Archive for Toy Story II

Toy Story 3

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on August 7, 2010 by dcairns

Contains mild spoilers and, in an attempt to avoid more mild spoilers, treats the reader as if they’ve seen the film and know what I’m talking about. See the film!

I never know whether to review modern films or not. They’re a part, albeit a small part, of my film-viewing experience, and therefor theoretically grist to the mill of Shadowplay. Too much of current releases would erode what’s individual about this place, I feel, but there’s little danger of me seeing enough modern films for that to happen. Unless you think even one a month is too many?

TOY STORY 3 seemed to me just as good as its predecessors, which I like a whole bunch — I can’t really see any aesthetic standard by which the best modern CGI toons can be considered much inferior to their Golden Age predecessors from the Disney stable. But I’m not an animator, of course. (I’ve dabbled, but so half-heartedly I’d be ashamed to enumerate my experiences.) It’s pretty unusual for a series to spin to three installments without losing quality, and perhaps the fact that this edition feels very much like a final chapter is part of the secret: they’ve thrown everything at it, on the assumption that they might not be doing this again.

The humans are still the only weak point: remember how clunky Andy and his Mom are in the first film? And the Toy Collector in II was grossly overdetailed and unpleasant. Andy is now a teenager (seeing him and his sister and dog age in approximately real time between films is one of the strange pleasures afforded by the films’ long schedules) and rather a bland figure, like a junior Ken doll himself, although to compensate there’s a very nicely observed little girl.

I was entertained but not blown away for the film’s first half, but once the toys get separated and we meet a new batch of characters, things brightened up. For one thing, I could appreciate how insanely off-base this article in the Independent newspaper is, which was diverting. The movie actually has a rich and affectionately observed range of female characters, and the jokes about Ken seeming a bit gay are pretty far from homophobic. For one thing, Ken (spoiler alert) turns from villain to hero, his love of fashion unchanged. He’s not gay, anyway, just unconventional, a male who doesn’t conform to gender expectations, and the film says that’s OK.

I don’t really think the toys have sexuality anyway, as we know it. They draw their consciousness from human kids, is the way I see it, so they have a child’s idea of relationships and can form into couples, like Mr and Mrs Potato Head or, in a Han-and-Leia twist, Buzz Lightyear and Jessie. But we know what Ken and Barbie look like naked, and conventional sex doesn’t look to be on the cards for them. (That said, the heartrending “When She Loved Me,” in TOY STORY 2 is the most moving same-sex expression of love you’re likely to find in a kids’ film.)

(But it really needs the image track in order to fully rip your heart out.)

The most striking thing for me in this one was the very dark, very distressing scene of group jeopardy at the city dump, where the heroes find themselves on a conveyor belt towards incineration. This gives us one of the great conflicted-response gags I’ve always enjoyed in this series (see also: Buzz’s discovery that he’s a toy in part 1: heartbreaking AND cruelly hilarious). The line “I can see daylight!” delivers just the right kind of laugh-before-the-storm. The apocalyptic, indeed positively holocaustic threat our plastic pals face next seems to me the closest scrape with convincing extinction a cartoon character has faced since Bambi’s mom. Does the film earn such strong stuff? It’s hard to summon up a cogent argument in the face of something so powerful, either for or against — I found it powerful and deeply distressing, and very moving, taking the series’ ongoing theme of the value of friendship all the way to the end of the line…

Interestingly, there were no screams and tears from the little kids attending, which one might have expected. My theory to account for this is that kids are fundamentally selfish, so the things that upset them in movies are not those which menace the characters, but those which seem to menace THEM — Cruella DeVille coming out of the screen to take their puppies away, for instance. Despite the immersive, 3D nature of TOY STORY 3, the kind of empathic response evoked by the furnace of doom scene are inherently more upsetting to adults, who not only care more about the characters, they get the reference.

The Furry

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 7, 2009 by dcairns

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Wes Anderson’s FANTASTIC MR FOX is as good as they say. Not only a free-yet-faithful adaptation of the Roald Dahl source, but a very satisfying Wes Anderson film, with all the trademarks (dysfunctional extended families, flat compositions, “offbeat2 comedy, a created world at several removes from our own). And in fact it’s Anderson’s best film for some time. His irritating tendency to undermine any credible emotional development — seen at it’s worst in THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, where Bill Murray spends the whole film slowly engaging with his son, reaches an apparently genuine tragic crisis, then pisses it all away for the sake of a cheap joke — is suspended here, maybe because it’s a kids’ film.

I have to admit to some inconsistency here. When I saw the first TOY STORY, what I admired most about it was the way it delivered the emotional requirements of a dramatic story without stopping being funny. For instance, Buzz Lightyear’s traumatic realization that he is, after all, only a toy, is comedically undercut by the TV ad that’s responsible for the revelation. The toy Buzz is pictured jetting through the air, and a caption superimposed beneath reads “Does not fly.” This is both cruelly funny and oddly moving.

On the other hand TOY STORY II departed from this approach with the heartrending song “When She Needed Me,” which is totally serious and utterly affecting, no ironic underlay required. Both techniques are valid.

I think what had been bugging me in Anderson’s films is that they were, at base, always all about emotions, but the filmmaker seemed embarrassed by the idea of resolving emotional knots, committing himself to a view of the behaviour he presented, or allowing the characters to grow and face their difficulties (full disclosure: still haven’t seen THE DARJEELING LTD). The very real problem to be faced by the maker of comedy-drama being that characters are funny when they have blind spots and stubborn areas where they cannot adapt to circumstance — they insist on being themselves at the very times they should change. And that change, very welcome in a drama, kills the laughter. So there typically is a problem to solve — some comedies successfully do without any character arc, generating laughs from the inflexibility of a character, but such films must be about something other than emotions — there must be plot. And Anderson’s stories tend to be character-driven, so there’s a requirement to deliver some kind of redemptive change or realisation, but can that be made funny? Well, if it happens late enough in the story, maybe it doesn’t have to be funny…

George Clooney is a magnificent Mr Fox, capitalizing on that air of self-satisfaction that can be his undoing in buddy fluff like the OCEAN’S films. We expect George Clooney to be glad he’s George Clooney, anything less would be ungrateful and strange, but he has to modulate away from smugness. Here, Mr Fox’s total self-belief and amoral opportunism are the very character flaws that are addressed in the adventure, so Clooney’s casting is a triump, using to the full his skills as light comedian, even if he’s apparently present only as a voice (we know that’s really him under the fur, amid the stuffing, within the puppet armature, somewhere in there). And pairing him romantically with Meryl Streep is delightful, and the kind of thing which, sadly, might be deemed impossible in a live-action film.

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I love the way the long-shots make everything look like crap toys, too. Anderson’s Keatonesque flatness is finally used to serve up visual gags, as it always should’ve been, and his penchant for designing alternative universes is taken to a new extreme in a film where even the landscapes are unreal.

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If some of these stills have the quality of roadkill taxidermy, it’s because they lack the alchemy of animation and voice-work. The cast, featuring several of Anderson’s usual gang (Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson) underplay in the usual Anderson manner, creating a feeling quite atypical to the world of the animated film, and it all works marvelously. And Michael Gambon, as the No. 1 villainous human, gets to apply his characterisation from THE COOK THE THIEF HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER to a puppet seemingly modeled on Rupert Murdoch (with a wife who looks not unlike Camilla Parker-Bowles).

Now, since there’s no real way to type the finger-point, whistle and click-click which is Mr. Fox’s trademark, you’ll just have to use your imaginations.

Excelsior!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 19, 2009 by dcairns

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UP is a blast. One of the pleasing things about David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s excellent blog is their enthusiasm for animation, which often gets overlooked by cinephiles, even those who enjoy it. We are living in a somewhat corporate, imaginatively stunted, morally vacant and narratively challenged era of Hollywood cinema, it often seems, but a genuine Golden Age of animated features, with Pixar at the forefront. I think Dreamworks and the other studios are only just beginning to make good animated films, but John Lassiter and his cohorts keep raising the bar.

You probably don’t need to be told to go and see this one, unless you’ve been missing out on a lot of the best mainstream cinema since TOY STORY. And you can read all about the film’s best ideas and sequences elsewhere, so I don’t feel the need to get into a big analysis, much as I loved the film. I’m kind of the cult-weird-obscure guy, I think, and should probably be writing about Russ Meyer’s UP! instead. But I was sufficiently moved and entertained that I do want to sing the movie’s praises just a little.

That opening montage of Carl Fredricksen’s life with Ellie has been justly praised for its visual beauty and emotional power — only Pixar movies seem to have this ability to open an entire audience’s tear ducts in three minutes from a standing start. TOY STORY II does this, supremely, in its “When She Needed Me,” song-montage. I’d been facially soaked by that one at the cinema, and so I had half an eye on Fiona when we watched it at home together. “Aw naw,” she moaned as the song started — this was going to be the boring song bit, it seemed — I looked at the screen, and when I looked back at Fiona an instant later she looked as if someone had just flung a mug of salty water in her face. It’s THAT devastating.

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Of course, a lot of the impact of that song — which (1) taps into our buried nostalgic feelings about beloved childhood toys, emotion which was so strong when we were very small, and which, it seems, never really goes away; and (2) smuggles in a same-sex love theme in a way prejudiced tiny minds of parents will probably never even spot — is down to Randy Newman’s achingly sentimental song, and similarly in UP the score by Michael Giacchino is mercilessly effective, knotting our heartstrings and lumping our throats.

And the movie has just begun, we still have the fat kid, and flying to South America, and the giant bird, Kevin, and the talking dogs, best of all. Animation has been doing talking dogs for close to eighty years, but this seems like the first effort to do dogs that talk the way dogs would talk if dogs could talk. “*I* was hiding under your porch because *I* love you!” is Fiona’s favourite line, and probably mine.

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(Side-note: although we own a cat, Fiona and I do like dogs. In fact, Fiona proposes that somebody needs to correct the negative impression of Siamese cats given by LADY AND THE TRAMP’s “We Are Siamese” number. Real Siamese have a doggy silliness that you never see in films. Tasha, our own puss, runs to see us when we come in, climbs up high and eagerly sniffs out heads.)

Christopher Plummer’s having a good week, what with this and THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR PARNASSUS. Here, he’s Charles Muntz, explorer, the second of the movie’s two bad-ass septo-going-on-octogenarians, Ed Asner being the first. Muntz seems to embody our modern suspicion of the great white hunter figure who inspired so many children’s fantasies of yore. Muntz is set in his imperialist ways, and his rigidity is what makes Asner’s Fredricksen finally bend. Fredricken’s mission, to uproot and then plant his house at Paradise Falls, a Conan Doyle-style Lost World, exemplifies a popular screenwriting trope, whereby the protagonist actually has the wrong goal for the first two acts.

UP follows a lot of popular Hollywood storytelling concepts, with characters mirroring each other (Dug the dog has a similar emotional need to Russell the kid) and growing (ugh) but avoids becoming mechanistic, which seems the potential downside of over-relying on screenwriting books. As my producer friend Nigel Smith put it, the makers seem to be trying to fit the free, loose, “baggy” style of story Miyazaki excels in, into an American tight structure, without disfiguring either one. They pretty much succeed.

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A note on the 3D — it doesn’t seem to have been high on directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson’s list of priorities, or perhaps their goal was to make it as unobtrusive as possible. Ironic, since Roger Ebert just wrote an amusingly curmudgeonly piece about the failings of the process, how you can’t ever forget you’re watching a 3D film. In UP, I did. Doubly ironic, since although Ed Asner provides the voice for Carl Fredricksen, Roger Ebert has unquestionably furnished the face. I was expecting the movie to use 3D for vertiginous effect, but although the high-angle perspectives are spectacular, and the daredevil leaping from floating house to airship is thrilling, I never got sweaty-palmed and scared, because the action is too hectic to promote that kind of anxiety. As Harold Lloyd new well, you need to slow the pace down for that.

Other critics have questioned how Carl goes from creaky, aching old man to action hero, swinging on hosepipes like a senior Tarzan. But it is, after all, a cartoon. And a cartoon with a touching faith in the rejuvenating power of adventure. And said power is a real phenomenon, albeit one gigantically exaggerated here for dramatic effect. I was more concerned by the way little Russell gains the power to shimmy up the hosepipe, merely by being sufficiently motivated. Hollywood is big on motivation, and indeed it can be a wondrous thing. But I always resented, as a kid, movies that suggested you can do anything if prodded hard enough by necessity. Harold Lloyd again, become a football star overnight by sheer determination in THE FRESHMAN. It’s untrue. I was certainly motivated to do well at sports, because I was forced to play them and I didn’t like looking like a clown. But no matter what the motivation, I was never any good. Such motivation only causes improvement over time, with application, and there’s still a natural limit to what each of us can achieve. In between sports lessons I stayed well away from the playing field, so I never improved. Then — oh happy day! — I developed a knee complaint, and never did sport again.

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So Russell’s sudden athleticism is as exaggerated as Carl’s, and possibly more misleading to young viewers, who may wonder why they can’t become athletic just by trying terribly hard. But I’m really nitpicking here — because it gets boring just to rave about something being, you know, FUN.