Coco / ****

djfoeu9wsaaz-gwThere was a time, even a few years back, when I wouldn’t have missed a Pixar movie for the world. And even now, when some of the luster has come off of the studio’s once flawless sheen – maybe especially now, after the disastrous one-two punch of The Good Dinosaur and Cars 3 (which, admittedly, I didn’t even bother to see) – to see a Pixar movie is to be reminded of the fact that the studio’s work is so head and shoulders above the majority of its peers (I’m looking at you, Dreamworks and Sony Pictures Animation; Studio Ghibli, you still rock). Luckily, Coco is a move back in the right direction for the studio, getting back to so much of what Pixar is known for. And while Coco has some flaws, they’re more than outweighed by the film’s successes.

Mind you, Coco doesn’t feel like anything special or great in the early going, taking far too long to get to its central conceit, and not always successfully threading the needle between “being respectful to Mexican culture” and “overdoing it”. The setup feels a bit labored for a while, following a young boy named Miguel who wants to be a musician, despite his family’s hatred of the profession. After a lot of business involving the Day of the Dead, an iconic Mexican mariachi, and a talent show, Coco finally dives into its real world: the world of the dead, where spirits wander and live as long as someone in the physical world remembers them – but once they’re forgotten, even their ghosts die off.

Pixar animation is at its best when it’s allowed to be wild and imaginative, and the Land of the Dead is no exception; as depicted in Coco, it’s vibrant, dazzling, and absolutely wondrous, reminding you of how ambitious Pixar can be, and how astonishing their animation so often is. Truly, the opening reveal of the Land of the Dead is a jaw-dropper, and as the film dives into bureaucracies, spirit guides, outcast neighborhoods, and more, you’re reminded of what made you fall in love with Pixar movies in the first place.

And, of course, there comes the reminder that really, no other American studio can marry plot, theme, and emotional heft as seamlessly as Coco. This is a film about memory and legacy, and about how we remember and honor those who come before us. That’s weighty fare, but as usual for the studio, it’s handled skilfully, incorporated into the story in such a way that it never overwhelms the characters, but instead, underlines their own emotional battles, all while hitting home for the audience. This is a film not only about our relationship with our own ancestors, but also, our fears of being forgotten, and our worries about what we’ll leave behind – and Pixar turns it from subtext to text and back again effortlessly, just as they did at the peak of their powers.

For all of that – and there’s a lot there to love – Coco doesn’t feel as original and surprising as the best Pixar work. The plotting here is pretty obvious, with a couple of major reveals along the way telegraphed to the point of obviousness, both from their familiarity and from the way Pixar works. And that first act is a drag; one of the great things about so many of the first generation Pixar films is the way they hit the ground running, never wasting a second, while Coco feels long at times. For all of that, though, it’s a welcome return to form for the studio, and a joy as a family film, especially at a time where it feels like everything is soulless, bland, and flat.

About that Olaf short: Infamously, Coco is preceded by a Frozen short film called Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, whose reception has been blistering. Here’s what I’ll say about it: it’s fairly obvious that this was intended as a TV holiday special, and anyone who’s sat through any of them with their kids will feel that instantly – the blandness, generic feel, flat message, and “holiday” message all feel like the kind of thing you turn on during the season for the kids, while parents mainly zone out. All of which is to say, it’s not awful, like that terrible short Lava before Inside Out; it’s just bland and dull. The problem, really, is the length – while everyone enjoys shorts before Disney movies, no one wanted a 20-minute short before a movie, especially after trailers and before a short ad for Pixar. It’s certainly not good or interesting, but its crime is more in its length than anything truly memorable or bad about it.


The Lego Batman Movie / ****

cym_yo1w8aqqn_zMuch as was the case with the original Lego Movie, there was really no reason to expect The Lego Batman Movie to be any good. While Will Arnett’s gloriously absurd take on Batman was undeniably a highlight of the original film, the idea of creating a movie that revolved around him…well, let’s just say that such spin-offs don’t have the best track record. But more to the point, don’t we already have enough Batman movies? Did we really need another one?

But really, I should have remembered that I had similar doubts before seeing The Lego Movie, and was pleasantly overjoyed by that experience. And luckily, the same happened here. No, The Lego Batman Movie isn’t quite as wonderful as its predecessor – it lacks some of that film’s surprising depth and heart – but it more than makes itself worthwhile simply by being so ridiculously, wonderfully fun – an underrated virtue in modern superhero movies.

Mind you, it doesn’t hurt that The Lego Batman Movie delivers a pretty great superhero story. Playing off of the Joker/Batman dynamic in incredibly silly ways, the movie follows Joker as he finds a new way to threaten Gotham City; meanwhile, Batman finds himself questioning his life of solitude and isolation as he’s forced into working with others. Yes, in broad terms, it’s all stories you’ve seen done before…but in the hands of The Lego Batman Movie, it all feels winning and charming – and, moreover, it handles Batman in interesting ways, feeling like a bit of a tonic after years of grimdark brutality that reached its nadir with Batman v. Superman.

But, really, what’s most wonderful about The Lego Batman Movie is the sheer silliness of it all. From Batman commenting on studio logos in the opening moments, the film’s joyous, anarchic sense of humor is infectious, with a playfulness that extends to non-stop, rapid fire jokes that come both visually, audibly, and through the dialogue. Yes, a lot of them are even better if you’re a comic book fan (seriously, they go deep into the back catalog here, to some justly forgotten villains), but so often, the movie is just poking fun at itself, at its characters, at Batman continuity, at self-important superhero movies, and really, at anything. And while the movie doesn’t go quite as far meta as its predecessor does, there are still some wonderful carryover jokes – I never stopped laughing at the sound effects for guns, or the “worst villains of all time” that the film introduced. And by the time you start layering in all of the parody posters, the Hollywood in-jokes (which range from obvious to incredibly subtle – even some of the casting is based around jokes), the Airplane!-level pace to the jokes, and more, the result is genuinely hilarious. (Really, it’s hard to know who laughed more, me or my kids.)

The Lego Batman Movie isn’t groundbreaking or spectacular, the way the original Lego Movie was; it “suffers,” I guess, from a refusal to go back to the same well twice, which is admirable, but makes the movie feel a little less substantial than the original. And yet, for all of that, I wouldn’t change a bit of it; it’s an absolute blast, from beginning to end – it’s wonderfully silly, it’s inventive visually, cleverly constructed, and really, just a genuinely great family movie that’s actually fun, without ever being condescending, snarky, or aiming over the heads of kids. What else could you ask for?


The Secret Life of Pets / *** ½

the-secret-life-of-pets-poster1I’ve talked on here before about the ups and downs of having kids with regard to movie watching. You end up watching some really horrible stuff along the way (I’ve been lucky; I think Home may be the worst thing I had to suffer through, while my wife chose to take the Angry Birds Movie bullet), but you end up looking forward to the minor pleasures. And the original teaser for The Secret Life of Pets promised some of those minor pleasures: while it was nothing groundbreaking, there was something fun about just watching animals be animals, and giving them a bit of personality and dialogue to go with it.

And let me say that those elements of Pets are pretty winning throughout. Whether it’s the dialogue between two dogs about the danger of squirrels, the cat’s disdain for…well, everything, or just the odd details about pet’s perceptions of the world, The Secret Life of Pets creates a pretty fun little world, full of charming asides and nice character work. (An all-star voice cast doesn’t hurt here; Louis CK plays Max wonderfully, bringing out his regular guy, but the standout – in no surprise – is Albert Brooks as a lonely hawk torn between wanting friends and wanting to eat everything.)

What’s less exciting is the story, which feels familiar to an absurd degree. Here, see if this sounds familiar: a beloved character feels threatened by a new arrival, and becomes incredibly jealous. Due to an effort to maintain popularity, both he and the new arrival end up separated from their owner, and have to work together in order to get back. As they do so, they learn to appreciate each other, and start accepting their new shared home.

Substitute “toy” in for “dog” in this film, basically, and you have Toy Story, only done without Pixar’s usual grace and ability to bring out real emotion. Indeed, there’s one brief sequence where it seems like Pets is about to go somewhere darker and more moving, as we learn what happened to Duke’s former owner. But the scene is immediately left behind, and never followed up on, and ends up feeling like an unearned moment of pathos. (Still, it’s better than a bewildering plotline about discarded pets searching for justice after their abandonment; it’s a funny idea that never really goes anywhere, and mainly serves as an excuse for Kevin Hart to yell a lot, which gets a bit old.)

All that being said, I certainly didn’t hate Secret Life of Pets; it’s just that there’s a funnier, more enjoyable movie trapped under its generic plot and forgettable action. The derails and sidetrips along the way are winning, and some of the odd character work (particularly Jenny Slate’s arc as a lovestruck poodle trying to save Max) are genuinely fun. And if you’re seeing it with your kids, you’ll enjoy it a ton more than sitting through another friggin’ Ice Age movie, I promise you. Just don’t expect it to compete with How to Train Your Dragon, much less anything by Pixar. (And don’t even get me started on some of the dire kids movies lurking in the future of this year. For every promising-looking movie like Kubo and the Two Strings, there’s three or four versions of the painful-looking Sing to come.)


Finding Dory / **** ½

12792317_10154164942382240_2487411388686774115_oWhen you have kids, one of the secret pleasures is getting the excuse to take them to see “children’s movies” that you’re secretly wanting to see anyway, without feeling like a weird adult sitting with a bunch of children. Sure, that means you end up sitting through some Hotel Transylvania 2‘s along the way…but it also means that you get an excuse to see every new Pixar movie. And when you’re a studio that’s managed to only make two weak films out of 17 releases, that’s no small thing.

With that being said, there’s no denying that Pixar hasn’t quite been able to pack the reliable magic it once did. Setting aside the magnificent Inside Out, the studio has been turning out either sequels or less successful standalone films for a while now (maybe since 2010, when Toy Story 3 was released), and while most have been fine…well, “fine” isn’t what you tend to hope for when you see a Pixar film. They’ve been a victim of their own success, to no small degree. And let’s be honest: an over-reliance on sequels for a studio which soared with originality for so long has been a bit disappointing.

So now comes Finding Dory, another sequel. But with it also comes the return of Andrew Stanton, the man behind some of the studio’s best films (including their best, Wall-E), as well as a return to a pretty beloved original film. Add to that my personal love for Albert Brooks and Ed O’Neill (who return as Marlin and appear in a major role, respectively), and that’s a lot of good signs.

Turns out, Finding Dory deserves those good signs and then some, delivering one of the most enjoyable of all of the Pixar sequels, as well as a movie that works on its own terms, and doesn’t just rely on the original for its good will. (As much as I enjoyed Monsters University, that was definitely the case there.) More than that, though, it’s a reminder of how original Pixar is when it comes to the messages they choose to deliver. In a marketplace where most kids’ movies tell the importance of being yourself, or standing tall, not many would do what Finding Dory does: show what it’s like to live with a disability, and what it’s like to raise a child with one.

Mind you, as with all of the best Pixar movies, you could miss that message, if you so chose. Finding Dory is first and foremost a comedic adventure, and it handles both halves of that title wonderfully. Filling the world with a wide assortment of great characters and sharp gags, giving them great dialogue and interesting personalities, and imbuing every element of the world with personality and charm, Finding Dory reminds you of how, really, no other animation company can touch what Pixar does when they’re on their game. As always, the graphics are astonishing, from the texture of different fluids to the attention to detail, and it says something that you barely even notice it anymore – it’s just part of what you expect from them. No, as always, the beautiful computer work is superb, but exists to support the story, letting the characters and the world speak for themselves and come to life.

It’s that story that really makes Finding Dory work, though. One of the things that hurt some of the other Pixar sequels was their arbitrary nature. There was never a sense that Cars 2 or Monsters University were stories that had a point, or much need to be told; they were there to play around, or because the studio wanted to make a sequel. But Finding Dory feels like a story that Stanton thought about, and a lesson that fit this world, rather than being forced in. In following Dory’s journey to find her family, as well as her own past, Stanton feels like he’s deepening a character we already love, turning her comic relief beat into something more complex and ultimately a little heart-breaking.

All of that, though, doesn’t keep Finding Dory from being a blast of an adventure, and a genuinely funny one throughout. There’s some fantastic new creations, including a pair of sea lions whose personality takes what could easily be a one-note joke and just makes it work for them. (In addition, the realization of who voiced the sea lions made for a great moment for me personally, given how they represent a pretty amazing TV reunion.) And, of course, there’s Ed O’Neill as Hank, an octopus – well, technically, as Dory points out, a “septapus,” since he only has seven tentacles – who runs into Dory and becomes part of the plot. Hank’s grouchy, gruff demeanor makes him a great foil for Dory’s unquenchable optimism, and grounds her character perfectly.

Finding Dory still has some issues, and ironically, the biggest comes from its nature as a sequel: in focusing so much on Dory, it never quite knows what to do with Marlin and Nemo, who always feel like a bit of an afterthought in the film. That’s a shame, and doubly so given my aforementioned love of Albert Brooks, who’s largely wasted in the film. Indeed, many of the links to the first film end up feeling a bit thin at times, especially given how rich and detailed the new material is. And yet, if that’s the worst you can say about it, that’s not a bad thing at all. And given how funny, exciting, engaging, and fun the rest of the film is, a few bad callbacks and one wasted returning cast member…well, that’s a price I can live with.

The short: As usual, Pixar preceded its new release with a short film, this one entitled “Piper” and telling the story of a little sandpiper trying to learn how to deal with the tides. It’s an incredibly charming and simple little film, one done without any dialogue at all and relying only on some photorealistic graphics to tell its tale. It’s the perfect example of a Pixar short – funny, sweet, charming, and likable, telling a simple story simply and doing it well. It’s not the best – it’s no “Presto” or “One Man Band” – but it’s a sweet little joy. And it’s definitely not “Lava,” thank God.


Kung Fu Panda 3 / ***

mv5bmtuynzgxnjg2m15bml5banbnxkftztgwmty1ndi1nje-_v1_sx640_sy720_The Kung Fu Panda films are oddities in so many ways, stuck in a weird nether realm that keeps them from being as good as they could be, or as bad as they could be. In a lot of ways, Kung Fu Panda was emblematic of Dreamworks Animation at the time of its release. It was a company mainly known for ugly, goofy little kids films that paled in comparison to the astonishing work coming out by Pixar, and by and large, the company got little respect. When your output consisted of ShrekMadagascar, and so forth, why should it?

And then came Kung Fu Panda, which felt like the transition between Dreamworks’ old stuff and their bigger, better efforts like How to Train Your Dragon. Yes, Kung Fu Panda had a silly plot, and some cheap jokes, and whatnot. But it also had genuinely beautiful animation, a love of action that translated to fluid, interesting battles, and a reverence for martial arts beyond the superficial fighting techniques of The Karate Kid. It wasn’t a perfect movie by any means, but it was one that I liked a lot more than I expected, mainly due to that animation and beauty (especially that beautiful opening five minutes, which tells a story in a very different style).

Then came Kung Fu Panda 2, which I liked even a little more. It had a lot of the same problems as the first, but again, the animation was beautiful (with another amazing shift for a brief flashback sequence), great voice work, fluid battle sequences, and an interesting story that I thought was more compelling than people gave it credit for (guns being used to replace martial arts as a way of moving on from the past). And yet, some of the same problems remained – broad jokes, a plot that sometimes felt like a rehash of the first (Po is inadequate and viewed as a joke, he has to learn something new about himself, uses that to surprise the villain) – and a seemingly internal split between something ambitious and something broader and sillier – in other words, between new Dreamworks and old Dreamworks.

Now comes Kung Fu Panda 3, and if you’re wondering why I spent so much time in this review talking about the old movies, well, it’s because everything I’ve said about the first two once again applies. Once again, the animation is beautiful, the action well-choreographed and better than the genre demands. Once again, there’s some amazing sequences that change up the style to masterful effect, this time echoing ancient Chinese scrolls. Once again, there’s hints at something deeper and more thoughtful. Once again, there’s an overqualified voice cast, this time adding in Bryan Cranston as Poe’s father and J.K. Simmons as the villain. And once again, it’s the same story. Poe is viewed as inadequate; he has a new skill to learn; he nearly doesn’t; he learns it within himself; he saves the day with these new powers.

It’s frustrating, because there are moments of Kung Fu Panda 3 where you can see the really great movie that could have been…and then there’s another cheap joke, another wacky moment that undercuts it. But more damning is the fact that this is the third movie in the series, and it’s doing everything the first one did, with no signs of changing.

I didn’t hate this movie at all – not by a long shot. It’s too beautiful, too well made, and really, too entertaining. But it’s disappointing to see something that could be something really wonderful, something that would allow Dreamworks to really evolve, and see it crippled by the same things that I hate about bad kids movies, and the same things I’ve hated about this series from the beginning. It remains, three movies in, a weirdly bifurcated film, part martial arts family story, part broad kids comedy, and it still hasn’t figured out what it wants to be. And when the message of this series is, as it’s always been, “Be Yourself”…well, that’s cruelly ironic.


Zootopia / ****

zootopia-movie-posterThe first teaser trailer for Zootopia  was greeted with a lot of puzzlement. It was an ad that focused on the film’s basic setup: a world exactly like ours, but filled with anthropomorphic animals. For many people, the whole idea of an ad focused on that seemed ridiculous – isn’t that the premise of half of Disney’s films anyway? It’s not like such an idea was wholly new or original. So why focus on that in your teaser?

Because, as it turns out, that’s not just the basic idea of Zootopia; it’s, in many ways, the basis for the film’s thematic depth. Because when the teaser tells you that it’s just like our world, that’s an important detail – it is just like our world, down to the racism, prejudice, uneasy relationships with the police, and so much more. Zootopia may be just a movie about anthropomorphic animals, but it’s also a parable about prejudice and judgment, and the way we assume so much about people based off of their looks.

I had heard a bit to that effect by the time I finally saw Zootopia, but even knowing it, I was a bit surprised by how thoughtful the film was with its metaphor. Now, to be sure, it doesn’t always work entirely; while the film often features characters judging each other based off of their species (foxes are untrustworthy and deceptive, rabbits are cute and stupid), it also ends up sorting everyone into broader categories of predator and prey, which ends up jumbling up the metaphor a bit more than it needs to be. And yet, even so, there’s more substance to the film than I expected, as characters deal with their own assumptions, discuss how their lives are often shaped by the prejudice they face on a daily basis, and even debate the reality that judgment and racism exists even in a modern world when we pretend it doesn’t.

Here’s what I didn’t know about Zootopia going into it: that it’s basically a cop movie, through and through. Not only is it a cop movie, it’s one based on all kinds of hoary old chestnuts: a rookie, overzealous cop; a rough, demanding supervisor; a streetwise partner (this one a criminal, which is straight out of 48 Hours)…it’s all kinds of things you’ve seen before, but put into a kids’ animated film. And yet, it all works pretty well, spinning a surprisingly interesting story that unfolds in unexpected ways, and delivering a kids movie that’s got a more complex story than most – for better and for worse. (That is, it’s mostly for the better if you’re a parent or an older kid; for the worse if you’ve got a younger kid, who’s going to get a little bored during some of the more expositional sequences.) In other words, it’s generally just a better movie than I expected it to be – then again, given that all I expected was a bunch of terrible puns like “Trader Yak’s” and things like that (which, to be fair, are still there aplenty), that’s not saying too much.

In general, then, there’s a lot to recommend about Zootopia. It’s more ambitious than it needs to be, and more thoughtful, and both of those are always a plus in my book. No, it doesn’t always work, and it goes on a little too long; while I like the third act and the direction in which the film goes, it still feels a little too long, a little stretched thin. And while the shoehorned pop culture references aren’t overwhelming, they’re still there, and still pretty painful, especially when it comes to a pop singer everyone’s obsessed with. So, yes, it’s uneven, and flawed. But it’s also more thoughtful, complex, insightful, and (though I hate using this word) important than you would have any reason to assume. I mean, who assumes that a Disney film would be dedicated to exploring racism and prejudice? And that, as much as anything else, makes it a film that’s well worth taking your kids to.


The Good Dinosaur / *** ½

The_Good_Dinosaur_UK_PosterLet’s get this out of the way: The Good Dinosaur is absolutely, unquestionably astonishing to look at. Even with a company that’s so often pushed the boundaries of computer animation, The Good Dinosaur is absolutely phenomenal work, creating a landscape that’s nearly indistinguishable from reality, a river that’s photorealistic, and does so while making the beauty as much a part of the film as anything else. Now, if only the script was anywhere near as ready. It’s not that The Good Dinosaur is ever actively bad, per se; to date, Pixar’s only made one truly bad film (Cars 2). But excepting that one failure, it’s hard to argue that The Good Dinosaur is their weakest, most disappointing effort. The story never feels organic or coherent; instead, it feels like a slew of disconnected scenes sort of tied together, with a protagonist who only lurches among them because the script demands it. The film’s villains feel like an afterthought, the supporting cast bland (with the exception of Sam Elliott, but that’s really only because of Elliott’s presence, not the character), many of the sequences dull. Worse than that, it’s heavy-handed and didactic, hammering the same points again and again with blunt dialogue instead of relying on imagery and more indirect means like Pixar does when it’s at the top of its game (Inside Out being the most recent and obvious example). It’s just sort of an overstuffed, rambling mess, and while it never quite got bad enough to be a complete failure, it still gets frustrating – especially because it’s still capable of some great sequences that are as good as anything Pixar’s done (there’s a nighttime conversation about family that’s beautiful and done without more than a word or two of dialogue). If you want a longer, more fleshed out review of the film that both nails its weaknesses and admits its strengths, I can’t recommend Tasha Robinson’s great piece enough; the short version, though, is that it’s a Franken-script made up of lots of good moments than never coalesce into a satisfying, or even good, whole. (That all being said, the short “Sanjay’s Super Team” beforehand, which tells the story of a young Hindu boy’s daydreams while his father prays? Absolutely loved it – imaginative, stylish, and fun. More than made up for “Lava”.) 3andhalf