Toy Story 4

Toy Story 4

“Tell me a story.” Mission accomplished again by Pixar. Toy Story 4 shows that you can go to the sequel well over and over if you keep delivering compelling stories.

Oh, and it helps to have characters who are, by now, not just familiar but also beloved. Cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks) gets the main spotlight in TS4. He’s one of many toys in the closet of young Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) and he is NOT one of her favorites. But he’s the one who is most concerned about Bonnie’s ability to cope with the pressures of kindergarten orientation.

A handmade toy that Bonnie assembles from a plastic spork and a pipe cleaner becomes her primary concern. “Forky” (Tony Hale) becomes a member of Bonnie’s toy menagerie but he has little self-respect. Woody steps in to help him focus.

Bonnie’s family takes an RV trip to a town with an antique store. The store and its wares provide an intriguing setting for toy adventures.

Woody reconnects with Bo Peep (Annie Potts) and meets new characters Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) and Duke Caboom (Keanu Reaves). The latter two are inspired by Mattel’s Chatty Cathy and the Evel Knievel motorcycle toy that never performed quite as well in real life as on the TV spot.

Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) keeps showing up and continues to push a button on his chest that generates a recorded soundbite. He considers this his “inner voice” and takes guidance from those brief gems.

Among the film’s most entertaining voice actors are Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as a pair of stuffed animals who escape from a carnival game prize wall.

Toy Story 4 is filled with delight and fun surprises from beginning to end. There are a couple of scary situations but the peril is less intense than that seen in Toy Story 3.

Pixar’s animation and tech skills have been a given for a quarter century. Other studios have also turned out impressive images and effects. But it is Pixar’s storytelling ability makes most of their films special.

Toy Story 4 is yet another Pixar winner.

(Note: In a change from the usual Pixar format, there is no animated short running before TS4.)

 

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Inside Out

Okay, Pixar is back. They’ve made a great movie again. Inside Out has many things to like and will appeal to audiences of all ages. Unless you are a total curmudgeon, you will be charmed.

The concept, in case you’ve missed the zillion or so TV ads for the film, is a trip inside a young girl’s mind where her various personified emotions face off with one another. It’s a fresh expansion of the old “devil versus angel” bit (fighting for control of a character’s conscience) we saw in numerous mid-20th century cartoons.

Inside the head of young Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) reside Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black). Riley’s preteen life is jarred when her parents (Kyle MacLachlan and Diane Lane) move from Minnesota to San Francisco.

Riley’s interior world features: a giant control panel where the five emotions interact, a huge repository of memories (each depicted by balls of various colors) and her islands of personality (representing family, hockey, goofball behavior, etc.). It’s a clever depiction of the many facets of thought that rule our brains.

Inside Out is funny early and late with touchy, feely stuff in middle and, naturally, toward the end. The film moves at an acceptable pace, though portions of the film’s middle section (when Joy and Sadness go deep into Riley’s psyche) become a bit tedious.

Among the voice actors, Amy Poehler as Joy is the film’s perfect anchor. Lewis Black as Anger takes full advantage of the many good opportunities to make his presence known. The others handle their roles adequately. Richard Kind gets silly while voicing Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong.

The cynical voices inside my head are urging me not to succumb to the sappy sweetness and manipulative storytelling of Inside Out, designed to diddle with my softer emotional side. But those directives are being drowned out by the upbeat voices that are encouraging me to give in to the gooey, warm, fuzzy feelings Inside Out evokes. This cool head trip requires no drugs to get you high. Welcome back, Pixar!

Home

 

If aliens do ever invade earth, I hope they resemble the Boovs who occupy our planet in the new film Home. The Boovs, represented in the film mainly by the enthusiastic and lovable Oh (Jim Parsons) and the bumbling leader Captain Smeg (Steve Martin), are cute and purple—or red, blue and even green, depending on what they’re feeling.

The Boovs first move upon arriving on our planet is to relocate all the humans to Happy Humanstown, allowing the Boovs free access to all the good stuff left behind. (I thought immediately of the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, but I’d guess most members of the film’s target demo will not make that connection.)

The Boovs manage to transport folks by turning off gravity and, as humans rise skyward, grabbing them to go for a little ride. But one human manages to avoid the Boov move. She’s young Tip, voiced by Rihanna wih her Barbadian accent. Of course, she and Oh meet up and take off in her car.

As Oh and Tip (and Tip’s cute cat called Pig) travel the world looking for Tip’s mom (voiced by Jennifer Lopez), they come to form a solid friendship.

While Home doesn’t approach the level of a Pixar film or other Dreamworks animation efforts like the Shrek, Madagascar and Dragon movies, it’s a decent effort that should satisfy kids and parents looking for harmless animated fun. Not a must-see, but not bad.

Maybe the best thing I can say about Home is that it kept a theater full of kids attentive to what was onscreen. Often, at Saturday morning preview screenings, the young ones get restless and chatty at some point during the movie. Not that they were laughing all the way through, but the crowd checking out Home appeared to be absorbed in the film. That’s a good thing.

 

 

Big Hero 6

 

What a cool movie! If I were a 12-year-old kid, the new animated film Big Hero 6 could easily become an all-time favorite!

Big Hero 6 has robots, action, sadness and joy. And it sets the table for more adventures for this sextet (who don’t really refer to themselves Big Hero 6 until the end of the movie).

Big Hero 6 presents a clever blend of America and Japan. It’s set in San Fransokyo, a city with cable cars and steep hills and also has cherry blossom trees. The lead character is Hiro Hamada (voiced by Ryan Potter), a teenager with a Japanese name but no discernable Japanese features. An African-American character has the nickname Wasabi (voiced by Damon Wayans, Jr.).

The movie shows influences from films of the anime genre, but it doesn’t have the look of typical Japanese anime. And, in this first year without an official Pixar release in 2 decades, Big Hero 6 fills the gap nicely. (Like 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6 is made under the Disney Animation nameplate, but has that Pixar look and feel.)

Hiro is a boy genius. Already done with high school, he spends his time building robots. Big Hero 6 opens with robots doing battle, a la Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Ems. When Hiro’s brother shows him around the “nerd school” he attends, Hiro applies. To gain admission, he builds microbots which, when performing together, can do amazing things.

When tragedy strikes his family and the “nerd school” and Hiro’s bots disappear, he engages 4 of his brother’s friends and an amazing inflatable robot named Baymax (voiced by Scott Adsit). Baymax provides many funny moments along with his heroics. Baymax is designed to diagnose medical issues in humans, but is quickly shown to have greater abilities.

An evil villain gains control of the microbots and, with his commands, is able to move them in ways that call to mind certain scenes in various Japanese animes. The pursuit of the villain and the resolution of the adventure are not quite as entertaining as the film’s beginning—especially that first visit to “nerd school.” But, overall, Big Hero 6 provides great fun and cool robots.

In case you’re unaware, Big Hero 6 is adapted from a Marvel comic book series, so stick around for a special coda after the credits.

 

 

Monsters University

Happy news! Pixar has made an excellent movie. Monsters University reclaims the magic. After the messy Cars 2 and the merely passable Brave, MU does what the best Pixar movies have always done: tell a great story in an entertaining way.

Does Monsters University break new ground? No. (Well, there are a few new monsters.) But two of Pixar’s most likeable characters, Sulley and Mike, return to the screen in a prequel (or, if you prefer, “origin story”) to 2002’s Monsters, Inc. Voiced by John Goodman and Billy Crystal, respectively, the duo is revealed not to have been chums from the beginning. In fact, there were hard feelings and resentments between the two. But circumstances in the film dictate that they team up to reach a goal.

Both wash out of Scare School at the U (for different reasons) and seek redemption in the school’s annual Scare Games. They make a deal with the stern headmaster Miss Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) that if their team wins the Scare Games, they’ll get back into Scare School.

The Scare Games are clever and entertaining. Will these underdogs and their fellow MU misfits make it through to the finals? Will they find the redemption they seek? Think you can guess what happens? Maybe not.

MU is a cute and funny film that will make you happy. Whereas Monsters, Inc. was a bit more about Sulley, Monsters University leans more toward Mike and his challenges. MU has a final act that takes them from the University all the way to the story that is told in Monsters Inc.

Regarding Pixar, Disney and branding: 2012 was confusing. Brave, a Pixar branded film looked like a Disney branded film whereas Wreck-It Ralph (officially a Disney film) had the story, look, voice-acting virtuosity and whimsy that have been Pixar trademarks. That branding may be further muddied later this summer when a Pixar-looking movie called Planes appears as a Disney nameplate movie. Disney, of course, owns Pixar.

Regarding John Goodman’s distinctive voice: My daughter was working at a busy retail establishment during last holiday season here in St. Louis. She said she heard Sulley’s voice and looked around. There was John Goodman standing in her checkout line.

At the end of every Pixar film, a list of babies born to production staff during the making of the movie is evidence of the time and effort that goes into making such a film. Sadly, at the screening I attended the film cut off before getting that far into the credits. That’s one reason to see it again. Another is that Pixar movies, for me, tend to improve with repeat viewings. Monsters University is rated G.

Wreck-It Ralph

“Wreck-It Ralph” is big fun for gamers of all ages. Gen-Xers, Gen-Y, boomers & little kids will find much to love in this Pixar-like animated feature.

Ralph, voiced by John C. Reilly, is the guy who wrecks things in an arcade game called Fix-It Felix. After 30 years, he’s tired of being the bad guy. Felix, voiced by Jack McBrayer, is the one who gets all the love and, at the end of each successful play of the game, a medal.

Ralph wants a medal and seeks one in a neighboring game in the arcade called Hero’s Duty where he encounters Calhoun, a violent babe with a killer bod, voiced by Jane Lynch. Once he gets the medal he escapes to another game called Sugar Rush, where he meets up with an extremely cute kid, Vanellope, voiced by Sarah Silverman. This is where the film’s plot really takes off.

“Wreck-It Ralph” is inspired by and has references to most of the great video games of the last three decades. Some of the film’s elements call to mind “Monsters, Inc.” Ralph is similar to Sully from that 2001 Pixar classic. Vanellope is not unlike any the three “Powerpuff Girls,” a Cartoon Network hit series from a decade or so ago.

“Wreck-It Ralph” is almost a Pixar film. It looks like a Pixar film. Executive producer is Pixar’s John Lasseter. There’s a memorable short cartoon before the movie. The credits mention help from the “Pixar brain trust.” And, as with Pixar films, the credits contain a list of “production babies.” Really, the only thing that keeps it from being a Pixar film is the absence of the bouncing desk lamp.

As with most Pixar films, the performances of the voice actors are uniformly excellent. The four mentioned previously, along with Alan Tudyk as King Candy, form one of the best voice ensembles in recent memory.

Among my favorite visual jokes in the film: the cops in Sugar Rush (a world populated by sweet treats) are doughnuts.

“Wreck-It Ralph” is both nostalgic and fresh, at the same time. It gets the high score for this weekend.

ParaNorman

In the wake of the first few Pixar hits, many studios and production houses took shots at making animated movies. Dreamworks succeeded with the “Shrek” films, but others had problems.

In the last 15 or so years, we have seen tons of animated films that get a lot of things right, but fall short on that one key element: a good story.

“ParaNorman,” sadly, falls into that category. Like many of its animated brethren, it has a distinctive look, amusing characters and funny lines. But the plot is just not that good.

Norman is a kid who has that sixth sense: he can see and communicate with dead people. One of the deceased citizens of his small town shares information that leads him to try to break a centuries-old witch’s curse. Getting to that result is a roundabout cinematic journey.

“ParaNorman” looks great. It was shot in stop-motion 3-D by the same studio that made 2009’s “Coraline.” But here is the big difference: “Coraline” was based on a successful Neil Gaiman novel; “ParaNorman,” is an original screenplay, written by co-director Chris Butler.

For fans of stop-motion animation (myself included), “ParaNorman” is a must-see. For everybody else, it’s a maybe. There are some parts of the movie that may frighten younger children, but you know your kids better that I do. Parental guidance is suggested.

 

 

Brave

The story in the newest Pixar movie, “Brave,” is, in some ways, like those in the old Disney fairy tale movies. In one major way, though, “Brave” is very different from the Disney of days gone by: the movie’s central character is a girl. And she’s not some helpless princess. She’s a girl who knows what she wants.

What she wants is to go against the traditions of her kingdom which dictate who she’ll marry. This girl, Merida, a Scottish redhead, has spunk. She is a character whose actions will be embraced by young girls (and maybe even some boys) around the world.

But does this movie break new ground? Most of the Pixar movies have given us imaginative characters like talking cars, talking toys, talking dogs, lovable monsters, etc. “Brave” has characters that could’ve starred in a Disney animated movie 50 years ago. No, it does not break new ground—with the exception of Merida’s feistiness.

Most of the characters have strong Scottish accents but, happily, they all can be clearly understood—with one notable comical exception. The voice cast includes Kelly Macdonald (as Merida), Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters, Robbie Coltrane and, of course, John Ratzenberger.

If you go to see “Brave,” you’ll want to stay until the house lights come up. First, to see the list of babies born to crew members during the film’s production—well over 60 for this one—which is traditionally included in the end credits of each Pixar movie. And second, for the brief but funny scene that ties up one of the movie’s loose ends.

Until last year’s overstuffed and tedious “Cars 2,” each Pixar release was a “must see.” Sadly, while “Brave” captures the magic of a bygone Disney era, it is not a step forward for Pixar. It’s a good animated movie but not a “must see.”