giant. Its worldwide gross was $363,398,565, Pixar's ninth best total.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Let's Talk About Pixar Animation Studios

Throughout the history of film, there have only been a handful of movies to receive unanimously positive reviews. Looking at Rotten, there are 19 movies to receive 100% positive reviews based on 50 or more reviews, and they include such classic films as The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane, North by Northwest, and Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb.

Toy Story and Toy Story 2 also happen to be on this list.

I try not to comment on movies that I haven't seen yet, but this, combined with the fact that Pixar has turned out the Best Animated Feature three years in a row and a Best Picture nominee last year, has expectations at an all-time high for Pixar's latest achievement, Toy Story 3. I'm also expecting a lot from Lee Unkrich who has been around Pixar since the original Toy Story and co-directed three of Pixar's better films: Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc., and Finding Nemo.

Toy Story 3 starts us off 10 years after Toy Story 2, and Andy is setting off to college. All his old toys end up being donated (by accident) to a daycare. Hell, I was almost crying in the trailer when old Andy looks on Woody and Buzz as he's packing up his old toys. I saw Toy Story when it first came out in 1995, when I was 10. It's kind of the last movie I saw as a kid. The next year, I "graduated" to more mature cinema and saw Fargo in the theatres as an 11 year old. It is still my 8th favourite movie of all-time.

So, I guess for me, the Toy Story franchise has a quite a bit of nostalgic value. Last week, Unkrich put up a contest on Twitter: post a picture of your adult self with your favourite childhood toy. And I think that's really what the essence of Toy Story 3 will be. We all have a favourite toy. Some of us are still in possession of it, and some of us aren't. It's kind of like Jessie's abandonment in Toy Story 2. Whatever became of our favourite toys?

I think that this plot will produce another success for Pixar. But what's next for them? Cars 2, Brave, and Monsters Inc. 2. So Pixar will not put out an original concept until 2012; a three-year gap between Up and Brave. In light of all these sequels, and the return to the "Disney Princess Formula" coupled with the shit-canning of Newt, I think that Pixar may have jumped the shark. I'm afraid the creative juices may be drying up in Emeryville.

Nevertheless, starting tomorrow, I will rank and review all 10 of Pixar Animation Studios' feature-length productions in anticipation of Toy Story 3's North American release on June 19.