I think for many people, there are some films they saw in theaters, that just make them unable to forget ‘their first time.’
I was not of age to see Star Wars when it was released in 1977, but a decade later, there was one film I saw on the big-screen, that just blew my 8-year-old mind.
At the time, Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s creation was a risky venture between Walt Disney Pictures and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment company, that combined animated characters within a live-action film-noir story.
The production was a neverending headache for director Robert Zemeckis. Having just come off of the whirlwind production of Back to the Future, Roger would be a production that would take several years, and be made in a number of different locales around the world.
When it was all over, many breathed a sigh of relief when the film came out in 1988, and became one of that year’s biggest hits.
Growing up, I was often on the lookout for anything associated with the film’s production. While a making-of book was never released, there were some other items that filled me in. From a making-of article in the special effects magazine Cinefex, to the DVD release in 2003. This release not only gave images and a making-of special, but something I am always game for: an audio commentary!
The commentary featured Robert Zemeckis (director), Frank Marshall (producer), Steve Starkey (associate producer), Jeff Price (screenwriter), Peter Seaman (screenwriter), and Ken Ralston (the film’s visual effects supervisor). Each of the men in the special audio track, talks about their experience on the film, and given the film is over 30 years old this year, I thought I’d highlight a few of the things they talked about.
Though it isn’t a facet of all of his films, director Robert Zemeckis seems to enjoy playing around in the past, and sometimes having his film’s characters influence what was happening, or encounter past historical events.
His debut film I Wanna Hold Your Hand had a number of fictional teen characters trying to see the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. For the film 1941 (which he and his friend Bob Gale wrote for Steven Spielberg), their fictional characters encountered real-life figures in a panic on the streets of Los Angeles.
Some may assume the encounter with animated characters in 1947 Hollywood was the big connection to the past, but buried within the film, was a connection to a real-life event that affected the city of Los Angeles’ transportation system:
Peter Seaman: Actually, the Red Car (Trolley) part of the movie came from-I don’t know if you remember Bob (Zemeckis), but a meeting with you and (Steven) Spielberg. Jeff (Price) and I were in there, and Spielberg said there was no reason to make this movie just to match animation/live-action. There had to be a real story so, we came up with the Red Car plot, which is a real one, where the tire companies and auto companies conspired to get rid of the trolley cars in Los Angeles, because the car was the future.
Robert Zemeckis: That’s right, and all the freeways in Los Angeles run right along the same routes as the Red Car tracks.
When it comes to the film’s plot, most people remember Judge Doom’s plan to destroy Toontown so he could open up new land for a freeway and commercial growth, but the Red Car plot almost gets buried within the film.
It’s briefly mentioned in regards to the Cloverleaf Industries billboard (the company Doom owns) being hoisted above the Red Car depot across from Eddie’s office, to the judge admitting to Valiant that he purchased the trolley system, to ‘dismantle it.’
To some that saw the film, there probably was some confusion over it’s title. It seemed to be asking a question, and yet the title did not have a proper punctuation mark at the end.
Naturally, one of the filmmakers brought this up in conversation.
Steve Starkey: Why was there no question mark after the title of this movie, Bob (Zemeckis)?
Robert Zemeckis: Because everyone said that you don’t put question marks at-I mean, we looked at it. Yeah, it didn’t look right.
Peter Seaman: That was the most-asked question in our press interview.
Robert Zemeckis: Yeah, interesting.
Peter Seaman: Made ‘us’ look bad…”the writers.”
Seaman is only joking of course. Throughout the commentary, the writers and the production crew have plenty of laughs together, and this bit gave them a chuckle.
Like some comedians doing stand-up, the film had a number of jokes and gags that just flew over the heads of the viewers.
In one scene, Eddie tells his girlfriend Dolores to go downtown, and check on the probate regarding Marvin Acme’s will. Co-writers Price and Seaman actually found a crazy way to give the explanation, a little life:
Peter Seaman: Here was the ‘semi-splainer’ scene where we had to describe the probate of the will and all that stuff. It was really dry and everything, so, we were just joking around in the office, and Steven Spielberg was in the office with us.
And he said, “Yeah, you got to explain that probate so people understand it.”
So, that’s when we said, “well, how about we say, ‘yeah, probate, my Uncle Thumper used to take big pills for his probate.’ ‘No, prostate, you idiot!'”
We were just joking around, but he said, “No, you gotta put that in the movie!”
While the joke gave Spielberg a good laugh, it got just a few chuckles at the film’s premiere. However, co-writer Jeff Price laughs on the commentary, claiming that now that everyone who saw the film has gotten older, they’d probably understand it better.
When the film wasn’t being about Eddie Valiant trying to clear Roger’s name, it would often get very rowdy and very noisy, given the toons and what they were doing.
Much of the film showed Valiant being very annoyed with Roger’s antics, with only a scant few moments where the rabbit seemed willing to slow down, and be a little more serious.
One such moment came right after the madcap chase in Benny the Cab, where Roger and Eddie hide out in a movie theater:
Robert Zemeckis: Now this is-I think this is just really great lighting, on the toon here. This is great, and great animation and-Simon Wells animated this and I think, if I’m not mistaken, it’s the longest continuous animation scene in the movie. This shot here with Roger, and what’s nice about the animation in this is it’s just so subtle, and restrained-
Frank Marshall: And always ‘alive.’
Robert Zemeckis: And alive, yeah.
Ken Ralston: Remember this-Steven Spielberg came in and said, “I don’t care what you have to do, stop the movie if you have to, but put the rabbit and the detective in the same scene, and let them talk to each other.”
It’s notable that Zemeckis shoots this scene all in one long take, pushing in on Eddie as he tells Roger what happened to his brother, Teddy Valiant.
This is often a signature of Zemeckis’ directing, where he will often do a long camera-take, without cutting away. One can see this in the opening scene of Back to the Future, when the camera shows us all of Doc Brown’s garage-laboratory, without cutting away.
Looking back at Zemeckis’ filmography, one can see that in several of his works, he likes to mash together a number of genres. This was notably with Back to the Future, given it wasn’t just a science fiction film, but a comedy, a drama, and much more.
Near the end of the film as the commentators watch a complex scene, Zemeckis sums up just what he and the film crew were up against in putting the film together:
Robert Zemeckis: It’s three gigantic movies in one. You had a 48-minute animation movie which is, just a little under what an animated feature runs. You had a live-action period movie, with giant stunts and giant sets and vehicles and guns and all that stuff, and you had this huge special effects movie where there were, 1500 composite shots.
This same sentiment of combining things is mentioned throughout the commentary. Another notable moment is in regards to Alan Silvestri’s score, which managed to be a mixture of period-piece film noir musical cues, and the kind of crazy music as seen in animated cartoons of the time. Oftentimes, the tempo changes of the music would be too much for the film’s orchestra.
The commentary at times does have a lot of people talking over each other, but the information gleaned from it is still something I enjoy coming back to.
Notable are some areas where the commentators discuss a number of ideas that came up during production, that were ultimately dropped.
At one point, Baby Herman was considered to be the bad guy, and another time, Judge Doom was to have an animated pet vulture (named Voltaire), that was dropped when the filmmakers had to make cuts due to time and money.
The fact that Voltaire was part of the early drafts, could explain why when a line of Roger Rabbit “bendy” figures were released in 1988, Doom came with a vulture in his packaging.
There is even talk about the first, early test-screening of the film. Because much of the film was unfinished at the time, and since the audience had no clue just how the film was supposed to ‘work,’ the test-screening ended horribly.
Of course, looking back on the film all these years later, Roger Rabbit is still surprisingly well-done, given the time-crunch and mad dash to finish it. It ended up being director Robert Zemeckis’ third hit in a row (following Romancing the Stone and Back to the Future), and paved the way for a few Roger Rabbit cartoon shorts. However, licensing snafus between Disney and Amblin Entertainment (Spielberg’s production company) soon sidelined Roger’s career. Talk of a sequel or prequel has come up over the years (and test-footage of a CG-animation test was leaked some time ago), but it seems that it will forever be a remnant from our past.
However, bits of the film are still alive in the Disney theme parks. Several of the film’s props are still sitting around Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Walt Disney World, and on special occasions, Roger (and sometimes Jessica) can be seen in the various theme parks as meet-and-greet characters. Plus, the film’s characters live on in Roger Rabbit’s Car-toon Spin, a “dark ride” attraction located in Mickey’s Toontown at Disneyland.
In the thirty years since the film was released, we’ve seen a number of live-action/animation films like Cool World and Looney Tunes: Back in Action, attempt to do what Robert Zemeckis’ film did. However, none of the attempts I’ve seen, even comes close to topping Roger. Today, it would be ‘easy’ to make a film like this, but the blood, sweat and tears that went into making that 1988 film, helps make it a true work of art in my opinion.
(Rated PG for thematic elements and some peril)
The last time I recall reading Madeline L’engle’s book A Wrinkle In Time, was during the summer of 2003, when I decided to spend my summer reading banned books.
While I wasn’t wholly in love with the book, most of it’s concepts still stuck in my head (warping space and time is often a good way to get my attention).
When word came that Jennifer Lee (the writer of Disney’s Frozen) was attached to write an adaptation, I was actually excited to see what she could do with the material. And then, when word came that Ava DuVernay (the director of Selma) was attached, I felt this might definitely be something special, coming from the House of Mouse.
It’s been four years since the patriarch of the Murry family (played by Chris Pine) suddenly disappeared. In that time, Mrs Murry (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) has tried to care for their two children, Meg (Storm Reid), and Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe).
While Charles Wallace is an intelligent young prodigy, Meg has not coped well with the disappearance of her father. One day, she is surprised when Charles Wallace introduces her to three strange women, who may know where her father is.
As the film started out, I was very surprised at the pacing DuVernay was moving at (we don’t have any super-long backstories, and we don’t have Meg brooding around for half the film). This is definitely a film that trusts that it’s audience is smart enough to assemble the pieces, and just keep on moving!
While advertising has played up the roles of Mrs Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), and Mrs Who (Mindy Kaling), they are most definitely here to just fill supporting roles (like Johnny Depp in Alice in Wonderland), along with providing a little humor (courtesy of Who and Whatsit). While some may be disappointed about not getting a huge dose of Oprah, I felt it was nice that the script didn’t try to make the three wear out their welcome.
For much of the film, the secret weapon that the marketing seems to hide, is Storm Reid as Meg Murry.
Reid’s characterization manages to feel ‘real,’ and even when she’s spouting a few lines that should sound corny, she never seems to falter. This is Meg’s journey, and we can definitely see a change come over her, as the story goes along (plus, I did enjoy that Reid sports glasses throughout the entire film, just like Meg in the book!).
I had vague memories of Charles Wallace being a child prodigy from reading the book, and Deric McCabe managed to portray the character quite well. With know-it-all children, there is a certain propensity for them to get really obnoxious on film, but McCabe never manages to get there.
Overall, the film’s cast seems to be it’s greatest strength. Even the minor players like Levi Miller and Zach Galifianakis, work remarkably well with their limited roles.
The trailers have definitely played up a lot of fantasy visuals, but don’t expect this to turn into The Chronicles of Narnia. While most of the scenes manage to do a good job showing us places beyond our Earth, the film feels like it meanders a bit too long in a picturesque green landscape, that feels like Lord of the Rings mixed with the painterly visuals from What Dreams May Come.
There are also a few areas that seem to almost have a very abrupt change-of-pace. One notable scene felt like it was building to something bigger, when it just suddenly fizzled out to a rather ho-hum resolution.
A few times, I was surprised when non-orchestral score music was used across several scenes, somewhat ruining the mood for me. While this may have been done to play to the younger audience, I couldn’t help but wonder what composer Ramin Djawadi could have done with the few scenes I saw.
At times, I was reminded of the tone of films like Bridge to Terabithia and the recent remake of Pete’s Dragon. There’s a sense of trying to make a family film that is a bit ‘smarter’ than most of the other stuff out there, and one that almost goes back to the ‘darker’ tone of films from the 1980’s (such as The Neverending Story, and Labyrinth).
A Wrinkle in Time does have it’s faults, but I was very surprised that even so, it’s heart was in the right place. DuVernay’s film managed to hit me emotionally in several places…something that I felt was severely lacking from the last Wrinkle in Time adaptation I saw, which was made by Disney’s Television division back in 2004.
Final Grade: B (Final Thoughts: Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of “A Wrinkle In Time” brings us a PG-rated fantasy film, that carries along at a good clip, thanks to the talents of it’s cast and crew. The pacing of the story can feel a little uneven in places, but even with a run-time of almost two hours, it never feels boring. )
This past summer, the world of voice-acting and animation, lost one of it’s most beloved members: June Foray.
Probably as much as Mel Blanc was a part of our childhoods, June was just as notable. She voiced dozens of characters, from Rocky the Flying Squirrel, to Witch Hazel in the Looney Tunes shorts, and many, many more!
Speaking of Witch Hazel, that’s one reason why we’re having this Retro Recap.
In the world of animation, most think of a character by that name, in relation to the Looney Tunes series of cartoons. Created by Chuck Jones, the Looney version of Hazel, would be voiced by Foray for over 50 years (with the exceptions being Bea Benaderet in 1954, and Tress MacNeille from 1992-1994).
However, most may not know that Jones was not the first to give an animated character that name, AND have her voiced by June.
In 1952, another Witch named Hazel, appeared in the Donald Duck short, Trick or Treat.
On Halloween night, Witch Hazel flies through a nearby town on her broom B.Z. Bub, cackling maniacally, and causing plenty of mischief. During her antics, she stops to watch as Huey, Dewey, and Louie, show up at the door of their Uncle Donald’s house.
Instead of treats however, Donald decides to give out some ‘tricks,’ putting live firecrackers in the boy’s treat bags, destroying their candy haul. He then finishes by dumping water on them, before laughingly closing the door in their faces.
“Aw, bless their little black hearts,” says Hazel, coming down to console the boys.
Of course, the boys are perfectly fine encountering a real witch on a flying broom, and Hazel decides to help them get some candy from Donald. However, her polite attempts don’t work, and so she gets the boys to help her use witchcraft on him!
Setting up a cauldron, Hazel has the trio bring forth a number of specific ingredients. Finally, the concoction is complete, and sucking up some in a sprayer, she and the boys hop aboard BZ Bub, and take to the air!
Hazel’s laughing catches Donald’s attention, and as he looks out the window, he watches as she uses the spray to enchant a number of objects. A paintbrush begins painting Donald’s house green, a pumpkin menacingly flies through the air, and even some fence posts, become ghosts!
Donald is surprised to watch as these apparitions sing a song, and make their way to his doorstep, where Hazel and the boys confront him, demanding that he ‘treat’ the boys. Donald is willing to do so, until he hears Hazel tell the boys that ‘this pigeon’s a pushover.’
Upon hearing this, Donald locks all his food in the pantry closet, and swallows the key.
But this isn’t enough to deter Hazel, who enchants Donald’s feet, and demands they kick out the key he’s swallowed. Hazel starts up a hoe-down song, and the key is soon ejected out of Donald’s mouth. But even this doesn’t stop him from being a jerk, as he then tosses it under the pantry door.
Hazel’s reaction now, is to give his feet a larger dose of the potion, and demands they use Donald’s body to break down the door.
As everyone watches, the feet follow Hazel’s request to take a longer start (“Bout a mile or two!”), sending Donald out into a nearby field, before he comes screaming into the house! A loud crash later, and the door has been busted open, with Donald lying unconscious nearby.
The boys happily collect some treats from the open pantry, but Hazel notes that it’s almost dawn, and her time to play is up. Hopping aboard her broom, she bids the boys goodbye, and they do the same to their witchy friend.
Growing up, The Disney Channel would often have little Holiday ‘clip-shows,’ and when it came to one known as Disney’s Halloween Treat, there were quite a few clips used from this short.
I think out of the many Donald Duck cartoons made over the years, Trick or Treat is one of the highlights.
The Disney Studios didn’t often do Halloween-themed shorts, so Treat is one of the few times that they acknowledged the holiday.
It’s also notable how they play with the art for the opening. Rather than the standard Donald Duck intro image, his face has been painted onto a wooden fence, and the card stating that this is a Donald Duck cartoon, also has it’s own special title-card art imprinted on the fence too.
There is some pretty wild and good animation to be had here as well. We get long shadows, Characters and objects changing scale and distance, and plenty of effects animation in the way of fire, smoke, and a fairy-dust sheen off of the fence-post ghosts.
A fun moment comes when Hazel is mixing her brew, and reciting a few lines from the witches in Macbeth (“this is the real thing ya know,” she tells the boys, “right outta Shakespeare!”).
Shakespearean-style wording comes up a few more times, in how Hazel talks. “What manner of ghoul is this?” she ponders, seeing the nephews for the first time. She also refers to Donald as “a quacking rogue” after she encounters him first-hand.
The animators also have some fun with her broom, which looks like a distant cousin to the brooms in Fantasia. For having a very small role, BZ Bub actually gave me a few laughs with how he ‘reacted’ in some scenes.
While most of Disney’s shorts are known for having a musical cadence to them, this short is one of the few that actually has a full song worked into it’s running time.
Paul Smith does the music for the piece, and the theme song like many a good Disney song, can easily get stuck in your head (it’s been popping up sporadically over the last few months for me!).
A group known as The Mellowmen (composed of Bob Hamlin, Bill Lee, Thurl Ravenscroft, and Max Smith), sing the main song, and keep it quite sprightly.
The four men figured into a number of Disney productions during the 50’s and 60’s (even singing the opening song for the Zorro TV show!), and of course, Thurl Ravenscroft would go on to great fame, singing the songs for Chuck Jones’ adaptation of Dr Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas.
When I watched most cartoons with Donald Duck in them as I was growing up, I often felt sorry for him. Most of the time, his temper was a case of others provoking him, or just trying to get him to explode into a quacking tantrum, so they could have a good laugh out of it.
However, in Treat, I found myself not really showing much sympathy for what he was doing to his nephews. It’s one of the few shorts where I actually took some delight in what Hazel was subjecting him to.
Unlike most animated shorts, Trick or Treat’s animated storyline, ended up being adapted in the Donald Duck comic by Carl Barks!
While the animated short had just 7 minutes to tell a story, Barks was allowed to extend certain parts of it into a 30+ page story. Plus, he gives over more ‘vocalizing’ to Donald and his nephews (in Barks’ stories, Donald often carried out long conversations!).
A simple line like “whiskers from a billy goat,” becomes a page-and-a-half gag as we see where the boys got those whiskers from.
Barks also embellishes Hazel’s bringing things to life with her magic. Notable is this long-panel, showing a number of other strange creatures, happily heading towards Donald’s front door (singing Paul Smith’s song from the cartoon!).
However, once Hazel calls Donald a “pushover” in the comic, Donald simply assumes that all the creatures were fake, and kicks her and the nephews out of his house.
This is where Barks adds his own story touches, as Hazel then tries several ways to get candy from Donald.
She first disguises herself as a beautiful female duck, but is found out by Donald, who manages to get back the candy she took.
Next, she magically summons her pet ogre, Smorgasbord (or “Smorgie,” for short), and sends him to Donald’s doorstep.
The duck simply assumes it’s a costume, but Smorgie proves invulnerable to a mace to the chest, and his multiple arms creep in through a number of openings, looking for the pantry key. Donald seems to concede defeat and hands over the candy, but also gives Smorgie an ‘extra treat.’ It turns out to be a stick of dynamite, and once Smorgie consumes it, the creature is blown to smithereens. Surprisingly, Hazel only shows mild concern for her destroyed pet.
This then leads to Hazel using the sprayer on Donald’s feet (like in the animated short), as well as him swallowing the hey.
When it comes to Hazel having the feet use Donald as a battering ram on the door, she first enchants a suit of armor to cover the duck, before he comes hurtling in through the doorway, breaking down the pantry door, and waving a white flat in surrender. Of course, Hazel takes the chance to lecture Donald on his actions during the night.
“Thou miserly hoarders must learn that on Halloween the goodies belong to the ghosts and goblins! Thou hath to treat!” she says, pointing a wrinkled finger at Donald.
“I still say it’s plain Robbery!” he retorts, before Hazel’s broom konks him on the head.
However, by the last panel, all is well. The boys have a huge bag of candy, Donald seems to have learned a lesson (“Next year, I’m going to be a goblin, too” he admits), and the ducks wave as Hazel takes off, as the sun begins to rise.
Overall, the embellishments Barks made to the story prove quite entertaining. Notable is at the beginning, where Hazel watches the boys get treats from a few more houses, and is impressed at how simple it is to get candy (“What a racket!” she thinks to herself. “How long has this been going on?”).
Donald also proves to be more of a bully in the comic than on-screen, adamant that noone is going to get any treats from his house.
The added ghosts and goblins Barks draws are also a sight, as is the design of Smorgie, who on first sight, appears to be a cyclops, but in a following panel, is shown to have a second eye, in the back of his head!
Of course, when it comes to Witch Hazel in the animation world, animator Chuck Jones had his own ideas.
Online, word is that Jones had originally tried to get Foray to voice his Witch Hazel in the short, Bewitched Bunny (in which Bugs Bunny saves Hansel and Gretel from the witch’s clutches). Though Foray turned down the request, she soon relented, and her career as Jones’ Witch Hazel, started in 1956 with the short, Broomstick Bunny.
June was said to have been none-too-pleased about Jones “stealing” the character Witch Hazel for his own purposes, though this could very well just be a joke, as neither Disney or Warner Brothers (as far as I know), actually owns the copyright on the name.
Of course, Jones’ Hazel wasn’t quite as playful and helpful as the one in Trick or Treat. Jones’ interpretation of the character, was a bit more selfish, and oftentimes, intended to do away with Bugs Bunny, for her own nefarious purposes. Jones’ Hazel was also given a trademark of sorts. Whenever she’d get an idea, she’d cackle loudly, jump in the air, and then quickly zoom off-camera, leaving several bobby pins dangling in the air.
While having their heyday in the 1950’s, both of these witches never did meet in the animated world, but that changed recently in another medium. At the memorial service for June Foray, animator Eric Goldberg did a Hirschfeldian caricature of the famous voice-actress, surrounded by all sorts of characters she voiced during her career.
One of the most notable gags Goldberg did, is in the bottom-left, where both Disney and Warner Bros’ Hazels, seem to be at odds with each other. I guess only in memoriam for their voice-actress, could these two witches meet face-to-face.
Feature Review: Cars 3 (Rated G)
Probably out of every property that PIXAR Animation Studios has created, none has garnered more criticism and eye-rolling, than their Cars series. The studio’s Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter, had longed to do a film about ‘talking cars,’ and in 2006, his journey was finally completed.
While many were lukewarm to his idea, I had been aboard the bandwagon ever since the first Cars film was announced. Wheeled vehicles have always fascinated me since I was a kid. My parents met while cruising on the streets of their Iowa hometown, my Dad and Uncles subscribed to magazines like Motor Trend, and over the years, I’d go to plenty of car shows. And of course, as a kid, cars (especially sports cars!) were exciting because of the speeds they could reach!
So, I was highly-entertained by the first Cars when it premiered in theaters in 2006, and being that I was a loyal fan of the series, I went to see Cars 2 when it came out 5 years later.
And now, we get Cars 3, which makes the series the second trilogy the studio has produced, following Toy Story.
Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) has been tearing up the racing scene for some time now, but suddenly, a new rookie begins to take the racing world by storm…Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) that is. Storm’s introduction soon changes things, as racing companies begin recruiting faster, and younger sports cars to try and compete against him.
Pretty soon, McQueen finds himself losing ground, and seeks out the help of a trainer named Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), hoping that her skills can help him stay relevant in the world of racing.
Cars 3 is a notable film, as much like Toy Story 3, it shows a world where it’s characters have ‘matured.’ Unlike Cars 2 that felt like an extended version of the episodic series titled Mater’s Tall Tales, Cars 3 feels like a distant cousin to the first Cars film. However, it’s a film that puts two tires in the past, and two in the future, straddling the finish line for Lightning, feeling a lot like some sequels these days, that tends to blend the old, with the new.
The previews do make the film out to be an exciting, fast-paced rollercoaster ride, but like the first film, the filmmakers don’t spend a whole lot of time going fast. There’s quite a number of slower scenes, whose more languid pace I can’t help but feel, will definitely have some kids squirming in their seats after awhile.
I did enjoy where the film wanted to go, showing how in the world of sports, the rookie sports star of today, will eventually have to cope with younger and faster rookies coming up around the bend.
That realization hit me personally in the last year, when I realized I had been working at a company, for as long as Pixar’s been releasing Cars films. I’ve gone from learning the ropes as a young man, to giving advice and tips as an adult to some of our younger newcomers.
What really got me excited while watching the film, was hearing and seeing old clips of Doc Hudson (Paul Newman)! The relationship that was established between Doc and Lightning in the first film is one of my favorite PIXAR friendships (and I won’t lie that I got a little misty-eyed seeing The Fabulous Hudson Hornet back in action in some scenes).
We also get the chance to meet some older racing legends Doc knew, as well as Doc’s trainer, Smokey (Chris Cooper). Seeing some older-model vehicles had me excited for their appearance, but sadly, it feels like they just come-and-go in the film, as quickly as they entered it.
That was something that bugged me throughout the film. We see a number of familiar faces from the first Cars, but they almost feel like minor walk-ons to just let us know they’re alive (and fortunately for some of you out there, Mater probably only figures into about 5 minutes of screentime). Even when it comes to the new racer Jackson Storm, I couldn’t help but feel like I was seeing ‘Chick Hicks 2.0,’ given how much interaction he had with McQueen.
Where the film begins to pick up it’s rhythm, is with the introduction of Cruz Ramirez. A trainer at the Rust-Eze Racing Center, Cruz becomes Lightning’s ‘Mater’ for this film. Once Lightning manages to get her out of the world of racing simulators, the film really has some fun moments, punctuated by little bits of comedy from Cristela Alonzo.
Personally, I was hoping the film would pull an Incredibles and have Sally (Bonnie Wright) assume Lightning and Cruz were off having an affair, but then again, the Cars series isn’t known for getting that ‘deep’ with some of it’s subject matter.
A highlight scene regarding Lightning and Cruz, takes place at a demolition derby in Thunder Hollow. It’s a madcap nightmare of mud, flames, and wild camerawork, that still manages to be highly entertaining (just watch out for Ms Fritter!).
Speaking of environments, the level of detail in the natural world of the film, will probably have you scrutinizing the scenes much like I was. Unlike the pastel-hued environs of the first film, the more ‘gritty’ look here, makes the vehicles seem to blend a bit more into their CG world.
I also really got into the design aesthetic of the newer race cars. It follows the current design trend, where in the last 10 years, we’ve gone from more curved vehicle bodies, to more angular ones, with Jackson Storm’s design looking cool, yet dangerous.
While Cars 3 did entertain me in a more emotional way than Car 2, it sadly doesn’t come close to reaching that finish line that Toy Story 3 crossed. It’s a film that seems to be having it’s own mid-life crisis, struggling with it’s identity, as it tries to pull itself together.
I think when it comes to Cars 3, what you bring with you when you go to watch the film, will determine just what you get out of it once the credits start to roll.
Short Review: Lou (Rated G)
Taking place on a school playground, one little boy takes great pleasure in taking playthings away from his schoolmates…until a thing called Lou, decides to teach him a lesson.
I will admit, the first hints of Lou that I saw made me wonder if I was going to even like this character. Of course, I soon found myself wondering how I could have doubted Pixar. It’s introduction is cleverly shrouded in mystery, leading up to a pretty impressive reveal.
Lou ends up being both humorous, and emotional, as well as something that everyone in the audience can either relate to, or learn from, depending on your age and experience. The filmmakers do try to have a little bit of ‘bad-fun’ with how the bully takes things away from the other kids, but also never making you feel that he is justified in doing these things. However, where they take him in the story, went in a direction I didn’t see coming.
Some scenes with Lou went by so quickly, that I almost wanted to slow down the scene to eyeball some of what was done (I guess I’ll just have to wait for the Cars 3 Blu-Ray to do that).
I liked the message that was given here (with no dialogue), and I think some people would agree, it would be nice to have a few Lou’s out in our own world.
Final Grade for “Cars 3”: B (Final Thoughts: While being stronger than “Cars 2,” “Cars 3” seems to be suffering it’s own midlife crisis, as it tries to straddle the line between it’s past, and it’s future. A decent capper to the “Cars” trilogy of films, as we follow Lightning McQueen on a rather unconventional journey for an animated sequel.)
Final Grade for “Lou”: B+ (Final Thoughts: Pixar’s latest animated short is a simple-and-sweet film that helps to show that oftentimes, niceness can trump selfishness and greed. The film’s animation on Lou is also quite an eye-opener, and will surely leave some with a smile on their face when it ends.)
‘Rated PG for some action violence, peril and frightening images
Of all the animated features that were released during my youth, Beauty and the Beast is one of those that is at the top, when it comes to animated features that made me consider pursuing a career in animation.
I was enthralled by Glen Keane’s designs for the Beast, the wonderful songs and lyrics of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, and a story that delivered on a satisfyingly emotional level, that I hadn’t yet encountered in animated films at that time.
Of course, when it comes to turning animated features into live-action movies, I approached the studio’s recent take on Beauty and the Beast with some trepidation. I had been intrigued by what Kenneth Branagh brought to Cinderella in 2015, but felt little need to see Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book adaptation last year.
Of course, being the glutton for punishment that I am, I bought the ticket, and decided to ride the ride, to see what a live-action version of this “tale as old as time” had in store for audiences.
In the small provincial town of Villeneuve, resides Belle (Emma Watson), and her artistically-inclined father, Maurice (Kevin Kline). Of those living in the village, Belle is seen as an anomaly amongst the townspeople, though entrances a former army captain named Gaston (Luke Evans), who wishes to make her his wife.
One day on a trip, Maurice stumbles upon a snow-shrouded castle, and plucks a rose for his daughter, enraging the castle’s Beastly owner (Dan Stevens). Belle willingly trades her life for her father’s, and soon meets the castle’s enchanted servants (played by Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellan, Emma Thompson, and many more), who hope she can break the spell they are under.
From the early word and trailer imagery, Disney made few attempts to hide that they were attempting to translate the 1991 film (and some of it’s successful Broadway stage adaptation) to the big-screen.
The live-action film doesn’t stray far from it’s roots, and like any adaptation these days, attempts to fill in the blanks, and embellish the story we know so well.
Did you ever wonder just where Belle and Maurice came from? How about what led the Beast to be such a pompous jerk in the first place? We get those answers here, as well as some vague motivations surrounding the Enchantress who cursed the Beast and his servants.
Composer Alan Menken returns to the world he helped create, but has brought on Tim Rice (whom he worked with on Aladdin), to make a few alterations to the film’s music. Some lines are changed from previous works, and a few songs add in bits from the original demo tracks of the animated feature (which were co-written by Menken’s former collaborator, the late Howard Ashman). The Beast even get his own solo (much like in the Broadway production), but none of the newer musical pieces seemed to enthrall me. We even get Celine Dion back, singing a song at the end, that feels more like an afterthought.
When it comes to behind-the-scenes names, Director Bill Condon should be familiar to many when it comes to musicals-on-film. He wrote the adapted screenplay for Chicago, and directed the film adaptation of Dreamgirls back in 2006.
One would assume his pedigree with adapted musicals would be a slam-dunk for this production. Unfortunately, BatB seems to suffer from some ‘speed issues’ when it comes to holding it all together.
I haven’t seen enough of Condon’s filmography to pass proper judgement, but with this film, he really seems to step on the gas-pedal, when the film has to shift into it’s musical numbers, or require a lot of visual effects. Some of the numbers fly by so fast, I was struggling to figure out where my eye was supposed to be focused on (this was most problematic during the Be Our Guest number, which felt like he was trying to ape Baz Luhrmann’s manic Moulin Rouge numbers).
It isn’t until the halfway mark, that the film seems to finally catch it’s breath. In those moments, Condon shows that when he slows down, he can really get to work on making us focus on the characters and their development.
Deep down, I feel that if the film had been more like 2015’s Cinderella, and been less of an adaptation of the animated feature, it would have been more palatable, and stronger in it’s emotional resonance.
The ‘palette’ of the film, seems to derive itself from 19th century French landscapes. I will admit during the early bits in the village, as we see the landscape surrounding it, I found myself making note of the soft color palette of the backgrounds, almost as if the filmmakers were attempting to make it look like the characters had stepped into a painting.
The film also attempts to pay some small homages to it’s roots. The village is named after the original author of the tale, and, Maurice attempts to bring Belle a rose from the Beast’s garden, which was part of the original story.
However, much like the story here, the characters can be rather give-and-take as well.
Sadly, Emma Watson did not enthrall me with her singing voice, but she can deliver in certain moments when it comes to emotions. There is an added character point, that Belle is a forward-thinking young woman in the eyes of her rather mundane village, but it just feels like an afterthought as the story goes on.
Dan Stevens as the Beast, has the task of working through motion-capture, that works ‘most’ of the time. The live-action Beast is a bit like the early concept of a ‘man with a beast head,’ rather than the more animalistic creation of master animator Glen Keane. The concept works some of the time, but mostly in the quieter moments.
Luke Evans’ take on Gaston is different from the muscle-bound lothario we all know. A war veteran who seems to satiate his lust for war by hunting, this take on the character is a bit less hunky, and more mental in several of his decisions…though not by much.
One of the highlights of the film regarding comedy, is Josh Gad as LeFou. Every other word out of his mouth just made me and the audience chuckle, and unlike his animated counterpart, he’s given a bit of character growth. I have a feeling many will find Gad just as entertaining here, as he was as Olaf in Frozen.
When it comes to the enchanted objects of the castle, I was hoping they would enthrall me as much as their animated counterparts did, but that was not the case here.
There are no cartoonish features, or large white eyes to draw one’s attention. Instead, the designers try to take an object’s parts and decoration, and make them into faces (or in the case of Lumiere, just make a miniature man holding candles, with another atop his head!). This may look good in close-ups or when a character is being still, but once they start moving around, I found it maddening, trying to keep track of where an eye or a nose is!
A prime example, is Maestro Cadenza, who has been turned into a harpsichord (and played by Stanley Tucci). His keys and music stand are meant to stand in for his mouth and facial features, but I found myself struggling to figure out where his eyes were, let alone his nose and moustache when the camera focused on him ‘talking.’
There is a sliver of an attempt to give the enchanted objects a bit more characterization, but many of the group scenes feel rather poorly staged, and some that involve dozens of other CG-created objects moving about, feel too busy with motion, for us to figure on where to focus our attention.
Almost 25 years ago, at a swap meet in San Diego, CA, I picked up a book that would change my life forever: The Art of Animation: From Mickey Mouse to Beauty and the Beast.
The book has been a part of my life since then, and has been in the hands of (and signed by!) several persons associated with the animated Beauty and the Beast.
At the end of the book, the final pages tell how the next generation of Disney animators (in 1991), screened the film for their predecessors (several of whom had worked with Walt Disney himself). After the screening, instead of high praise, word was the new generation was met with: “Eh, it’s kind of like what we did.”
That line was in my head tonight. As the film went on, a number of names I had memorized from that making-of book, popped into my head. Looking at some scenes, I was thinking things like, “Glen Keane did that better,” or “Nik Ranieri made that characterization read so much clearer!”
The film definitely doesn’t skimp on the effort, but it sadly feels like another adapted production, that could have been much more solid, had it not been tied so closely to it’s animated counterpart.
The film seems to try and fly by moreso with it’s visuals and putting Emma Watson front-and-center, when what it needed more of in my opinion, was a story that could be just as emotionally involving today, as the animated feature was to me and millions of others, once upon a time.
Final Grade: B-
(Rated PG for action, peril and brief language)
While I did grow up with animated shorts and feature films from the Walt Disney Studios, I was not raised on the myriad live-action features that the studio had made. Yes, my childhood was ‘dry’ when it came to titles like Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and Pete’s Dragon.
Of those three musicals, Pete is the one film that has been somewhat touch-and-go within the Disney fandom. While some have fond memories of the film, others wince at Pete’s singing, as well as the pre-Roger Rabbit attempts to bring an animated character to life in the real world.
When word came that a new film bearing the name Pete’s Dragon was coming out, it was met with a miniscule cry of uproar, from those who thought the 1977 film should be left alone.
Even so, the previews did make me curious as to how the filmmakers would handle this new take on an old classic.
In the Pacific Northwestern town of Millhaven, its residents live on the edge of a huge forested area.
One day while out in the woods, Park Ranger Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard) is surprised to find a young boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley), who appears to have been living in the wilderness for some time.
Grace is curious as to how he could have survived, but grows even more curious when he mentions he has a friend in the woods, named Elliot.
From the start, it’s very easy to see that the world of this film, is much different than the one from the 1977 film.
Gone are the early 1900’s with their dirty hillbilly family and traveling salesmen. Instead, the environment has moved into the 1980’s, with dually pickup trucks, record players, and not a cellular phone in sight! Plus, for those who aren’t into musicals, you’ll be pleased to know there’s no show-stopping musical numbers to be found.
Oakes Fegley plays the role of Pete, who is soon torn between wanting to stay with his big green friend, and to also be a part of the new family that he is welcomed into. Fegley quickly caught my attention, as he romped and jumped through a few scenes, with a nimbleness that reminded me of The Jungle Book’s Mowgli.
Given when he first entered the woods, I was surprised just how well Pete’s vocabulary was for a boy who had been away from people for so long (he and Elliot communicate as well, but the dragon doesn’t speak in words). It’s almost like the filmmakers made a compromise, in making Pete talk a bit more (and know more words!) than he should. It seems a shame, as one could easily imagine Pete being almost completely mute when Grace first discovers him, and opening up more as the story progresses.
While the other characters have some charm, they don’t do a whole lot that really makes them stand out. Howard’s Grace wears a caring smile most of the time, and her fiance Jack (Wes Bentley) is just…there. Robert Redford also has a small role as Grace’s father, though it almost seems like he could have been excised from the story completely. It feels like the one exception to the supporting cast is Jack’s daughter Natalie (Oona Lawrence), who quickly shows what an extrovert she is, when she keeps trying to get Pete to come out of his shell.
The film also takes a rather neutral approach when it comes to ‘bad guys,’ with the closest we get being Jack’s brother, Gavin (Karl Urban). A worker at his brother’s lumber mill, we see him overstepping boundaries on where the company can log, which irks Grace a few times (did I mention she’s also engaged to Gavin’s brother, Jack?). Soon after we meet him, Gavin pretty much becomes the equivalent of one of the adults in Steven Spielberg’s E.T., when it comes to Elliot.
Speaking of E.T., it almost feels like director David Lowery was trying to recapture a little of that 80’s magic, going with the “a boy and his ______” story, while in the midst of a nostalgic flashback to simpler times. However, the story has a long way to go to even come close to the emotional rollercoaster that that classic film was.
Even with a rather average story, the film does play almost like a lost 1980’s family film. Its semi-serious nature for most of the film, puts it a few heads above many other films that are considered ‘family films’ in this day and age (and it’s one of the few that doesn’t contain ‘mild rude humor’ for being a PG-rated production).
The screening I attended was in 3D, and I must say if you’re going to see the film, do so in the regular format. Several sequences take place at dusk or at night, and my friend and I found ourselves often straining to make out some things through the dimness of our 3D glasses. For example, there was one scene that seemed as if it was meant to draw our attention to something, but neither of us could make out what it was we were supposed to be entranced by.
Watching the credits, I was pleasantly surprised to see WETA Digital credited for the work on Elliot. The company seems to have a lock on big characters this summer (they handled The BFG‘s effects as well), and what they’ve brought to “the big furry dragon” for this film, seemed to please both children and adults alike in the theater.
Elliot behaves almost like a huge dog at times, and quite a lot of care has been given to the expressions on his face. If anything, Elliot (for not being real) seems to be the character with the most emotional range in the film.
Overall, Pete’s Dragon hits almost all the right notes for being “a Disney film,” but in watching it, I couldn’t help but think, “this could have gone so much further!” From character development, to decisions that some persons make, it feels like we could have gotten a much stronger final product in the end.
Final Grade: B (“Pete’s Dragon” gives us a new tale regarding a boy named Pete, and his dragon friend Elliot. With top-notch special effects, the film explores the realms of what friends and family can mean, but gives us little more than a decent family film, feeling at times like it could have soared to even loftier heights of greatness.)
(Rated PG for action/peril, some scary moments and brief rude humor)
Probably along with Walt Disney, one of the names that was such a big influence on me growing up, has been Steven Spielberg.
Steven has often had a rather unconventional way of storytelling, dabbling in the visual and story aesthetics of his idol Alfred Hitchcock, while also seeming to embrace the new, and trying to go places that others dare not imagine.
The same could be said for author Roald Dahl, whose writings are often beloved by children, for their strange words, and even larger flights of fancy into strange realms and situations.
As his filmography has gotten more serious over the years, many hoped that Steven Spielberg could possibly return to the more adventurous, youthful spirit of the 70’s and 80’s.
In the last 15 years, we’ve gotten little glimpses of this with Catch Me If You Can, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and The Adventures of Tintin.
Though with The BFG, he regresses to a level we have only seen a few times in his career.
A young orphan named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) witnesses a giant (Mark Rylance) on the streets of London one evening. As she has seen him, he takes her away with him to Giant Country, to keep her from telling about him and his kind.
Though he is a Big Friendly Giant (whom Sophie calls, “BFG”), he is the nicest among a group of a more gruff and mean lot of them, led by a muscular brute named The Fleshlumpeater (Jermaine Clement).
Sophie forms a friendship with the BFG, and as they learn more about each other, she wishes to help him out with his giant problem.
After watching The BFG, I couldn’t help but feel like the film was definitely playing against what has come to be known as “Family” films in this day and age.
The film does feel like it takes a step backwards for the Family audience, given that it feels stretched a bit thin in reaching its 2 hour run-time. While the kids might get antsy, I think some of the parents may appreciate a film that manages to take its time.
What may also shock some people, is just how ‘simple’ the story is. We don’t have super-elaborate backstories, and so much of what we see is often left to the audience to decipher. Plus, we are often finding ourselves trying to make sense out of the BFG’s language, in which he often mixes up how some words are pronounced (one of them will surely please Dahl’s older fans!).
Though the film isn’t without its little bits of Dahl cheekiness, notably in regards to the BFG’s favorite drink, frobscottle (I’m assuming a packed theater will illicit more laughter than the small crowd I saw it with, in regards to the drink).
Spielberg also seems to want to get in on the action, with some little bouts of slapstick and whatnot here-and-there. However, he almost gets a little too carried away in places, notable in a few scenes where the camera follows Sophie for several minutes, without cutting away to another scene.
While it has its little moments of strangeness here and there, it feels like screenwriter Melissa Mathison (E.T., The Black Stallion), chooses largely to focus on the relationship between the BFG and Sophie.
The BFG himself, is definitely a marvel of motion-capture, that shows how far WETA Digital (the guys who made Gollum and the Na’vi come to life) have come. He’s a bit more refined than the Quentin Blake drawings he’s based off of, but he’s given an almost grandfatherly look about him, as well as a more humble and noble nature, apart from his more brutish kinfolk. Rylance’s voice and mannerisms are also crucial in bringing the character to life, and given that Spielberg has cast him previously in Bridge of Spies (and his next film, Ready Player One), I could see him becoming a Spielberg ‘regular,’ in the same manner as Richard Dreyfuss.
Most notable about the design of the BFG, are his eyes. Eyes have usually been a hard thing to pin down with motion-capture work, and oftentimes, if the eyes seem ‘dead’ or not alive enough (like in The Polar Express), it can cause us to lose touch with the character. However, the added techniques that WETA have used with the BFG, helps sell the illusion so well, that I was really surprised how well my emotions were being toyed with!
Where the effects work gets questionable, is that many times, Sophie is one of the only live-action elements in a scene, almost making one wonder why Spielberg didn’t go full-CG/motion-capture like with Tintin.
Though in a sense, maybe he wanted to pay homage to those films he saw growing up, where you had normal-sized humans reacting to larger-than-life figures, like in the old Willis O’Brien, or Ray Harryhausen films. There were a few times, where the BFG and Sophie’s interactions, reminded me of a scene or two from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.
Ruby Barnhill does a decent job as Sophie, but it feels like they try a bit too hard to make her likable. Fortunately she never gets super-annoying, but there were a few times where it would have worked best if she was seen, and not heard. As well, there’s a constant on-and-off of her wearing glasses, which left me wondering why she couldn’t have just wore them throughout.
Though they figure into the plot, the additional giants of Giant Country are a little more exaggerated, and not as serious as the BFG. One almost expects them to really become a big nuisance, but at times, they almost seem a minor annoyance to the plot, given their size.
At times, the film almost seemed to hearken back to Hook, in its look being somewhat like a story come to life, but with a somewhat exaggerated look to London, and Giant Country (one also can’t help but wonder, as the camera pans across London, what a Spielberg-directed Harry Potter might have looked like).
Speaking of Hook, if you know your Spielberg filmography, don’t be surprised if some shots seem to tickle old memories in your head (I was even surprised to find one scene reminded me of one in Saving Private Ryan).
A few reviews I read even mentioned the works of Studio Ghibli as possible scenic inspiration, and there are times that one can definitely get such a vibe. Maybe it’s in how much of the film tends to take its time in certain scenes, almost inviting the viewer to stop and smell the roses, rather than throttle them onward like most American films nowadays.
When Spielberg first worked with writer Melissa Mathison in 1981 on E.T., he was still a young man, and unmarried. Now, 35 years later, he he has been a family man, and in the last 7 years, became a Grandfather.
One can’t help but feel The BFG may have been thought of as a gift to his grandchildren, and also a way for him to dig back into his past, looking for a bit of that storytelling magic that he put on a shelf, as he grew up in the last 20 years.
It also seems to bring his filmmaking about childhood full-circle in a way.
When he was working on E.T., he referred to it as “an old-fashioned Walt Disney story about an boy and his alien.” Now here it is, 2016, and with the same screenwriter, he’s made “a Walt Disney Pictures story about a girl and her giant.”
Final Grade for “The BFG”: B (Final Thoughts: Steven Spielberg and writer Melissa Mathison, dabble in Roald Dahl’s realms, and come forth with a Family film that manages to be whimsical, weird, and a bit unlike the conventional PG-fare. The BFG himself is a grandfatherly marvel from the effects wizards at WETA Digital, and actor Mark Rylance. Some in our ADD culture may grow bored at its pacing and focus mainly on The BFG and his friendship with Sophie, but if you have the patience and fortitude, it’s a pretty enjoyable ride. Though not a full return to the older days of Spielberg’s work, there’s a sense of wonder and old-school feelings, almost like putting on a well-worn pair of shoes)
Feature Review: Finding Dory (Rated PG for mild thematic elements)
When it comes to the wild world of animated sequels, Pixar Animation Studios has been reluctant to saturate the marketplace. Their general consensus has been, that a sequel will not be made, unless they feel there’s a proper story to be told.
Up until 2010, Toy Story had been the only film of theirs that had multiple sequels (and a fourth Toy Story film is on the way for next fall) Since then, the company has made continuations to its films like Cars, Monsters Inc, and now, a pseudo-sequel to Finding Nemo, called Finding Dory.
It’s been more than a year since the events of the first film, and in that time, Dory has come to be a close family friend to Marlin, Nemo, and their friends along the reef.
As she goes about her days, Dory suddenly finds certain things jogging her memory, and she slowly begins to recall things about her parents, leading her to want to find them.
Reluctantly, Marlin and Nemo agree to accompany her, on a journey that ends up leading them to the Marine Life Institute in California.
Personally, I never felt we needed to add more to the story of Marlin, Nemo, and Dory. However, at the 2013 D23 Expo in Anaheim, writer/director Andrew Stanton claimed that the spark for the sequel, was based on a line of Dory’s from the first film:
“It runs in my family! At least, I think it does…hm…where are they?”
Much like how Cars 2 took Mater the tow truck out of a supporting role and thrust him into the spotlight, Dory has the same done with her in this film.
Marlin and Nemo are largely along for the ride, but off doing their own thing for much of the picture (my biggest concern: Marlin has conquered some of his fears since the first film, but he still brings his son on a possibly dangerous journey?). Because of this, Nemo ends up serving as a substitute Dory to Marlin for a few occasions.
Ellen DeGeneres stated many times how she would love to voice Dory again, and with this film, she got that wish in spades. While Dory does have her moments here or there that elicited some rolling laughter through the auditorium I was in, there were times I longed for when she served more as a supporting fish. Given the extent of her short-term memory loss in the film, there were several times I was unsure if what I was observing, was actually meant to be funny.
To its credit, Dory manages to not be a rehash of the first film, and even avoids stuffing itself (too) full of unnecessary cameos.
We meet quite a few new characters at the Marine Life Institute, with the most notable being an octopus, named Hank (played by Al Bundy himself, Ed O’Neill).
Hank is quite an enigma for the show. With his big blue eyes shifting from side-to-side and his ability to camouflage, you’re not quite sure whose side he’s on. He also serves as a character we’ve seen in quite a few of Pixar‘s recent prequel/sequels, in that he’s one that shows how far technology has come since the first film.
The Institute is also an intriguing new world to explore (though it can’t compete with the visual spectacle of the open ocean). Given that Marlin went all over the ocean looking for Nemo in the first film, the Institute serves as a nice change of scenery, if a bit claustrophobic at times. We meet quite a few new types of fish and animals along the way, which will surely delight those who are into marine life.
One of the fun things Pixar often does, is try to take some things you might see as normal, but taken in a different perspective, becomes something else. For example, a touch pool in the Institute, quickly becomes a ‘hall of horrors’ when seen from the perspective of the sea life under the water.
Though I’m sure it will entertain the little ones and provide a few laughs, it definitely feels like Finding Dory will not be as memorable as Finding Nemo (though it might be more profitable).
Andrew Stanton, Angus MacLane, and the staff at Pixar definitely don’t skimp on the effort, but the film just isn’t as strong of a continuation as that zenith of Pixar sequels, Toy Story 2.
While it is good that we didn’t get sent on another clownfish hunt, Dory’s quest almost feels like what happens to Mater in Cars 2, mixed in with some of the ‘historical revisionism’ of Monsters University.
That isn’t to say that the film won’t get you emotional (I dare anyone to not find sympathy for memories of Dory when she was a little fish), but it just doesn’t grab hold of the heart, and tug in ways like I was hoping.
Even Thomas Newman’s return to scoring Nemo’s sequel, failed to leave an impression on me. I kept waiting for a central theme to rise up and solidify in my eardrums (like the track “Nemo Egg” from the first film), but nothing came forward.
Pixar and its cast give Finding Dory the ol’ college try, but in the end, it just doesn’t reach the emotional heights we’ve come to expect from films like Toy Story 3, and Inside Out in the last 6 years. While it will be highly profitable in the end, I can’t help but feel that Andrew Stanton, who crafted the first film, was largely hard-lined into making this film for Disney, as a consolation for the lackluster box-office take of his last Disney film, John Carter.
One last thing: If you see the film, stay through the end credits.
Short Review: Piper (Rated G)
Accompanying Finding Dory, is the animated short, Piper. In it, a young sandpiper is encouraged by its parent to find sustenance on a nearby beach, but the little one soon finds herself terrified of the crashing surf after a harrowing incident.
Piper‘s animation style is a few steps beyond Dory, and feels like it’s trying for hyper-realism like in the PIXAR short, The Blue Umbrella.
However, unlike Umbrella, Piper‘s story works in a much better way.
While the hyper-realism of Umbrella’s cityscape seemed to distract away from that rather simple love story, the hyper-realism of a nondescript beach area, manages to keep us at rapt attention, while also keeping us focusing on the little sandpiper and the other creatures around her.
Sure, the little sandpiper bird is cute, but it’s in how the animators play out her emotions at times, that really makes us warm to her.
The beach Piper lives on, is also a wonder, with the waves washing onto the shore, the myriad particles of sand grain, the environment could have easily distracted me from the story (which was what happened when I saw Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur), but the focus on Piper and her journey soon won my attention.
Piper has no dialogue, leaving the entire short to be dependent on body language, which is handled quite well. Some of the best shorts Pixar has done have been ‘silent,’ and it is often these kinds of shorts that I relish. Animation doesn’t have to be about a lot of sound and noise, but can often just be about trying to follow a character, as your brain deciphers what is happening.
At only 6 minutes long, Piper is probably one of the most satisfying Pixar shorts I have seen on the big screen, since 2010’s Day and Night.
Final Grade for “Finding Dory”: B (Final Thoughts: The sequel to one of Pixar’s most famous films attempts to prove that it can be a decent successor to its 2003 counterpart, but fails to feel like a satisfying tug at the heartstrings. Dory takes center-stage for much of the film, but her adventures through the Marine Life Institute, makes me long for the days when her supporting nuggets of wisdom and observation in “Finding Nemo,” made her one of that film’s most memorable characters)
Final Grade for “Piper”: A- (Final Thoughts: Pixar’s hyper-real animated tale of a curious little sandpiper, manages to play cute with its story, along with actually wrapping us up in its lead’s situations, while also keeping our eyes alight over the advancements in the company’s environmental technology)
Over the years, it’s often a given that many studios will try to revive certain characters or concepts. For example, we’ve seen it with Walt Disney Studios in many capacities. Of the live-action concepts made after Walt Disney’s passing, the one that has often popped up over the last couple decades, has been “The Love Bug” himself: Herbie.
The weirdly-alive little VW Bug would often find himself bringing people together, while often involved in some form of racing, and caught in the crosshairs of a not-to-happy human being, who often wanted him disassembled.
Since his debut in 1968, Herbie has made an appearance almost every decade. In 1997, even Bruce Campbell gained ownership of Herbie, in a made-for-TV movie. That special attempted to explain Herbie’s origins, and also created an anti-Herbie, in the form of Horace, The Hate Bug (think Herbie, crossed with the antagonistic vehicle from 1977’s The Car).
After that special, it seemed that Herbie’s time had come and gone…but as the Walt Disney Studios began to comb through its live-action archives for characters and storylines to bring into the 21st century, Herbie’s number came up.
Modified and revved up for new audiences, the Love Bug would find himself in a film that offered street racing, NASCAR, and demolition derby thrills. Along for the ride, were the likes of Lindsay Lohan, Matt Dillon, Justin Long, Breckin Meyer, and Michael Keaton.
After many years in the limelight, it seems Herbie’s ride may finally have come to an end.
However, he gets a second lease on life when he is chosen by Maggie Peyton (Lindsay Lohan), the daughter of racing legend, Ray Peyton (Michael Keaton).
Maggie is at first unsure of the choice she’s made, but Herbie ends up impressing her and her friend Kevin (Justin Long), when he ends up beating famed NASCAR driver, Trip Murphy (Matt Dillon), in an impromptu street-race.
Maggie soon starts to secretly race Herbie under the secret identity of Max, while Trip finds himself obsessed with finding out who Max is, and wanting to get payback on the little Bug.
From the very first rumblings of the film’s production announcement, I recall that noone seemed to have any major interest in a racing film starring Herbie. Even the theaters I was in that had the film’s previews brought little reaction.
Unlike most films that often seek to totally re-invent a past concept, the film’s director, Angela Robinson, manages to somehow shoot right for that sweet spot, giving us something that feels nostalgic, but has a new spin. Oftentimes, scenes are shot with the sun-drenched feel of a beach film, and the soundtrack includes some songs that tap into the nostalgic past.
There was also a push by Robinson, to use physical effects moreso than computer-generated ones, as much as possible. Over 35 different Herbies were utilized over the course of the film, with just a few dozen scenes utilizing a computer-generated Bug, where the impossible couldn’t be achieved.
Notable among the physical effects, is a rail-slide ‘gag,’ in which Herbie displays some skateboarding skills, and slides along a guard-rail, before hopping off at the end, to beat Trip Murphy’s car.
The scene only lasts 8 seconds, but the production utilized 4 vehicles to achieve the scene. When one thinks how they could have just turned it over to an effects studio to make a CG bug, one has to realize how much care went into making you ‘believe’ the effect.
This rendition of Herbie also adds personality to his lights and bumper. Past film marketing (like the image on the left) would often add playful eyes or expressions to their promotional images, but this was the first film to add effects to these specific areas within a film.
Fully Loaded also happens to be the first Herbie film with a female lead. Since her lead debut in 1998’s Parent Trap remake, Lohan was often involved in a number of Disney Studio productions, up through 2005 (with Herbie being her last). Here, she manages to imbue Maggie Peyton as wanting to take a more serious direction in her life, but is still under the allure of racing that has been a part of her family’s heritage.
I will admit that the film didn’t fully sell me on the ‘racing’s in my blood’ vibe of her character, but makes up for it in making me moreso believe the little scenes and nuances she gives to the character, which helps make her not a one-dimensional lead. I like to think this could also be the strength of the director, as Robinson has often tackled projects that deal with female leads (she directed the independent film D.E.B.S., and has written for shows like True Blood, and The L Word).
One of the concepts of the early Herbie films, was that the bad guy was often someone whose ego would get in the way, and eventually be their downfall (a little like Indiana Jones’ bad guys). In this case, Fully Loaded revives that concept with Trip Murphy, who after being beaten in a street race by Herbie (and Maggie), just can’t get over this blow to his ego.
For the most part, Dillon plays Trip as a pretty ‘straight-arrow’ regarding his character. He is driven by ego, but he never feels as over-the-top as past Herbie bad guys…though not to say he doesn’t have a maniacal chuckle in a few places.
Of the additional supporting cast, it is Justin Long who gets the most screen-time as Maggie’s friend/love-interest, Kevin. Long’s character also functions as both the won-over skeptic regarding Herbie, as well as the ‘mechanic’ side of the team. His character almost harkens back to Buddy Hackett’s character from the Love Bug film, but unlike Hackett’s character, Long’s is not so easily able to accept Herbie’s ‘magic’ right away.
Of course, not everything is sunshine and lollipops in the film. During one scene, Herbie is stripped down, and thrown into a demolition derby. The film plays the scene as one of the more dramatic moments, with Herbie being beaten up and knocked about, as the crowd seems to roar in approval.
On the DVD’s audio commentary, Robinson remarked that her inspiration for the scene, was taken from the 1979 adaptation of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Robinson was emotionally taken in the scene in the film where Aslan sacrifices himself to the White Witch, and she drew inspiration from that scene, to try and make the audience care about what was happening to Herbie during this scene.
Herbie: Fully Loaded is not the best of the live-action Disney features released in the mid-2000’s, but I find it a fun little romp to watch every once-in-awhile. At least it holds up as a less-embarrassing reboot of an older property than say, Inspector Gadget.
Overall, the film performed slightly-above-average in its US release, making just a little more than its $50 million budget.
Even so, Angela Robinson’s direction was, to me, successful in making the film feel like a throwback to those old-fashioned films of the 1960’s, while trying to add a little something new to the mix.
The film often just tries to have fun, and that can be seen in some scenes. On the audio commentary, Robinson jokes how she felt that Cheetos being Trip Murphy’s NASCAR sponsor was a fun in-joke. The snack’s slogan at the time was “dangerously cheesy,” which seemed to be a perfect subtext for Trip himself.
The film was one of Lohan’s last for the Walt Disney Studios, and followed her most notable role, in 2004’s Mean Girls. I often think of the film as her final performance, before the media just pounced on her over a number of life and career decisions in the months and years that followed.
If you’ve read some of my other posts, you may know that I am also one of those guys who has always had a penchant for cars in films. That explains why I was on board for such car-related (yet publicly-derided) films like Cars, and Speed Racer. I guess having a penchant for wheeled vehicles ups my oddball factor, as many in the public these days, don’t see cars as being as big a deal as they were 30-50 years ago.
As it stands now, there’s been no further attempts to revive Herbie’s racing career, and the film has been one of several that have risen and fallen, to end up in the discount bins, and used DVD stores.
Even so, the DVD release is a pretty informative one. The making-of specials offer rare insight into the film, and even the audio commentary with Angela Robinson is a fun listen.
One fun thing, was that she decided to actually keep in some ‘film flubs,’ because even in the older Herbie films, you’d ‘see the strings’ at times. One little gag included the one below, in which for a split second, you can see a person’s hand flinging a hubcap, which is meant to actually be Herbie throwing it off his wheel.
Though the film did have a soundtrack release, I was disappointed that it didn’t have any of the beach-music, syntho-score pieces done by Mark Mothersbaugh (the entire soundtrack was largely just made up of pop music, and a single by Lohan). Mark’s scores for film have often been dramatic at times, but do have some fun flourishes, such as in The LEGO Movie, and The Life Aquatic. Notable in this film, is in the final race scene, where Mark just lays on some fun energetic music, that even got me excited as the race began to wrap up.
The charm of the film definitely seems to be reveling in its ridiculousness, but also attempting to attach some heart to the piece. And in that aspect, Herbie Fully Loaded tends to rise above a lot of the more mediocre G-rated fare out there, provided you’re able to give in, sit back, and enjoy the ride.