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New Escapist Column! On How Pixar Reinvented American Theatrical Animation…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine this evening. This weekend marked the tenth anniversary of the release of Toy Story 3 and the planned release date of Soul, so I thought it was a good time to take a look back at what made Pixar special.

Everybody talks about how emotive Pixar films are, how much they resonate with audiences on that level. However, what’s most striking and impressive – and perhaps most influential – about Pixar’s output is the way in which the studio draws consciously from a wide variety of influences to tell a wide variety of stories. There’s a lot of variety in the Pixar canon, they films playing with a large number of genres in interesting ways, repurposing classic formulae for a much younger audience than would have been the intended audience for the original films in question.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Non-Review Review: Onward

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2020. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Onward fits comfortably in the upper middle range of the Pixar canon.

To be fair, at least part of this is structural. Onward is transparently a road trip adventure. There have been a couple of truly great Pixar movies built around that rough template – Toy Story 2, Up and Inside Out all come to mind. However, Onward does little to disguise its genre elements. Onward is transparently a story about two teenagers who embark on a long journey with a tight schedule that takes them through a series of episodic adventures featuring a host of memorable side characters. There is something very standard about the premise, even against the film’s fantastical backdrop.

To be fair, at least some of that mundanity is intentional. After all, the central hook of Onward is that it unfolds in a magic kingdom (“Mushroomton”) that has eschewed the art of wizardry for the utility of science. So much of Onward derives from the juxtaposition of the mundane and the sublime that it makes sense that the film should be a fairly standard genre template that just happens to follow two magical creatures driving a van with a rock-album-artwork unicorn on the side on a mission to reunite with their resurrected father. However, the plotting is a little too haphazard and too episodic to completely elevate the film.

That said, Onward is consistently charming throughout. Its world and characters always feel well-drawn. More than that, the film coheres marvellously in its third act, when it pushes past that familiar road movie template into the more emotionally astute and mature sort of storytelling that audiences have come to expect from the studio. While Onward doesn’t rank among the studio’s very best, it is well worth seeking out.

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Non-Review Review: UglyDolls

UglyDolls exists in the “uncanny valley” of modern children’s animated films.

Films like UglyDolls are a reminder of how profoundly Pixar has altered the cinematic landscape, and shifted expectations in terms of what audiences – young and old – expect from these sorts of films. Most obviously, the basic premise of UglyDolls echoes that of Toy Story; in much the same way that, say, The Emoji Movie mirrors Inside Out. This is a film about sentient toys trying to find an existential justification for their existence, often defined in terms of their relationship to a child. UglyDolls is a movie aout misfit toys cast out from the factory assembly line, wondering if they will ever be worth of love.

All dolled up with nowhere to go.

To be fair to UglyDolls, it is much better than The Emoji Movie. At the very least, UglyDolls understands that the film needs to be ordered around a strong central theme. UglyDolls has a solid conceptual basis, a familiar children’s movie allegory, and a very straightforward narrative structure. That said, although somewhat less crass in its materialist ambitions than The Emoji Movie, the film feels cynically calculated in other ways. The casting of performers like Kelly Clarkson, Nick Jonas, Janelle Monáe and Blake Sheldon seems designed to move the film’s soundtrack album. And the premise is obviously toyetic.

Still, UglyDolls comes closer than most of these sorts of films to working, largely failing because it ultimately underestimates the maturity and intelligence of its target audience.

A glass apart.

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137. Toy Story 4 – This Just In (#116)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, This Just In is a subset of The 250 podcast, looking at notable new arrivals on the list of the 250 best movies of all-time, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Josh Cooley’s Toy Story 4.

At time of recording, it was ranked 116th on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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“For Infinity… and Beyond…”: In Praise of “Toy Story 2” as the Perfect Sequel…

Ranking films is often a fool’s errand.

I make this argument with no small amount of hypocrisy. Most obviously, I co-host a weekly podcast called The 250, which is dedicated to exploring the Internet Movie Database’s Top 250 Movies of All-Time. Even beyond that, I am guilty of participating in that periodic pleasure of pundits everywhere; the top ten… or forty… or fifty. At the end of every year, I produce a list of my favourite films of the year, whether on the Scannain podcast, on my personal Twitter, or even occasionally on this blog. In my defense, I rationalise that through a desire to draw attention to good films, and accept we can quibble on the order of said film.

At the same time, these lists can often be illuminating in terms of contextualising affection for a particular film, or for gauging the general mood. So when a film appears on a single list, it might be worth checking out if you trust the author. If it appears on multiple lists, it is probably a much stronger recommendation. (The Scannain annual top ten is an eclectic list, but it disparate viewpoints often settle on at least one consensus pick: You Were Never Really Here, Moonlight, Hell or High Water.) It helps to set a level of a particular film’s relative appeal and popularity.

By that measure, Toy Story 2 is generally considered the weakest film its franchise. At time of writing, Toy Story, Toy Story 3 and Toy Story 4 all feature on the Internet Movie Database’s Top 250 Movies of All-Time. Toy Story 2 is the lowest ranked entry in the franchise on lists compiled by Variety, Business Insider and The Ringer. It is the ranked as the weakest of the original trilogy on lists compiled by Slant Magazine, Collider and Polygon. None of this amounts to anything that can quantifiably be described as a “backlash.” After all, to be the worst Toy Story movie, a film still has to be pretty good.

However, there is a sense in which Toy Story 2 gets overlooked. There are any number of structural reasons for that. The middle part of a trilogy, picking up immediately after Toy Story but without offering the resolution expected of Toy Story 3, the film is neither a beginning nor an end. It is not an introduction to these characters, and it does not really function as a farewell either. More than that, the film may also be somewhat tarnished by its production history, originally mooted as a straight-to-video release before entering an insanely fast turnaround as a theatrical feature; it is partly why Disney owns Pixar.

Still, this tends to look past what makes Toy Story 2 such a delight. It is in many ways the perfect sequel.

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90. Incredibles 2 – This Just In (#183)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and with special guests Graham Day and Marianne Cassidy, This Just In is a subset of The 250 podcast, looking at notable new arrivals on the list of the 250 best movies of all-time, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Brad Bird’s Incredibles 2.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 183rd best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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68. Finding Nemo (#164)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every second Saturday at 6pm GMT, with the occasional bonus episode between them.

This time, Andrew Stanton’s Finding Nemo.

When his young son Nemo is abducted, Marlon sets out across the ocean to rescue the boy. Along the way, he encounters a forgetful fish named Dory and embarks upon a series of rich and vivid adventures.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 164th best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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63. Coco – This Just In (#37)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, This Just In is a subset of The 250 podcast, looking at notable new arrivals on the list of the 250 best movies of all-time, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina’s Coco.

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Non-Review Review: Finding Dory

Finding Dory is a demonstration of everything that Pixar does well, a bright and colourful treat for kids that offers enough depth for adults.

Pixar have one of the strongest track records in animation, even acknowledging recent missteps like Cars 2 or The Good Dinosaur. At its best, the studio is transcendent, producing films that speak as keenly to parents as they do to children, building entire worlds from pixels that feel so textured and real that audiences do not need 3D to end up lost in them. Inside Out is the most recent demonstration of the studio’s prowess in that regard, a film that deserved to be in the conversation as one of the very best movies of 2016.

I think I see her!

I think I see her!

Finding Dory is not quite at that level. The movie seems unlikely to be remembered as one of the studio’s finest efforts alongside Wall-E or Up. However, second tier Pixar is still fantastic. There is a solid argument to be made that Finding Dory is the film of the summer, a family-friendly treat that can appeal to whole audiences. Kids of all ages will react fondly to the colourful (and beautifully rendered) characters, while the movie also resonates on more profound levels for the more mature members of the family.

As with the best Pixar films, Finding Dory speaks to the idea of family and growing up. The film is held together by a beautiful metaphor about what it means to find a family, and about the idea of returning home as an emotional rather than a literal journey. It is a fascinating and powerful film, but also one with as much heart and energy as anything in the Pixar canon.

Something fishy is going on...

Something fishy is going on…

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Non-Review Review: The Good Dinosaur

It may have been too much to hope for two classic Pixar films in the space of a single calendar year.

The Good Dinosaur is generally quite solid, but it lacks the sense of narrative craft and emotional weight that marks the very best of Pixar’s output. As with Brave before it, there is a sense that The Good Dinosaur would have made for a fairly middling entry in the larger Disney canon. In terms of ranking the studio’s output, “the good Dinosaur” is perhaps a fairly apt label for the project. It is light-hearted and fun, but lacking any distinct sense of substance and identity.

Bad human! Bad!

Bad human! Bad!

The best thing about The Good Dinosaur is its core concept. At the heart of the story is a rather ingenious narrative hook. What if the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs… missed? What if that hunk of rock that came hurdling through space had come in at an angle just a couple of degrees off course? What if it were simply a shooting star passing through the sky one night rather than a full stop marking the end of the Cretaceous period or the Mesozoic era? That is a wonderful jumping-off point for an adventure, and The Good Dinosaur never quite measures up to that.

The Good Dinosaur is ultimately a buddy comedy road trip adventure about a young child who finds himself stranded far from home with an unlikely travelling companion. The result is an occasionally enjoyable, if not entirely satisfying, film.

I am dino, hear me roar!

I am dino, hear me roar!

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