There’s something I might as well get off my chest right now. Something I have never really confessed to anyone.
Though I am a PIXAR fanatic, I’ve never been a big fan of Monsters Inc.
While the film had some emotional moments, and also seemed to serve as a tribute to Jim Henson’s Muppet ‘monsters’ (heck, they even got former Muppeteer Frank Oz to voice a character!), Pete Doctor’s directorial debut just never seemed to hold together as a cohesive whole. While I too loved the characterization of little Boo, and the amazing technical leaps in making Sully’s fur behave in a believable way, the narrative in some of the slower moments, and even some of the plot revelations, didn’t seem to work.
Following the emotional climax to their Toy Story films, the gold standard in feature animation has seemed to tarnish a bit, with many not taking well to the company’s last two efforts. Internet conspiracy theorists are convinced that the Emeryville campus has been invaded by members of the Walt Disney Company, forcing them to churn out Cars 2 to push oodles of merchandise, and messing up Brave’s storyline (I won’t get into the whole ‘gussied up’ Merida controversy. You can find all you need to know by Googling it).
Monsters University is a new frontier for PIXAR, being the company’s first film prequel. It is also one of those films that fits into the category of, “Films we didn’t know we needed.” Though unlike the eye-rolling from many regarding Cars 2, Monsters University has been more easily embraced by people.
This was one film that I went into with as little knowledge or previewing as possible…and I think that was a good thing.
Taking us way back, we find Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) eager to prove his mettle at Monsters University, one of the premier stomping grounds to become a top-notch scarer. We also meet such familiar characters as Randall ‘Randy’ Boggs (Steve Buscemi), and of course, Sully (John Goodman). Though unlike the big guy we know and love in Monsters Inc, Sully isn’t quite there yet. While Mike is ready to hit the books the instant he steps onto campus, Sully is moreso content to coast through his studies.
This definitely helps throw a wrench in the audiences’ thinking, and creates the burning question: just how did these two end up seeing eye-to-eyes? Well, it proves to be a rather entertaining journey.
Of course, given that it’s a film that takes place on a University campus (in a G-rated film), the filmmakers take advantage of trying to cram in as many college jokes as possible. Frat Boys, Sorority Sisters, super-serious Deans – almost everything is here. I’m sure some will even draw parallels to National Lampoon’s Animal House. It could be our famliarty with collegiate interpretations, that may bring some in the audience to figure out where some of the plotpoints will go (I guessed on a few of them, and found myself right).
For me, one of the biggest joys I had watching the film, was that it made me like Mike Wazowski. Billy Crystal’s take on him in Monsters Inc often grated on me regarding Mike’s personality, but here, the filmmakers have expanded my insight into Mike’s character. Because of this, I can kind of see why he acts the way he does later on in Monsters Inc.
Funny enough, this acceptance reminded me of how I didn’t really care for ‘deluded’ Buzz in the first Toy Story, but liked him even more in Toy Story 2, when we saw how Woody had influenced him in the time since the first film, helping cement the friendship between the two.
One of the best compliments I can give to University, is it feels like a throwback to the first 10 years of PIXAR’s films. It’s a film that doesn’t quite reach for the heights of Ratatouille or Wall-E, but is a film that feels right at home amid the likes of A Bug’s Life, and even the first Monsters Inc. There were no scenes that ripped my heart out, but I found myself laughing: something even a good film from PIXAR can get me to do.
In conclusion, it’s hard for me to even consider a prequel made 12 years after a film to be the superior product. The best I can say is, Monsters University comes incredibly close, and I think is one of the few films I’ve seen this summer, that didn’t make me question the $12 ticket price (that reminds me: after seeing it in 2D, I can honestly say that I didn’t see any scenes that I felt would be ‘enhanced’ by a 3D showing).
As is tradition, an animated short is attached to PIXAR’s features, and this one, is The Blue Umbrella. By now, it should come as no surprise that PIXAR loves to make characters out of inanimate objects (such as toys and cars). But in this case, some of the short plays around with the concept of everyday objects, that seem to have faces on them. Not real faces, mind you, but a combination of screws, metal fixtures, windows, and more.
Unlike the faces made up of everyday items, the umbrellas in our little story have eyes and a mouth, and are differentiated by the colors of blue and red. PIXAR layout artist Saschka Unseld’s first directorial project with the studio is definitely a cute little short about romance, but it feels like in this case, the visuals may overwhelm the senses. I was reminded of Disney’s short Paperman afterwards, but felt that that short just seemed to push my buttons in the right way. Blue Umbrella is a little more abstract, feeling a little more like an incredible demo reel.
I believe that those who see the short, will most likely be amazed by the visuals. If Wall-E showed what semi-realism could be, then The Blue Umbrella shows the next few leaps in evolution. As a rain storm starts up, I was just in awe of the work the artists did to get down how a droplet of water reacts upon hitting wood, or a metal post box.
Much as Cars owes its existence to the short Suzie the Little Blue Coupe, Umbrella seems to do the same. One can see some similarities to the Disney shorts Johnny Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet, and to a lesser extent, The Little House (a short based on the story by Virginia Lee Burton).
Monsters University: B | The Blue Umbrella: B-
It’s no fun being Superman – Roger Ebert, from his review of Superman Returns
I remember that quote from Roger Ebert very vividly, and when it comes to Superman Returns, it just seemed rather fitting regarding Bryan Singer’s film.
One of the themes that many writers on Superman have dealt with, has been the idea of Superman himself feeling like an ‘alien’ among humanity. It was something that was brought up in the film Superman II in 1980, and in Returns, it plays out as an underlying theme for this film.
In analysis, I have felt that one of the more recent Superhero revivals has an understated message about fitting in, and that is Bryan Singer’s 2006 film.
Superman as a character, is a being that possesses great powers due to energy from our planet’s own sun, but also was raised by humans, and adopted an alter-ego to blend in among them, aka Clark Kent.
Many writer love that use of duality to try and give a character depth. Even the writers on several of the Batman films played around with it, showing Bruce Wayne struggling between his normal and secret identities.
Almost 20 years would pass from Superman’s last outing (Superman IV: The Quest for Peace), until Returns’ debut. Though attempts had been made to reboot Superman in the 90’s, the final result we got in 2006, is what I like to refer to as ‘A Bridging Vehicle.’
It seems to be a given when you have a sequel to something that was last seen 8+ years ago: you often have to deal with the death of older characters (or the actors who played them), introduce new characters, and knock a character down so far that they have to really struggle to climb back up to the top again. ‘Bridging Vehicles’ have been used on several films in the last 7 years, such as Tron:Legacy, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and Men in Black 3.
Of course, in the case of Returns, this isn’t meant to bridge us to the 4th Superman film, but the 2nd. It’s rumored to take place after the events of Superman II, in which Superman fought the Kryptonian Crmininals led by General Zod, yet the environments and set pieces are more 21st century than early 80’s.
In examining Singer’s take on Superman, I noticed there seem to be three themes that run through the film. I’ve decided to outline them on this posting.
Superman is cut off from his past, and homeworld of Krypton
Starting with a prologue where Superman has been told that remnants of Krpyton may have survived, he goes off into deep space for 5 years, only to find there really is nothing left of his home planet.
Returning to Earth, he then seeks solace in the Fortress of Solitude, only to find the crystals that allowed him to see the holographic visions of his father Jor-El, are gone! Without them, he has become further cut off from his past. Already having lost his (adopted) human father many years ago, he has now lost the one link to his biological father, as well as the knowledge and recordings of his home world.
Before Superman had returned, Lex Luthor had conned his way into the will of a wealthy-yet-naive widow, and inherited her fortune. Using her yacht, he and his henchmen headed towards the Arctic, to find the Fortress (of which Lex had entered in Superman II). Lex was able to activate the crystals in the Fortress, and finds out through the Jor-El hologram that they can create landmasses.
He then takes the crystals, and returns to Metropolis. After testing a sliver of one of the crystals, He intends to supplant the North American continent, burying it underwater with billions dead. The end result being that he can sell survivors plots of land on his new continent, at exorbitant prices. I know, I’m thinking it too: all this trouble for a land-grab scheme?
With word that Superman has returned, Lex and his men steal a large chunk of Kryptonite, and create a casing into which is placed one of the crystals. Launched into the waters off Metropolis, the crystal grows, absorbing the Kryptonite, and the properties of the Earthen rock on the ocean floor.
From the depths rises New Krypton, its rocky formation similar to the sterling white forms of Superman’s former home world, but gray and foreboding. Its presence alters the atmosphere with ominous clouds and lightning, and creates a rift in the ocean floor that shakes the foundations of Metropolis nearby.
Eventually, Superman sets down on New Krypton, and faces off against Luthor. However, Lex soon sees that Superman has weakened, and takes the opportunity to knock him around, even giving his associates turns in beating him up. Lex finally stabs Superman with a small shard of Kryptonite, embedding it deep in his body, before Superman plummets off the land mass into the ocean waters below.
Some will eagerly point out the symbolism to Christ’s torturing and eventual stabbing, but to me, I was moreso interested in a sense of ‘rejection’ in the scene. New Krypton is the closest Superman has gotten to his homeworld (if you don’t count the Fortress of Solitude), yet he cannot survive on it due to Luthor’s tainting its creation with Kryptonite.
Kryptonite in the DC Comics, was a radioactive element that was blown out into space when Krypton exploded. In a sense, it’s a sad state of affairs: a piece of Superman’s homeworld, tainted in such a manner that when combined with a newly-created land mass created from Kryptonian technology, also keeps him from achieving any solidarity to his homeworld.
After plummeting off the side of New Krypton, Superman is rescued by Lois, and her husband Richard White (Jason Marsden). Unable to fully remove the Kryptonite shard, Superman then leaves them, absorbing as much of the sun’s rays as possible, before burrowing deep under New Krypton.
As the formation is lifted into the air, Lex Luthor and his associate Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey) escape in a helicopter, but not before Kitty dumps the rest of the crystals Lex stole onto the rock formation’s surface (doing this after hearing Lex admit he’s fine with billions dying for his land deal).
Superman lifts the rock formation out of Earth’s atmosphere, with the Kryptonite on it severely weakening him. Eventually, he gives it a mighty heave, and it slowly flies off into space. This also serves as a major scene for Superman. With this move, he has sent off into space, the last remnants of his homeworld, and the means of knowledge and wisdom from his father. He now truly seems to be, “The Last Son of Krypton.”
The Whiny, Emo Superman
During one of his cross-country lecture sessions, someone asked Kevin Smith (a big Superman fan) what he thought of Singer’s film. It was already fan-knowledge that Singer had dropped out of filming X3 – The Last Stand to focus on Returns. Even with the last X-movie being directed by Brett Ratner (the director of Rush Hour), Smith still said that he enjoyed Ratner’s film more than Singer’s Superman interpretation.
Though he didn’t outright hate Superman Returns, he did have some issues with it, and even noted that even with Superman fighting criminals and all, not once during the entire film does the Man of Steel throw a punch.
When Smith made mention of this version as “The Whiny, Emo Superman,” I couldn’t shake that line. It did seem that he had hit the nail on the head, as the writers had just thrown Kal-El into an emotional well of despair. That he just feels so different that noone cares or understands him. The girl he loved is now married with a child, and has written a Pulitzer-prize winning article titled, Why the World Doesn’t need Superman. That almost sounds like a declaration from an ex-girlfriend posting on Facebook: “Such-and-such is a real jerk, and here’s why.”
There was one scene that did make some a little uneasy, where Superman goes to Lois and Richard White’s house, uses his X-Ray vision, and ‘watches them.’
It’s a cozy little image of suburbia that he sees, but with Lois now ‘taken,’ he has to accept they can’t be together. As he makes his way skyward, we hear the words of Jor-El:
Even though you have been raised as a human being, you are not one of them.
They can be a great people, Kal-El, if they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way.
For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you…my only son.
We then see that Superman has decided to follow these words. Attempting to do good and set a shining example for humanity, he then starts a quest around the world, attempting to help almost anyone, anywhere.
Eventually, he does appear before Lois in his suit, and they finally have ‘the talk’ regarding his leaving. It also is told that Lois wrote the article, feeling that he had abandoned them (thought it almost sounds like she’s saying, “You abandoned me”). He takes her for another flight through Metropolis (such as in the Richard Donner film), but even this isn’t enough to shake her resolve. She isn’t willing to just forgive and forget that he went away for 5 years, especially not now, since she has a family. Her admittance is supposedly the end of any possible rekindling of a romantic relationship between them.
“The son becomes the father, and the father…the son”
There seems to be significance to this line in Superman Returns, as we hear Jor-El’s (aka Marlon Brando) voice play out over an old image of Krypton’s crystalline structures in the opening sequence of the film.
In this film, we have Superman cut off from the words of wiswom and knowledge from Jor-El, when the crystals are taken from the Fortress of Solitude. All Superman has now are the memories of his father’s words.
The film also introduces us to a child that Lois Lane has. The audience is left to assume that he’s the son of her husband Richard White, but we are led to question this, when Lex Luthor notices the boy’s eyes droop when he reveals the Kryptonite casing for one of his crystals.
Though the final word on who the father is, comes when Lois’ life is threatened, and the little boy (off-camera) shoves a grand piano into him, saving his Mom (but also making him one of the youngest murderers in Superhero history!).
Even with this display of Super-strength, the little boy doesn’t show any other signs of powers, and stays relatively quiet and docile through the rest of the film.
After Superman plummets back to Earth and is in critical condition in a hospital, Lois and her son visit him. Before they leave, Lois whispers something to Superman. We don’t hear it, but it is implied that she whispers to him, that her son is actually his as well.
Supposedly, this gives Superman the will to live again. We next see him in the boy’s bedroom after he’s asleep (once again, creepy-voyeuristic Superman in action), and repeats the same words we heard from Jor-El in the beginning.
This seems to tie into the theme that Superman as a character has grown up. He has now been thrust into adulthood, no longer reliant on the words of his own father, and is willing in some ways, to watch over and protect this boy…possibly to guide him in the future, when and if his full powers manifest.
Given the look on his face, it looks like he is finally happy, that his thoughts of being lonely are now gone, that he may truly not be “The Last Son of Krypton.”
Superman Returns received semi-positive reviews from the critcs, but its box-office totals did not justify eagerness to start on another film, with its worldwide cumulative totals barely able to make back the film’s $270 million budget, and advertising costs.
One of the issues the film may have had, was that it tried to stick very close to the Richard Donner/Christopher Reeve film ideology from the early 80’s. While many have a fondness for those pictures, trying to make that same kind of shtick work almost 20+ years later is difficult. Singer tried to infuse some darker elements into his film, but it just doesn’t feel like it holds together as a memorable piece of entertainment. I’m sure many of us can think of a few scenes from the film, but there’s nothing that sticks in our minds as “incredible.” I think in the end, it was walking a pretty precarious tightrope, and didn’t quite know how to balance itself out.
If the film had succeeded, Singer had said he wanted to go the route of “Wrath of Khan” next. These three words are often bandied about, as many hope to make their second film darker and more serious in tone than the introductory first film. Though just what Singer would have had in mind for his follow-up, we’ve never heard.
With the release of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, we finally have our first Superman film that severs the ties to the original incarnation from 1978. At the moment, its release is being met with some less-than-positive critical reviews, but a large smattering of adoration from filmgoers. With word that Snyder’s film is already on the fast-track to having a sequel made, one has to wonder just where the newest incarnation of Superman will go.
As I’ve stated in several previous reviews/dissections, I am quite fond of the Studio Ghibli film, Whisper of the Heart.
The film proved to be an intriguing story about creativity, music, and writing…traits that one doesn’t necessarily find in animated films, let alone those involving high schoolers.
One of the selling points of the film, was the fictional story-world that the lead character, Shizuku Tsukishima, creates. After coming across an antique store with a statue of a dapper, humanized cat-figure in its window, she is compelled to write a story revolving around the statue.
Even so, Whisper’s overall story was moreso one of high school drama, which made it tie very closely to the manga it was based off of, which was written and illustrated by Aoi Hiiragi. Ms Hiiragi noted in several interviews, that she was surprised that her manga was chosen by Hayao Miyazaki to be used for the basis for one of the studio’s films. One can probably imagine her surprise when a few years later, she’d be called upon to make a slight return to the world of several of those characters.
When a theme park came calling for Ghibli to do a short revolving around cats, Hayao Miyazaki wanted to incorporate the cat characters of Baron Humbert von Gikkingen, and Muta, from Whisper. Aoi Hiiragi was also contacted to write a story based around the short. Though the theme park eventually cancelled the project, the seed of the idea began to germinate and grow under Ghibli, into something else.
In the end, Hiiragi’s story would be developed into a film, to be used as a testing ground for new animators at the company. As well, the length of the project grew, until it was soon decided by Miyazaki and producer Toshio Suzuki, that the film actually had a storyline that had a compelling character in the guise of its lead, a high school student named Haru.
There were a number of Studio Ghibli fans who discounted the film, given its shorter running time, and decidedly un-Ghibli-like character stylings. When it came to the designs, one could say the filmmakers chose to make the characters moreso resemble Hiiragi’s drawing style. You can see this in the example below, regarding Haru’s character:
The final product of The Cat Returns, can at best, be considered a pseudo-sequel to Whisper of the Heart. It’s one of those films that newcomers can enjoy, but for those who have seen Whisper of the Heart, there are several characters and themes that can be seen throughout.
I decided to list them here, as I couldn’t find very many who had gone through and found them. Below are the few that connect these two films together.
1) Baron Humbert von Gikkingen
Whisper of the Heart’s most iconic fantasy image, is one of Shizuku and the Baron, freefalling against the backdrop of a strange fantasy world. Whisper’s incarnation of the Baron also didn’t completely delve into his character, but gave a small backstory created by Shizuku, when she was writing her story.
The filmmakers even throw in some deja vu, regarding one shot were Haru first gets a good look at the Baron in statue form. The set-up is very similar to a shot in Whisper, regarding Shizuku:
The composer for The Cat Returns even utilizes the Baron’s theme from Whisper as well, usually in some of the more action-oriented segments he’s in.
In Whisper, one of the most iconic moments was when Shizuku happened to spot a large cat getting onto a train. She soon found herself getting sidetracked, and following him. His path led her through all sorts of back-alleys and paths, before she came across the antique store where the statue of the Baron resided. The filmmakers of Returns also reference this follow-the-leader scenario in several scenes:
This also ties into making us believe that this story we are seeing, was written by Shizuku. Whereas the large cat Shizuku followed led her to the antique shop where the Baron’s statue was, Haru’s journey led her to The Cat Bureau, wherein resided the Baron. Also, both cats have a darker coloration around their left ear, as can be seen in the images below:
During the course of Whisper, Shizuku learned that the large cat she spotted, was known by many different names. Seiji Amasawa referred to him as Moon (“because he looks like a ‘full moon,'” he remarked to her). Another time came when Shizuku heard a little girl refer to the cat as Muta.
This was a fun tie-in to Whisper, because it definitely makes the story of how Muta got his name more fun, and can help us to think that what we are seeing, is definitely a story written by Shizuku. We don’t know how many other people would have considered the name of Muta for this cat, so making it out to be Shizuku’s story just clicks.
This also comes into play in a later scene, where in the cat kingdom, Muta tells several of those gathered, that his name is also Reynaldo Moon (note the ‘Moon’ reference?).
In both Whisper and Returns, these two magic moments are key to certain events.
In the case of sunset, it’s a time when the Baron’s presence takes on a certain mystical, and theatrical appearance.
In Whisper, Seiji showed Shizuku a rather fascinating abnormality in the statue’s eyes. When the sunset hit the eyes, they seemed to flicker and come alive. In Returns, the setting sun was reflected in the Baron’s eyes, only in this storyline, he really DOES come alive. As well, each of the scenes contain the following images, that act as a mirror-image to the events:
Sunrise also happens at the end of each film, and is a pivotal moment for both Shizuku in Whisper, and Haru in Returns. Shizuku and Seiji share a moment as the sun rises, and it also acts as the symbol of a new turning point in their lives. As for Haru, it shows her in freefall, before she is rescued by her friends, and then decides to truly start in a new direction regarding how she views life.
Also, Haru’s freefall scene is slightly reminiscent of a scene in Whisper, where in her mind, Shizuku imagines herself freefalling with Baron, off on an adventure.
Some would call these images minor callbacks, but it feels like the extra strand of connective tissue between these films, that not many would even think to consider.
4) The Baron’s ‘residence’
Much like the antique store that the Baron resided in in Whisper, his residence of the Cat Bureau in Returns looks very similar in style, mostly due to the upper floor windows and balcony. The style in the film of The Cat Returns actually differs greatly from Aoi Hiiragi’s manga, in which the Baron’s residence actually did resemble the antique shop moreso. As an aside in one panel, he even tells Haru that he sells antiques out of his residence as a hobby.
Above, you can see an image of the shop from Whisper (left), the manga of The Cat Returns (center), and the film version of Returns (right).
While I mainly compared the films Whisper of the Heart and The Cat Returns, I could also see some people out there comparing the storytelling of Ms Hiiragi’s manga story, and the final film product. There were some storypoints that were dropped from Hiiragi’s story, not to mention restructuring of some characters and their story arcs…but, that could be a story for another time.
In regards to things like ‘sequelitis,’ Studio Ghibli has been one of the few studios that does not go the American way with their film productions. In America, when an animated film makes money these days, it is then usually set upon to become a cash-cow with merchandising and sequels close at hand. While Ghibli is no stranger to merchandising, they never shift into overdrive if one of their films does incredibly well (I never heard of a Spirited Away marketing blitz in Japan after that film made so much money). There has also never been a video game developed based on any of their film properties, though one has to wonder if some game companies have tried to get Ghibli to loosen their grip, and do something akin to Kingdom Hearts.
Regarding straight-on sequels, a mis-translation a few years ago made it sound like Hayao Miyazaki was considering a sequel to his simple-yet-sweet 1992 film, Porco Rosso. Then again, there are probably thousands of fans around the world that would likely wish for more sequels to Ghibli films, but I always enjoyed how the majority of their works are nice in a one-time experience sort of way. Continued events would most likely ruin some of the more heart-felt moments that we have been privy to on the big screen, something not often thought of by those begging and pleading for more.