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ParaNorman

Animation is for children. At least, this is what some adults will try to have you believe. Current Disney CEO Bob Chapek is one such adult, which may partially explain why the world is in the midst of a live-action-remake-renaissance. The fine folks over at PIXAR Animation Studios have never held such a belief, knowing that children can handle most of what life can throw at them and that’s there no use hiding them from reality. The same is true of Laika Studios, whose 2009 classic Coraline delighted and terrified audiences of all ages. It was the very first film they’d produced for themselves, having assisted on other projects like The Corpse Bride, but it wouldn’t be their final forray into the world of horror. 3 years later came ParaNorman, which is often overshadowed by it’s predecessor but is no less creative.

The story follows 11 year old Norman, who has the unique ability to see and speak to ghosts, as he attempts to stop a 300 year old witches curse from destroying his town. The curse, which until recently had been held at bay by a crazed hermit, brings back to life the seven jurors who sentenced the witch to death as well as the spirit of the witch herself. Along the way, he is assisted by his older sister Courtney, school bully Alvin, best friend Neil and Neils older brother Mitch. It’s a simpler plot than Coraline but the characters and their dynamics are just as interesting. There’s the classic sibling rivalry betwween Norman and Courtney which also exists between Neil and Mitch, whilst Alvin finds himself clinging to the group out of fear. Courtney’s infatuation with Mitch is especially fun to witness, particularly on a rewatch with the knowledge that Mitch is gay.

The plot never makes a big deal out of that fact. It isn’t a running thread throughout themovie and, when revealed, isn’t given an aura that demands praise. It’s just part of who he is and comes up naturally, which is how it should be. Gay people are more than just their sexuality, which is something that Laika continues to understand. Their following three films would include gay characters, both in the background and the foreground, but there was never a massive deal made about them. Disney has been expecially bad for using gay characters as a marketing gimmick but the fail to grasp that this community isn’t demanding attention. The goal is simply to be included because that’s how it is in reality. The LGBT community only seems loud because it fights so hard to exist without prosecution, which is only getting more difficult by the year. Characters like Mitch normalise a community that has been seen as “other” for decades and help children to realise that, not only are there gay people, but that it’s ok to be gay yourself. It breeds a more open and loving ideollogy in children who see it and provides hope for a netter tomorrow for the community. Mitch was the first gay character in a “children’s” movie and he remains one of the best examples of how such a character can be handeled.

The most interesting development in ParaNorman occurs as act three begins. The seven undead jurors are not the steotypical undead, but are instead victims of the witches curse who wish to be set free. The overall message here is to not jusge a book by its cover but this only works because the idea of a “zombie” is so ingrained in popular culture…which is fascinating. It’s an idea embeded so deep withing society that this tweist works regardless of the age of the viewer and it only works better as time goes on. The zombie genre has seen a surge in popularity over the last decade propelled, in part, by the success of shows like The Walking Dead (a show which ironically will not die). However it also means that subverting the expectation of brain-hungry zomnies is not as unique as it once was, having been used in films like Warm Bodies and Life After Beth. ParaNorman was one of the originators and, considering how well they pulled it off, it’s no wonder it stuck around.

It’s also a remarkable homage to the B Movies of old. The opening scene is an in-universe B Movie which perfectly sends up the hoaky acting, simple sets and bright colours. This homage continues throughout the film itself. Laika’s signature stop-motion animation comes across on screen as more jagged and slow in movement, providing a slightly uneasy feel akin to the low frame rates of early cinema. There’s also a lighter tone than something like Coraline, although it still has its dark moments. The eventual reveal of the witches identity is as heartbreaking in terms of narrative as it is in terms of historical accuracy. There is also a direct link between the witch, the hermit and Norman which is never stated outright but is evident enough from context clues. It feels that a link like that would be directly adressed in a film today, but again ParaNorman refuses to talk down to its audience.

Despite the admiration the creative team clearly have for the horror genre and the admiration audiences should hold for their creative process, ParaNorman remains second fiddle to Coraline.This is likely down to its simplicity and lack of emotional weight in comparrison, but that doesn’t make it a lesser film. ParaNorman has enough charm, humour and stly to stick around in the public conciousness…even garnering a 4K remaster for its tenth anniversary. There is plenty of room for both and they make a spectacular double bill, with Coraline serving as the major scare and ParaNorman acting as a semi-palette cleanser. Both feature a suitably spooky aesthetic and are sure to entertain.

ParaNorman is fun for the whole family.

And, incidentally, a Happy Halloween to you at home!

Featured

Pinocchio (2022)

There should always be a core reason for remaking classic media. The Wizard of Oz (1925) was the first adaptation of that story with sound while Ocean’s 11 (2001) gave the story more action and a larger scale. Even Dumbo (2018), another of Disney’s Live-Action Remakes, expanded the original plot past its conclusion. Pinocchio (2022), on the other hand, seems to exist purely to absolve the main character of any flaws.

Disney’s original telling of this tale in 1940 has, admittedly, not aged well. The age-old racist stereotype of the chain-smoking Native American gets a look-in while the child selling aspect is a bit intense. Honest John even sings about how “gay” an actor’s life can be which has different connotations these days. There are sultry puppets, evil whales, and minors drinking but Disney has brought this story into the 21st century by ignoring all that. It’s as safe and squeaky clean as stories can be. It’s so clean that Disney appears to have forgotten to give the story any morals.

1940 Pinocchio is a mischievous little scamp. No sooner is he born than he’s directly disobeying his father in the pursuit of becoming an actor. When he escapes the abuse of that life choice, he becomes enticed by an island with no rules and plenty of alcohol. He only leaves that island out of fear, with his first act of true selflessness being the rescue of Gepetto. 2022 Pinocchio goes through the same plot beats, but in a way that fully absolves him of any blame. He only becomes an actor after he is kicked out of school and he only goes to the island because he’s been kidnapped. By the time he rescues Gepetto, there is no question that he is pure of heart because he’s never been anything else. The same character assassination happens to Jiminy Cricket who once became a conscience to gain a medal. Here, he’s imprisoned in a glass for half the plot so that Pinocchio’s actions can’t be pinned on him either.

The morals of “a lie will grow until it’s as obvious as the nose on your face” and “actions have consequences that are sometimes dire” have totally vanished. Pinocchio (2022) would like the audience to know that lying is bad and that bad things can happen to good people but it will probably work out in the end.

The best decision made for this story is to give it a more cohesive plot. It no longer feels like 3 separate stories that happen in quick succession but like a series of events that lead to each other. However, it also adds backstory for Gepetto which may have been present in the source material but comes across here as forced. 1940 Gepetto wasn’t the most fleshed-out character but he was clearly lonely and longing for a family. So many pieces of current media feel the need to spell everything out for the audience as if they’re too dumb to figure it out from the subtext themselves. There can’t be any ambiguity about a character’s past or how they feel, despite mystery sometimes being a key part of their personality. Just because the audience knows more about a character, doesn’t mean they’re more likely to care.

It would be nice to say that the CGI is impressive and worth sticking around for but that isn’t the case. It’s at its most creative when Pinocchio reaches the island and embarks on a theme park ride through all the attractions it has. It’s whimsical and colourful but it’s the only part of the film to which this sentiment applies. Pinocchio feels hollow, like a tree that’s had its center removed.

Sure, the tree is still there but it no longer benefits the world it exists in.

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Pinocchio (1940)

Disney profiting from IP they didn’t create is nothing new. In fact, it’s been baked into the company’s DNA since its conception in 1923. The earliest feature-length films produced by the company were all based on pre-existing stories like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty but only one would provide the iconic Disney Theme. 1940’s Pinocchio gave the world When You Wish Upon A Star which has become a staple of the company since then, although the film itself is just as memorable.

When Italian carpenter Gepetto wishes that his latest project, a wooden marionette, could be a real boy, he gets what he wants. The Blue Fairy provides the boy with life and bestows upon a homeless cricket named Jiminy the role of his conscience until he grows one of his own. Over the course of 90 minutes, Pinocchio gets swept up in an acting gig, a plot to turn young boys into donkeys, and a fight against a giant whale to save his father. Everyone he meets wants to use him for their own ends so, even if he never said a word, he’d still be a sympathetic character. Even his trusted Jiminy seems to only want the job initially because The Blue Fairy promised him a gold medal, although he goes above and beyond the call of duty as the story progresses. Even when he contemplates it, he never leaves “Pinoke” to his fate.

Everyone in this story is at least a little bit terrible, which makes them come across as more human than the perfect characters of modern Disney. The nicest individual seems to be Gepetto but he has a very one-track mind, only focusing on the son he wishes he could have. His poor kitten Figaro ends up pushed to the side most of the time but he still somehow ends up in the whale with him. The Blue Fairy, though not malicious, is still placing an absurd amount of undeserved faith in Jiminy Cricket who is in the role for only a few moments before Pinocchio manages to set his hand on fire. Even Pinoke himself is quite selfish, only abandoning that attitude in the final 15 minutes when he is required by the story to learn his lesson. Not that this justifies the trauma he goes through.

First comes the anthropomorphic fox “Honest” John and his mute, feline friend Gideon, who sell Pinocchio to the selfish puppeteer Stromboli. There is no explanation as to why they are the only anthropomorphic animals, but if one had to guess then it would seem that certain animators wanted it that way. After The Blue Fairy helps Pinocchio escape the cage Stromboli had locked him in, our protagonist is immediately found and sold by Honest John again. Although, this time, it’s to a Coachman who lures boys to an island without rules so he can turn them into donkeys and sell them. No explanation for these circumstances or the logistics of it but it’s still a horrific segment to sit through. Then Pinoke and Jiminy return home to discover that Gepetto is trapped in a whale and they embark on a mission to save him that nearly kills them. You’ll never find out how or why Gepetto got there either. This plot is a bombardment on the brain and because of that, it’s oddly gripping. It’s just one befuddling circumstance after another. It’s made more intense with the context of this occurring over a couple of days.

Pinocchio has not aged well,. There are numerous shots of people’s rear ends, Jiminy is relentlessly interested in those rear ends and there are some “of the time” depictions of minority groups. The song I’ve Got No Strings on Me is primarily sung to Pinocchio by female marionettes with pronounced busts and sultry intentions, which oddly isn’t as well remembered as the song itself. Then there’s Stromboli who can perhaps best be described as Jew-coded and The Island which features a solid 15 minutes of underage drinking, smoking, and an unflattering Native American statue. The phrase “you couldn’t make that these days” gets thrown around too much but this is the first one I’ve seen where most of it would have to be cut or altered drastically.

As with all fairy tales, Pinocchio has a moral…in this case several. The iconic scene of his nose growing as he lies (which only occurs once?!) is about how lies can grow until they’re as obvious as the nose on your face. The point of The Island is that partaking in “debaucherous” activities like smoking and drinking makes you look like a fool. Even the idea of Jiminy receiving a medal for his work reinforces the idea that good morals are rewarded. One might say it’s very on the nose (teehee) but fairy tales usually are. Arguably, having traumatic events transpire as part of the plot should further reinforce these morals but whether it worked or not is uncertain. Many people only seem to recall the donkey transformation scene and it’s not exactly one of Disney’s most re-watched classics as far as I can tell.

Pinocchio is the perfect film to watch with friends. It provides plenty of shared laughs and shocks as well as the opportunity for riffing jokes. It’s also a good reminder of how much (most) of society has come in terms of “othering” and how utterly gorgeous 2D animation is. Despite being drawings on a page, they are filled with so much life and can be classed as pieces of art in their own right. This can’t be said for the “live-action” remake but that’s a story for another day.

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Lightyear

Science fiction is an amazing genre. You can be anyone, anywhere at any time doing anything, with the only actual limit being your imagination. The realm of animation is the same and perhaps nobody knows that better than PIXAR Animation Studios. Their first feature film – 1995s Toy Story – is a landmark of cinema and they continued to push the boundaries of possibility with films like 2002s Monsters Inc and 2003s Finding Nemo. Today, Toy Story remains one of their most profitable IPs with 3 sequels and numerous shorts but clearly, they’re not done yet. Their most recent release is the first one to hit cinema since 2020s Onward, thanks to the COVID Pandemic, and it’s a wonderful return.

Lightyear sees Space Range Buzz Lightyear marooned on a distant planet with entire spaceships worth of people, determined to get them home. To do so he must perfect the formula for a hyperspace crystal and battle an armada of robots led by the mysterious Zurg with the assistance of several not-quite-rookies. The trailers may imply that this is an action blockbuster akin to the later Star Wars films but it has more in common with the 1977 original. There’s action, but it’s more focused on the main character and his journey, both across the barren landscape and emotionally. Chris Evans slides seamlessly into the role made famous by Tim Allen without ever feeling like a stand-in or replacement. The other characters can be fun too, especially the Hawthornes and Sox but Mo and Darby can often feel a little one-note.

The film is filled to the brim with references and homage. It may not be to everyone’s taste, especially if you dislike things feeling too meta, but others are sure to get a kick out of it. For sci-fi fans, there are plenty of recognisable callbacks to some of the finest films ever produced in the genre. There are elements of  2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, and Alien that aren’t difficult to find with Lost in space being especially prevalent. There are plenty of nods for Toy Story fans too. A large amount of the dialogue is lifted directly from Buzz’s lines in the first two Toy Story installments without ever feeling forced or out of place. Even a few of the camera shots are direct parallels from previous movies, particularly the iconic scene of Buzz landing on Andy’s bed.

Tying it all together is the majestic score from Michael Giacchino who is one of the finest composers currently working in the industry. This marks his 8th collaboration with PIXAR and he continues to bring something new to everything he writes. The Incredibles was perfectly heroic. Ratatouille was suitably quaint and Lightyear aptly provides the space-traveler feel. It helps this to feel like the kind of movie that would inspire a TV show like Buzz Lightyear of Star Command.

A TV show that actually happened, aired on the Disney Channel, and never got a proper release after the fact. It deserves to be released DISNEY.

As previously mentioned, it won’t be for everyone. Some may find it slightly derivative of other sci-fi stories or may find that it doesn’t hit as hard emotionally as other PIXAR productions but it never feels like it set out to do these things. It exists to tell an entertaining story with some amazing visuals and it does that. As “kids’ first sci-fi” it’s brilliant, introducing a wide variety of concepts and explaining them simply. It feels like a love letter to the genre and the realm of animation.

It doesn’t go to infinity or beyond but it’s still worth travelling to see.

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Chip N’ Dale: Rescue Rangers

Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a masterpiece. Its visual storytelling makes the world feel lived in while the blending of 2D animation and real actors set the gold standard for pulling off such integration. With a lead performance from the grizzled yet charming Bob Hoskins and a child-scarring turn from Christopher Lloyd, it’s also a masterclass in acting. It deserves an article of its own but the main point is that it continues to serve as a love letter to the medium of animation, even after 34 years. Disney’s latest attempt to recapture that magic is the IP-laden Chip N’ Dale: Rescue Rangers.

The plot sees the iconic chipmunks living their everyday lives after the cancellation of their hit TV series in 1990. Despite no longer being on speaking terms, they must cooperate to retrieve their old friend Montgomery Jack from the clutches of the bootlegging Sweet Pete. The story isn’t reliant on the original show, meaning that it’s easily accessible to everyone. Die-hard fans may pick up some extra references but it doesn’t make or break the viewing experience. The cast does a wonderful job of portraying these characters, especially John Mulaney and Andy Samberg as Chip and Dale respectively. They’re easy-going, down to Earth, and bounce off each other expertly. Their voices also do a brilliant job of distinguishing between “Chip N’ Dale: TV Characters” and “Chip N’ Dale: Actors”, although those original high-pitched voices still get their moment to shine. These classic tones are provided by returning voice actors Tress McNeille and Corey Burton, who are just some of the returning voice talent.

As an IP-packed project, there are plenty of voices required. Each frame is packed with Disney characters, old and new, many of whom are portrayed by their original voice actors. Considering the preference for hiring celebrities in years (a trend started by Disney’s Aladdin) it’s nice to hear so many of them again. Among them are the legendary Jim Cummings and Alan Oppenheimer (best known for Winnie the Pooh and Skeletor respectively). It would be easy to praise Disney for this move, but it was likely the cheapest option.

Rescue Rangers‘ biggest flaw is that it’s a modern-day Disney production. The relentless cameos, references, and occasionally cringe-inducing humour makes it feel like a corporate product. It doesn’t feel like a love letter, it feels like a victory lap for a monopolistic company. The most entertaining aspect of these cameos is how likely they are to catch the audience off guard, particularly the blue one, but they don’t feel like they belong in this world. A large part of this is the variance in animation styles that don’t gel with each other. The PIXAR-esque characters are especially jarring, although it is amusing that there isn’t a single official PIXAR character to be found here. By far the worst aspect is how the film, and the company, treat beloved childhood icon, Peter Pan.

Now an adult, Peter goes by the moniker of Sweet Pete and he is anything but sweet. As the film’s primary antagonist, he is responsible for major kidnapping toons and altering their appearance to star in bootleg movies. This Peter was hired to portray his signature role as a child but was cast aside by the industry the moment he aged out of it. There’s a solid message here about how poorly child actors were, and occasionally still are, treated but it loses all value when it’s being told by a company notorious for doing this. Bobby Driscoll, the real child voice actor of [1957] Peter Pan was cast aside by Disney, then by the industry. He fell into substance abuse and passed away in an abandoned house at the age of 31. This iteration of Pete feels like an insult to his memory.

Chip N’ Dale: Rescue Rangers has all the vibes of a fun kids’ film. The Voice Actors do a wonderful job of capturing the heart of the characters and JK Simmons is excellent as the chief of police. Fans may get a kick out of it but the film’s biggest flaw is that it feels like a product. It’s self-aware, but not enough to demand you actually hold Disney accountable for the monopoly of IP it’s flaunting here. It may have some sweet moments but it leaves a sour aftertaste.

It’s more Ready Player One than Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

The Adventures of Wallace and Gromit

*Initially written for the Autumn & Winter 2021/2022 issue of UnDividing Lines*

A Grand Day Out

I adore animation. Whether done by shading Cels, on the computer or using puppets, I am hooked. But the most love is reserved for stop-motion. It takes an absurd amount of time and patience to bring a world to life through these means, and a prime example of this is British animator Nick Park. The first project to feature his most iconic duo, lovable goofball Wallace and his trusty dog Gromit, began production in 1982 whilst Park was still in college. It would take 7 years and several monetary assists from industry professionals before A Grand Day Out finally made it onto television sets across the UK and, finally, the world.

The plot sees the plasticine man and his companion embarking on a holiday to The Moon because it’s made of cheese, which they adore. This involves building a rocket ship in their basement and staying out of the clutches of a lunar robot that yearns to come to Earth. The simplicity of the plot and models provide a “homemade” feeling that is primed for feelings of nostalgia. At half an hour in length, this short manages to feel leisurely without ever feeling boring. The primary focus is always on the story and the animation.

The craftsmanship continues to astound. Wallace’s shoes and Gromits nose are both black plastic, as opposed to plasticine, which gives them a shine whilst the flames made of paper give a better impression of free-flowing gas than a solid ever could. Meanwhile, the backgrounds and several shots of the rocket are beautifully coloured pencil drawings, like some low-budget Ralph McQuarrie art. This allows for a large scale whilst also providing that “homely” aesthetic.

All three of the characters are inherently likable. Wallace is the only character with dialogue, which is provided by the always warm voice of the late Peter Sallis. His gentle voice is matched well with the mannerisms of the character, like his signature handshaking. Gromit’s communication is all in the eyebrows and there isn’t a single point where his feelings are unclear. His primary emotion is one of exacerbation with the hapless Wallace but it’s never malicious, only ever out of love. The robot is portrayed solely through exaggerated movement. It’s like watching an old Charlie Chaplin sketch, or a pantomime, and those feel homely too.

The Wrong Trousers

Created in less time than its predecessor, The Wrong Trousers is a more high-end production. The character designs are more refined with cleaner edges, as is the audio. There are also several more locations than just The Sitting Room, The Basement, and The Moon. Here there is an entire house, a park, several streets, and a museum but this doesn’t make the short film feel like a large-scale production. A lot of the “homely” feel is maintained through backgrounds and never overcrowding the sets, as well as the emotional core of the plot.

Wallace is renting his spare room to a penguin named Feathers McGraw who turns out to be a criminal intent on stealing a large diamond from the local museum. During his scheme, Feathers isolates Gromit from his friend and steals the titular electronic trousers which can walk on any service. The tone of The Wrong Trousers is modeled after classic melodramatic thrillers like “Dial M for Murder” and does the genre a great justice. Without ever uttering a single sound, Feathers is one of the most terrifying villains ever put to screen. His complete silence assists in his mysterious anonymity, but the beady black eyes are also doing a lot of work. The choice to give him these eyes has robbed him of any humanity.

The plot’s tension is heightened by Julian Nott’s superb score which is a work of art in its own right. His work is featured in every Wallace and Gromit feature but it is particularly good here. It does well during the quiet moments, like Gromit running away from home, but it shines during the climactic face-off. This final setpiece is a classic race across a train rooftop to capture the villain, but the train is only a miniature. Feathers is wedged into the train cabin whilst Gromit is clinging desperately around one of the carriages. Wallace is…being Wallace. As the chase continues, the train becomes detached and Gromit must lay tracks ahead of himself at a rapid pace. To convey this much speed through stop-motion is an astounding feat, even if it does raise several questions about the layout of their house.

A Close Shave

For a long time, this was the last of the Wallace and Gromit shorts, but it was the first to do many things. It was the first to be presented in 16:9 instead of 4:3 which was the standard for all televisions until the 1990s, which mirrors its more cinematic plotline. It’s the first time that the duo are shown to have jobs, specifically as window cleaners, having previously been an inventor and a dog. It’s the first time that Wallace is given a romantic interest in the form of wool shop owner Wendoline voiced by the amazing Anne Reid. Lastly, this is the first time that a character will receive their own spin-off show, in the form of Shaun the Sheep which began airing in 2007.

This time, the lads find themselves in the care of an escaped lamb which Wallace names Shaun, throwing them into a sinister plot featuring wool and canned dog food. This short perfectly evokes the feeling of classic Horror B-Movies in the story, tone, and score. Much like Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End), the Wallace and Gromit shorts take the opportunity to dabble in different genres, and this allows them to stay fresh.

What A Close Shave does particularly well is comedy. There’s comedy across all these shorts and it always lands, but the humour here is particularly good. Gromit’s continued obliteration of the fourth wall and the running gag about porridge are magnificent. There’s also a lovely parody of the initiation sequence from classic TV Show Thunderbirds that hits that feeling of childhood nostalgia every time. That really sums up these first 3 shorts perfectly – nostalgic.

A Matter of Loaf and Death

In the 13 years between the last short and this one, Aardman Animation Studios had exploded in popularity. Their first feature-length films Chicken Run and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit were both smash hits with audiences, while Flushed Away was less popular but gained a small following. This learned experience is present in A Matter of Loaf and Death. It feels like the larger world shown in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit than the couple of streets from the original shorts, but that warmth and love are still there.

Wallace and Gromit now run a successful bakery, but their job security and lives are threatened by the arrival of Wallace’s new love interest Piella, and Gromit’s first love interest: a poodle named Fluffles. The closer these lovebirds become, the more Gromit unearths about a sinister spree of baker-specific murders. It isn’t difficult to decipher who the murderer is and, considering the runtime, that’s a good thing. It allows for the suspense to build from almost the very beginning of the plot and allows sympathy for Gromit to begin in earnest. Gromit is the real hero of this tale, although he usually is.

This installment is a beautifully written love letter to the fans. Nick Park has said that he made this one primarily for the British fans who helped launch his career, and that’s clear to see. Gromit owns a Bagpuss plush toy, there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Feathers McGraw’s wanted poster and the story itself would fit right in with the writings of Agatha Christie. There are also several not-so-subtle references to pop culture, including a parody of the clay-moulding scene from Ghost and the attempt to get rid of a bomb ripped straight from Batman: The Movie. Often references like this can feel out of place, like an attempt to capitalise on what’s popular, but that isn’t the case here. They come across as fun Easter Eggs for the viewer instead of stand-out declarations that they know about that thing you like.

This would not be the duo’s final outing. They appeared in educational TV Show Wallace and Gromit’s World of Invention (which demonstrates exactly what the title suggests), the Telltale video game series Wallace and Gromit’s Grand Adventures, and have made the jump to VR with Wallace and Gromit: The Big Fix-Up. However, if more shorts are made, this would be the last to feature Peter Sallis who passed away in 2017. That alone makes A Matter of Loaf and Death special. Voice actor Ben Whitehead has taken over the role of Wallace, filling the character with as much charm and joy as ever, and future shorts are a possibility according to Nick Park. If 4 was it, that would be a shame, but it wouldn’t be a tragedy.

Wallace, Gromit, and all their pals are a lot like The Muppets – individuals with their own lives. What we see is just what happens when the cameras are rolling and something is comforting about that.

Signed Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Turning Red

*Dedicated to my mother, still around and still loved. Thanks for raising me.*

PIXAR Studios has always pushed for innovation. It is the leading company in CGI feature films and has been since its establishment in 1986. It led the way in animating hair, developed new codes for reflection, and has spent the last 7 years pushing for diversity in animation. This diversity is present both on-screen and behind the scenes, whether it’s people of colour or members of the LGBT+ community. This is why it’s no surprise that their 25th feature film Turning Red is a culmination of all this.

The plot sees newly 13-year old Chinese-Canadian Meilin “Mei” Lee struggle with a newfound power – namely that any strong emotion will cause her to transform into a Giant Red Panda. Along with her 3 best friends Miriam, Abby, and Priya, she seeks to exploit this ability to raise money for tickets to see her favourite boyband 4*Town, behind her family’s back. Even if it wasn’t tactfully handling representation, the story itself is brilliant. It’s an open and honest discussion about adolescence, maturity, and generational trauma. As a newly transformed Mei hides from her mother in the bathroom, their lines of communication cross, and her mother thinks that Mei is finally getting her period. The period isn’t the punchline here, the lack of communication is, with the period itself being treated as normal. It’s an inevitability that her mother has prepared for and is more than willing to help her through. Her mother isn’t antagonistic here, or really anywhere in the story, because the real antagonist is the friction caused in relationships by children growing up.

Mei’s friends are also a great example of this. They all love her but lament her lack of freedom. They don’t resent Mei or her parents for it, they just wish they could spend more time with their friend. This is especially true of Miriam, whose tomboyish looks and particular fixation on Mei lead me to wonder if this is the LGBT+ representation that Disney won’t allow PIXAR to put in their films. On top of this is the portrayal of all 4 girls and to a larger extent their classmates, who are all a little bit cringeworthy. This is as it should be because all 13-year-olds are and that’s not a bad thing it’s just a natural part of growing up. All the children remain likable, even the class bully Tyler who clearly just craves the attention he lacks elsewhere in his life.

The largest story beat is about family. Turning Red shows how parenting styles can affect children of all ages and how the number of siblings can affect parenting too. Mei is extremely close with her mother, even as she begins hiding aspects of her life from her. It’s clear that growing up doesn’t have to mean growing apart and that, even as children get older they can have a fraught but loving relationship with their parents. The relationship between Mei’s mother and Mei’s grandmother is just as important to the plot as the one between Mei and her mother. Mei’s mother was equally shaped by her upbringing, down to her dislike of boybands and their gyrations.

Every boyband parody in the last 20 years has taken inspiration from the boyband craze of the 1990s- specifically N*Sync and Backstreet Boys. Turning Red does this but it also incorporates aspects from the 2 decades since then. There’s a little bit of JLS and a little bit of BTS which helps this slightly tired cliche feel new and timeless. Most of the higher-ups on this project were young teenage girls in 2002 when this film is set, and it shows but the most astounding aspect to me is the animation. The anime influence is everpresent in the comically exaggerated facial features and action shots that look like they’re fresh from the pages of a manga. There’s a lot of classic Chinese influence in there too, which again provides that blend of old and new.

Turning Red may be the latest in a long line of films centered on human (or human-like) characters but it feels like classic PIXAR. It provides nostalgia for a year I’m too young to remember and a lifestyle that I never lived.

It feels like home.

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Home Alone 3

Franchises should take risks. The inevitability of mediocrity looms large, and every franchise ever created is an example of how to keep audiences engaged. The Fast and Furious films pivoted from being serious and character-driven to over-the-top heist movies. Doctor Who recasts the show, including production teams, every few years. So how do sequels the beloved Christmas classic Home Alone go about this? The original, about young Kevin McCallister protecting his house from 2 bumbling criminals, is small-scale whilst the sequel, Lost in New York, turns the tables by having them face off again in a larger location that neither side know well. The third installment… is a James Bond film.

Home Alone 3 had initially been pitched as a direct successor to Lost in New York and was due to be produced at the same time, however, this idea never came to fruition. A second pitch was concocted in the mid-1990s and would see a teenage Kevin once again defending his home from Harry and Marv but Macauly Culkin had retired from acting after 1994’s Richie Rich. This was, in large part, due to issues surrounding his family, career, and earnings. His father had been abusive, forcing Macauly into acting at a young age and, although he found himself enjoying it, he soon grew tired of it. On top of this, he was being kept from his financial earnings, although that was easily rectified with Macauly removing his parents’ names from his Trust Fund and hiring an executor. Simultaneously, a court battle was taking place between the Culkin parents, who had never married, over the custody of their children. None of this would prevent 20th Century Fox from plowing ahead with the Home Alone 3 which was finally released in 1997.

The story follows 8-year-old Alex Pruitt who is left home by himself with chickenpox while his siblings go to school and his parents work. He finds himself in possession of a remote-controlled car that contains a $10 million military missile-cloaking microchip which is being hunted down by an infamous terrorist organisation. 4 members in particular conspicuously move into Alex’s street to systematically check each house on the block, however, Alex keeps track of them and is constantly calling the police. At its centre, this is a spin on The Boy Who Cried Wolf but it never fully follows through on this premise, with Alex eventually catching the criminals and being hailed as a hero.

What’s interesting is this film’s relationship with the original Home Alone as it’s left unclear as to whether or not this takes place in the same continuity. The previous events and characters are never mentioned but the Pruitt’s house is in the same Chicago suburbs as the McCallisters. It’s a clever way of handling continuity as it allows for the film to be totally ignored by those who hate it and provide a smooth transition to those who like it. That said, home Alone 3 is noticeably similar to the original. Both feature an 8-year-old with a lovable, smartass personality whilst being a little wiser than their years. However, whilst Kevin has an adorable charm, Alex comes across as slightly obnoxious. On top of this, they are each part of a family that doesn’t treat them well. Whilst Kevin is in a house with 13 other people, almost being ignored and struggling to make his voice heard, Alex has 2 siblings who treat him like garbage with parents who allow that behavior but don’t participate in it. The elderly neighbour also makes an appearance in the form of the crotchety Mrs. Hess who can’t hold a candle to Old Man Murphy. She isn’t a bad character, she’s an utter delight when she’s on-screen, but she doesn’t really go through an arc or add to the plot in any meaningful way like Murphy did.

The major difference is the villains. Harry and Marv are a classic slapstick duo who only interact with Kevin and provide a minor threat. Home Alone 3 has 4 terrorists who are a global threat and are implied to be ready to murder this child. Their comeuppance is fun, but it sets the stakes way too high and requires a much larger suspension of disbelief than 2 bumbling burglars. These are professional villains, yet they are easily bested by an 8-year-old who has an evening to prepare. The traps themselves are highly creative, close to lethal at times, especially the lawnmower which is a neat holdover from the novelisation of Lost in New York. Perhaps the largest issue is how cartoonish they are, which was a large complaint with Lost in New York, and which is amplified here.

The cartoonish aspects are what keep Home Alone 3 an entertaining film, as opposed to less than average. The plot is oversized and features over-the-top acting which makes for the weakest installment so far but it still amuses the audience for an hour and a half. There was definitely a capacity for it to over-rely on nostalgia but with new characters and a fresh score, it’s clear this wasn’t the direction the studio wanted to go down.

At least, not yet.

Until Next Time…

Signed: Your festive neighbourhood queer

The Grinch (2018)

With Benedict Cumberbatch voicing The Grinch in his attempts to ruin festivities for the Who’s of Whoville, this story is an amalgamation of all that came before, with a couple of new ideas sprinkled in. Much like the 2000 adaptation, this Grinch has a tragic backstory, however instead of being raised by lesbians and hating Christmas from the start, he was an orphan whose orphanage stopped celebrating the holiday. Whilst the former opts to keep his Christmas hatred a mystery, amplified by a traumatic childhood event, the latter robs him of mystery entirely. He doesn’t hate Christmas, really, he hates being alone. It robs him of that unfathomable maliciousness that makes the character so great. It isn’t helped by the narration keeping the classic line “The Grinch hated Christmas, The whole Christmas season. Now please, don’t ask why, No-one quite knows the reason.”

His overall attitude is softer too. Near the beginning of the film, he ventures into town to stock up on food and whilst there is treated by the script and the Who’s as a grumpy old curmudgeon. He does some mean things, like knocking over a child’s snowman, but the child merely seems disgruntled, as if this sort of thing happens all the time. In previous iterations, the Grinch either hasn’t met the Who’s (1996) or has his name mentioned in hushed whispers (20000) but here, he seems fairly well known and not disliked. His neighbour Mr Bicklebaum always greets him with a smile and an attempted hug. He’s less of a villain and more of a Town Kook. He also treats his dog Max with much more respect, as a best friend rather than an overly-faithful companion. The plot adds a subplot where The Grinch finds a reindeer named Fred to pull his sleigh and allows him to stay with them. This is clearly meant to set up a rivalry between Fred and Max (a la Feathers and Gromit in The Wrong Trousers) but the Grinch never acts like he has any intention to replace his friend. He continues to use Max as his assistant regardless with the only real moment of tension being Fred making The Grinch’s morning coffee. Fred leaves shortly before the big heist so that Max still has to pull the sleigh, but returns at the film’s end to help prevent the sleigh from plummeting over the top of Mount Crumpitt.

The other big change is Cindy Lou Who, who used to be no older than two. Here she is 5 or 6 years old, like her live-action counterpart, and one of 3 children, like both her previous iterations. However, she is now the child of a single mother and wants to capture Santa to ask for his help in making her mother’s life easier. It’s a cute subplot but often feels like it distracts from the main plot. In The Grinch (2000), Cindy Lou is researching The Grinch’s past to solve her own ‘yuletide doubts’ (in her own words), thus acting as both an insight into his character and into the mentality of the Whos. Here, she is on her own journey, completely separate from The Grinch, with the meeting of the two coming across as more of a coincidence. It’s not that her plot is irrelevant, it’s actually perfectly in keeping with the morals of Dr. Seuss, rather that it pads out an already padded movie. It feels like there are two films here, but neither one is being given the time that they deserve.

The final act of padding comes in the form of narration from musician Tyler, The Creator. Being based on a short children’s book, and given previous adaptations of said books, it makes sense that there would be narration. However, instead of using all the lines from the original source material, the script adapts them and adds to them. Both previous adaptations had used every word, so to replace them here feels utterly absurd. Seuss’ work survives, in part because his writing’s so tight and to change even a single line feels close to sacrilege. Then there’s the remix of You’re A Mean One, Mr Grinch, which provides an update to something classic despite it not needing updated, as well as being tonally inconsistent with the rest of the film.

The main issue The Grinch (2018) has is that it is the third adaptation of this tale but that it doesn’t add anything to the mythos. The original 1966 adaptation brought in music and colour whilst the 2000 adaptation was a misinterpreted mockery of capitalism and send-up to classic action movies. The 2019 adaptation seeks only to entertain, which it does but is ultimately inferior when compared to its predecessors. This comparison is the root issue that any adaptation will have to overcome and it’s not something that the Illumination team was able to overcome.

The message of the original (that Christmas is about being with the people we love) is there, and rises to the surface regardless of what gets thrown on top of it., but this feels like it only happens because that original message is so strong. The Grinch is like any other Illumination picture in that it’s very pretty to look at but therein lies perhaps the biggest problem. This is just like any Illumination film and The Grinch shouldn’t be done that way. If you’re looking for a child-friendly take on this story then the old adage is true:

There’s nothing like the original.

Until Next Time…

Signed: Your festive neighbourhood queer

PIXAR DVD Shorts

Unlike the PIXAR Theatrical Shorts which were made to accompany the feature length films when they were released to cinemas, the DVD Shorts were made to be bonus features on the DVD releases of those film. These were not about pushing the boundaries of animation but were instead about pushing the boundaries of their worldbuilding. Each one occurs within the world of a PIXAR motion picture and, occasionally, within the plot itself. With the release of the streaming service Disney+ it is unknown if they will continue to make these Feature-Related Shorts for DVD releases or for Disney+ directly, though I sense it may be the latter. That’s a real shame because they were always a highlight of DVD releases.

Mike’s New Car (2002)

I love this short because you get exactly what the title tells you you’re going to get. Having got rid of his old red sports car that Sully wouldn’t let him drive to work in Monster’s Inc, Mike has bought himself a new 6-wheeled automobile equipped with all the gizmos. Attempting to demonstrate the capabilities, Mike is beaten, battered and bruised by the vehicle in a slapstick-fest. Violence does the talking and it’s wonderful.

Jack-Jack Attack (2005)

My absolute favourite DVD Short that PIXAR has ever made and another vehicle for slapstick. It tells the tale of Kari’s eventful night babysitting young Jack-Jack Parr who has decided to suddenly explore his many superpowers. This was the first time pre-Incredibles 2 that we saw anywhere close to the full range of his capabilities like teleportation and laser eyes. I’ve always felt bad for poor Kari because babysitting can be hard as it is but she got a super baby but it is nice to get some closure on her part of the story. Also possible that the Mozart-Piano Sonata no. 11 in A Major sparked my interest in classical music.

Mr Incredible and Pals (2005)

This is the most absurd of these Shorts that you will ever lay your eyes upon. It’s an early 1960’s serial of the show Mr Incredible and Pals featuring Mr Incredible, Frozone and their bunny sidekick Mr Skipadoo as they fight the villainous Lady Lightbug. All the bad serial effects are here from still images of the landscape to the actors real mouths inserted over the characters’ to the blatant message of democracy. It is probably the dumbest thing that PIXAR has ever created and I love it with every ounce of my big, nerdy heart. I’d take a whole show.

Mater and the Ghostlight (2006)

I’ve made no secret about how I’m not the biggest fan of Mater so seeing him be the butt of the joke is kind of cathartic. After playing numerous pranks on the cars of Radiator Springs, they decide to get their own back by telling him the story of The Ghostlight and leaving him to traverse home in the dead of night by himself. When the Ghostlight finally appears, you know that this is also a prank but there’s a good message in here about receiving a taste of your own medicine.

Your Friend the Rat (2007)

Not content with Ratatouille being one of the finest PIXAR films there is, they decided that a fun history lesson was also necessary. Hosted by Remy and his brother Emille, we are taught the history of the rat from the Roman Empire, through the Black Death to today. This short is particularly interesting because of it’s combining of animation styles like 3D, 2D and even a musical number to close. At 11 minutes, it’s longer than usual byut not a second of that time is wasted.

BURN-E (2008)

Taking place during the events of Wall-E, a Basic Utility Repair Nano Engineer (BURN-E) attempts to repair a running light on The Axiom after it is hit by a meteorite (accidentally caused by Wall-E). Much like the movie it takes place during, there is no dialogue but it still manages to be compelling. You’ll really believe that this little robot is losing his mind and it’s really funny to re-watch Wall-E with this short in mind. I’m sure there’s a lesson about the Butterfly Effect in here somewhere.

Dug’s Special Mission (2009)

Taking place during the events near the beginning of Up, it shows how Dug came to be sat on the exact spot that would lead to him meeting Carl and Russell. Dug is probably the most likable character from Up and seeing him try his best at the behest of the other dogs just warms my heart, There is so much innocence to this character and this short adds even more sympathy to his backstory.

George and A.J. (2009)

The only one of these shorts to be animated in 2D and it prospers for it, giving it the look of a storybook. Shady Acres employees attempt to collect more people for the retirement home but must survive a pensioner uprising cause by Carl. It’s a really neat look at the ramifications of a story like Up, even if those ramifications are utterly bombastic and fantastical.

The Legend of Mor’du (2012)

Another one that does what is says on the tin. In case you wanted to hear the tragic tale of Mor’du the Bear from Brave it is told here through 2D animation and a glorious narration by Julie Walters. Is Julie Walters telling a fairytale enough motivation to watch this? I think so.

Party Central (2013)

A rare Short from PIXAR as it wasn’t attached to a PIXAR film and was only released on DVD as part of The PIXAR Shorts Collection: Volume 3. Instead, this short was attached to the Disney film Muppets: Most Wanted and features the frat of Oozma Kampa, after the events of Monsters Uni, as they attempt to throw the biggest party on campus. Just utterly ridiculous fun to be had here but is also notable as a posthumous role for the late, great Joe Ranft.

Riley’s First Date? (2015)

Following the events of Inside Out, this almost acts as a small sequel of sorts. Having closed out the film by speaking to a boy, we see how Riley’s parents react to him visiting the house to pick her up and it makes her parents look every bit as embarrassing as she already thinks they are. This is less about the emotions and more about the characters themselves, which is appreciated.

Marine Life Interviews (2016)

I grew up watching the Aaardman show Creature Comforts and it was all I could think about when watching this short, which is possibly the shortest of the shorts. It contains interviews with the animals who interacted with Dory during Finding Dory and paints her character in the most positive of lights. I particularly like that they made the footage look sepia-toned like an old-style documentary. I love attention to detail.

Miss Fritter’s Racing Skoool (2017)

If you weren’t aware of how badly acted/choreographed local television advertisements can be then there is a whole level of subtext here you are missing out on. This short is literally an advertisement for Miss Fritter’s Racing Skoool, clearly organised by Miss Fritter herself and includes a few of her demolition derby friends. Seeing the homemade angle to this really brings back warm memories of my own time in front of a camera for school projects.

Auntie Edna (2018)

This is just Jack-Jack Attacks but with set during the course of Incredibles 2 with Edna Mode as the babysitter and I am more than okay with that. It is clear from this short that Jack-Jacks powers have multiplied and become more terrifying over time and it’s a little amusing to watch Edna – a superhero aficionado – struggle just as much as Kari did. I already loved Edna as a character but her relationship with Jack-Jack is really the icing on the cake. Shout out to the continued use of the Third Movement of the Mozart-Piano Sonata no. 11 in A Major.

Lamp Life (2020)

The first of these Shorts not to be released on DVD but instead to be uploaded to the streaming service Disney+. I’ve mentioned here because I think it’s worth noting as the service becomes bigger and contains more original content with each passing day. The story is that of Bo Peep, as she recounts her life between leaving Toy Story and Toy Story 4, which is a tale I think most of us were curios about and this short delivers. Special mention to Jim Hanks who continues to be the best Tom Hanks impersonator.

Until Next Time…

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer