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3 Stars Movies

Brad Bird’s The Incredibles 2 traps superheroes in motels and courtrooms

The Incredibles 2 sure went down easy when I saw it in a theater a few months ago, but it suffers on rewatch on the small screen. And needless to say, it was shortly rendered wholly obsolete by the best animated superhero movie of all time, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

While the real (and best) story is of course the Parr family’s shifting dynamic and gender roles, the surface plot doesn’t hold together. For an animated family movie about a superpowered quintet, the stakes are weirdly low, and perhaps a little too abstract for little kids to grasp. The surest giveaway that its target audience skewed slightly older than Disney/Pixar’s wheelhouse is the subplots granted to the adult parents and teenage daughter, but no material for Dash, whom I would think little kids would most identify.

Instead, most of the narrative conflict revolves around some vague business about superheroes being outlawed, which seems inconsequential when the Parr family is nevertheless allowed to operate as a black ops team under government supervision. Public sentiment never turns against them, so there’s nobody to convince that superheroes are pretty great, actually. This plot point is likely a kid-friendly response to the story arc of the Marvel superhero movies (particularly Captain America: Civil War), but how many little kids worried about Violet, Dash, and Jack-Jack’s legal status?

Rather than draw from contemporary Marvel movies for inspiration, I wish Brad Bird had instead cribbed from 1960s Marvel print comics. Forget the government or law, and instead borrow from Spider-Man the idea of a hero working for the common good even when the public distrusts him, or crib from the Fantastic Four a more cosmic setting. An adventure on an alien planet or in another dimension would be more fun than courtrooms and motels, while still allowing for the movie’s real themes: Elastigirl coming into her own, and Mr. Incredible learning to share in the nurturing and caregiving of their kids.

But of course, you can always rely on Pixar’s fine craft even when they are not at their best. The visual design and animation is superb, and the voice casting is perfection. Holly Hunter, Craig Nelson, Jonathan Banks, Samuel L. Jackson, and Sarah Vowell all fully own their characters. I just wish all of this had been in the service of a movie that would stand for generations, like the best of Disney and Pixar’s works.

Categories
5 Stars Movies

Brad Bird Steals His Own Movie in Pixar’s The Incredibles

Like writer/director Brad Bird’s Ratatouille, The Incredibles is a virtually perfect movie. Bird’s astonishing one-two punch for Pixar builds on the animation studio’s reputation for deep emotional resonance already earned by Andrew Stanton’s Finding Nemo and later reconfirmed by Wall-E. But Bird’s films add a welcome maturity that proves the medium of animation can be, at its best, truly for all ages.

Although packed with action, spectacle, and chase sequences, it’s difficult to imagine how little kids would react to such a relatively dark movie. Note the middle-aged anxiety, marital strife, and surprisingly high body count (granted, most deaths happen offscreen, but only just!). I can easily imagine most kids tuning out during the many long dramatic sequences obviously pitched at adults. Just to name one scene that might be hard for youngsters to grasp: Mr. Incredible saves a suicidal man who doesn’t want to be saved. Guest Dork Reporter Snarkbait asked her two little boy cousins what they liked best about their movie. They relate most to the character Dash, and probably selectively ignore the bits they can’t yet understand. So perhaps I’m underestimating how well the movie works on multiple levels.

Even the voice casting is so perfect, it’s impossible to imagine any others in their place. Craig T. Nelson is as perfectly suited to Mr. Incredible’s middle-aged anxieties as Tim Allen was to Buzz Lightyear’s innocent bluster in the Toy Story films. I could go on to praise every single other voice actor, but special mention must go to Holly Hunter as sassy spitfire Elastigirl, Sarah Vowell’s perfect expression of teen anxieties as (shrinking) Violet, and Brad Bird’s gut-bustingly hilarious impression of Hollywood fashion legend Edith Head as the superhero costume designer Edna Mode.

If forced to find one thing to critique, I would point to the relatively minor details of the characters’ hair. On the DVD bonus features, the Pixar animators and software engineers brag about the technologies they invented to simulate realistic hair, but none of the virtual coifs sit well upon the deliberately stylized cartoony faces. The characters have cute little dimples instead of hairy nostrils and waxy ear canals, so why give them such photorealistic hair?

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4 Stars Movies

Andrew Stanton’s Finding Nemo is childlike but not childish

Andrew Stanton’s Finding Nemo immediately preceded Pixar’s slightly more sophisticated collaborations with director Brad Bird, The Incredibles and Ratatouille. Despite being one of Pixar’s most kid-friendly films, Finding Nemo is paradoxically full of death and anxiety. But Stanton works in the proven tradition of its spiritual ancestor Bambi, which also famously features a mother’s arbitrary murder in its opening moments. Stanton keeps Finding Nemo childlike without being childish.

If I was stranded in a dentist’s office aquarium, and I could take only one of Stanton’s Pixar movies with me, I’m afraid I wouldn’t pick Finding Nemo. I found his follow-up WALL-E to be a more sophisticated film that relies less on dialog and celebrity personae.

Categories
4 Stars Movies

Think Different: WALL-E

With the delightful WALL-E, Pixar continues its as-yet unbroken winning streak of instant-classic films for all ages. From among their oeuvre, my personal tastes run toward the darker and more psychologically complex The Incredibles and Ratatouille by director Brad Bird. Andrew Stanton’s WALL-E certainly ranks among Pixar’s greatest hits, all films that will resonate decades hence with children of all ages (as the saying goes). Other studios continue to produce disposable pastiches such as Shrek and Ice Age, laden down with pop cultural references that will not age well and eventually be forgotten. While eye-popping now, perhaps some day Pixar’s animation will appear less than state-of-the art, and I do fear that one day Pixar may miscalculate and produce a critical and commercial failure. If they ever do, it will be because they lost their emphasis on storytelling craft and sense for timeless relevance.

WALL-E looks backwards in cinema history for inspiration to envision its grim distant future. WALL-E’s daily travails on an ecologically collapsed Earth resemble the desolate wastelands seen in such joyless apocalyptic downers as The Terminator and The Matrix. WALL-E is the lone survivor of his kind, dispassionately salvaging spare parts from his dead comrades. All this is potentially very scary stuff for kids, but the little guy has become charmingly eccentric over the course of his several-hundred year long mission, and his positive, can-do energy provides an amusing counterpoint to the dead world about him. Still, the themes of loneliness and environmental crisis are there for adults to plainly see and even the youngest viewers to pick up on.

Wall-E
WALL-E befriends the DustBuster3000

Long before WALL-E, the camp sci-fi classic Logan’s Run supposed a future devolved humanity, reduced to a self-sustaining infantile state. Humanity imprisoned itself for the sake of survival, but the rational was long since forgotten and the closed system no longer unnecessary. It takes the rebellion of one free spirit to wake up the whole of society to the reality outside the walls of their enclosed womb (or tomb).

WALL-E draws its ecological metaphors and even the visual design of WALL-E himself from the classic hippie science-fiction film Silent Running. The last remnants of an overpopulated Earth’s biosphere are preserved in orbiting greenhouses, until venal corporations decide they are no longer necessary and are to be demolished. But one driven botanist and his team of cute gardening droids conspire to preserve a garden of eden forever, adrift in space, but a great cost: their rebellion is a bloody, murderous one.

The last major cinematic touchstone for WALL-E is, of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The visual design of the Buy ‘n’ Large ark carrying the remnants of humanity is all about the clean, white lines of Kubrick’s space station, and none of the filthy grunge that has dominated science fiction ever since Ridley Scott’s Nostromo in Alien (but Sigourney Weaver does provide the voice of the ship’s computer, perhaps finally finding vengeance against Alien‘s evil computer M.O.T.H.E.R.). WALL-E‘s chief villain is the droid AUTO, with the single, sinisterly unblinking red eye of HAL 9000. Both are artificial intelligences that stunt the evolutionary advancing of the human race in a twisted literal reading of their programming to protect it. Deleterious overprotection is also a theme in Andrew Stanton’s Finding Nemo; the Marlon learns that his prohibitive coddling of his son prevents him from blossoming.

Wall-E
Pistol-packin’ Princess Leia-bot comin’ through!

But more than anything, WALL-E is a love story. If you think about it too much, you realize WALL-E is several hundred years old, and is thus rocking the cradle when he falls for the later model droid EVE. A pistol-packin’, short-tempered spitfire in the fine tradition of Princess Leia, EVE is so far advanced that she’s practically a different species of robot. Still, when WALL-E upends an entire society in stasis, he also awakens EVE to the joys of life.

Pixar has long had business ties to Apple, but this is the first film of theirs to make overt in-jokes. WALL-E has somehow rigged a vintage VHS cassette of Hello, Dolly! to play on an only slightly less vintage iPod. Apple’s resident industrial design genius Jonathan Ive reportedly consulted on the design of EVE. WALL-E’s startup sound is the classic Macintosh boot-up fanfare. The “evil” robot AUTO speaks with the voice of MacInTalk, the text-to-speech technology invented by Apple in the early 90s. Any one of these gags would have been cute, but taken as a whole, one suspects the Berlin wall between companies is breaking down, resulting in crass product placement.