Home Alone: Lost in New York

The original Home Alone, released in 1990, is a Christmas classic beloved by millions of people across the globe. It has been this popular ever since it was first released to theatres, maintaining the number 1 spot at the Box Office for 4 months. In fact, it would remain the best selling Christmas film of all time until the release of Illumination Studios’ The Grinch in 2018. As you would expect with a movie which made this much profit, a sequel was put into into production by the end of 1991 and planned to be much bigger. This was matched by the $28 million budget, which was $10 million more than the original, and with scenes shot on location in New York City.

We follow 10 year old Kevin MacCallister as he accidentally boards a flight to New York instead of one to Miami with the rest of his family, leaving him stranded in one of the largest cities in the world. Initially, all is well, as he stays at the illustrious Plaza Hotel. But with the return of Harry and Marv (under new mantle The Sticky Bandits) and their plan to steal from a toy store on Christmas eve, it is once again up to Kevin to stop them. I’ve seen a lot of criticism of Home Alone: Lost in New York, with the main critique being that it simply re-hashes the plot of the original in a new setting. It’s hard to dispute that, but I do think that the change in location gives Kevin more issues to deal with this time around. As well as the Sticky Bandits, Kevin must keep his solitude a secret from the management at the Plaza Hotel. Although everything eventually works out well, Kevin is found to be using his father’s stolen credit card and he runs straight into the arms of the Sticky Bandits. He also encounters a homeless woman in the park who he befriends, mirroring his relationship with Old Man Marley in the original. However, this woman is totally alone as opposed to just not talking with her family, which is possibly the biggest difference between these two films. There’s less home and more alone.

I’ve also seen criticisms of Macaulay Culkin’s performance in comparison to the original, and whilst I think it feels less genuine, I think it’s unfair to criticise the man himself. It is now well established just how little control he had over his own career and finances, coupled with his stardom coming literally overnight. What Macaulay Culkin went through, as well as being the result of a system that was drastically unfit for child stars, was incredibly rough, and I think we should cut him a little slack. As for the character of Kevin, I do think there is an inherent flaw with him being two years older. An 8 year old attacking grown men as an act of self-defense is funny, but a 10 year old luring two grown men into a trap just comes off as cruel. He comes across as bratty, and with the change of context (luring instead of defending) he also comes across as vindictive. The comedy itself still works, with the slapstick being implemented well and the traps being just as inventive as in the original film. The standout moments come from the acting of Tim Curry, who portrays a concierge at the hotel and is clearly having a blast with the role. Tim Curry always gives 120% to every single performance, and it is practically impossible to be sad whenever he is on screen. His line delivery on “a cheese pizza” is particularly outstanding, I think the main difference in the comedy- the slapstick in particular- is that it is more child friendly; making the slapstick feel less of a genuine threat. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, although I suppose it depends on your personal opinion. For me, it isn’t enough to spoil the film.

Home Alone 2 ends up being longer than its predecessor by around 20 minutes, taking its runtime to just under 2 hours. This allows for the film take its time to tell a story, and that might be my only issue with it. This instalment takes a little longer to get to the main plot, and it can sometimes linger on a joke for too long. Home Alone 2 is, I feel, not as concise as it needs to be, and it certainly isn’t as concise as the original. I usually don’t compare films, but when it’s a self contained franchise where the plots are so similar, it’s difficult not to. I wonder if the film would have been received better if it had come first, but alas there is no way of knowing.

What makes this film re-watchable is the emotional core. Catherine O’Hara gives another truly heartfelt performance as Kevin’s mother, and much like Tim Curry, it is difficult not to like her. This is amplified by the beautiful score, brought to us once again by the masterful John Williams. There have been essays written about the legacy of his work, and it is well deserved. Once again, the set is adorned with Christmas decorations so it is impossible to escape the festive feel. At the end of the day Home Alone 2 is a suitable sequel and wonderful festive fare. There are several small issues but they are not enough to dampen the movie for me, or many of its other fans. I once wrote this of another sequel, and I feel it is equally applicable here:

There is a marvellous sequel in here trying to get out but, for what it is, it’s fine. It will forever hold a place in my heart.

Until Next Time…

Signed: Your festive neighbourhood queer

Disney’s A Christmas Carol (2009)

Motion Capture doesn’t seem to be such a big deal anymore. It gets used in practically every summer blockbuster, and has been pivotal in creating costumes for the heroes of the MCU for over a decade. However there was a time when this technology was relatively new and its limits were being tested. Most people know of one of its earliest applications, creating the creature Gollum for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, but few remember some of the following applications. The Polar Express was released in 2004 and was filmed entirely in Motion Capture, before being animated by computer, even being recognised as the first all digital motion capture film by Guinness Book of World Records. The film’s director, Robert Zemeckis, chose this method of production as it allowed for a grand scale on a small budget and would do the best job of representing the original storybook’s illustrations. These same decisions would lead Zemeckis’ to apply this same method of production to an adaptation of the classic Charles Dickens novel A Christmas Carol.

Released in 2009, Disney’s A Christmas Carol follows the money-grabbing Ebeneezer Scrooge as he is visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future, in an attempt to change his selfish ways before it is too late. Disney is no stranger to A Christmas Carol, having adapted it with Mickey Mouse in 1983 and The Muppets in 1992. The former of these is probably the best 26 minute summary you could ever hope for, with the latter being a personal favourite that has already been subject of a review. However, this take is unique in that it is probably the darkest adaption of the tale there is, which may have something to do with how accurate it is to the original novel. There are plot elements here that I had completely forgotten about, because I have not read the book in around a decade (but have watched The Muppet Christmas Carol every year since I was a child), Ebeneezer’s sister Fran makes an appearance, as well as two gaunt children clinging to the Ghost of Christmas Present called Ignorance and Want. It’s much more of a tragedy than I remember it being, and it is nice to be reminded. A Christmas Carol is about a man who needs to be subjected to his deepest regrets and fears in order to change the course of his life.

I think it’s important to remember that when the original novel was published in 1843, ghostly apparitions were not viewed as a lighthearted subject of discussion. Today we are inundated with ghoulish tales from Scooby Doo to Ghostbusters to Casper, so seeing this take, especially in a children’s movie, is relatively refreshing. The colour palette matches the overall tone of the movie in that it is dark and dingy, but when it needs to be bright and cheery, it has no problems doing so. A perfect example of this, and often something that best exemplifies their respective iterations, is how the Ghost of Christmas Present is presented. Here, he sits upon a mountain of food and is only about twice the size of Scrooge whilst the walls are adorned with golden garlands in a room that has tripled in height. As the scene progresses, the room in which they sit seems to hover over the city, allowing them to see the goings on of the townsfolk, and the Ghost of Christmas Present grows older until he has become grey. By the scene’s end, the Ghost has become hostile towards Scrooge, and as they stand in a seemingly endless room, he unleashes the disturbing Ignorance and Want before literally turning to dust whilst laughing manically, in a moment that’s flat-out uncomfortable. It’s tense, getting more so as the film races towards its conclusion. That’s not to say this tension hasn’t been present since the beginning, we are often left in complete silence as if to signify how lonely Scrooge is, but when there is music it is often a joyful and triumphant arrangement of a Christmas carol. The score was composed by the excellent Alan Silvestri, who previously conducted the score for both The Polar Express, and the Back to the Future trilogy. It seems that if your film demands triumph, it demands Alan Silvestri.

So what of this grand scale that Zemeckis spoke of? As previously mentioned, there are the scenes featuring the Ghost of Christmas Present, but there is also the grimy city of London. There are several times that we find ourselves flying over the rooftops, and even from the ground, the buildings look as big and grand as they have ever been up close. This is amplified during the chase sequence with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, which doesn’t feel like it should be here, but ends up being thrilling anyway. Both ghosts, along with the Ghost of Christmas Past, are voice by Jim Carrey, who also voices Scrooge, in a decision that potentially adds more depth to the tale. The ghosts have often been viewed as an extension of Scrooge’s thoughts, but with this choice they seem to become direct extensions of him. Carrey playing multiple voice roles was a focal point of the advertising, but if you didn’t know that (or forgot like me) you may not recognise that they’re all him. Of course, the rest of the cast, including Gary Oldman, and the late Bob Hopskins, are terrific, but there is a reason that Carrey got his name prioritised in the advertising.

The observant among you may notice that I have failed to talk about the Ghost of Christmas Past, but there is a reason for that. His design creeps me out… and… his Irish accents baffles me. I actually think that Dickens wrote a description that is extremely difficult to pull off. I mean, how would you design a being that is both old and young at the same time? As for the Irish accent, it continues to baffle me.

Until Next Time…

Signed: Your festive neighbourhood queer


*Dedicated to my amazing sister who reminded me that 2005’s War of the Worlds exists and kick started this whole blog. Love you to the moon and back.*

In December 1937, Walt Disney Animation Studios released the world’s first full length animated feature film- Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. At the time every single frame of animation had to be drawn and coloured by hand, which for an 88 minute long film running at 24 frames per second meant that 126,720 individual frames had to be created. This effort paid off, with Snow White receiving a standing ovation at the premiere and Walt himself receiving an Honorary Academy Award for this significant innovation. Over the next 63 years, the company would grow into the multimedia behemoth that we recognise today, and would give us a further 38 hand-drawn feature films. Then in May of 2000, the company made another big leap with Dinosaur – their first ever Computer Generated film. The following decade would see a mixture of both CG and classically-made animated films, culminating in 2010 with a Tangled, which blended both of these techniques together. Not only is it one of the most expensive animated movies ever made, but it is also one of the most expensive movies ever made, period, with a budget of $260 million.

Tangled is loosely based on the story of Rapunzel, which was published as part of Grimm’s Fairy Tales in 1812, but dates as far back as the 11th century to a Persian tale known as Zal and Rudabeth. The story tells of a young prince who after finding a beautiful girl locked in a high tower, plots to aid in her escape. The girl was taken from her family at birth by a sorceress, who enters the tower each day by climbing the girls incredibly long hair. When the sorceress learns of the Prince’s plan, she blinds him and casts the girl into the woods after cutting off her hair. After years of searching, the Prince finally finds the princes, whose tears heal his eyes. It’s a tale fit for the brothers Grimm, but as with Snow White before it, the Walt Disney corporation made it into a ‘family-friendly’ affair. Tangled follows a thief who calls himself Flynn Rider as he steals a tiara from the town of Corona, and from his cohorts the Stabbington Brothers. In an effort to hide away, he climbs a mysterious tall tower where he meets the unknowingly lost princess Rapunzel (and her chameleon Pascal) who demands that he take her to see the floating lanterns in the town. Along the way they must avoid Rapunzel’s “mother” Gothel, the Stabbington brothers, and the Coronian militia (but more specifically a horse named Maximus). Some of these people are after Rapunzel’s magic healing hair, and some just hate Flynn. It’s possibly Disney at their best, taking a tale as old as time and making it new again, as well as turning it into a musical.

What makes Tangled a musical as opposed to a film with songs is that the songs used therein actively drive the plot and give insight into how characters are feeling. This is done to perfection by the amazing Alan Menken, who has already worked on some of the best Disney soundtracks there are. The Little Mermaid, Beauty & the Beast, Aladdin, and Hercules were all composed by him, and the last of these just so happens to be a personal favourite of mine. I think that what makes Menken’s work so good is that he isn’t writing “just another song”, he is writing a Broadway Musical number. Perhaps two of the best songs in Tangled are Mother Knows Best and I Have A Dream which make use of the surrounding environments within the film. On top of this come the reprisals, which act as another verse to a previous song. For instance, the Reprise of Mother Knows Best takes it from a lighthearted, caring tune to one full of malice. This is unlike the using of a tune over and over again, which Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber is a particular fan of.

The characters themselves are all incredibly likeable. Rapunzel is full of optimism, and though she has been raised to fear the outside world, she eventually comes to learn that she can take care of herself. Flynn Rider is almost the complete opposite, having had to raise himself, soon learning that perhaps life is better when it is shared with someone. Mother Gothel is delightfully entertaining, and is particularly interesting because she doesn’t start out as evil. Yes, she kidnaps a baby princess, but that is purely out of self-obsession in an attempt to stay young and it isn’t until around half way through that she becomes actively malicious. Then there are the ruffians and thugs who each have backstories and personalities and dreams, as well as Pascal and Maximus who each convey every thought without any words (which I think of as The Gromit Principle). Much like with an Edgar Wright production, there aren’t really any background characters, there are just characters.

It has now been a whole decade since Tangled was released and I find myself oddly reflective. At the time, my sister was 6 years old and I was 13. She was the primary demographic for this film and I found myself almost looking up to Flynn Rider. It was a film that the both of us and our parents could enjoy, and was the last of these before my brother came along 2 years later. It’s also one of the earliest memories I have relating to film advertisement campaigns. My sister had some of the toys (including the tower) and initially it was simply advertised as Rapunzel before being changed to Tangled several months before release. It did not get anywhere near the level of exposure that is given to a Disney film today and, in particular, Frozen. It is my belief that Tangled walked so that Frozen could run and I believe it to be the better film. Flynn and Maximus seem to be the basis for Kristoff and Sven, Rapunzel’s desire for freedom is mirrored by Anna’s and Let it Go seems to be designed specifically for Broadway right down to hiring a Broadway star as Elsa. I’ll spare you the “Frozen is fine and extremely over-rated” for today but I really think that Tangled could have been just as big.

Conversations of a sequel were brief as the producers felt that the story was over, but it did receive a 9 minute short set during The Big Wedding called Tangled Ever After. The short film debuted ahead of the 3-D re-release of Beauty & the Beast in 2012 and is a fun little adventure which focuses on Pascal and Maximus. In 2017, an animated series that would become known as Rapunzel’s Tangled Adventure began airing on the Disney Channel preceded by an hour long film title Tangled: Before Ever After. Its animated in 2-D and brings back the original cast as well as providing some new songs, and I am now determined to sit down and watch the series itself. This would be easier if Disney+ had made the entire thing available, but I guess I’ll just have to continue to re-watch Tangled instead.

Until Next Time…

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

The Good Dinosaur

You may recall in my review for Cars 2 that I mentioned how it was the first film in PIXAR’s repertoire that was considered a failure, in that it wasn’t a huge success at the Box Office. At the time, and for the several years that followed, it was seen as the worst film that the studio had ever produced – though I believe this reputation to be undeserved. The next few of PIXAR’s projects fared better, but in late 2015 they would release their first official Box Office failure- The Good Dinosaur. It’s important to note here just how much the studio usually earns in order to understand how abnormal The Good Dinosaur was. The two previous films, Inside Out and Monsters University, raked in $858 million and $743 million respectively, while their next film Finding Dory made just short of $1 billion. In contrast, The Good Dinosaur made around $332 million, which coupled with the roughly $350 million cost of production and marketing, put the studio at a loss- the first, and currently only, in their history. This is unfortunate and came as a shock to me while I was conducting my research, but in retrospect, I maybe shouldn’t have expected a huge profit to start with. This isn’t the film’s fault, and I’ll get to that, but first I feel we should go over the film itself.

We follow Arlo the dinosaur as he travels over harsh terrain in order to return home to his family. Along the way he encounters faces that are friendly, some that are not so friendly, and befriends a wild human that he names Spot. The main premise here is that the asteroid which wiped out the dinosaurs 75 million years ago missed, which has allowed dinosaurs to evolve alongside the human race. Arlo, his brother, sister and parents are farmers who have adapted to using their bodies as farm equipment. Their sturdy heads plough the field, their colossal tails make for effective axes and their mouths are capable of holding enough water to spray an entire field of crops, but this accounts for 20 minutes of the 94 minute film. I think that it would have been really interesting to see a whole community of different dinosaurs with different jobs and perhaps how those skills develop over the centuries, but instead we get to witness Arlo travelling. It’s not a bad premise, and I am definitely fond of the relationship that Arlo develops with Spot, but I get this feeling that I’ve seen it all before. In essence, I think The Good Dinosaur’s biggest issue is that it lacks in new ideas. Early PIXAR films were known for their groundbreaking CGI, and all 15 of their previous entries are either a new premise or a new exploration of an old premise. This film feels like a reel of all the best parts from those films. You’ll find the “unexpected friends” trope in Toy Story, the “beautiful landscape” aspect in Brave and the “dead parent” trope in Finding Nemo. These are not bad aspects in and of themselves but this is the 16th PIXAR film in 20 years, so it needs something special of its own.

The plot also does not feel particularly coherent. There is a general through plot, with Arlo attempting to return home, but the events in this film don’t take place in any particular order. These scenes individually are rather fun, with the T-Rex ranchers being a particular highlight, but they all feel removed from each other. The T-Rex ranchers have an issue and Arlo helps. The hippie dinosaur wants to keep Spot for himself but that resolves itself. Even the storm-chasers, who appear twice, don’t seem to have a lasting impact on Arlo, but this is not the film’s fault. As I researched, I discovered a troubled production that I hadn’t been hyper-aware of at the time. According to reports, The Good Dinosaur was to be a story akin to Billy Elliot where Arlo is an outcast within his own community. This version of the story is more like what I would have expected to see, but by 2014 the entire plot had been essentially re-written to make “nature” the main antagonist because it was felt the other dinosaurs were becoming too unlikable. As someone who is very open about their thoughts on how “studio meddling” should be kept to a minimum, I find this kind of infuriating. The Good Dinosaur is enjoyable, but it’s clear to me that it was treated extremely poorly behind the scenes. It could have been great.

At the end of the day, the film itself is enjoyable. The CGI is the most gorgeous that PIXAR has ever done and is close to photo-realistic. You don’t have to pay a huge amount of attention to notice the water droplets falling from the leaves or the dew sitting on the rocks. This puts it apart from the usually cartoon-ish style of the studio and so is relatively groundbreaking for the industry. I’m also a fan of the characters, including Arlo himself. The T-Rex ranchers are rather charming and the storm-chasers are genuinely close to terrifying, but perhaps my favourite aspect is the overall message, At its core, The Good Dinosaur is about addressing your fears and using them to motivate you. Fear is just another emotion, and one that we don’t need to ignore, which is par for the course when it comes to PIXAR. They have always prided themselves on challenging children with their work and with not speaking down to them, which is something a feel certain areas of Hollywood could do with learning. The Good Dinosaur may be an average film but it’s still worth checking out for yourself.

Until Next Time…

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Inside Out

Children can be highly emotional at times. When you’re small, it seems to magnify the size of everything, be it physical objects or the issues of life. Tripping over your feet as an adult, though it may seem embarrassing, doesn’t compare to other issues like making sure you have enough money to pay the bills. In essence, you need to have lived long enough have to garnered enough life experience to know what issues will affect you in the long-term. It’s important that we, as adults, take that into consideration whenever we are dealing with issues that children may be having. It’s also important that when we have discussions surrounding the welfare of children, that those same children are included, and I can’t think of a better film to deliver on that premise than Inside Out.

We follow the 5 main emotions of 11 year old Riley Andersen as they struggle to cope with her family moving from Minnesota to San Francisco. These emotions- Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust- are an over simplification of the vast spectrum of emotions experience by humanity (and that’s okay). This isn’t some kind of documentary about psychology, it’s a children’s movie with easily digestible themes. Indeed, it wouldn’t be long before the core cast of Inside Out were being used in classrooms and therapists offices as a way of simplifying the discussion so that younger minds could digest information more easily. In this regard, 5 turns out to be an ideal number of emotions as it stops the conversation from being too weighed down but it also assists with the narrative of the film. After all, Inside Out is first and foremost a children’s film designed to entertain. It only takes 5 emotions for this story to work and they get a gradual introduction over the first 10 minutes. We are also introduced to their human – Riley – and her parents though it is through the eyes of the emotions. Riley is a character but she is also a vessel through which the narrative takes place.

This narrative is set into motion when Joy and Sadness find themselves accidentally transferred from the main hub of Riley’s mind to her long-term memory storage. This leaves Riley with only Fear, Anger, and Disgust which some may see as “negative” emotions. As a result, Riley becomes more and more depressed until the remaining emotions are unable to make her feel anything at all. As someone who has been coping with depression for quite some time, I recognise how reductive this depiction is, however it also really resonated with me. I felt like the crew who worked on this project understood, at least on a surface level, how depression could feel and that they delivered it with a certain level of respect. I’ve been finding it difficult to write this review due to some unforeseen circumstances in my personal life this week, but also because this film hits me so deeply that I find it difficult to watch, let alone write about. The word “triggered” has practically been ruined by people who want to use it to belittle people they deem as lesser than them, but its original meaning still stands. Inside Out, on a particularly bad day, could genuinely trigger a depressive or anxious episode in me. This is not a criticism, in fact it’s far from it. If a film is causing you to have feelings, then that film is doing its job effectively.

This is the 15th feature film from PIXAR Studios and it’s becoming clear that their animation has developed a certain style. The unique worlds that they create have often lacked in humans but the people here have a similar look to those in a previous film- Brave– and to those in the films that would follow. In the same way that Dreamworks characters have very distinctive eyebrows, the PIXAR characters have very expressive eyes. They also have regular human proportions which, I suppose, helps it to feel less like a cartoon and more like an extension of our own world. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it does feel like it lacks the creativity of earlier PIXAR projects. They were once pushing the boundaries of what computer animation was capable of, but now, while still kings in their field, it feels like they’ve settled for consistency. There was a two year gap between Monsters University and Inside Out and we’ve never had to wait that long again. There were mere months between Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur and then a year between each following release (2017 got 2!). I know that this is due to them refining their process and hiring more staff which means that they can work on several projects at once, but this is the last of PIXAR’s films that I’ve re-watched. Inside Out is a wonderful film and a heck of a conversation starter, but it might be the last time that a PIXAR film felt like PIXAR.

Until Next Time…

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Monsters University

I have always had a fascination with stories. As I child I would read constantly, and as I grew older I became an avid viewer of movies, both of which rely on a good story despite being two different mediums. I think this fascination may be at the heart of why I aim to get as much out of a film as I can, be it about the characters or the production process. When it comes to the subject of character, sequels can be an excellent method of development, and the same can be said of prequels. By 2013, PIXAR Studios had provided us with 3 sequels, with 2 for Toy Story and 1 for Cars, on top of their 10 original projects, but there wasn’t a prequel to be seen. Their first, and to date only, prequel would be a spin-off of the highly popular 2001 film Monsters Inc entitled Monsters University, or Monsters Uni for short. There had been, and continue to be, many calls for a direct sequel to Monsters Inc so a prequel was certainly an unexpected move, but it may have been, at least in my opinion, the better choice.

We follow the previous film’s protagonists Mike Wasowski and James “Sully” Sullivan through university as they compete in the Scare Games and find a lifelong friendship along the way. Perhaps the greatest hurdle of any prequel is that it must inevitably end in a way that directs us into the original film. Because this precedes Monsters Inc, we know that Mike and Sully will become lifelong roommates working for the titular company, so we know that their rivalry in Monsters Uni will be short-lived. It just so happens that I am a firm believer that the journey is equally important, if not more so, than the final destination, and this is quite the journey. Mike is a bit of a loner and Sully is a local celebrity, being the son of a scarer, so putting them both in the Scare Programme provides enough friction to carry the entire film. But an incident leads to them both being expelled from the programme, and from here they join a lackluster group of monsters in the Oozma Kampa fraternity so that they can win the Scare Games and be re-instated, so the stakes are high. All PIXAR films have an overarching lesson to them and there is no attempt to hide that Monsters Uni is all about teamwork, in relation to each other as well as the fraternity. Each of the monsters in Oozma Kampa brings something different to the table, but, like Mike, they have been outcast for not being scary enough. Unlike Mike, they aren’t in in for personal gain and are just happy to finally be included, which makes rooting for them easy. They are hard not to care about.

There are only a handful of main characters, but since this is set on a college campus, the amount of background characters is innumerable. As I have made my way through the PIXAR library, I have noticed certain improvements due to the progress of time and of technology. We are now a long way from the clone children of Toy Story, with each background character being 100% unique. It had been this way for quite some time, in fact the main selling point of Cars 2 seemed to be how many unique, merchandise-able characters were in it, but Monsters Uni is where that progress really stands out to me. There are monsters with slime, scales, fur, shells, multiple heads and backpacks all in one frame which is a level of skill and computer processing power that I find it hard to comprehend, but here it is nonetheless. There is an in-universe trading card game which features different scarers from across the ages and I am gutted that they didn’t make it into a genuine set, because it would have been an astounding demonstration of the artwork present in this film. It also would have likely raked in more cash for Disney, so I feel like they may have dropped the ball on that one. A special shout-out goes to the people who designed and rendered the buildings because I can only imagine that real-life buildings are difficult enough. Building this reality in which the characters exist is truly commendable.

As always, the score is magnificent. While some sequels and prequels might rely on previously established musical motifs, Monsters Uni has a almost wholly original score. I say almost because a couple of those old motifs do still manage to sneak in there, most noticeably in the track Field Trip, but it is a rarity. Once again we are being treated to the compositions of Randy Newman in what is his 7th collaboration with PIXAR after the Toy Story trilogy, A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc, and Cars. His work is very distinct and if you dwell on that for too long, it can become rather distracting, but I still rather enjoy his music. The score here can be light and airy but also intense and urgent, perhaps more so than in any of his previous films, but I wouldn’t have been upset if they had brought in somebody else. That’s the thing about change- it can be for the better. Nobody expecting a prequel for Monsters Inc because they were, and some still are, more interested in a direct sequel, but this is what we got. It doesn’t rely on the original film in any aspect and introduces us to new, likeable characters and interesting settings. For those who have watched Monsters Inc there are one or two subtle nods and expectation subversions but nothing that are important to the story.

The way I see it, Monsters University is further background for a story that I already love. It has the added benefit of being a well-written and, at times, emotional piece. If you are of the opinion that all sequels, prequels and spin-offs are empty cash-grabs then I implore you to watch this film and reconsider.

Until Next Time…

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Thomas and the Magic Railroad

Growing up in the late 1990s/early 2000s was an odd experience. There were children’s television shows being made, such as Rugrats, and Arthur, but some of us were more interested in re-runs of classic shows like Thunderbirds and Top Cat. One of the stand-out shows, to me at least, was an adaptation of the Reverend W. Awdry books The Railway Series entitled Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends which would later be shortened to Thomas and Friends. The show had begun airing on British television channel ITV in 1984 and was already preparing for its fifth series by the time I was born, but I became more interested in the original 26 episode run than anything that would air later. What I was not aware of at the time, and that I would not discover until my teenage years, was that Thomas and Friends had also made its way to the United States as segments in a show called Shining Time. It was this show that would ultimately be the foundation of the 2000 film Thomas and the Magic Railroad which would prove to be more prominent in my life than the initial show had been.

We follow Mr. Conductor from the small parish of Shining Time has he finds himself stranded on the Island of Sodor. In an attempt to recover the gold dust he uses to travel between these two places, he becomes involved in the search for a long lost engine whilst fending off the menacing Diesel 10. It is a far cry from the 5 minute running time of the original show, clocking in at 85 minutes and even outpaces the following feature length films which only manage an hour. As a film that is required to balance two previously established locations, I think it does rather well. I’ve always preferred the reality that the models on the Island of Sodor provide to the CGI that would come later. Some people find the faces of the engines to be horrifyingly vacant, but I prefer their solidity to the uncanny valley nature of their CGI counterparts. The film also manages to succeed in inserting live-action characters without it feeling like a green screen nightmare, which I think is commendable especially by 2000 standards. Meanwhile Shining Time provides its own sense of reality by being a whole set instead of locations on a studio back-lot. Perhaps growing up in a small town allowed me to be more at ease with the idea of a “quaint little town” than some others.

Where Thomas and the Magic Railroad seems to falter for many is the acting, which has always seemed like an odd criticism to me because this is a film for small children. I’d actually argue that Alec Baldwin’s performance as Mr Conductor is precisely the kind of performance we should be expecting here. He has a level of joy and charisma that is needed to keep the attention of small children and to carry a tale like this, regardless of whether he’s conversing with the rest of the characters or is by himself. If he didn’t have this kind of energy, as arguably the film’s main character, then the film simply wouldn’t work so well. On the other end of the acting spectrum is Peter Fonda who takes his despondent role as Burnett Stone with such an air of gravitas that I can’t bring myself to mock it. It ends up providing an interesting contrast between the two locations that these two characters exist in. Sodor is full of whimsical childlessness while Shining Time is moderately overshadowed by the seriousness of reality. When Fonda is allowed to be cheery and optimistic it comes off as slightly eerie instead of whimsical but I suppose that may be down to Fonda’s macho bravado as opposed to his actual acting ability. Caught in the middle of these performances is Mara Wilson as Lily Stone who bares the brunt of the criticism. Whilst I could dive into Wilson’s life at the time, it seems more fair to share an extract of her book Where Am I Now: True Stories Of Girlhood And Accidental Fame in which she talks about the struggles of childhood acting, puberty and life in general. If anything, she should be commended for turning in a performance where she remains likeable, although I’ve always found her to be a likeable person so perhaps I might be slightly biased. At the end of the day, I think that Mara Wilson is one of those actors that you either like or you don’t, and if you don’t like her then you won’t like her performance. I stand by her performance, though.

I’ve also heard it said that the songs and score are overly generic which, again, is an odd complaint for a film aimed at very young children. This is Thomas the Tank Engine, not some overly-hyped Oscar-bait, so of course the music is designed to simply be pleasant, and it is. On top of this, we are talking about music circa 1999 which is an era where the iconic Britney Spears was at the top spot on billboards so “pleasant” was very much the theme of the day. It all seems a little silly to be so upset over, especially when the artists were being tasked to provide an 85 minute movie out of a franchise that was usually only 5. As you can probably tell, I really like this film. It had a looming presence in my childhood and who doesn’t want to be reminded of those simpler times. I’ve wanted to write a passionate defence ever since a popular internet review channel tore it to shreds for “comedy.” That particular review show is one that has kept my passion for positive film discussion burning, by lacking in any substantial issues or by simply concocting them, in particular that one review. In a way, my personal opinions and feelings about Thomas and the Magic Railroad accompanied by that review were the foundation for the motto of this very site. Heck, I re-wrote half this script because I didn’t feel like I was doing the film justice. After 20 years, this film remains a moment of cinematic history by being the only live action Thomas film to date, and the last project of the show creator Britt Allcroft. We often talk about certain films capturing time in a bottle and this odd, whimsical, delightful little piece is one of them.

The franchise carries on, as franchises often do, having made the leap to CGI in 2008- the shows twelfth series. There have now been 24 series, 14 feature length specials and multiple books since 1984 but Thomas and the Magic Railroad remains the pinnacle of Thomas’ career. Even after 20 years.

Until Next Time…

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer


2012 was quite a momentous year. Not only was the world supposedly due to end, but London was to host the Olympic Games. This meant that the eyes of the world would be fixed on the United Kingdom which, for the time being, includes Scotland. What better time to release an animated children’s film that demonstrates the beauty and the culture of the Highlands? It’s worth noting that the release of Brave happening around the time of the 2012 Olympics is pure coincidence, with work on the film beginning in 2008 before a change of director in 2010 delayed the project. What isn’t a coincidence is the Scottish Government’s use of this film to promote tourism in a country that hadn’t been portrayed by previous films in the best light. Perhaps two of the biggest titles were the historically inaccurate Braveheart and the wonderfully made Trainspotting, which portray Scotland as a violent nest of drugs, crime, and alcohol. At the time, The Guardian reported that VisitScotland, which is responsible for Scotland’s tourist trade, set aside £7 million to advertise itself alongside Brave in the hopes that it would increase tourism by roughly £140 million. Sadly, I cannot find any evidence that this was the case or even that tourism increased at all, but Brave itself proved to be much more successful.

We follow princess Merida as she defies the ancient custom of arranged marriage to set out on her own path. In order to change the mind of her disapproving mother, she procures a spell from a witch that turns her, unexpectedly, into a bear. What follows is a tale of magic, intrigue and familial bonding. This is PIXAR Studios second story to feature a princess, after A Bug’s Life, and they’ve come out of the gate swinging. There is a long history of Disney Princesses, though not all of them belong to the Disney Princess brand (I’m not getting into that here), and that history is filled to the brim with rushed love. Of the 14 animated princesses that Disney had provided at the time, not one of them remained single, which makes Merida’s story a truly historic milestone for the company. Whilst the Walt Disney Company is only responsible for the distribution of Brave, they officially made Merida a part of the Disney Princess brand in 2013. Brave chose to be about a love just as powerful- the love of family- and it is abundantly clear from the very first scene where, on young Merida’s birthday, her father gifts her a bow and arrow. While her mother clearly isn’t pleased with this gift, she allows Merida to play with it anyway and allows her to keep it in the following years. These three characters have a very natural chemistry and it makes for a wonderful viewing experience, even when they’re apart. This is even more apparent when Merida’s mother is turned into a bear and can no longer use words to communicate. The use of body language to convey emotion is something that PIXAR has always been good at, but it has never taken centre stage like this. I’m very much reminded of Aardman Animations’ Wallace and Gromit and I can think of no higher praise for a movie than that.

At this point, we are 13 films into the PIXAR catalogue and I once again find myself praising the visuals. I know that consistently reading about how beautiful these movies are must seem repetitive, but this is my review and these films just keep getting prettier. As with Up, the production team took a trip abroad to make sure they were representing the landscapes as best as they could, and it really pays off. Whether its the thistles, the architecture or the clothing. Brave looks and feels like Scotland. Not only that, but PIXAR made sure to hire Scottish actors and a Scottish composer in order to make the film as authentic as possible. Again, it pays off, and I find that I occasionally have to remind myself that this is an American film. I think the final aspect of Brave‘s success is how dark it is in tone. By 2012, there seemed to be a move away from dark elements in children’s films towards something lighter. Gone were the horrors of Don Bluth Animations and even the early Walt Disney cartoons. While films like The Land Before Time and The Dark Cauldron had supposedly scarred a generation, films like Frozen aimed to be a sort of “fluff piece.” Perhaps adults wanted to protect the innocence of their children for a little while longer or perhaps these happier films were easier to market. I do not know. What I do know is that Mor’du is perhaps the scariest character that PIXAR has ever given us, and perhaps the scariest in children’s films full stop. I think it’s good to challenge children like this, and to show that they are no less capable of handling fear than an adult. Judging by Brave‘s positive reception from both critics and audiences, it would seem like there is some foundation for this statement. The longest lasting impact from this film seems to have been Merida, which is a shame because there is so much more to Brave than just the main character.

Until Next Time…

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Cars 2

The year was 2011 and PIXAR Studios was on the verge of releasing it’s twelfth feature film. So far, it had been a series of box office hits and it seemed like nothing would ever slow them down however that all changed with Cars 2- a sequel to one of their biggest films and the second sequel the studio had ever made. While the first film was about slowing down and taking pleasure in the small things to get more out of life, this one was about how friends may argue but they are still friends. Of course, changing the moral of your story from one film to the next is to be expected if you want the stories to feel fresh and the moral here is a good one. There just happen to be spy involved.

This time around we follow the tow truck mater as he travels to the World Grand Prix with his best friend Lightning McQueen. After an argument breaks out between them, Mater head back to Radiator Springs, only to become embroiled in a spy mission which puts every race car at a deadly risk. This is a far cry from the simple premise of Cars but I’ll give it credit for being innovative. It’s like if a James Bond film was to focus on the sidekick rather than the man himself, which provides a fresh spin on the classic narrative and is an idea that I love. When it comes to Cars 2 though, I’m not such a fan of that role going to Mater. He’s a fleshed out character, just like the rest of the cast, but as I discussed in my review of the previous instalment [HERE] he isn’t my kind of character. Mater is a stereotypical depiction of a hillbilly, which is an issue in it’s own right, but I really believe that PIXAR is better than that. One of the reasons that I prefer PIXAR films to Disney is that they never speak down to children, opting instead to treat them as equals. Onward director Dan Scallon stated in a recent interview with UniLad [HERE] that “kids are smart, they go through some tough stuff so {talking down to them} doesn’t come up that often.” I feel like this isn’t the case with Mater, whose lack of intelligence is a recurring gag throughout the movie. It was tolerable in passing with Cars but making it the focal point here is quite damaging to the film. In a lot of ways it feels like they’re punching down and that is just not an acceptable form of comedy.

As for the spy plot, I have to admit, I’m kind of a fan. It’s a brand new direction for the studio and it’s certainly a bold one. Taking your story in a new direction is important in keeping your franchise feeling fresh and without that change, you have to lean on character development for growth. Sometimes change can lead to an iconic film like The Empire Strikes Back and sometimes it leads to the creation of something that many people would rather forget like Batman and Robin. Personally, I think that errs on the positive side despite some, like Time Out Magazine, claiming that it should be “towed off to the scrapyard.” There are countless spy films and with them comes countless gadgets but Cars 2 is required to take it one step further. What gadgets could a car use and where would they store them? What does a bathroom brawl look like and what about jetpacks? What would Sir Michael Cain sound like as some kind of Aston Martin with a moustache? Cars 2 manages to provide solid answers to all these questions and I was somewhat impressed by those answers. If you aren’t impressed by these answers, I hope that you can at least find them entertaining. Whether or not a spy plot belongs in a Cars movie is questionable but as a spy plot it wouldn’t go amiss in an instalment of the James Bond franchise and is ridiculously fun in parts. Perhaps the most questionable plot element is that the villains of the piece are “lemons” which are cars that don’t function as well as other high-brand models. Provided you don’t think of the real world ramifications of a rhetoric like this, you’ll be alright. If you are interested though, Jack Saint has a wonderful video on the very subject [HERE] but, be warned, there is profanity. It will also become impossible to view Cars 2 in the same way again, which is something I had to learn the hard way.

We now come to what is perhaps the most consistently wonderful part of any PIXAR movie- the score. In my review for the original film, I was mildly critical of the Pop!Country soundtrack which has mildly dated the film but that is not the case here. Cars 2 may have songs within the first half hour that I find forgettable but the score leans heavily on the spy aesthetic. I often listen to the score of a film as I’m writing about it and tracks like Mater’s Getaway are just as motivational as tracks from The Pirates of the Caribbean. It should come as no surprise then that the score was orchestrated by the always wonderful Michael Giacchino in his fourth collaboration with the studio. The art style of the film has also improved since its predecessor with some flat-out amazing wide shots of Japan, Italy and London. This is due, in part, to the evolution of CG technology in those 5 years but how that technology is used is just as important. If you aren’t super keen on this film, that is perfectly understandable but there is definitely enough in Cars 2 for every generation to enjoy.

Until Next Time…

Signed: Your friendly neighbour hood queer

Toy Story 3

I try to remain as unbiased as I can in my writing and only occasionally do I believe I’ve faltered. This is one of those occasions because Toy Story 3 is very special to me. Being born in 1997, I have grown up alongside PIXAR and, as a child, Toy Story was my go-to film. Even as I grew older and entered my teenage years I found myself returning to it and its sequel time after time whenever I was in need of some comfort. Toy Story 3 marked the first time that something I had been emotionally invested in since childhood came to an end. Wow, what an end it was.

We follow Buzz, Woody and the gang as they are accidentally donated to Sunnyside Daycare, mere days before Andy is due to leave for college. Woody, determined to remain by his side, attempts to return home but it picked up by a girl named Bonnie whose toys inform Woody that Sunnyside is not all sunshine and rainbows. He must choose between abandoning his friends for Andy or saving them. This is the darkest of PIXAR’s films so far in both colour and theme. The entirety of the third act takes place at night, as do the flashbacks, not to mention the time spent in bags and boxes. That is the haunting irony of Sunnyside Daycare, which should mark a delightfully pleasant retirement for Andy’s toys but is more like a war zone. Instead of remaining in the Butterfly Room with the 6 year olds, they are taken to the Caterpillar room where the 4 year olds dwell. Their first playtime in years ends with them covered in paint and drool in a blatant disregard for the age suggestions on their original packaging. I was never like these children, always taking great care with my toys, so to see them treated this way is heartbreaking. It may also be the most accurate depiction of children in children’s media.

It may seem like the children will end up as the antagonists but no, it’s much much worse. Lotso-Huggin’ Bear is a vindictive plush toy who was “abandoned” by his owner and now rules over Sunnyside with an iron fist. As Ken Doll so astutely observes, Lotso has transformed Sunnyside into a pyramid and placed himself on top. As a result, Toy Story 3 sort of becomes about overthrowing an unjust system of government which, after Wall-E, leads me to wonder how the people at PIXAR feel about The System. Of course, this is a children’s film, so Lotso eventually gets his comeuppance but not before the most gut-wrenching betrayal I’ve ever witnessed. The films climax takes place at a landfill where it seems as if our heroes are headed for certain destruction via a massive furnace. Lotso has the chance to save them but instead chooses to save only himself, leaving everybody else to continue their final journey. Inevitably they do not perish but we still have to sit through a scene where they embrace their own mortality and their end. This may be the darkest thing that PIXAR has ever done and I commend them for it. As a company, they have never spoken down to children and, in this moment, they are treating the children as adults. It shows a real sign of respect on PIXARs behalf for their young audience.

As the final film in a trilogy, Toy Story 3 wraps up the story perfectly. I’ve spoken before about the importance of payoff and how rewarding it is for longtime fans of a franchise. It’s especially prevalent in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies and in moments of Avengers Endgame but Toy Story 3 might outshine both of them. On a surface level, we get to witness the end of these characters’ arcs but it runs deeper than that. Parts of the film like Buzz’s escape from the Caterpillar Room and the entire opening sequence directly parallel moments in previous instalments. However the best homage to Toy Storys past lie in the score. Almost every single track from the first 2 films make one final return here. There’s Soldiers Mission, Woody’s Roundup and the most heart-wrenching of all You’ve Got a Friend in Me. The score can make or break a film. It’s there to illicit certain reactions and emotions but if it doesn’t do that, the film doesn’t come across the same. The music is designed to emotionally manipulate you- that’s its job- and Toy Story 3 uses that to its advantage. I must have seen this movie at least once a year since it was released and I have wept every single time. Even re-watching it for this piece, knowing that the story continues, I can’t seem to help myself. Nostalgia is a very powerful emotion and it will win me over every single time. The difference in detail between the CGI of this film and the CGI of the original Toy Story is enough to blow me away.

My generation are the last to witness this franchise upon release. Current and future generations are able to sit through the entire thing in the space of an afternoon. They won’t be impacted in exactly the same way but I wonder if they will be impacted in some way. That’s the thing about PIXAR- their pieces are timeless. They aren’t designed to appeal to one ausdience in the here and now, but to every audience of every age. I know that children will watch Toy Story 3 in the years to come and that they might consider it just another PIXAR film but it will continue to stick with me

To Infinity and Beyond…

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer