Wall-E's DVD Packaging

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Excerpt from

“Pixar’s latest gem WALL-E doesn’t hit DVD shelves until November 18th, but it showed up at my house yesterday. And like any movie geek, I tore that UPS envelope open like a kid on Christmas morning, anxiously awaiting the prize inside. But while my greatest excitement was due to the fact that I would be able to watch WALL-E again, I was taken back by the awesomeness of the 3-Disc Special Edition’s packaging. And since it isn’t every day when such a standard release has cool packaging, I thought I would share it with you.”

Can’t wait to get my hands on it.  I love every Pixar movie.  Every film they come out with not only has comedy, but a heart touching story that no other studio can produce. Yes, I’m looking at you Dreamworks. Just because you mainly cater towards children doesn’t mean that slap stick and one-line comedy will make it a great computer animated movie.

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As always, Pixar preceded their feature with a short, called Presto. The rabbit who stars is an atypical sort of character design for Pixar, which made me nervous initially. Never fear! Presto plays with the laws of cartoon physics in another lovely, wordless short that is reminiscent of the madcap Tex Avery. Then begins the feature. Wall-E’s opening is much more calm, the titular cleaning robot dwarfed by his unfinished work. It’s quiet and, while not slow, it definitely reset the pace after the frenetic Presto. The only commonality was an utter lack of dialogue. It’s funny how such a narrative technique gets hailed as groundbreaking when it’s practically the oldest form of theatre known to man. But it feels groundbreaking especially now in our flash-edited, hypermedia world.

Our audience was shockingly slow for an opening night. Two loud people — well, let’s call them what they were: they were idiots — behind us actually profoundly ruined much of the movie. I was unable to fully surrender to the movie, to the mood and tone and profundity of Wall-E’s experience. They were at least loudly appreciative, rather than gossiping about work or Britney or something, but their prattle and constant squealing definitely tainted the film for me. My companion whispered to me, at about the thousandth time the female squealed in delight when Wall-E rolled or moved one of his limbs, “It’s like he’s a character in the movie!”

The obvious charm of Wall-E’s character, of his diligence, curiosity and loneliness was filtered through a litany of misunderstood jokes and boisterous responses to bits already well spoiled by the preview. What I can say is that regardless of my ample mounting rage, Wall-E still managed to charm and engage me, and make me laugh. I can’t wait to see it again for the first time.

Forty minutes in, the story dynamic changes — I regret how many great moments were spoiled by the preview, but they did leave the second half of the film virtually untouched — and the dialogue, such as it is, begins. This film may be too still and quite for a very small child (though it would showcase a thoughtful child’s ability to empathize beautifully). Pixar films have always been adult films that kids can access, but Wall-E may be a little un-frenetic enough for the wee ones.

Our little robot friend finds himself surrounded by the society that him behind, and we are treated to a glimpse of our inevitable future as well. Wall-E is the most “message” laden of the Pixar films thus far, previous themes being more constrained to matters of the heart such as family, courage, community, tolerance. This film does not preach so much as satirize, unfamiliar waters that Pixar only stuck a toe into in Cars. It still has plenty of heart; he is sentient with sentiment. The undeniable reminders that we as an industrial society are doing it wrong do not subtract from the film, but they felt a little like an uncomfortable suit worn for an important occasion.

It is a testament to the character animation that the Pixar team can render the difference between a conscious and a lifeless robot. We’ve come a long way, baby. Wall-E’s lensed eyes are as expressive as a live actor’s and I don’t say that glibly. A fun piece of trivia a friend pointed out: You may catch a little Mac joke winking at the audience in the sound effects, but an entire character (AUTO) is voiced by Macintalk. I think it’s the Zarvox voice, but I am not sure. For those who don’t realize it, Apple head Steve Jobs is also the head of Pixar. Hee hee!

Some of the secondary plotline involving a captain and a very specific directive got a little narratively mushy, it seemed. I’m willing to assume the blame rests on Tweedledoofus and Tweedledumb behind me, but only the second, necessary viewing will prove it for sure. Director Andrew Stanton last gave me my favorite Pixar film, Finding Nemo, and this is a healthy follow-up. For those who dismiss an animated robot movie as another Short Circuit, think of Number Five as Urkel and Wall-E as Stitch, or ET. He’s just a little guy trying to make a connection. Who can’t identify with that?

Second viewing made me cry, so that was a relief.

MPAA Rating G
Release date 6/27/08
Time in minutes 103
Director Andrew Stanton
Studio Pixar / Disney

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Dr. Seuss's Horton Hears a Who

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A certain Seussian purist I know refused to see this movie with me (or at all) on the grounds that’s all wrong and is doing with Jim Carrey what Aladdin did with Robin Williams. Statistically speaking, that is the most likely scenario from the people who brought you Ice Age, but… She also told me that Blue Sky Studios, the animation house used by Fox, even researched original Horton artwork at the Geisel (a.k.a. Seuss) library. Blue Sky is the only major studio animation house I know of that is any kind of serious competitor with Pixar in terms of sheer detail and care and gorgeousness. The design is so Seussian, so rich in texture and feathery fur, so painstaking in its realistic feel but cartoonish design, it’s truly a visual triumph. Horton’s precious speck (held aloft on a feathery clover) intimates so much detail you can almost see the Mayor of Whoville in the shots of our titular elephant.

I haven’t read this one in a while, I confess, but they quote liberally from it and the overall plot appeared to be on target. Like all very short books made into full length films, action must be padded to fill the 88 minutes, but it all serves the story and/or the characters. Horton’s imagination being rendered in 2-D straight out of the books was a lovely touch too. Carrey s comic but gentle, restrained inside Horton’s enormous heart, only peeking out when a little of his big dreamer self comes out, or when he determines to be a hero to his tiny charges. As a Carrey fan, even I found it hard to remember it was him most of the time, so much did he dive into his character.

Longtime Cinerina readers know that I ate studios who think we see animated movies for the names doing the voices. Unless that big name is also a great voice actor, I don’t care who it is; animation is about story, character, and visuals. Steve Carrel vanishes into his role as the mayor of Whoville, and Will Arnett’s Vlad the Vulture even more so. (I kept thinking, who IS that, he’s awesome — even after watching three Arrested Development episodes in the days prior.) Amy Poehler can’t quite shed her vaguely sarcastic tone, and Seth Rogen just has a lovable puffy-cheeked growl you can’t ignore. Jonah Hill? Yes, Jonah Hill. Isla Fisher? Totally. It’s a Judd Apatow cast in a Dr. Seuss book, ruled by Carol Burnett as a tyrannical conservative kangaroo, and it’s so loving and true, you’ll love it too.

That said, it sagged just a tad in the middle (I could also have had triple feature fatigue) between Horton’s deciding to save the Whos and his obstacles to doing so, but there’s so much to see and hear, you only mind just a little.

It’s a lovely tale about faith — in each other, in ourselves, in worlds or peoples we may never know or understand (but who deserve our respect nonetheless), and it happens to be a tidy little allegory for political manipulation as well. Protecting authority and ideology at the expense of wonder and life? Well, you do the math. The musical finale (the one from the book) is truly heartlifting — and then the studio clearly stepped in and demanded a horrible Shrek pop ending. I labored to forgive the stain on an otherwise charming film. It’s clear from the way the rest of the movie is handled that REO Speedwagon was not part of the original plan. Check it out.

MPAA Rating G
Release date 3/14/08
Time in minutes 88
Director Jimmy Hayward. Steve Martino
Studio 20th Century Fox

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Based on the autobiographical graphic novel of the same name by Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis chronicles how a little Iranian girl has come to live in France today. It’s as simple and as complex as that – and the animation follows suit. Almost entirely in black and white, Persepolis finds its visual complexity in layers, textures, and vivid imagery. Images of horror or impact are dealt with in a poetic fashion, but not a whitewashed one. It puts me to mind of the excellent (but never animated) Maus (Art Spiegelman), with its simple depictions of vast horrors, but Persepolis handles its dark subject matter with a more graceful flourish. The animation balances between partially traditional line (the drawing of a face moving and talking) and cut out (a stiff drawing of a wave is moved up and down to show its surges). The black and white has shading of greys, a chalky, watercolory feel, and this adds warmth to what could otherwise be alarmingly stark (and unwittingly thematic?). The effect is deceptively simplistic and simply beautiful.

Why go on about the visuals? They serve the story and transform what is in essence a memoir of 14 years (1978-1992, apparently age 8-9 to 22-23) of a single person’s life into a vivid illustration of the struggles of the Iranian people during that time. Even that which I just wrote sounds more PBS/NPR than I mean to sound. Marjane begins her tale during the “untenable” reign of the secular dictator The Shah, and ends it fleeing into exile in the West, escaping the theocratic hellhole that the Ayatollah’s Iran was devolving into. It’s lovely to see her childish perspective with an adult interpretation and eyes, but also it’s lovely to see how she does not denigrate her youthful, immature feelings. She had good and bad experiences in the east and in the west, but she had great role models and a voice.

Marjane as a character grows up in this tale, from a smart kid to a smarter adult, but we never feel that the story is self-congratulatory in any way, or even egocentric. She is merely the conduit to express experiences of two worlds close in time zones but alien in ideologies. Her narration (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni) is dispassionate but personal. The real Marjane co-directed and co-wrote the screenplay based on her graphic novel with Vincent Parronaud, both with very little filmic experience, but with marvelous taste and style. I hope this is not the last we see of such unique work.

The artwork tells us more than her (French) narration can, in symbols and frozen images as well as moving characters and dark-light emphases. Persepolis is very different and bold, beautiful and moving. I am, now, truly torn in my pick for best animated feature. Meanwhile, please try and see it while it’s still playing on the big screen. It’s a wonderful, fanciful, and terrible (in its original sense) work of art.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 6/27/07 (France)
Time in minutes 95
Director Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi
Studio Sony Pictures Classics

Over The Hedge

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I walked into the movie with kind of low expectations (too many big names, not enough of an apparent premise, untested animation company), and walked out with a gigantic smile on my face and a desire to see it again. Paramount used the Dreanworks Animation team’s expertise and somehow got a team of writers with rather shameful pedigrees to make a perfect little hero’s journey. RJ the raccoon has to get a whole ton of food or else he’s dead. He finds a group of foragers newly trapped inside a huge new development to help. Wackiness, of course, ensues, but the story is a solid one and the gags are terrific.

They also have a cast of big names (too many to list) but they are all perfectly cast for their voice talent, and not dependent on the personality of the actor to carry the character (see: Shark Tale, Shrek). These big names also happen to be paragons of comedy (yes, even Bruce Willis – his action was always peppered with comedy) and the writing happens to be very funny. The animated acting is excellent, fantastic expressions on the faces of the various species. Even characters who I thought would be grating or horrible were just right, such as Wanda Sykes as the skunk. The jokes come fast and often, but they don’t seem to be the same “babble so we don’t have to have a story” type gag-a-minute type humor that has been the bane of recent animated features. The story has a high-stakes engine and a softer side as well.

One of the human characters (naturally a foe) is Allison Janney’s HOA president Gladys. Now, if you’re a human, you probably hate your HOA president; to these hapless woodland creatures, she is a hilarious menace. The majority of the jokes were completely adult-friendly with a healthy splash of satire of the modern American way of life, between our obsession with food beyond our need for survival, and our rabid desire to control and design our environment to the terrible detriment of nature. And yet, they still manage for it not to be preachy. Hopefully kids will come away a little more sympathetic to their wild neighbors.

All the characters were enjoyable, but Hammie the squirrel (Steve Carell) starts off seeming just like the easy-laugh sidekick, but he gets a climactic moment of payoff which had me in tears. The conflicts between turtle Vern (Garry Shandling) and RJ (Bruce Willis) are grounded in real character stuff, not just for the plot’s sake, and I appreciated the tasteful inclusion of a little moral as well.

My only complaint about the movie was the wildly out of place Ben Folds music. The songs were fine, they just felt super weird playing in the background (there are no musical numbers). I busted a gut plenty often watching Over the Hedge, and so did the adults and children around me. It’s a fun, fun movie, and one you won’t feel bad about seeing. So why haven’t you?

Side bar: I don’t often read other people’s reviews before writing my own, but I stumbled across this quote from an anonymous poster, which sums up some of the adult appeal pretty brilliantly: “There are both heartwarming and chilling references to the importance of family, especially a family under external pressures from a society that they do not understand, a culture that considers them vermin.” Too true, and you get all that and a belly of laughs.

MPAA Rating PG
Release date 5/19/06
Time in minutes 90
Director Tim Johnson, Karey Kirkpatrick
Studio Paramount Pictures

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Ice Age: The Meltdown

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How can Robots be so good and both Ice Age movies be so lame? Sure, both Ice Age movies have good attention to detail insofar as biology and various species-specific jokes, but when the best part of both movies is the non-verbal interstitial episodes of Scrat trying to get his walnut, maybe you should rethink the need for a sequel. I can appreciate that maybe initially the writers were trying to get some kind of global warming thing in there, but they didn’t even take advantage of that topicality.

I felt despondent watching this movie. I didn’t care for these characters that much the first time, and I certainly wasn’t given a new reason to care for them this time. Manny the Mammoth has a genuine existential crisis happening, and occasionally I would get engaged in that story – oh, but now it’s time to cut to some nonsensical set piece which was at best, a time waster (think real live whack-a-mole!) and at worst/best, jarringly bizarre and out of place (a full-on musical number of vultures singing scavenger-oriented parody lyrics to Oliver’s “Food Glorious Food.”). Some of the set pieces had no point to them at all, they seemed designed just to fill the 90 minutes and justify the $8 matinee price. Meanwhile our leads bicker and talk about their herd as if we had invested something into their relationship before.

Maybe you can tell that I am not in the pro-Family Guy camp, and maybe this movie is rollicking good fun to that demographic, but even when I am bored by the jokes on the TV show, I have a storyline to follow in the meantime. The Meltdown just lurches back and forth from some peril-that-isn’t-scary to Scrat’s Charlie Chaplinesque adventures.

Ice Age: The Meltdown (no 2?) has vastly improved the animation since Ice Age – the fur looks rich and tactile, the ice translucent and cold. But Robots came out just last year and it is both better written and significantly better animated. What gives? Meltdown does escape the Chicken Little trap up just jabber jabber jabber pop culture references, thankfully largely due to its setting, but it does have its characters sniping and fighting and mocking each other in lieu of any other kind of plot movement. Finally Queen Latifah shows up with her unique brand of magic and energy, and we have a moment of amusing self delusion that goes on too long; when the problem gets sorted out, it’s too late. I did enjoy her relationship with her possum companions, it was the most real thing in the movie.

Adult fans of animation: don’t bother. Parents taking their kids: Spare them. Use the money to beef up your home DVD collection of Pixar titles or even expand into the old Warner Brothers cartoons. Better than to reveal to them that adult moviemakers don’t care about making movies worth watching.

MPAA Rating PG
Release date 3/31/06
Time in minutes 90
Director Carlos Saldanha
Studio 20th Century Fox

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Chicken Little

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Disney divorced itself from Pixar, apparently believing they could take their legacy of quality hand-drawn animation and the knowledgebase of partnering with Pixar and make some magic. In their first solo outing, however, Disney’s Chicken Little falls flat. Despite stellar vocal performances from all the leads (Zach Braff, Garry Marshall, Joan Cusack, Steve Zahn, among many others), despite the tried and true formula of a struggling single parent and adorable, misunderstood child, Chicken Little just cannot fly.

How I wanted it to! Unnerving character design (save for Little and his beautifully performed father, Buck Cluck (Marshall) ) was a visual turnoff. Little had the sweetest, saddest eyes, and despite his alarming macrocephaly, he was quite nimble and adorable. Cluck was a supreme sitcom dad, paunchy and uncomfortable with talking about feelings, a real gem. Their side kicks were anything from generic “animal” to an almost Kricfalusian Abby Mallard (aka the Ugly Duckling), so it was jarring visually. Funny multi-species-in-one-town visual gags were overshadowed by the great lengths the animators had to go to in order to incorporate acorns into everything about the town. They took a page out of Dreanworks’ book and stuffed the credits with recognizable voices and names. They were smart enough to get good voice talent, but it was slightly jarring and/or distracting how distinct recognizable their voices were (except again Marshall and Braff). It had the “oh wow that’s Patrick Stewart” surreality that we “enjoyed” while watching Shark Tale without actually adding anything to the movie by casting him (no disrespect to Stewart). I have to name Don Knotts as a major exception – if ever any actor were meant to play a mentally feeble turkey mayor, it’s Knotts.

Disney’s burgeoning computer animation house even took a page out of Pixar’s book and cast a bunch of voices not from actor pools but from animators and storyboard artists and the like. Don’t get me wrong, these folks did fine. But it all boils down to what they had to work with, which was not much.

John Debney (check for his resume in musical manipulation) did his best to compensate for the lack of story, but any feelings I had for Little were from his sad little eyes and Zach Braff’s excellent voice characterization. The movie seemed to be trying to make him both ridiculous and adorable, maybe (if they’re lucky) like Dora was in Finding Nemo. Sure, we can do that, boys! They made fun of her, right? Yes, but Dora was supported by a good story and the mockery of her was mainly self-imposed. Chicken Little has a few neat moments, and it really is a good message movie about the importance of communication and trust between people and friends and so on. But as 81 minutes of entertainment, it’s really not worth the money Disney would like you to spend. Rent it, you’ll feel good that you saw it for $3.50, but not resentful for $9.50.

MPAA Rating G
Release date 11/4/05
Time in minutes 81
Director Mark Dindal
Studio Walt Disney

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We all knew Robots was going to look amazing, but the terror you may understandably feel after being betrayed again and again by the non-Pixar companies is a legitimate terror. The ads push the vocal talent over the story and there’s the very real risk of a Robin-Williams-run-amok factor. In other words, we all worried it would be like Shark Tale.

Rest easy, Gentle Readers! Robots does not at all suffer from Shrek syndrome. Instead, it presents us with a nice simple tale (generic framework #1172-B: Hold tight to your dreams and stay true to yourself) with a dazzling visual world, and sweet, universal humor.

I’m not getting ahead of myself but what makes a classic? Firstly, a good story. It must endure beyond the moment in time it appears, and if you take out a major element of its success, it should still work. Case in point: Shark Tale. If it weren’t for the likableness of Will Smith or the pop culture references, it wouldn’t have nearly as many laughs. If you set it to squiggly drawings, it loses its punch. Shrek: No jokes that anyone will laugh at once the actors are dead except, notably, the ones referring to old children’s stories (The Muffin Man!). We think Puss is funny because we imagine testosteroni Antonio Banderas, not because the cat does anything actually funny. If you’re not going, “ooh it’s John Cleese!” you wouldn’t pay half as much attention. Robots: All-star talent that doesn’t milk its talent for its real-life persona, and except for Williams, none of the voices are very obvious. Mel Brooks is close, but he’s not playing Mel Brooks, we see only the character of Mr. Bigweld.

Williams has his manic delivery, but he’s definitely reined in. He’s using his vocal talent for good again, like in the old days. The best voices you have to figure out, and they are real actors, not poster-dollars: Paul Giamatti, Jim Broadbent, Greg Kinnear. Actors performing beautifully in service to the story above all, not just in cartoon drag.

What’s also super about Robots is its aesthetic, both visual and moral. The look is vintage Tomorrowland, the past’s vision of what the glorious technological future will hold, including broad deco sweeps and smooth Frigidaire and Edsel piping. It’s not scary, modern, and sterile, it’s warm and friendly and upbeat, the 1953 World’s Fair in dazzling CGI 3-D. The moral aesthetic is even better, also avoiding modern sterility and impersonality. Robots pushes the old-fashioned brand of self-determinism before the hypercapitalists turned that into selfish carelessness and conformity. Evil here is represented by mandatory consumerism and waste, uniformity, oligarchy, and no heart or inspiration at all. Who doesn’t feel the world is too much like a mall these days? In the big city, it’s 100 times more so for everything being a machine.

These baddies don’t find a need a fill it, they create demand by engineering need, reducing choice and taste and personality. While it’s slightly ironic than an industry built on the crazed hypertrophic obsoletion of its hardware such as the computer biz – and a studio built on the backs of greedy bastards (Warner Brothers) – that this film should still make such a sincere plea to the very youth they are guilty of corrupting. Hey, at least they are trying.

If nothing else, it’s got a good message parents can feel good about exposing their kids to and plenty of adult-level humor to keep them interested as well. In our opening weekend matinee, for example, the young’uns were screeching in simplistic delight at a rapid-fire series of armpit fart jokes (funny when there is no flesh), capped with a massive actual fart joke. The payoff, however, to this raspberry rampage is a joke just for the grownups. It made the whole lead-up totally worth it. In total, I counted only ten butt or fart jokes, which is amazing in 2005.

Unlike certain Dreamworks blockbuster franchises I would never dream of mentioning, Robots does not devolve into an embarrassing pop culture gag, modern-day cinema’s answer to the song fade (you know, when they can’t write an ending). What bothers me most about this trend is that the gag dies for the uninitiated if you don’t watch the latest hot comedy or listen to that oversexualized teenager’s song. If a gag works on its own but is made funnier by referencing the ephemera of today, great. I should point out that I am a big fan of parody, but it is a separate form altogether. Truly great parodies work without the source material: High Anxiety was even funnier when I finally saw Vertigo.

But I digress. What I am saying is that Robots works, as a story and as a meaningful way to instill good values in your child without getting bored or mired in any separation of church and state arguments, and it’s fun for all ages. And, did I mention, truly beautiful, gorgeous, with shiny and distressed metals, great shapes and sense of depth. Even the weird Alice in Wonderland moment is very cool to look at; I even wondered how they did it.

I was surprised, I was pleased, and I hope you appreciate it as much as I did. Huge Pixar fan that I am, I’d rather have decent competition out there for the medium of computer animation than the pandering embarrassment of other dreck.

MPAA Rating PG
Release date 3/11/05
Time in minutes 90
Director Chris Wedge
Studio 20th Century Fox