Coco

In 2014, 20th Century Fox released the animated children’s film The Book of Life. It follows a young man named Manolo, who having sacrificed himself to save his one true love, attempts to return to the land of the living with the help of his ancestors. The heartfelt story and the animation, which is possibly the closest thing to storyboard art I’ve ever seen, and the influence of Guillmero Del Toro, make it worth the watch. Despite what people at the time may have had you believe, it has nothing to to with PIXAR’s 2017 film Coco. It shares minor plot elements like the Day of the Dead, a mission to return home and a vibrant colour palette, but this does not make one a knock-off of the other. To delve any further than that will require delving into the plot, so let’s just jump into it.

Coco follows a young boy named Miguel who dreams of being a musician, but whose family have banned all music from their lives. After a bizarre incident on the Day of the Dead featuring the guitar of Miguel’s idol Ernesto de la Cruz, he finds himself in the land of the dead and needing to receive the blessing of an ancestor to return home. The plot here has several fundamental differences from The Book of Life, starting with the setting. Whilst both films take place in a small Mexican town, Coco takes place in a town where music feels like it has practically been outlawed by the influence of Miguel’s grandmother. If anything, it reminds me of the legendary 1984 film Footloose starring Kevin Bacon. The second deviance concerns the death of our main characters, because, unlike Manolo, Miguel isn’t actually dead. Manolo made a deal with death which required him to die and so his attempted escape from the land of the dead is something he technically shouldn’t be attempting. Miguel on the other hand ends up in the land of the dead purely by accident, and can leave whenever he wants. His ancestors are more than willing to provide the blessing he needs to go home, but only if he gives up music, which is where the conflict arises. To leave on his own terms, Miguel runs away to find De la Cruz, who he believes to be his great grandfather. Whilst The Book of Life‘s plot is fuelled by love, Coco‘s plot is fuelled by selfishness. I feel like claiming one film to be just like the other prevents either film from thriving on its own. They are both worth watching, and thanks to the Fox/Disney merger, you can find both on Disney+.

A really interesting aspect of Coco is what it has to say about songwriting credits. Over the course of the plot, Miguel meets and befriends Hector, who claims to be friends with De la Cruz but as we reach the film’s climax, the truth presents itself. It transpires that Hector was De la Cruz’s musical partner in life, and that he wrote all of De la Cruz’s songs- including his biggest hit Remember Me, which Hector had actually written for his daughter. To make matters worse, it is revealed that De la Cruz poisoned Hector, because he was planning on returning home before they had managed to make it in the industry. I’m not aware of anything quite like this happening in real life, but the discussion surrounding songwriting credits dates back quite a while. It isn’t something that I’m even remotely qualified to dive into, but I find the use of this discussion in Coco to be really interesting. Ernesto de la Cruz became one of the world’s biggest stars, to the point where he is still left tributes by his adoring fans, whilst Hector who is responsible for his success, was murdered and forgotten. The film definitely comes down on Hector’s side, and therefore, the side of the songwriter. But songwriting credits aren’t just about legacy.

Songwriting credits are vastly important because it determines which people become popular, famous and perhaps most importantly wealthy. It is exceedingly ironic that this message is present in a film being distributed by the Walt Disney Company, whose first feature length film Snow White and the Seven Dwarves made them millions, but had no voice actor credits. The opening credits to the film only feature the production staff, as was common practice at the time, but nobody that provided their voice had there name attached to anything, including the promotional material. The voice actress for Snow White was named Adriana Caselotti, and she passed away on January 18, 1997 at the age of 80, having never made as much money as she should have for such an important role. There are still no voice acting credits in any re-releases of Snow White either. Fast forward to today, and even PIXAR itself is guilty of overlooking people. Mama Coco is based on a real person (María de la Salud Ramírez Caballer) from a real town (Santa Fe de la Laguna) in Mexico, and whilst many people know this now, providing a small tourism boost to the town, she has never been properly acknowledged by PIXAR. As a result of her involvement and the team’s trip to see her, Coco is saturated with Mexican culture. The colours and the designs make this movie pop, and that is amplified by the stunning soundtrack, which has both English and Mexican dubs of its songs. To me, this feels like it is to PIXAR what The Emperor’s New Groove was to Disney, although Coco has proved to be more successful. Which hurts just a little bit.

It’s a common complaint these days that the film industry is all sequels, prequels and remakes, and for the span of a few years, PIXAR wasn’t immune to this ‘trend’. However Coco is slotted quite nicely in between all that, and is perhaps one of the most original films the company has produced in a while. I have to confess that I nearly forgot to review Coco. In my list of PIXAR releases, my eyes somehow glazed over the title, but I’m thankful that I noticed my mistake. It’s worthy of being noticed.

Until Next Time…

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Cars 3

The Cars trilogy is a bit of an odd one. I found the first film to be delightful enough, and a decent dive into the “find yourself” trope, while the second was a mostly entertaining spy/action flick. This brings us to the third instalment, which returns to the “find yourself” trope in what, I think, might end up being the best in the series. There has been a noticeable amount of change in the 6 years between Cars 2 and 3, and so it is perhaps no surprise that the series chose to return to its character-centred roots. With the upgrade in technology and the once new animators taking on more senior roles within the company, there was clearly a passing of the torch on the horizon. That’s what Cars 3 has always felt like to me – a company with its eyes on the future.

We follow star racecar Lighning McQueen as his career faces a massive upheaval with the rise of more technological cars like Jackson Storm. As the last of the old guard and recovering from a severe crash, Lightning is determined to be better than ever, leading him to a new training regime under the eyes of Cruz Ramirez. If you are familiar with the sentimentality of PIXAR and the way in which they tell stories, then you can probably guess how this is all going to end, but that doesn’t make the journey any less powerful. This, like the original Cars, is an Unwilling Mentor story, with Cruz being the unknowing trainee. For the majority of the plot it feels like Lightning might still be in with a fighting chance, he isn’t that rookie filled with unwarranted bravado anymore, he’s a veteran of the sport who is in a great deal of denial and fear- which are perhaps the greatest motivators. The parallels between the original Doc/Lightning dynamic and the Lightning/Cruz dynamic are a given, but Cars 3 spends a little more time on the former than you might think.

Sadly, the world of Cars lost one of its primary voices when the voice of Doc Hudson – the late Paul Newman- passed away. Whilst there are moments in Cars 2 that feel made to honour him and his legacy, this film practically feels like a love letter. There is no denying how heavily his loss is felt during this film, and how much he was loved by all involved. Thanks to un-used and re-used audio, he receives one last turn as the Fabulous Hudson Hornet, but never once does it feel cheap. Whilst Cars 2 was also affected, there never seemed to be a quiet enough spot to properly acknowledge the impact that Paul Newman had. Cars 3 could not have done that job more beautifully.

Whilst the returning cast members are all wonderful in their roles, there is plenty of time dedicated to the talents of the newcomers. Some of these newcomers are already veteran actors themselves, with the likes of Nathan Fillion, Chris Copper and Arnie Hammer providing their voices. By this point, PIXAR has a solid enough reputation that it can call in major actors like these for minor roles, and it feels like a turning point for the company. While it was noticeable in prior films (see Sigourney Weaver in Finding Dory) you now practically expect to hear an A-List star. This isn’t a small studio anymore, it is a multimillion dollar company and a household name. New animators are being hired and trained at the “PIXAR University” all the time, which means that they are now capable of releasing two films per year instead of one film every two years. PIXAR releasing a new film used to feel like a major event, and while it is still A Moment, it doesn’t feel like that gravitas is really there anymore. It has become part of the machine, as it were. I suppose in the same way that Cars 3 is a thank you to the days of yore, my review has become a thank you to PIXAR of yore.

This is now the 18th PIXAR review that I have written and I often feel like I am repeating myself. By now, you know that I find the animation to be first rate, the score outstanding and the voice acting brilliant. I never tire of saying those things, and I have been saying them for quite some time. I know I’m only 23, but watching Cars 3 was a reminder that I’m not some doe-eyed child anymore, and that it’s been more than a decade since I was. I watch this film and I relate more to Lightning and the other racing veterans than I do the newcomers like Cruz. I suppose being blessed with two siblings makes me pine more for nostalgia than I would otherwise. My sister was 2 when the first Cars film was released, and it was one of the first films she ever saw. Cars 2 was released the year before my brother was born and he has now surpassed the age that I was when my sister came along. It’s really odd to me that I have become emotionally connected to the Cars franchise, but that is the situation in which I find myself.

Cars 3 is a film about life. It’s about feeling lucky to live the one you have, and trying not to mourn what has been. It’s about the march of time and the rise of technology and about moving forward. It’s about how sheltered some children might be compared to others, and about whether or not that is for their betterment. Bob Dylan once wrote that “the times, they are a-changin” and movies about life, like Cars 3, make me feel that deep within my soul. Make the most of the time you have with the people you love and the places around you. Appreciate what you can while you can because life’s a beach… and then you drive.

Until Next Time…

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Disney Investor Day 2020

It’s that time of the year when Walt Disney Studios gather their investors together to display some of the projects that they have coming down the pipeline. As with previous years, we, the general public, were able to attend via livestream, although the majority of new footage was reserved purely for investors. With Disney’s intention to provide at least 100 new pieces of content each year, there was a lot of information to unpack, and that’s not what I’m here to do. If you’d like full rundowns of the information, they are readily available online from a variety of sources. Instead, I am going to go through the announcements that had me excited and/or intrigued, although if we are being honest I will end up watching most of what they create anyway.

Sunny

The first major piece of news for me was the confirmation that It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia has been given the go ahead for 4 more series. This pushes the total number of series up to 18 and makes it the longest running live-action sitcom in history – ahead of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet at 14 series. I can’t wait to spend more time with the horrible owners of Paddy’s Pub.

Kenobi

News of a series set around Star Wars legend Obi Wan Kenobi was announced at last year’s Disney Expo, but we now know that the limited series will pick up 10 years after Revenge of the Sith. This sets it 1 year after the events of Solo: A Star Wars Story and 5 years before the TV Series Rebels. The major news is that prequel star Hayden Christensen is set to reprise his role as Anakin Skywalker (now Darth Vader). I’m sold.

Visions

Star Wars Visions will be a series of short films brought to us by some of the finest Japanese anime creators. You read that right, we’re getting Anime Star Wars. No, I don’t feel like I need to explain further.

Rogue Squadron

With a title taken from the video games of the late 1990s, which were set between the events of A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, I can only assume then is when this film takes place. The real news here is that it will be directed by the wonderful Patty Jenkins, who is fresh of the heels of the Wonder Woman films. This makes her the first woman to take charge of a Star Wars film and I can think of nothing more important or exciting for this franchise than that.

Wimpy Kid

The book series Diary of a Wimpy Kid has already been adapted into a set of live action films, but this next instalment is to be animated in the style of the original books’ illustrations. I’ve always felt the story would work better that way and it’s nice to see it finally happening.

Rescue Rangers

I did not expect to be excited by this news, but this will be a live action/animation hybrid featuring comedians John Mulaney and Andy Samberg. These are a few of my favourite things/people and I can’t wait to see how it plays out.

Tiana

It would appear that Disney+ Series are the new direct-to-video sequels, and we’re getting a few of them. Tiana is taking us back into the world of The Princess and the Frog which, I feel, may be one of the most underrated Disney productions.

Lightyear

I’ll be honest, I’m looking forward to everything that PIXAR is developing, but this one is especially exciting. This film will be a Buzz Lightyear origin story that inspired the toy in the universe of Toy Story and I’ve kind of always wanted that. Plus they have Chris Evans onboard to voice the titular spaceman. Now we just need a TV Series of Woody’s Roundup.

Wandavison

This TV Series looks like it will be the most original concept that Marvel Studios has produced in a very long time. The aesthetic looks really interesting, and Elizabeth Olsen is more than good enough to carry a series of her own. I’m looking forward to perhaps seeing the full extent of Scarlet Witches’ powers.

Loki

I was probably going to watch this anyway because, Tom Hiddleston seems like he has a lot of fun in the role, but now I’ve seen footage of the show itself and it does look like fun. They also have Owen Wilson, and time travel, which is a combination I would very much like to have.

She Hulk

This is the closest thing we are going to get to a solo Hulk venture for quite a while, which is reason enough to be excited. It’s also going to be focused on her role as a lawyer, so according to Kevin Feige “there’s no telling who might show up”. This feels like a Daredevil tease, but what is confirmed is that Eli Roth will be returning as The Abomination, a character not seen since 2008.

What about the rest?

You’d think that with so many new pieces of media in the realm of both Star Wars and Marvel that I’d have more items on this list, and I’d have thought so too. The thing is that practically all of the other content they announced ties directly into something else, and I would really like some stand-alone content. The Mandalorian has been some of the best Star Wars content, I feel, because it can stand on its own. As for Marvel, I’m honestly a little burned out, as many people are, I think. With both franchises ending their major film plans last year, there was a lot of hype, and for some, a lot of disappointment. I love these franchises as much as anybody (heck, I’m going to keep watching and probably enjoying them regardless) but I think slowing down before speeding back up would have given everyone a little time to breathe. There’s something to be said for selective content.

Signed: Your hypocritical 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

Brave

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

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

Up

It has now been over a decade since PIXAR’s Up hit our screens and I believe that it remains one of their finest achievements. Despite being their 10th feature length film it is only the second to have solely human protagonists, with the first being The Incredibles in 2004. Whilst the latter is an exciting superhero movie for the ages, the former plays out as more of a “slice of life” piece. It manages to accomplish this while remaining emotional throughout, with the usual of comedy that we have come to expect from PIXAR. It is still remembered as one of the most moving films of the 2000s and upon re-watching, it isn’t hard to see why.

We follow elderly widow Carl Fredrickson as he attempts to make good on a promise to his late wife that they will one day make it to Paradise Falls, which he accomplishes via floating house. What should be a relatively easy trip is complicated by the stowaway Wilderness Explorer Scout Russel, and later his desire to protect a rare bird that he has dubbed Kevin from famous explorer Charles Muntz. At an hour and a half long, this is the shortest of PIXAR’s films so far, but it manages to pack one of the biggest punches. The opening introduces us to Carl and his eventual wife Ellie as children, allowing us to watch their relationship grow through a wordless montage set to Micheal Giachinno’s haunting score. The sequence lasts just over 5 minutes, and once we finally arrive in the present day we understand and feel Carl’s pain. He has become a curmudgeon, refusing to sell his house to contractors, and we the audience don’t want him to either. This house is filled with memories and he doesn’t want to let go. All this is jeopardised when he unwittingly hits one of the construction workers over the head with his walking stick, leading to a court ruling that he be moved to a retirement home. This is only the third time that PIXAR has shown blood on-screen, after Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, which helps add to the weight of his actions.

Carl may be the main focus, but there is as much time dedicated to Russel. As a former Scout myself, Russel hits me a little differently. I see in him so many of my fondest memories and so many other scouts that I have known. Though I’m not going back, it is children like Russel who convinced me to remain a Scout Leader for as long as I did. Watching Russel grow as a person is one of the true highlights of Up, especially when you take his backstory into consideration. He never really sees his father and seems determined to earn his Assisting the Elderly badge because his father promised to be at the ceremony. This gives Carl the child he was never able to have and Russel the father figure that he’s always wanted, leading to a beautiful dynamic. I could discuss the rare bird Kevin, but she is over-shadowed by the true animal star- Dug. Dug is a golden retriever, owned by Muntz, who is seen as a fool by his canine peers. He stumbles upon our trio accidentally and soon decides that they are better masters for him. But upon everyone’s arrival at Muntz’s airship, he is placed in ‘The Cone of Shame’ for losing the bird, Kevin. He soon breaks free, and becomes his own dog so Dug’s story is literally that of an underdog.

The case of Charles Muntz is an interesting one. We are introduced to him as an elderly man, Carl’s hero, and a possible new friend. But once he discovers that they have been hiding Kevin, his demeanour changes rapidly. He becomes determined to destroy our heroes and take Kevin back to America as his trophy. This “surprise villain” trope is one that we have now become accustomed to, and even by 2009 the general public seemed to be tiring of it. I, for one, think it is an excellent trope if done well, and it is definitely done well here. PIXAR had used this trope before, and have gone on to use it several times, but Charles Muntz remains one of the best, and most terrifying examples.

After 23 years and 10 feature films, it’s evident just how fast computer animation was advancing. The scenery is more stunning than ever, with a research team embarking on a trip to South America in order to ensure they had the correct plants for the area. Not a single leaf is left un-animated, while the physics of the water and the lightning are still astounding. Perhaps Up‘s biggest achievement remains the 20,622 individually animated balloons that it takes to lift Carls house off the ground. There is an impressive variety of vibrant colours and the light shining through them leaves the most stunning of reflections. It remains one of the most beautiful feats of animation I have ever seen, even after all this time. These visuals are matched perfectly by the score. This is Giachinno’s third time working for PIXAR but his first without director Brad Bird, and he absolutely nails it. There are moments of whimsy and wonderment alongside dread and despair, making for a stunning experience. Up may tackle with issues like letting go of your past and meeting your heroes, but I think that one word describes it best: Stunning.

Until Next Time…

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Wall-E

40 minutes. That’s how long it takes for Wall-E to introduce us to any people. 40 whole minutes. The film is only an hour and a half long, yet it waits until nearly halfway into its runtime before properly diving into the plot. For comparison, you could watch an entire episode of Doctor Who in that amount of time. The most impressive aspect of all that is that not a second of it is wasted, and once the plot does finally get going, it is thoroughly enjoyable and emotional.

We follow Wall-E, a waste disposal robot, as he leaves a long-since abandoned Earth in pursuit of his new love EVE; a sleek robot seeking signs that humanity can return home from the stars. It’s a fairly simple plot- an environmental message disguised as a love story between two robots. Wall-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter: Earth class) has been alone, for centuries, and developed an inquisitive personality. All he really wants is someone to share his wonder and excitement with and it finally arrives with EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator). She has come to Earth in search of organic life to certify that the planet has become habitable in the 705 years that humanity has spent on their space cruise-liners. Upon finding a solitary sapling, she initiates low power mode, during which time Wall-E keeps her safe from the harsh environment. He has no knowledge of what has happened to her but continues to protect her in a demonstration of pure love and kindness. With a vocabulary of only several words between them, they must rely on these words and actions to show how much they care, providing us with some of the most adorable chemistry I’ve ever witnessed. I genuinely could have spent the entire hour and a half just being on Earth with these two but, alas, EVE is retrieved by a spaceship and returned to the human colony with her new friend stowing away. As Wall-E clings to the ships outside, we get to experience the vast beauty of space through his eyes. Again, I could have spent much longer here, just soaking in the infinite majesty of the universe.

So here we are, half way through the movie and the real meat of the plot can begin. In the 705 years since leaving Earth, the subsequent generations of human have grown obese, focused on nothing but the holo-screens in front of them. Their ship (The Axiom), everything on it and, indeed, everything on Earth, was manufactured and owned by the company BNL (Buy ‘N’ Large) whose sole aim seems to have been making life as easy as possible. Having ruined the planet with their consistent need for consumerism, humans have now in effect ruined themselves the exact same way. They were so focused on themselves that they forgot to take care of the people around them and their home. If only they hadn’t allowed one single company to own absolutely everything.

With the plant suddenly missing, EVE presumes that Wall-E has taken it, which is a bit harsh, and demands that he return to Earth immediately. It is here, with half an hour to go, that we learn the shocking truth about the Axioms auto-pilot Otto. He is the one attempting to destroy any evidence of the plant, hiding it from the Captain himself, in an attempt to stop humanity from ever returning home. You may be getting some 2001: A Space Odessy vibes but, this time, Otto is simply following protocol. He long ago recieved a message from the prsident of BNL (and subsequently Earth) that the planet was a lost cause and that the safest thing for humanity to do was live amongst the stars. As a result, Wall-E doesn’t have a villain per se. The true fight, so we’re shown, is between us and capitalism.

With a wonderful story like this, it only makes sense that the score and sound design should match, and it proves to be spectacular. Whether it be the low hum of EVE hovering or the sound of rocks as they fall through Wall-Es caterpillar tracks, these sounds feel real. Indeed, the film makes no secret that everything here could actually come to pass, down to the use of live action footage. the blend of computer animation and live action, at least in a computer animated film, is rare. Which is a shame, because it leads to a unique viewing experience. It adds to the reality of the film’s message- that this future is all too tangible. On top of that is the somewhat ethereal score which, whilst adding a sense of whimsy, adds a sense of dread. It’s no wonder that Wall-E won the Academy Award for Best Animated Picture and no surprise that it is remembered so fondly. If only people would remember its message too.

Until Next Time…

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer