Sunday, June 30, 2013

Re-Ranking the 14 Pixar Films

Allow yourself to be transported to roughly a year ago.  Way back then, I posted a list ranking the 13 Pixar films that had been released up to that point.  Well, here we are a year later, with a new Pixar film to add to the list.  But rather than just stick it into the existing list, I've reevaluated all my opinions about each film, so there might be a few surprises in store if you're expecting all the other films to still all be in the same order!

14. Cars 2

Cars 2 easily manages to retain its spot at the bottom of the list.  Last year I still tried to defend the film somewhat but, let's be honest here.  Cars 2 is a bad film.  Its story is not very interesting, it's characters are flat, and the fact that the film has almost no heart combined with some surprisingly dark scenes just give the entire film an unpleasant after-taste.  It's very much watchable, but the argument that "even the worst Pixar film is better than all other animated films" is definitely not the case here.  Sorry, Michael Caine...

13. Brave

I was still trying to like Brave when I wrote last year's list.  But I just can't like it.  It's a gorgeous film for sure, but that's really the only thing it has going for it.  To date, this is the only Pixar film that I don't own in my DVD/Blu-Ray collection.  It's also the first Pixar film in years that I only saw once in theaters.  It's story is just too contrived and uninteresting for me to want to revisit it.  I didn't hate it the first time I watched it, but I have almost no desire to watch it again.  So, in the end, Brave isn't really bad.  It's just very very forgettable.  Perhaps another pass at the script could have fine-tuned it into something special, but the film that was released just wasn't quite there yet.

12. The Incredibles

Brave's bump down means that The Incredibles gets to stay in the #12 spot for another year.  Once again, there isn't really anything wrong with this movie.  It's a really well put together movie.  I've just never been able to understand the appeal of it.  It's very solid, but it's style just doesn't grab me, so I hardly ever feel like revisiting it.  On the plus side, Brad Bird's audio commentary on the DVD is one of the finest tracks to accompany an animated film, so I at least have to give it credit for that.

11. Cars

I still like Cars.  I still don't love Cars.  I still think it's a bit too long for the story its trying to tell, and could have been a stronger film with some brisker pacing.  But, as a whole, it's likable and easy to enjoy.  Not one of Pixar's masterpieces, but certainly not deserving of the amount of hate that gets heaped upon it, sometimes seemingly just because of how poor its sequel is.

10. A Bug's Life

I really want to rate A Bug's Life higher than the #10 spot.  I just watched it again recently and it's so good.  Really, if you haven't watched A Bug's Life recently, give it another look.  It's likable, funny, and has an incredibly good story.  It's also home to one of Randy Newman's best film scores.  But, unfortunately, A Bug's Life just doesn't have any particular elements that I really latch onto the way most other Pixar films do.  No particular characters I really love.  No particular scenes I really remember above the rest.  It's still an extremely good film, though, and a fantastic example how charming Pixar films can be.

9. Monsters University

Pixar's latest film manages to find a nice comfortable spot here in the middle of the list.  It's very much like A Bug's Life in that it doesn't necessarily stand out in any major ways, but it's constantly enjoyable and fun throughout.  The biggest advantage it has over Bug's Life is its memorable cast, headed up by the always easy-to-root-for Mike Wazowski and James P. Sullivan.  Throw in a really great and realistic message for audiences, and you have a nice solid prequel.

8. Up

I used to like Up a lot more than I do now, and I still find it to be an incredibly moving film.  These days, however, I've started to lean toward the opinion that the more fantastical elements of the movie just aren't quite as compelling as the grounded-in-reality story of Carl and Ellie.  It's still a thoroughly enjoyable film, and it never fails to make me cry, but during some of the more action-oriented sequences I find myself looking at my watch a bit, hoping to get to the next quite emotional scene, as they are really the main reason I enjoy the film.

7. Toy Story 3

Whoa!  What happened here?  My #2 pick from last year dropped all the way to #7?  What's that about?  Well, after watching all the Toy Story films again in the recent past, I can't help but feel like Toy Story 3 maybe just went a little too serious for its own good.  It's still a great film, and all of the praise I gave it last year still applies to it today.  But now, looking back, it does feel like a rather jarring transition to go from the incredibly funny Toy Story 1 and 2 to the more muted and melancholy Toy Story 3.  A good way to end the series, sure, but not really the most fun film to go back to and just watch on its own.  I find there are a few other Pixar movies that I tend to be more interested in revisiting over this one these days.

6. Ratatouille

The film about the little chef that could has definitely grown in my eyes a bit since last year.  I'd still argue that it has some pacing problems and that the story could have been tightened up in a few places but, by and large, it's hard to imagine the film working better than it does right now.  The visuals are beautiful, the music sublime, and every single character is interesting and easy to invest in.  From Remy's almost fanatical passion about what he does to Chef Skinner's increasing paranoia about ghost rats to Anton Ego's delightfully dark but sophisticated way of carrying himself, all the characters leave a lasting impression here.  Ratatouille is definitely unlike other Pixar films, but I mean that in the best possible way!

5. Monsters Inc.

There you go, Monsters Inc.!  You made it into the Top 5!  I lamented not having a higher spot on the list for this film last year and thanks to some of the reshuffling, Monsters Inc. has managed to get it's moment to shine.  As I mentioned earlier in this list, Mike and Sulley make for an incredibly entertaining and endearing duo to watch and they consistently steal the spotlight from one another throughout the adventure.  Add in a supporting cast of creative monsters, and a solid emotional core to the story courtesy of Boo, and you have one of the finest examples of Pixar providing the whole package of technology, humor, and heart that they so often pride themselves on.

4. Finding Nemo

Nemo finds himself moving up one spot this year thanks to Toy Story 3's fall from grace.  In addition to being one of the most universally appealing Pixar films to any audience, Finding Nemo is also one of the most beautiful.  In fact, having watched last year's 3D re-release in theaters,  I was still blown away by how good this film looks, despite having watched it dozens of times prior to that.  The undersea world of Nemo and his friends is wondrous to behold.  Getting to spend an hour and a half in this world accompanied by Pixar's best comedic duo, Marlin and Dory, is a real treat.  As resistant as I was to the thought of a sequel at first, I can't deny that I am looking forward to visiting this world again when Finding Dory rolls around in a couple years!

3. Toy Story

It's a real testament to the quality of Toy Story that it can continue to be as entertaining today as it ever has been, despite it's notably dated visuals and 90's culture.  The characters are wonderful, the story is fresh and original, the music memorable, and the moving van chase scene at the end still provides one of the most exhilarating and entertaining climaxes to be scene in a Pixar film.  Toy Story has a timeless quality that will no doubt make it a classic for generations to come.

2. Toy Story 2

Toy Story 2 takes everything that Toy Story did and does it one better.  More wonderful characters, an even more interesting and fleshed out story, more memorable music, and a much more developed emotional center to back up all the humor.  Rex gets his time in the spotlight for much of this film, completely upstaging his traveling companions at every turn and newcomer Jessie's tragic backstory that parallels what Woody is dealing with is heartfelt and brilliantly executed.  Toy Story 2 introduces many of the more somber themes that dominated Toy Story 3, but here they are kept relatively subdued so they never get in the way of the humor or drag the movie down.  The perfect balance of humor and heart.


Surprising nobody, WALL-E manages to hang onto the top spot.  Everyone's favorite little robot is just as easy to root for now as he was last year, and the years prior to that.  WALL-E's bold decision to forgo traditional dialogue for the majority of the film still manages to feel fresh five years later, and the visuals still impress with their thorough attention to mimicking the qualities of live-action films.  I simply can't gush about this movie enough.  With its sophisticated storytelling and phenomenal characters, WALL-E just can't be topped.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Film Review: "Monsters University"

WARNING: This review does contain some slight spoilers about the ending of the film.  Nothing too major, but if you want all the surprises to be fresh, I'd hold off on reading this until after you see the movie.

Pixar's had a rough time the last few years.  After releasing Toy Story 3 in 2010, the long-awaited sequel to the beloved franchise that managed to make every single person who viewed it cry, Pixar released another sequel that seemed to be just about the exact opposite.  Cars 2, released in 2011, was pretty thoroughly reviled before it ever even hit theaters and, unfortunately, did little to change people's minds after being released.  In 2012, what was supposed to serve as both Pixar's return to form and represent a bold new direction for the studio didn't work out too well either, as Brave was received moderately well but failed to leave much of an impression.  With confidence in Pixar now thoroughly shattered, audiences turned toward their next film with hope that the studio could regain its former glory.

Unfortunately, there was little hope to be found, given that Pixar's next title was revealed to be Monsters University, a follow-up to the 2001 hit Monsters Inc.  In addition to being a peculiar film to get the sequel treatment, what with the original film being over a decade old, Monsters University was actually reveled to be a prequel to the original.  Before becoming the inseparable duo we saw in the original film, Mike and Sully were actually college rivals.  The plot sounded painfully predictable and recalled the unfortunate string of direct-to-DVD sequels that Disney formerly churned out for their animated classics.  That original director Pete Doctor was not returning to helm the film was the icing on a cake that seemed destine to disappoint.  How could a film that seemed so certain to fail ever possibly hope to restore Pixar's reputation and deliver the same emotional heights and spectacular story-telling as what was seen in the studio's finest features?

So does Monsters University managed to pull it off?  In a word, no.  But don't let that scare you!  (Ha ha, get it?)  Monsters University may not be able to overcome the impossibly high bar set by films like WALL-E or Up, nor does it ever manage to truly match the emotional heights of the original Monsters Inc.,  but that's okay.  What Monsters University does manage to do is tell an exceptionally well-written and heartfelt story that is often hilarious, a little bit emotional when appropriate, and thoroughly enjoyable all the way through.

While Monsters Inc. was primarily focused on Sulley, the big blue shaggy half of our main monster duo who was and is again voiced by John Goodman, Monsters University puts the main focus on everyone's favorite little eyeball, Mike Wazowski, again voiced by Billy Crystal.  After a life-changing elementary school field trip to see a Monsters Incorporated scare floor, Mike makes it his life's ambition to become a scarer, one of an elite group of monsters tasked with entering the toxic human world to scare children in order to collect their screams which are then converted into energy. 

Unfortunately, Mike's small size and less-than-threatening appearance mean that he's got a rough road ahead of him.  But that's not enough to keep a little monster down!  Soon Mike finds himself enrolled at Monsters University, the top school for producing scarers.  Unfortunately, he soon also finds himself a rival in the form of James P. Sullivan, a natural-born scarer from a family full of famous monsters.  Sulley's laid-back attitude toward scaring versus Mike's by-the-book approach immediately put them at odds with each other.  However, when the two monsters' rivalry leads to them accidentally get kicked out of the scaring program, they have to join a rag-tag fraternity group full of scaring program rejects in order to win the "Scare Games", or face leaving the university forever.

It's hard to ignore the fact that the story is rather awash with college film cliches.  And, for the most part, Monsters University is content to play the story pretty straight, which means that a lot of twists and turns happen as you would expect for the most part.  The jokes about college life.  The underdog team full of losers with hidden potential.  The unlikely duo putting aside their differences and becoming friends.  It's all here, just as you would expect.  And I admit that the first act of the film does kind of drag for it, as the set-up for the story never really veers off of the tried-and-true formula.

But Monsters University manages to turn these familiar elements into a compelling narrative thanks to its solid script, lovable cast, and the fact that it keeps the story going beyond the traditional endpoint of these kinds of tales.  Without spoiling too much, I can say that the third act of Monsters University veers off in a delightfully different direction that is perfectly Pixar-ian, leading to a down-to-earth message about learning to embrace your natural talents and who you are, even if they don't allow you to reach the pie-in-the-sky dreams you might have once hoped for.  It's a story that fully takes advantage of the monster world that the characters inhabit but also manages to present a heartfelt and realistic message that should resonate with many viewers, as nearly everyone has faced a crisis at some point in their life where they must find a new purpose when an old dream is rendered unobtainable.

Additionally, as a prequel, Monsters University does a good job of showing how Mike and Sulley became the characters we already know and love.  Though it may seem a bit contrived to have the duo's roles reversed at the beginning of this film, with Mike being the responsible one and Sulley being the insecure and selfish one, the story does an excellent job of developing their personalities in a natural way, which leads perfectly into their arcs from the original film.  Despite telling an origin story that didn't exist before, Monsters University does a remarkably good job of creating a backstory for Mike and Sulley that doesn't poke too many holes in the existing continuity. 

Well, as long as you can ignore the rather glaring oversight that Mike and Sulley clearly knew each other long before college in the first movie, that is.  Yeah, that's never really addressed here, and it makes a couple lines from Monsters Inc. seem a bit out of place.  But still, I was pretty impressed with how they managed to weave things together, even managing to make it make sense that the existence of Monsters University itself is never brought up in Monsters Inc.

That being said, as odd as it is to admit, the only times I ever really found that Monsters University stumbles is when it tries to tie in connections to Monsters Inc.  Though Mike and Sulley's arc flows beautifully into the original movie's plot, many of the other callbacks and cameos feel surprisingly out-of-place and a little jarring.  Most of the returning characters from the first film are reduced to blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameos that do succeed in foreshadowing future events, but feel a little at odds with the tone and style that Monsters University is trying to achieve.  I kept finding that characters and locations from the first movie just didn't quite feel like they belonged in the movie I was currently watching.  It's a rare instance where I'm honestly inclined to say that a little less continuity might have actually done the film some good, as Monsters University's plot is largely disconnected from it's predecessor's events.

Randall in particular gets the short end of the stick in Monsters University.  The film does devote a few scenes to explaining his fierce rivalry with Sulley as seen in the original film, but it's not given a lot of time to develop.  This is a prequel that assumes you've already seen what happens next, so Randall's character arc is pretty thin here and goes unresolved if you treat Monsters University as a stand-alone story.  But if you did happen to watch this film before Monsters Inc., I'm not sure it would do a very good job of setting up Randall as the villain we later see.

Still, these are relatively minor issues in the context of a story that is, overall, very solid and enjoyable, and though I think they could have been handled better, they don't really detract from the quality of the film.  The musical score, again composed by Randy Newman, manages to be very tasteful in its references to the first film's soundtrack.  There are a number of familiar themes that occur from time to time, but they are mostly limited to the handful of scenes that take place at the Monsters Incorporated facility itself.  Most of the story unfolds in entirely new locations and, for the most part, entirely new score accompanies it.  As a whole, the new material isn't quite as memorable as what what heard in the first movie, but it gets the job done just fine.

And, of course, like all Pixar films, Monsters University is absolutely beautiful, with some of the finest visuals ever to be seen in a computer animated film.  The lighting, in particular, is absolutely top notch.  But that shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone at this point.  Pixar movies never disappoint from a visual standpoint, and Monsters University continues to push the medium forward.

So, in the end, Monsters University is a fine example of art imitating life, or perhaps life imitating art.  Just as Mike learns to embrace his talents and abilities, even if that doesn't mean becoming a famous scarer, Monsters University embraces its strengths and, despite not being able to reach the heights of previous Pixar films, tells a compelling narrative that is strong enough to allow it to stand alongside its predecessor.  It may not completely restore everyone's faith in the studio, but Monsters University convinced me that Pixar hasn't totally lost their touch.  It's unlikely to go down in history as one of the studio's finest, and it's probably not going to make you cry, but you'll almost certainly enjoy what it does have to offer.  And there's nothing scary about that.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Bug-Eyed Sulley Needs To Stop!

One of my favorite Pixar characters is James P. Sullivan, the big furry blue monster better known as Sulley, sometimes known as Kitty, but always known as lovable.  Voiced by John Goodman, Sulley brought a huge amount of emotional depth and warmth to Monsters Inc.  In just under a week, Sulley will be on the big screen again, this time as a slacker college student attending Monsters University.  Though a different take on the character, I'm sure Sulley will still prove to be an endearing presence on the big screen.  Everybody loves Sulley, right?

So why the heck are all the toys of Sulley so gosh darn ugly?  In particular, I'm referring to his eyes.  For whatever reason, every toy of Sulley insists on giving him big bulging bug-eyes that invariably look terrible.

See this is what Sulley is supposed to look like:
 There, see?  He has nice cartoony eyes.  They are friendly and inviting.  They aren't pressed together, nor are they perfectly circular, nor are they bulging out of his face.  

Now let's look at some toys released back with the original film in 2001:
Yeesh.  I actually had this toy way back when.  In fact I still have it.  And he still stares ahead with his big round soulless eyes.  Let's look at another:
Ah, isn't he cute with his big round puppy-dog eyes?  No, I didn't think so either.  Maybe another toy can do better?  Let's see:
AAAHHH!!! Uh...I guess this is Sulley right after electrifying himself.  Or he just finished blow drying his hair and he's really happy about it.

Okay, so that was 2001.  That was twelve years ago.  Toys have come a long way when in comes to being on-model in recent years.  Just take a look at how far the Toy Story toys have come over the years.  Last year Disney re-released Monsters Inc to theaters in 3D and a few new toys were released to go with it.  Let's see how twelve years of progress has benefited Sulley:
Oh, come on!  That's the worse one so far!  What happened here?  Not only are his eyes bugging out, but they're all pressed together and he's cross-eyed!  Did somebody use the scream-extractor from the first movie on him?  Good grief.

Okay, so maybe when it comes to the original film, they struck out across the board.  But Monsters University is right around the corner.  Surely Disney is planning to sell lots of toys to promote it, so I'm sure they pulled out all the stops to make Sulley look as good as possible...
...oh.  Uh, nevermind.  Are there any Monsters University Sulley toys that don't have big bulging eyes?  Anyone?  Anyone!?!
Uh...okay.  I mean, yeah, he doesn't have bug-eyes but I think that's the only thing that looks good about this.  Anything else?
YIPE.  You know what?  Forget it.  I don't want a toy of Sulley anymore.  I'm just going to go hide under the covers now and hope Sulley doesn't find me...


Thursday, June 13, 2013

My Thoughts On Nintendo's E3 Announcements

Super Mario 3D World:

Probably the biggest disappointment of the day for me was Super Mario 3D World.  Which is a weird thing for me to say.  After all, I greatly enjoyed Super Mario 3D Land.  It even managed to crack my list of my top 5 favorite main series Mario games.  Shouldn't I be excited about a sequel to such a fun game?  I guess I should...but I'm not.  In fact, I can't remember the last time that a new Mario game reveal left me feeling so uninterested.

The main thing is that this is the big "3D Mario" for the Wii U and it's a sequel to a handheld game instead of a large-scale impressive new take on the series.  Instead of having the wow-factor, the scope, and the surprise of games like Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine or Super Mario Galaxy, we have small and contained levels with basic goals, time limits, and nothing really all that new to speak off.  Oh yeah, it's pretty looking in HD.  But it just feels...small.

I'll still play Super Mario 3D World and I'm sure I'll enjoy it quite a bit.  But, honestly, the main reason that I'm so unenthusiastic about it is the fact that I can probably already write my review for it right now:  It's fun, but ultimately forgettable.  It does all the things that make Mario games enjoyable but nothing more.  It has "new" elements but most of them are really just things from Super Mario Bros. 3 and World brought back in 3D.  And it's really really easy.

That's basically been the case for every single Mario game released since 2006 save for the first Galaxy game.  They never have their own identity apart from each other.  And I just can't bring myself to care anymore.  As a longtime Mario fan who has always preferred his 3D adventures to his 2D ones, it's incredibly frustrating to see the 3D series continue to regress toward the stale repetitiveness of the New Super series.  Since Mario already has a 2D adventure on the Wii U, why must the 3D series continue to be forced in that direction as well?  For now, it looks like the Mario series is going to continue to stagnate.  And that's a bummer.

Plus...the cat suit?  Really?  That's the best you've got?  Oy.

Mario Kart 8:

Really really pretty Mario Kart Wii is what I saw.  I don't know.  The Mario Kart series is kind of turning into the New Super series for me.  There have been enough of them in a short enough period of time that it's hard to get very excited about a new one when it still pretty much looks the same as the ones before it.  And considering that Mario Kart Wii and Mario Kart 7 both felt considerably less enjoyable than the entries before them, I'm just having a hard time getting interested in another game of more of the same.  Like Super Mario 3D World, this is another game that looks good but is just very hard to get excited about.

Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS:

Oh look, it's Brawl again.  Same problem as the last two games.  It looks so much like its predecessor that I really have a hard time getting excited about playing it.  Mega Man looks like fun, but the Blue Bomber alone is not enough to get me interested in playing a game that looks to be pretty much exactly like the games that came before it.  The most interesting thing about this game to me is the slightly stylized graphics for the 3DS version.  Those look kind of interesting.  That's about it, unfortunately...

Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze:

Ah, here we go!  Finally!  Donkey Kong saves the day!  Yeah, it's a sequel, but it hardly looks like a retread of Donkey Kong Country Returns.  That game was positively exploding with original ideas, unexpected level gimmicks, and the type of creativity and inventiveness that's so sorely lacking in the Mario series these days.  And it looks like the design philosophy behind Tropical Freeze is to continue to do all those things but bigger and better than ever!  More chaotic set-pieces!  More level types and characters to play with!  More beautiful graphics!  This is how a sequel should be.  It's everything that made the first game fun taken up a notch.  For now, Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze is really the only Wii U game I'm excited about.  Mario's old rival is showing him up when it comes to platformers these days!

Plus, DK has fur this time!  Nintendo really wants to make sure you noticed.

Yoshi's New Island:

I have a theory:  If a game has the word "new" in the title, there won't be anything new about it.  Seriously, when it comes to rehashing the past, this game looks even worse than the New Super series.  I can play Yoshi's Island already.  Why would I want to play it again?  FOR GOODNESS SAKE, NINTENDO!  DO SOMETHING NEW IF YOU'RE GOING TO PUT "NEW" IN THE TITLE!

The Legend of Zelda:  A Link Between Worlds:

I'm still very much looking forward to this one, though nothing really seems to have been revealed that wasn't already known about the game.  I still really like it's classic looking visuals and top-down gameplay, though.  Here's hoping this really turns out to be something special!

Other Thoughts:

Wind Waker HD:

Wow, and I thought Wind Waker was pretty before!  Not much else to say.  It's cool to see my favorite 3D Zelda game getting such a gorgeous overhaul, and a few gameplay refinements to boot!  Looks like an incredibly solid remake overall.

Sonic Lost World:

I really want to be excited about this game, but it just feels like such a huge step backwards from Colors and Generations.  The classic graphics are nice, but they just feel a little too simplified for my tastes.  Plus, with everything else looking as old school as possible, it really feels like a missed opportunity to not have Classic Sonic be the main character here.  The new style of gampeplay is intriguing but it also looks clunky and less fun than the modern Sonic gameplay of the last few games.  And, maybe it's just me, but the footage almost makes me a feel a little motion sick, what with the sudden jerky changes of movement causing the camera to swoop around all over the place.  Sonic doesn't really seem to have a sense of weight or momentum anymore.  He just kind of takes off at top speed and changes direction on a dime now and it feels choppy.   I'll have to wait and see about this one...