Incredibles 2 Review

It’s hard to believe it’s been 14 years since the last Incredibles movie graced the big screen. Despite technical advancements in films (like Inside Out and Toy Story 3) as well as better storytelling approaches (in films like Up and WALL-E), The Incredibles is still picked out by fans as among the best.

I’m not sure if there’s really a solid answer to why this is, but maybe it’s because The Incredibles tackles real life, complex issues (like marriage and infidelity) while also being a cool, kid friendly action movie. The Incredibles has a little bit of something for everyone, and there really isn’t an audience demographic who’d dislike this.

So, after many years of patiently waiting, Pixar and superhero fans finally get another dose of their favorite family of supers.

The film takes place directly after the previous installment (I love when a movie can do this properly) with the attack of the Underminer. After a public blunder that further calls the role of superheroes in society into question, the Incredibles (i.e. the Parrs) must go into hiding once again. That is, until they’re approached by Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), a business tycoon and superhero fan who wants to help gain public support to legalize supers. To do this they enlist in the aid of Helen Parr (Holly Hunter) aka Elastigirl to display the benefits of superhero intervention in society. While Helen’s off saving the world, Bob (Craig T. Nelson) is forced to become a stay-at-home parent, raising their rambunctious children. We get to see new and old characters, fun commentary on everyday life, and a malicious plot to undermine the existence of supers.

Incredibles 2 is quickly becoming another beloved installment into the Pixar canon. However, claiming it as a game changer or the next big cinematic leap in animation would be a major embellishment.

The visual quality saw a great improvement over its predecessor; and it’s interesting to see how far animation has come even within the past 14 years. The backgrounds and character movements are crisp and clear; making action sequences and special effects more appealing to the eye. A lot of the artwork in the film has this distinct futurism look to it that I took notice of almost immediately. I’m a fan of this style of science fiction imagery and found it nice to see here.

The villain of Incredibles 2 called the Screenslaver, whose identity is part of the big surprise twist, is sadly quite obvious from the get-go. It’s in fact so apparent that your first immediate guess is exactly right. It’d call this a minor nitpick, but I think even younger kids might find this to be a bit too blatantly obvious.

Screenslaver as a character is kind of ominous and has a fascinating monologue full of philosophical and ideological jargon. There’s actually a plethora of thought-provoking ideological clashes displayed in Incredibles 2 that I really admired. The biggest of these ideological themes is the place of superheroes in our society, which we see reflected in the beliefs of Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl, Winston Deavor, and the Screenslaver. It’s not the first time this has been debated in film (even being mentioned in the first Incredibles); however here I feel like we really get at the heart of the conflict in a fascinating way.

If there’s anyone who decides to take up arms against The Incredibles 2, it’s going to be over the pretty stagnant story, which perhaps is not as exciting as everyone wanted it to be. This could potentially be the case especially when you consider it’s taken Brad Bird so many years to get around to the sequel. Fans have been waiting so long they expect the best possible story to be told, and I’m not sure if this was it. I can’t help but feel that Pixar coaxed him into production far before he was ready. Really, the “stay-at-home dad” plot/ retread morals of the first film isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s understandable.

That being established, I think most audiences young and old can get a lot of entertainment value out of Incredibles 2. Even with the release of several superhero films a year (and countless television series), there’s something about The Incredibles films that really draws in its viewers. In this case, I think it’s because we’re all already in love with all these characters, and The Incredibles 2 just builds on top of that connection. The Parrs are an interesting group of superheroes that we love seeing interact and get into trouble.

How well the film will age after the superhero craze dies down is a good question that I don’t have the answer to. But if audience reactions are any indicator, I’d say The Incredibles 2 will be cherished for years to come.

The Verdict: B+

-Zachary Flint

My Neighbor Totoro Review

After my review of Spirited Away back in 2017 (my most popular post to date, mind you), I immediately decided I wanted to review my second favorite Studio Ghibli movie My Neighbor Totoro. An animation studio that, to the extent of my knowledge, never made a bad film. As you can guess, this goal has been postponed, ignored, and procrastinated for a very long time. Finally, after over a year of slowly chipping away at this article, I feel I can competently and properly review this wonderful film.

My Neighbor Totoro follows two young girls named Satsuke and Mei, as they move to the rural countryside of Japan with their father. Together they settle into their home, awaiting their mother who’s ill at the hospital. Satsuke and Mei, full of curiosity, come across a group of good-natured spirits while exploring their new home. Most notable of these spirits is the lovable fan favorite Totoro, a snuggly and plush creature who leisurely roams the nearby forest.

My Neighbor Totoro is the kind of film that you could mute the dialogue and still understand everything occurring on-screen, while also having an enriching experience. The beautiful hand-drawn animation is abundant with warm, welcoming characters and relaxing watercolor skies, lulling the viewer into a sense of contentment. The magic of Ghibli’s animation maintains a well-deserved reputation for being immaculate, and it continues to delight me to this day.

On a purely storytelling level, Ghibli films often just “go with the flow”. There’s no predictable three act structure that audiences groan at because they know precisely what will happen next. We’re merely along for the ride, traveling through a myriad of dream-like sequences of awe-inspiring music and pleasant visuals.

This way of storytelling makes films like Castle in the Sky, Howl’s Moving Castle, and My Neighbor Totoro so memorable. They stand out from the massive amounts of animated white noise that’s pumped out every year.

Years ago, the late film critic Roger Ebert noted how My Neighbor Totoro represents the perfect kind of world to live in. One without villains, conflict, or any sort of antagonist conceivable. Not only do I agree with this sentiment, I think it is key to what makes My Neighbor Totoro such a lovably relatable flick.

It’s an exploration into childlike wonder, taking you back to a simpler time of bliss. No need for bad guys in a peaceful reflection of childhood, only the curiosity and imagination you wish you still had.

My Neighbor Totoro is a family-fun masterpiece of the highest quality. There’s a reason Totoro remains so popular with audiences of all ages, garnering a cult following that only seems to get bigger as time wears on. And if there’s anything that time won’t wear on, it’s Totoro, which I believe will remain timeless and relevant for generations to come.

The Verdict: A

-Zachary Flint

Pixar vs. DreamWorks Debate

Today, I’ve decided to dive deep into the most controversial topic in current American politics, that being the Pixar v. DreamWorks debate. It’s ruined families, polarized the political climate, and now I’m here to discuss it.

I’m sure many individuals could be asked this question and not have to think twice about an answer: Pixar. Their films are beyond revolutionary, with films like Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc. forever immortalized into the childhoods of millions. Starting with films like Toy Story (based off their own short film Tin Toy) and A Bug’s Life, Pixar created an empire of award-winning family movies. Led by the former Disney animator John Lasseter, his guidance and passion for animation has helped Pixar to produce hit after hit.

For the purpose of this article, DreamWorks could be considered the underdog of the matchup. Established by former Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, director Steven Spielberg, and David Geffen, DreamWorks built their empire from the ground up. Starting with their 1998 production of Antz (which rivaled Pixar’s own film A Bug’s Life), they quickly proved themselves to be a fierce competitor in the animation field.

When it boils down to the quality of film being produced, there’s a lot of trade-off between them. Both companies have had really high highs (like Shrek 2 and Up) and really low lows (like Shark Tales and Cars 2). Overall, I think both companies are of equal talent in the art of animation, just in slightly differing ways.

For example, Pixar’s Finding Nemo is one of most stunning 3D animated movies around, while DreamWork’s The Prince of Egypt is one of the most stunning 2D animated movies around. Pixar films typically deal with heartfelt themes of parenting, aging, or friendship while mixing in lighthearted humor. DreamWorks definitely emphasizes the comedic elements of a film more, with the humor often overshadowing the themes. To use an analogy, Pixar is a sophisticated and nurturing parent, while DreamWorks is the goofy uncle who usually doesn’t take himself too seriously. This isn’t to say Pixar never focuses on humor and DreamWorks doesn’t get deep, I’m just pointing out the general trend I’ve noticed.

When comparing the content, right off the bat Disney Pixar has an unfair advantage just in the type of content they tap into, which tends to be more emotional and whimsical. Award shows, film critics, and general audiences are more likely to warm up to the touching relationships and timeless themes of Wall-E or Up than the off-the-wall humor of Bee Movie.

While Pixar is the more critically acclaimed company, when it comes to who I have the most respect for, DreamWorks takes the cake. Pixar’s films are truly terrific, but are always obvious, play it safe hits. You know that Toy Story 3, Finding Dory, and Monsters Inc. are all going to be instant classics just based on the simplistic subject matter (again, the emotions their films tap into).

DreamWorks on the other hand is much more willing to take a chance on an idea, even if that idea appears to be a surefire disaster. Some of their films like Shark Tales and Shrek the Third are dead on arrival, but occasional missteps are normal for the creative process. And it’s all worth it in the end when we get great works of animation like How to Train Your Dragon and Chicken Run.

If you would’ve told me back in 2008 that a movie about a self-conscious, Kung Fu fighting panda that’s voiced by Jack Black would not only be successful but be one of the best family pictures of recent years, I’d tell you you’re crazy. And what about the satirical fairy tale movie starring a pessimistic ogre that’s voiced by an actor whose career was already beginning to wither away? Not only was that film great, but it spawned an even better and funnier sequel that remains one of my favorite animated films of all-time.

So, the answer to who is better is rather complicated and anything but clear-cut. I think it’s safe to assume that most people would choose Pixar as the clear choice for better animation company and I don’t blame them. Pixar’s animation is rich, their characters highly memorable, and the themes of their movies timeless.

But my respect for DreamWorks and their willingness to take a chance on wild ideas is unwavering, therefore I’d have to choose DreamWorks as the better company based on this dedication to the craft.

-Zachary Flint

 

Early Man Review

I always talk about Studio Ghibli as the animation company that has the perfect track record of hit movies. Yet I neglect to ever speak on Aardman Animations, who has a flawless record of unique, stop-motion movies. From humble beginnings in the 1970s, Aardman has since created the popular character Morph, Wallace and Gromit, and numerous highly praised short films and feature films.

Aardman’s newest creation Early Man takes place during the Stone Age (and unbeknownst to our heroes, the dawn of the Bronze Age) and stars the likable cave man named Dug (Eddie Redmayne). And as luck would have it, Dug and his tribes’ peaceful existence becomes endangered when Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) threatens to turn their home into a mine for precious metals. Unwilling to be conquered without a fight, Dug challenges his conquerors to a game of football, with it being winner-take-all for the valley.

Early Man was savagely unpredictable in its storytelling department, with a plot that didn’t really flow like most movies. The characters just moved from wacky scenarios to out of place sight gags (like a giant, prehistoric duck that tries to eat our protagonists) with little rhyme or reason. The random, impromptu feel of Early Man was critical in the films ability to engage the audience and make them laugh.

The funniest moments in the film involve the most absurd of situations imaginable. In one scene a hog gives a man a sensual bath massage; which goes on for so uncomfortably long that it became more comical as time wore on. In another equally amusing scene, a messenger pigeon begins to orally recite its message, while also giving dramatic gestures to the recipient. Again, so odd and unexpected that it’s comical.

Some of the verbal humor was so dated that I think the jokes actually came from the Stone Age. Most of the puns were simply dead on arrival and got a whopping zero laughs from the audience. This isn’t too surprising, since Aardman Animation’s most humorous content has always been the more physical/visual stuff. Just look at Aardman’s Shaun the Sheep Movie, one of the best kid’s films of 2015 and almost no dialogue.

Early Man was quick, unpredictable, and hilariously funny when it wasn’t attempting to use verbal jokes. Animated movies nowadays are quite foreseeable and unsurprising, so it’s nice to have Early Man come in and throw me through a loop. Aardman seamlessly maintains their creative and unique style of filmmaking with Early Man, and fans of their previous work will easily fall for the lovable characters and animation.

The Verdict: B

-Zachary Flint

Mary and the Witch’s Flower Review

I’ve written in the past about my unrelenting love for Studio Ghibli and their timeless films, and I stand by my belief that they are the best animation company to have ever existed. And after director Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement in 2014, Studio Ghibli has since halted production of their wonderfully bizarre movies.

Enter Studio Ponoc, which was formed by several Studio Ghibli animators as well as the lead film producer for Ghibli, Yoshiaki Nishimura. Bearing the same signature animation as Ghibli, Studio Ponoc’s first feature film Mary and the Witch’s Flower looked to be a sure-fire hit. And in some ways the film was, with stunning animation, fun characters, and the clever blending themes and ideas from other Ghibli films.

The film focuses on a young, accident-prone girl named Mary, who finds a strange “Fly-by-Night” flower and a broomstick in the forest. Together the flower and broomstick turn Mary into a powerful witch, and send her to a school in the clouds called Endor college. A magical college for witches, the school is run by Madame Mumblechook and the intelligent Doctor Dee. However, after Mumblechook discovers Mary is in possession of the flower, she concocts a plot that may put Mary and her friends lives in serious danger.

Many qualities of the plot and characters pay homage to previous Studio Ghibli films, all without feeling like too much of a retread. Peter reminded me of Kanta from My Neighbor Totoro, and Madame Mumblechook was in some ways like Yubaba from Spirited Away. Even common themes depicted in Ghibli’s work appeared here, like man’s futile attempts to take control over nature. If I had to describe it, I’d say Mary and the Witch’s Flower is a blend of Howl’s Moving Castle, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and many other Ghibli products mixed into one, which I believe to be a clever first step for Studio Ponoc to make.

Good animation is pretty much an industry standard at this point, and anything below that now is shameful. Even with this, Studio Ponoc managed to impress me with its incredibly strong visuals. The watercolor landscapes and vibrantly drawn characters bring to life a world of pure two-dimensional joy. Films like this often leave me awestruck in the boundless amounts of visual creativity they produce. I’m always left wanting to see more of the world and its many inhabitants. And in the case of Mary and the Witch’s Flower, I unfortunately felt this longing to see more to an incredibly high degree, as the film was frequently void of visual wonders.

I really wish Mary and the Witch’s Flower would’ve taken the initiative to push more imaginative boundaries. This is a clever story, and the characters and animation are most certainly there. It’s just that all these elements aren’t utilized to their fullest potential. Studio Ponoc gift wrapped themselves a wonderful world of magic and adventure, yet refuse to open it. When we should be diving head first into the rich environment of Mary and the Witch’s Flower, we’re stuck focusing on too much characterization. Not that these are poorly written or bad characters, it’s just that we’ve already seen them been done before by Studio Ghibli, and already know how everything is going to turn out.

Even with its numerous flaws, I enjoyed Mary and the Witch’s Flower and would give it a strong, sincere recommendation. A lack of willingness to go the extra mile (as well as starting off fairly boring) put Mary and the Witch’s Flower below the quality of film I was really hoping to see. The only truly breathtaking part was the quality of animation, which was charming from start to finish.

I wish the very best of Studio Ponoc in the future, and believe that they have the capacity to achieve greatness through their animation.

The Verdict: B

-Zachary Flint

 

Coco Review

Following the lukewarm critical and public reception to numerous of their recent films (particularly The Good Dinosaur and Cars 3), Pixar hits home with their musical tale titled Coco. Based on the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), Coco features a variety of enjoyable characters, exciting moments, and an overall light mood.

Coco follows the character of Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), a young boy who dreams of becoming a famous musician like his idol Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), despite his family’s multi-generational hatred of music. However, through a series of unfortunate and inconvenient events, Miguel finds himself stuck in the Land of the Dead. Among the colorful people of the dead is a mischievous yet delightful man named Hector, who befriends Miguel and promises to help him return home. Together they embark on a fantastic journey that may unlock secrets to Miguel’s family.

After what I felt to be an underwhelming start, Coco really picked up around the halfway point, at a scene involving a big musical contest. Here, a variety of interesting and rousing musicians come together for a competition of sorts. This is when Pixar fully began to display their talent for entertaining animation, with a distinct visual style and plenty of heartwarming charm. This scene and beyond is when the storytelling and imagination really escalated into the Pixar methodology that people know and love.

I don’t claim to be an expert on Mexican culture or the Day of the Dead, but I can presume that we got the watered-down Disney version of the whole thing. Nonetheless, I think Coco serves as a great stepping stone for those curious in learning about another culture, especially young children.

The film even has a few nice little twists at the climax, ones that parents may see coming but kids will definitely respect. And while I was hoping the end resolve would’ve taken a morally grey direction, the message is well-crafted and communicated brilliantly.

At times, Coco tries too hard with its overly childish humor (like the comic relief dog sidekick, which was a huge misfire), and at other times it wasn’t confident enough to take the story to the next level. However, with its shortcomings easily forgivable, Coco developed into an emotionally heartwarming and visually pleasant film. A worthy entry into the Pixar canon.

The Verdict: B+

-Zachary Flint

Olaf’s Frozen Adventure Review

Moviegoers around the world hoping to see a cute, five-minute short with their viewing of Pixar’s Coco, are instead being kidnapped for over twenty minutes to see Disney’s Olaf’s Frozen Adventure. A Christmas special starring the cast of Frozen, this short is full of forgettable music, beautiful animation, and a runtime that seems to go on forever.

With nobody to celebrate Christmas with in the Kingdom of Arendelle, Anna and Elsa become sad when they realize they have no holiday traditions to share. That’s when their snowman friend Olaf (Josh Gad) decides to travel to the local community and find other people’s Christmas traditions to share with them.

The story, for being a Disney short, was surprisingly all over the place and had no real focus. I know that Frozen is geared towards younger audiences (who don’t care so much about focus), but even the kids in the theater seemed quite bored.

Olaf’s Frozen Christmas served more as a pointless distraction from the main event (that being Pixar’s Coco) rather than a cohesive, self-contained story. Sitting at over twenty minutes long, I became irritated with just how much time this “short” occupied. It begs the question of, “Why they didn’t just make an entire film?”. With all the hard work and effort but into the animation, why not just put the resources into making Frozen 2 at this point?

After numerous films with underwhelming box office performances, I have a feeling that Disney was a little self-conscious with Pixar’s newest venture. Therefore, they felt the need to include a Frozen Christmas special to bolster ticket sales. A bold (and sly) move.

At least, that’s the idea I’m running with.

The Verdict: D+

-Zachary Flint