by Steve Habrat
Director John Lee Hancock is no stranger to crafting crowd-pleasing dramas. He’s the man responsible for such films as Dennis Quaid’s 2002 sports drama The Rookie and Sandra Bullock’s unstoppable 2009 hit The Blind Side. When it came to telling the enchanting story of how Walt Disney managed to get the rights to P.L. Travers’ book Mary Poppins, Hancock was certainly the man for the job. Hancock’s Saving Mr. Banks is certainly a well-oiled piece of period filmmaking with several performances that certainly scream for Oscar. It’s a mushy tale about how much the character of Mary Poppins meant to Travers, served up in a candy shell that audiences are guaranteed to savor. Both Hancock and Disney Studios are playing to our hearts with the emotional script from Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, but the magic of Saving Mr. Banks really comes alive through the performances from its spread of A-list celebrities. This is Emma Thompson’s show, but Tom Hanks, who is still hot off the success of Captain Phillips, warmly beams his way through his performance as the ultimate dreamer, Walt Disney. And then there is the sweet performance from Paul Giamatti and a particularly touching turn from Colin Farrell, who becomes the film’s beating heart and soaring soul.
Saving Mr. Banks picks up in 1961, with Mary Poppins author Pamela P.L. Travers (played by Emma Thompson) tight on money and low on options. Through her agent, Diarmuid Russell (played by Ronan Vibert), Pamela receives an offer from Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks) for the rights to her beloved story so that he can make it into a movie. At first, Pamela refuses to sign over the rights to Disney, who she believes will ruin her very personal story, but her reluctance to right another novel to bring in more money puts her in a difficult spot. With no other alternatives, Pamela travels to Los Angeles to meet with Walt to discuss the project. Upon her arrival, Walt goes above and beyond to charm the scowling Pamela, but each one of his attempts bounces right off her thick skin. Pamela soon begins meeting with scriptwriter Don DaGradi (played by Bradley Whitford) and composer/lyricist brothers Richard and Robert Sherman (played by Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) to pour over every single detail of the script, storyboards, and musical numbers—all of which she finds fault with. As the exasperated Disney crewmembers try to please Pamela, she strikes up a friendship with her kindly driver, Ralph (played by Paul Giamatti), and begins flashing back to her dysfunctional childhood in Queensland, Australia, with her alcoholic father, Travers Robert Goff (played by Colin Farrell), who instilled a vivid imagination inside the young Pamela.
Saving Mr. Banks juggles two storylines, one which flashes back to Australia, 1906, which gives us a glimpse inside Pamela’s upbringing at the hands of her drunken but loving father and her wounded, soft-spoken mother (played by Ruth Wilson). The scenes set in Australia are given a fairy tale glow, romanticized and shimmering in true Disney fashion. The dramatic outback flashbacks are met by the scenes set in 1961, which posses a more humorous side as Pamela grapples with her idiosyncrasies with her beloved character. Thompson plays Pamela as a porcupine of a woman, a prissy control freak who never passes up a chance to put old Walt Disney in his place. When she isn’t complaining that Los Angeles smells like sweat and chlorine, she ripping into ol’ Walt for anything and everything. Initially, she appears to be immune to Walt’s charms and she scowls every time she lays eyes on a familiar mouse that we have all come to adore. When she meets with DaGradi and the Sherman brothers, she stomps her feet and demands that all of their meeting are recorded. She especially detests the songs like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” and she groans over the mustache added to the character of Mr. Banks, an addition that Walt has personally requested. For as cold and heartless as she seems to be, Thompson molds the character into a sympathetic soul who wrestles with painful memories that she feels doesn’t deserve the pixie-dust whimsy that she is convinced Walt will give her story.
As far as the rest of the performances go, Hanks beams his way through his performance as Walt Disney, a happy-go-lucky businessman who is absolutely perplexed by the whirlwind that is Pamela. Watching his reactions to feisty writer is a treat, especially when she recoils in horror at his suggestion of taking a trip to Disneyland. As his battle to make the movie culminates, he tells a personal story that reveals his understanding over how much the character of Mary Poppins means to Pamela. Then there is Giamatti, who gives one of the most sensitive performances of his career as Ralph, Pamela’s gee-whiz limo driver who makes every effort imaginable to get to know this rigid sourpuss. Watching Ralph develop his friendship with Pamela is hilarious and near the end, it takes an emotional turn that will make your heart swell. Whitford nabs several chuckles as DaGradi, the cautious scriptwriter tasked with battling with Travers on a day-to-day basis. Schwarztman and Novak are a terrific tag team as the Shermans, the composers who just can’t seem to come up with a tune that gets Travers tapping her toes. Then there is Farrell, who just leaps across the screen on the wings of imagination. Behind closed doors, he is a withering heap of a man consumed by alcoholic demons and an illness that threatens to take his life. However, when he is facing the young Pamela in the sun, he is a dancing court jester, her encouragement to never stop dreaming or chasing imagination. Trust me when I say that this role is one of Farrell’s finest hours.
Considering that Saving Mr. Banks is a Disney production, the film’s sets and cinematography look like a million bucks. While there was no filming in Australia, Hancock does a marvelous job transforming various locations around California into the dusty Australian Outback. It should also be noted that there isn’t a single shot in the entire picture that isn’t crisp, clean, and gorgeous, always eager to show off the fantastic period clothing and set design. Hancock and his screenwriters also do a marvelous job with revealing little secrets about Pamela’s past to the viewer, whether it is her dislike for pears or her fury over Mr. Banks having a mustache on screen. Every little reveal is balanced throughout the picture, one being just slightly more emotional than the last one. Overall, while there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Disney studios has sweetened this story up in places, Saving Mr. Banks is still a wholesome little movie that touches on the importance of imagination and pleas with each and every one of us to never loose our child-like sense of wonder. Thompson and Farrell are Oscar worthy in their respective roles, Giamatti’s Ralph is unforgettable, and Hanks is clearly having a grand old time slipping into the skin of Walt Disney, a role he was born to play.
by Steve Habrat
Just under seven months ago, Quentin Tarantino proved that there was still some life in the western genre with his bold and brutal Django Unchained, which nabbed two Academy Awards and a nomination for Best Picture. Not only did it leave this viewer hankering for more from Mr. Tarantino, but it also left me hoping that more westerns would gallop into theaters. Now we have director Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger, a bloated, erratic, and downright frustrating summer blockbuster from Disney, a studio that should have stayed far away from this title. For many months now, I have felt that most critics and audience members have been eager to approach The Lone Ranger with knives drawn, which I thought was a bit hasty and unfair. I thought the trailers showed potential even if it did seem like Disney was forcing this project to be another Pirates of the Caribbean, which was a huge mistake. The truth is that The Lone Ranger isn’t nearly as awful as some are claiming it is and that there is, in fact, quite a bit of potential here, but there are a myriad of problems with the film that should have been addressed before Disney gave it the okay. The biggest flaw is that Disney just couldn’t settle on a tone for the film. Is it supposed to be a dark and violent ode to Sergio Leone and the spaghetti westerns of the 60s and 70s, or is it supposed to be a winking action movie with heavy doses of slapstick camp? You just can’t have it both ways.
The Lone Ranger picks up in 1869, with mild-mannered law student John Reid (played by Armie Hammer) returning to Colby, Texas, by train to visit his brother and Texas Ranger Dan Reid (played by James Badge Dale). Also aboard the train is the sadistic outlaw Butch Cavendish (played by William Fichtner), who is being transported to Colby to be hung by Dan, and a mysterious Indian named Tonto (played by Johnny Depp), who has been tracking Cavendish. After Cavendish escapes from the train with the help of his loyal gang, Dan makes a vow to railroad tycoon Latham Cole (played by Tom Wilkinson) to track down the outlaw and bring him to justice. Dan recruits John as a Texas Ranger and together, they set out to find Cavendish, but they soon run into a trap set by the Cavendish gang and the Reid brothers are both gunned down. Several days later, Tonto discovers the bodies of the Reid brothers and he begins an elaborate Indian burial ritual. Near the end of the ritual, Tonto is shocked to find a white “spirit horse” standing over John’s grave. As it turns out, John is still alive and Tonto is convinced that he is a “spirit walker” sent to aid him on his quest to track down Cavendish. Tonto explains that John can’t be killed in battle and that he must wear a mask to strike fear in the hearts of their enemies. Together, they join forces to capture Cavendish and make him pay for his horrific crimes.
The Lone Ranger opens with a crackling train robbery that really gets the viewer’s adrenaline pumping. It has hints of the humor that was found in Pirates while never skimping on the rollicking action we’ve come to expect from Mr. Verbinski. It seems like everything is balanced but once the sequence ends, the tone splits off into multiple directions, never to come together again. There are scenes that are effective grotesque and sinister, especially a scene in which Cavendish slices out a man’s heart and devours it, only to be followed up by a some cutesy joke from Depp’s peculiar Tonto. This duel continues on for two and a half hours, and it concludes with a finale that is so mad cap, it almost feels like it belongs in another movie. While one could point the finger at Verbinski, it really should be pointed at Disney, who seems like one day they would tell Verbinski to make the film a bit edgier and then get cold feet about the decision the next day. When things do get dark, it feels more like Verbinski’s heart is in it, but when he is forced to pull back, the whole project seems to flat line, which yanks the viewer right out of the moment. It’s just exhausting.
Then we have the storyline, which suffered from multiple rewrites during the rocky production stage. While I’m sure the rewrites contributed to some the awkward shifts in tone, it also feels like the writers are unnecessarily trying to convolute the film with hazy side plots that could have been trimmed out and saved for the director’s cut Blu-ray. There are glaring plot holes (How did Tonto break out of jail and track down the Reid brothers?), obvious plot twists that you can see coming a mile away (There is one character in particular that you know is up to no good), and a slew of characters that, yes, are very colorful but ultimately useless in the grand scheme of things (I’m looking at you, Helena Bonham Carter). It is the same problem that plagued the second and third Pirates movies and you’d think that Disney would have learned their lesson, but I guess not. Mind you, The Lone Ranger never hits the confounding heights of those films, but it seems like the filmmakers are allowing it simply to trick the audience into thinking there is more depth here than there actually is. In a way, you hope that this is Disney’s way of really making the film worth the ten bucks you paid to see it, but I seriously doubt that Disney is being that generous.
Perhaps the biggest draw to The Lone Ranger is the performances, especially from the eccentric Depp, who also serves as executive producer here. While Depp’s name has been used to draw audiences in, the real star here is newcomer Armie Hammer, who made a name for himself in David Fincher’s The Social Network. While it was risky to cast someone like Hammer for the role, he does a fine job with the material he is given. The problem is, the material makes his character highly unlikable and extremely difficult to root for. His character doesn’t really do much, and he is constantly at odds with killing someone, even though the man he is tracking is a known psychopath with a taste for human flesh. While it is nice to see a character grapple with the decision of taking another human being’s life, I don’t think anyone under the sun was going to blame him for putting a bullet between Cavendish’s eyes, especially when he is threatening an innocent little boy. As far as Depp goes, he fares okay as Tonto, but for all the enthusiasm that he showed for the project, it is tough to really see it in his performance. As far as the supporting players go, Cater has some fun with her pointless role as Red Harrington, a brothel maid who packs heat in her ivory leg. Wilkinson is the usual burly business man as Latham Cole and Fichtner steals nearly every single scene he is in as the bloodthirsty Cavendish, a villain that is way too evil for a film that plays a nice as this does. Ruth Wilson also turns up in a small role as Dan’s widow, Rebecca, who is here to give the film a puny and pathetic love story.
For all of its problems, The Lone Ranger still has some brilliant little nods to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. There are two particular sequences that brought to mind Once Upon a Time in the West and the close up shots of scarred, sweaty, and thickly hairy gunfighters are evocative of Leone’s Man with No Name trilogy. The score from Hans Zimmer is also pretty atmospheric—something that I’m sure would make Ennio Morricone smile. There are also a few funhouse moments, especially a kaleidoscope detour into Hell on Wheels, where fire-and-brimstone preachers shout about the apocalypse and sideshow barkers plead with drunken railroad workers to step right up and marvel at a parade of freaks. I guess it is the little moments that really make the movie. Overall, while the credits of The Lone Ranger say, “directed by Gore Verbinski,” the film feels like the work of several different parties, all of which were on completely different pages. It is too dark to really appeal to children but too goofy to fully appeal to adults. If the Lone Ranger and Tonto do end up returning to a theater near you, let’s hope that they make the wise decision to get serious and remain consistent.
by Steve Habrat
After last year’s lemon Cars 2, Pixar has returned to form (sort of) with Brave, a thunderously exciting and comedic offering that falls victim to childish antics that never have the dual appeal for adults. Lacking zero complexity, Pixar opts for a simple story and keeps things light this time around, reluctant to show their emotional strength. Brave also lacks the vision that made their previous offerings so irresistible and unforgettable, seeming somewhat bland in comparison to tasty offerings like Wall-E, The Incredibles, Up, and Toy Story. Yet Brave, with its enthusiastic voice work and detailed visuals, still manages to get on your good side with some clever moments of slapstick humor that will have you chuckling due to their unpredictability. It also features an immensely likable main character in Merida, an archery obsessed tomboy who likes to allow her unruly explosion of red curls bounce around her face as she rides through the woods shooting arrows at targets. I admit I was worried that I may not care for this feisty free spirit but I have to say that she is a real charmer.
Brave takes us to the 10th century Scottish highlands where we meet Merida (Voiced by Kelly Macdonald), the archery fanatic daughter of King Fergus (Voiced by Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Voiced by Emma Thopson). Merida happens to be a tomboy who loves riding her horse through the woods and firing arrows at several targets she has placed around a trail. She also gets a kick out of climbing up the sides of mountains to drink from waterfalls. Merida is a firm believer in pursuing one’s own destiny rather than having her life planned out for her by others. Her behavior horrifies her mother, who demands that she learn to act like a lady before three neighboring clans arrive in their kingdom for a competition that would allow one young man the chance to win Merida’s hand. The clans arrive and each clan leader offers up his first-born son to compete for Merida, even though she is disinterested in the entire event. Merida grows restless during the competition and she erupts in an outburst that infuriates her mother. Merida runs off into the woods where she finds herself face to face with a witch (Voiced by Julie Walters) that offers her a spell that would change her controlling mother. The witch conveniently forgets to add that there is a small side effect that changes her mother’s appearance too. Meanwhile, the clan leaders begin to grow restless over who will win Merida’s hand, slowly stirring up war between King Fergus and the neighboring clans.
Pixar’s first fairytale does come with quite a bit to admire even if it is reluctant to tackle any heavy topics. I can honestly say that Brave had me laughing from start to finish. I loved how rowdy the film was even if things do get a little too out of hand at times. Brave has tons of shouting, drinking, eating, singing, fighting, brawling, and more shouting, sometimes driving the viewer to a headache but it is all in good fun. You’ll get a bang out of King Fergus as he stomps oafishly through the frame, devouring chicken legs and chugging cup after cup of ale. The heads of the three clans, Lord Dingwall (Voiced by Robbie Coltrane), Lord Macintosh (Voiced by Craig Ferguson), and Lord MacGuffin (Voiced by Kevin McKidd), are all equally boorish and disgusting in their own right but they do manage to grab a whole slew of giggles. The one interesting aspect of Brave is that the film is not hiding the fact that it is advocating female empowerment. The men are made out to be clueless and battle hungry in addition to their already hearty appetites. Yet the men are compassionate to the women and they do respect them, which does make Brave’s message a bit perplexing. I understand that Merida wants to break away from what is expected of a lady but I thought we were over this old fashioned defy-conformity-and-do-what-makes-you-happy message by this point.
Brave is, after all, a ladies show and the guys are just there to fill some space. Merida acts as a firm role model for young girls, a less gritty and animated Katniss Everdeen for five-year-olds. Director Mark Andrews pushes Macdonald to really emphasize the Scottish brogue, making her a bit cartoonish at some points but that actually adds to her appeal. She is the liberal answer to her conservative mother Elinor, who is tied to old-fashioned behavior and unwilling to accept anything less. She warns Merdia to keep her bow off the table and that she better grin through the pain of a corset. A blow-up between these two worlds is the only moment that Andrews really cranks the emotional intensity up a notch or two. When the spell is cast upon Elinor, the plot takes an unexpected twist that worried me at first but then really gains some momentum and keeps the laughs flying. The other female character that I was intrigued with upon first meeting her was the witch, who is introduced halfway through the film and then never heard from again. I kept wondering when the story would return to her and develop her further. Alas, she magically disappears.
While I enjoyed all the main characters in Brave, there was a trio of scene stealing tykes that won me over early on and kept me in stitches every time they scampered into the action. I’m talking about Merida’s three trouble making younger brothers who gag over their dinners while plotting ways to make off with trays of sweets brought to them by their servants. Wait until you see the scene where they have to steal a key off one servant, who stashes it in her cleavage. The Pixar team manages to deliver one hell of a pay off in the final stretch of Brave, offering more satisfying action than most of the other blockbusters that have taken up space in the theater this summer. Yet the Pixar team seems unsure over how to make a film that is aimed at younger girls and the message to send to that demographic. It falls back to something that would have really been saying something before the Women’s Liberation Movement but today, it just seems lazy, especially after what Pixar has accomplished with some of their other work. It may not be the best of Pixar’s bunch and you may yawn over what it trying to say underneath all the yelling but Brave still manages to be one of the better films in a summer that has been filled with duds.
by Steve Habrat
The family who argues together saves the world together in director Brad Bird’s 2004 superhero adventure The Incredibles. One of the most action packed Pixar offerings, The Incredibles is a zippy homage to comic books while also pulling back the curtain on the suburban family and allowing us to see what makes every member of the All-American family tick. While The Incredibles, which was also written by Bird, borrows heavily from the critically acclaimed comic book Watchmen, Bird and the Pixar team tweak the storyline is multiple places, watering Watchmen’s extremely complex storyline down, and allowing the focus to be much more intimate. The results are dazzling with snappy jokes, gripping action, and one perfectly timed joke after another. The Incredibles is also a much more adult film, running two hours with multiple suggestive moments and really earning its PG rating. This is far from the warm and cuddly offerings that Pixar is famous for, especially when we glance back at the films that came before The Incredibles. This is the film that really showed the world the emotional punches that Pixar could throw at audiences all while keeping them wildly entertained and mesmerized.
The Incredibles ushers us into Metroville, where multiple superheroes fly through the sky and save the innocent civilians from destructive foes looking to level the city. We meet Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible (Voiced by Craig T. Nelson), his wife Helen Parr/Elastigirl (Voiced by Holly Hunter), and his best buddy Lucius Best/Frozone (Voiced by Samuel L. Jackson), all who team up together to rid the city of scum. After the government grows weary of all the collateral damage caused by the “Supers”, they put into place the “Supers Relocation Program”, which forces “Supers” to retire their crime fighting ways and fit in with the rest of society. Bob and Helen soon retreat to the suburbs and Bob takes a job at an insurance agency while Helen raises their three children, Dash (Voiced by Spencer Fox), Violet (Voiced by Sarah Vowell), and the toddler Jack-Jack. Bob, who longs to relive his superhero days, is bored with white-collar conformity and grows more and more frustrated with each passing day. After loosing his temper at his job and getting fired, Bob finds himself approached by the mysterious Mirage (Voiced by Elizabeth Pena), who asks Bob to stop a deadly rogue robot on a remote island. Mirage promises Bob that if he can successfully destroy the robot, he will receive a reward. Bob defeats the robot and he soon begins getting other missions from Mirage, all while leaving Helen in the dark about his new job. Bob soon learns that these missions are being controlled by Syndrome (Voiced by Jason Lee), a super-villain who masterminds countless destructive weapons and has a plan that will wipe the retired superheroes off the planet.
At just under two hours, The Incredibles is given room to really develop its characters to the fullest extent possible, paving the way for weighty superhero films that followed in its wake (the next year would see Batman Begins hit theaters, which would set the bar even higher for the superhero genre). We get to see the day-to-day of each Parr family member, seeing what secrets they hide and how they deal with having extraordinary powers while living ordinary lives. Bob has to take mental torment from his boss, each little mental shove just bringing Bob closer to tossing him around like a ragdoll. Violet is an outcast at her high school, hiding behind thick black bangs and practically fainting at the sight of her crush. When he notices her, she activates her power to turn invisible. The troublemaking whippersnapper Dash enjoys placing tacks on his teacher’s chair, using his lightning fast speed to keep the teacher scratching his bald head over how Dash is pulling the prank off. Helen, who acts as the housewife glue of the family, wears a happy face as she spoons meatloaf and green beans onto her family’s dinner plates. Meanwhile, Bob rounds up Lucius for “bowling night”, which really consists of the duo sitting in a car listening to a police scanner and chatting about the good old days. Lucius, now married, tries to keep his wife happy by not ruining special meals, even while a robot pummels downtown Metroville. Each hero is given their conformist demons and they grapple with how to tackle those demons, realizing that they really do need each other to work these issues out.
The supporting characters of The Incredibles are just as fun and hilarious as the first string. Bird thinks up a really nifty villain in Syndrome, who as a boy was Mr. Incredible’s biggest fan. Syndrome, whose real name is Buddy Pine, was always eager to help Mr. Incredible out even when Mr. Incredible would tell him to stay out of the way. Being wounded by his idol makes him all the more interesting and sinister when he is dishing out his payback to Mr. Incredible. Mirage is a character that is a bit underused but I did enjoy the way she would vacillate back and forth from evil to hero. I really enjoyed being kept in the dark over which side she would be aligned with next. The scene-stealer here is Edna Mode (Voiced by Brad Bird), an oriental fashion designer who comes up with the costumes worn by the “Supers”. A chic pint sized motor mouth, Edna is hysterical when explaining why she dislikes capes and recoiling from Mr. Incredible’s dated superhero get up. She really shines when she unveils a new line of outfits for the entire Parr clan. She also seems like she could be a villain in future Incredibles installments, seeming to get quite a bit of joy out of Bob and Helen’s rocky marriage.
You will be surprised to know that The Incredibles never feels like almost two hours. The film flies by and before you know it, you are right smack dab in the middle of a thunderous final showdown between one of Syndrome’s horrifying creations and the Parr clan. The action will keep the kids glued to the screen, even more so than some of the other Pixar films. While the film does get a bit heavy when it deals with the inner workings of a rocky marriage, the kids won’t really notice and instead by enamored with all the nifty gadgets and laughing over Edna. For fans of comic books and superhero films, The Incredibles is essential viewing and in my opinion ranks as one of the better superhero films to emerge from Hollywood. It is just as interested with the people under the cowls and what they carry around in their heavy hearts. Easily in my top three Pixar films of all time, The Incredibles is a touching film about the beauty of family and friends, all while being a relentlessly entertaining superhero thrill ride packed with gut-busting humor and wit. Let’s hope the Parr clan returns to save the world again.
The Incredibles is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
If I had to pick Pixar’s least accessible film, I would have to go with Brad Bird’s 2007 offering Ratatouille. Featuring some of their finest voice work, particularly from funnyguy Patton Oswalt as the rodent chef, clean animation, and a dreamy score, Ratatouille is one of Pixar’s artiest creations in their line of work. While it may not appeal as much to the kiddies, Ratatouille is crafted more for the adult viewer, featuring more adult humor rather than easy gags that will keep a ten year old howling at the screen. Personally, I find Ratatouille one of Pixar’s funniest films, yet the subtext, with it’s anybody-can-do-anything-if-you-set-your-mind-to-it message, is a little too simple minded, especially since Pixar is capable of infusing their films with some major real world weight. I did find the way the film skewers uptight critics, the ones who are so rooted to their opinion and refusing to alter that opinion extremely well executed. It seemed a bit personal too, since this is the film that was the follow-up to Cars, the first Pixar film that failed to run off with the imagination of some critics.
Ratatouille introduces us to Remy (Voiced by Oswalt), a rat who loves to cook and is blessed with a sharp sniffer that gets him the job of detecting rat poison in the food that the rest of his rat colony gathers. The colony is lead by Remy’s stern father Django (Voiced by Brain Dennehy) and his goofy brother Emilie (Voiced by Peter Sohn), both who voice disgust over Remy’s trust of humans. After having to make a hasty evacuation from their rural dwelling, Remy gets separated from the rest of the pack and ends up in downtown Paris, right at the doorstep of the famed fine dining restaurant Gusteau’s. Remy, who happens to a huge fan of the late Auguste Gusteau (Voiced by Brad Garrett), the chef behind the famous restaurant, fully believes in Gusteau’s message “anyone can cook.” After ending up in Gusteau’s kitchen, Remy crosses paths with newly hired garbage boy Alfredo Linguini (Voiced by Lou Romano), an uptight klutz who can’t cook to save his skin. While exploring the kitchen, Remy notices Linguini accidentally mess up a pot of soup, which he quickly tries to fix but is caught by Linguini. A bowl of the soup is served and the customer begins raving about how delicious the soup is. The rest of Gusteau’s staff believe that Linguini is responsible for the soup but Linguini knows that it was actually Remy that fixed it. Linguini soon grabs the attention of the cranky head chef Skinner (Voiced by Ian Holm) and an even crankier food critic Anton Ego (Voiced by Peter O’Toole), both eager to reveal him a fraud.
What makes Ratatouille such a delicious treat is the budding friendship between Linguini and Remy, both who realize that they ultimately need each other to succeed. Linguini needs Remy because he can’t loose another job and Remy needs Linguini to pursue his dream of becoming a chef. The film also develops a love story between Linguini and another member of Gusteau’s staff Colette (Voiced by Janeane Garofalo), who is forced into keeping an eye on the jumpy Linguini. The love story is fitting since the film is taking place in the city of love. The film also has Remy finding his father and brother, small little detours in the story that stress to Remy that he shouldn’t be so trusting of the humans. The film knows that Emile and Django are slightly bland characters so Bird smartly doesn’t focus on them too much. The film really gets moving when Remy discovers a way to control Linguini (pulling strands of his hair) so that they can continue to fool Skinner and Ego into thinking that Linguini is really cooking and not being controlled by a rat. This is where the film embraces some heavy physical comedy that will really appeal to the tots.
Ratatouille is a film that isn’t content with having one major villain but two antagonists to drive Linguini and Remy to the brink of madness. Skinner is a pint-sized terror as he tries to discover how Linguini is able to cook so well, especially since he is such a bumbling goofball. He is hilarious in his attempts to barge in to rooms to catch Linguni talking to Remy and he tries to get him drunk in the hopes that Linguini will spill the beans about his little helper. Skinner is also trying to capitalize on Gusteau’s name with a line of wretched frozen meals that he is eager to get into supermarket freezers. The skeletal Ego is also a pretentious nightmare as he spews his dislike for Gusteau’s motto and his restaurant, finding the food beneath his refined palette. He sits in his coffin shaped den typing away one negative review after another while sending shivers down his butler’s spine. Ego, who practically gags at the mention of Gusteau’s, gets a witty exchange late in the film with Linguini. Ego growls that if he doesn’t love the food he puts in his mouth, he “does not swallow.”
At nearly two hours, Ratatouille does run a bit long but it never ceases to tickle our imagination. The film gets far on such a simple premise and watching everything come full circle is delectable. The film is brimming with enough characters to hold the adult viewers attention for a good majority of the runtime. Halfway through Ratatouille, we get to meet the rest of Gusteau’s staff and they are all hilarious in their own individual way, even if the film then quickly forgets about them. The final rush to think of something to serve the impossible-to-please Ego will have you rolling on the floor in laughter, especially when you see who shows up to give Linguini and Remy a hand. You can’t shake the feeling that the portrayal if Ego is a jab at the critics who waved off Pixar’s previous offering Cars, a touch that I actually like even if I wasn’t the biggest fan of Cars myself. I was also impressed by how detailed the scenes of downtown Paris are, at times seeming almost real if glanced at from a distance. Overall, Ratatouille may send a simple, elementary message, which is somewhat disappointing, but it features enough “awe” moments and is spiced up with enough laughs to have you ordering up seconds and sending your compliments to the chef.
Ratatouille is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Did you ever think that animated feature films could move you as much as Pixar’s animated offerings do? One of the most emotional in their body of work has to be 2009’s crowd-pleaser Up, a film that refuses to gloss over real world obstacles that we will all have to face one day. It truly is hard to believe that these films are aimed at children when they are much more adult orientated in their themes. Up has to be one of Pixar’s heaviest films but it also has to be one of the most lively outside of the Toy Story series. Like staring into a neon rainbow, Up is a gorgeous film that doesn’t rely on its meticulous visuals to keep it aloft. No, Up boasts a splendid story that is carefully and delicately told. The script, penned by Peter Docter, Bob Peterson, and Thomas McCarthy, packs thrilling, high-rise action and jokes that fly at the audience at breakneck speeds. Yet the best part of Up is the unflinching look at the pain and heartbreak that life can throw at us and how we can still make our dreams come true, even if we think it is too late.
Up begins in the 1920’s with the young Carl Fredricksen, a quiet boy who hides behind giant eyeglasses and an old pilot’s cap, seeing a theater newsreel that features famous explorer Charles Muntz (Voiced by Christopher Plummer) setting out to find a rare species of bird. Carl dashes out into the sunlight, eager to mimic his hero and while exploring an old house, he stumbles across a chatty redheaded girl named Ellie. The two adventurers strike up a friendship and they soon fall in love with each other. They get married, move in to their dream home, and begin saving for a move to Paradise Falls in South America, the same place their hero Muntz explored and ultimately never returned from. As responsibility and heartbreak prevent them from their dream move, the two try to forget about their dreams and focus on their lives in America. Seventy years sneak by and Ellie passes on, leaving Carl (Voiced by Ed Asner) a bitter and cranky old man, fighting to stay out of a retirement home. He is also tangled in a nasty battle to keep his home from being taken by a construction company that wishes to demolish it to make room for a skyscraper. After a nasty confrontation that ends in Carl injuring one of construction workers, he ties millions of helium filled balloons to his roof and takes off into the sky, setting a course for Paradise Falls. Once aloft, Carl quickly discovers he has an unwanted guest tagging along.
Once Up lands in Paradise Falls and allows us to get to know the energetic and pudgy Boy Scout Russell (Voiced by Jordan Nagai), the film takes on a lighter tone that the kiddies will go gonzo over. We get to meet a rare squawking bird that Russell calls Kevin and a pack of talking dogs that are led by the dopey Dug (Voiced by Bob Peterson). I loved the scenes where Carl has to grit his teeth and tolerate the ball of energy that is Russell. I also enjoyed seeing Russell win Carl over with his constant pestering. It was great to see the bitter Carl finally emerge from his shell and allow another person to grow close to him in the wake of Ellie’s passing. Early on, we see that Ellie suffers a miscarriage, which severely wounds the hearts of the optimistic couple. It truly is heartwarming to see him watching over Russell in a fatherly like manner and admitting that he just wants Russell to be safe. It will also get you when Carl reluctantly begins protecting man’s best friend Dug and the rare bird Kevin, especially when Kevin gives Carl backtalk. You’ll be on the floor in laughter.
Up has to be one of the most bipolar films that I have ever seen. One second, it will have you gasping for air in between all the knee-slapping jokes and the next second, it will have you fighting back tears. The silent opening montage that shows us the progression of Carl and Ellie’s marriage is sweet, fuzzy, and piercing. There is more emotion in this opening ten minutes with computer-generated characters than there are in most live action films with flesh and blood actors. Take note, Hollywood. The last act of the film embraces rollicking thrills set in the clouds. Our motley crew of heroes is pitted against the now evil Charles Muntz and his army of talking dogs. The one flaw that does sort of bother me in Up is the lack of development in Muntz, who is just suddenly evil. We are given a thin explanation that sheds light on his bitterness, but I wanted a bit more out of him. It doesn’t help that he enters the film late in the game. You will, however, get a kick out of the elderly showdown between Muntz and Carl, both who suffer loud cracks in their backs as one swings a sword he can barely lift and the other swings a walker.
At times resembling an old sketch that has come to high definition life, Up’s spellbinding visuals are complimented by Michael Giacchino‘s delicate sore, which adds an extra push to all the emotion. The best moments of the score come in the quieter moments, when it is just little twinkles of piano keys. Up’s ultimate message of encouragement and reassurance are what really made me fall for the film. I firmly stand behind its reassurance that our dreams can come true, no matter how old or how young we are. I also loved Carl and Russell discovering that they need each other to nurse their wounded hearts. Russell, it turns out, is largely ignored by his biological father and told by his stepmother that he annoys his father too much. Each time I watch Up, it never gets any easier to hear Russell mutter that confession and Carl’s reaction always gets me. Up has to rank up there as one of my favorite Pixar films, one that has stuck with me the longest and is always a treat to revisit. It may be a tearjerker reminder of how unpredictable life can be but it always helps when you have somebody by your side to share the smaller moments with. Up is a dream come true.
Up is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
While Disney-Pixar’s computer animated offerings always leave me in awe over the creativity poured into each film, it’s the hand-drawn works that really showcase the artistic abilities of those who punch the clock at Disney. Take for instance Winnie the Pooh, the newest hand drawn gem from the animation factory that really takes your imagination by the hand. To many, he may seem dated and the urge to watch garbage like Cars 2 may seem like the more entertaining option, but I say give this adventure a go.
Pooh (Voiced by Jim Cummings) and his merry gang of loyal friends go on the hunt to find Christopher Robin (Voiced by Jack Boulter), who they believe has been captured by a mysterious beast called a “Backsoon”. They are also desperately trying to locate sad sack Eeyore’s (Voiced by Bud Luckey) tail, which has also gone missing. The first one to find the tail wins a jar of honey, which Pooh desperately wants due to a shortage at his homestead.
The entire gang makes an appearance in Winnie the Pooh. We have Piglet (Voiced by Travis Oates), Tigger (Voiced by Jim Cummings), Owl (Voiced by Craig Ferguson), Kanga (Voiced by Kristen Anderson-Lopez), Roo (Voiced by Wyatt Dean Hall), and Rabbit (Voiced by Tom Kenny), all along to catch and trap the dread “Backsoon”. Some stick-in-the-mud adults may find the brief 63 minute runtime to be entirely too long to tell the tale of Pooh but children should be glued to it.
Adults will enjoy the smiley croon of Zooey Deschanel (Elf, New Girl), who sings a number of toe-tapping little numbers sprinkled throughout. The characters themselves break out into a number of memorable songs that pay tribute to classic Pooh adventures. The best song is a tie between Pooh’s hallucinatory accolade to honey called “Everything is Honey” and Tigger’s directions that “Get You Tiggerized”. I should also acknowledge the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it wink to Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is a charmer.
Sure to slap a big smile on the faces of those who will level with it, Winnie the Pooh encourages a vivid imagination in every viewer. It stirs up the child in the adult viewers and it will get the kiddies riled up to venture outside and organize their own search party for the “Backsoon”. Winnie the Pooh is harmless with a sunny disposition and just as sweet as honey.
Winnie the Pooh is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Before Jack Skellington and Sally were mall goth heroes, they were a magical pair of claymation figures who just wanted to experience the joy and wonder of Christmas. Before all the heavy metal covers and the 3D conversions, their world was even more tempting, never needing an update and forever remaining timeless. The best of the claymation bunch, The Nightmare Before Christmas was a childhood favorite of mine, favored more around the time when Jolly Old Saint Nicholas plops down the chimney than my other favorite holiday. I always thought this film does capture the hypnotizing quality of Christmas, the one that makes us feel like children again. It really gels when Jack finds himself is Christmas Town, gaping at snowmen, elves, Christmas lights, and children snuggled in their beds. It painstakingly tries to re-establish that Christmas is about awe, not about the material fixation that now comes with the most wonderful time of the year. The film, which is the brainchild of producer Tim Burton (No, he did NOT direct this!) and director Henry Selick, is teeming with some of the most creative and bizarre animated characters ever captured on camera, and they do not feel like they are stretched or insipid.
The Nightmare Before Christmas ushers us to Halloween Town, a place where all the typical Halloween ghouls reside and emerge every year to give us the willies. Halloween Town finds a leader in the bony Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King who is growing weary of the same old traditions every year. With his ghost dog Zero, Jack wanders off into the woods and stumbles upon a portal to another holiday dimension: Christmas Town. Bursting with excitement and inspiration, Jack hurries back to Halloween Town and fills in the locals about what he has seen. Jack and the monsters vow that they will give “Sandy Claws” a break for the year and they will put on Christmas. As Jack’s plans slowly fall apart and his idea grows more and more dangerous, it’s up to the lonely Sally, a ragdoll zapped to life by a mad scientist, to try to convince Jack to leave Christmas to the residents of Christmas Town. Across Halloween Town, the sinister Oogie Boogie has plans of his own for Santa Claus.
The Nightmare Before Christmas is a true work of art, one that works simply because it carries off the viewers imagination. It did mine when I was young and I still smile today when I see the film. The 3D conversion the film underwent was rewarding because we get to see the fine details to Halloween Town. The film was the brainchild of Burton and watching the film is like stepping into the mind of Burton himself. The inspired characters also make the visit to Halloween Town beyond memorable. There are mummies, a trio of glammed up vampires, a two-face politician, witches, the boogieman, and a band of devious and merry trick-or-treaters. There are nods to the classic Universal Movie Monsters while also opening the door to a brand new world. Seriously, the film commences with a door being opened and ghosts coaxing us into the darkness. It’s really quite exciting.
As far as musicals go, The Nightmare Before Christmas is a stand out as far as I’m concerned. This film gives us some of the most ingenious, cleverly written musical numbers you will see in an animated film. Just get a load of that opening introduction as the monsters all introduce themselves. It’s a horror fans dream come true and anyone who appreciates the value of lyrics will be head over heels with delight. You will be tapping your toes along with it. The song, “This Is Halloween”, is now a goth anthem, even getting a makeover from heavy metal artist Marilyn Manson a few years back. Other standouts include the dreary “Sally’s Song”, Jack’s inquisitive “What’s This”, and the trick-or-treater’s bickering “Kidnap the Sandy Claws”.
There are some minor flaws to be found in this film. The love story between Sally and Jack is a bit wobbly. It never really gets off the ground and we mostly see the love from Sally’s side. Jack seems relatively unconcerned with her and barely notices her presence at times. The film is a bit short, abruptly wrapping up just when things are really starting to grip us. Oogie Boogie only really shows up at the end, a character that is the very definition if cool. What aids us in overlooking the minor bumps is that the characters are just so nifty. Jack has become an iconic animated hero and you’ll be overloaded on cute when you meet his playful pup Zero. The Mayor of Halloween Town will keep the kiddies chuckling, especially when his mood alters and his face changes. Santa Claws is also quite creative, a huge red blob of a man, a version of him that only Burton could think up. Sally is a hopeless romantic and we feel her sorrow. The most astonishing aspect is the complexities in Jack. He’s a control freak and at times a bit domineering, yet we root for him to see the error of his ways. Perhaps that is meant to force us to reflect on our own approach to Christmas. Have we missed the point of this Holiday? Are we any different than Jack? According to Burton and Selick, not really.
The Nightmare Before Christmas may prove to be a bit too eerie for some young viewers, but with films like Corpse Bride and Coraline (Also directed by Selick) on the market, that’s up for you to decide. It’s a shame that goth kids have marked it as their own, as there really is something for everyone to enjoy within the film. I think that Jack stands for much more than as the leader of the gothic nation. He represents our ignorance, our fascination with all things magical, and is the face of a truly poignant redemption story. He even symbolically rises from ashes near the end of this film. I think he represents more than the kids who shop at Hot Topic think. This film also cast its spell over me as a kid and I’m glad I had the chance to see it before the recent surge of popularity. Eye opening and intricate, with treasures abound, The Nightmare Before Christmas sweeps us off our feet, much like the season it is a testament to. An undeniable family classic.
The Nightmare Before Christmas is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Is it me or are the Pirates of the Caribbean films starting to become almost an obligation to go see? The first two films in the series were fun high-seas adventure flicks that came equipped with a whole lot of action and reckless swashbuckling. But then came the bloated and incomprehensible third entry in the franchise and it became as clear as those Caribbean waters that this film franchise wasn’t entirely sure what to actually do with itself. For almost three hours, it ran in a circle and concealed the fact it had no major plotline by setting up countless side storylines. The promise of a better fourth entry that trimmed out the fat and stayed on one major course sounded like a real treat! Plus, it guaranteed Johnny Deep’s boozy punk rock pirate Jack Sparrow would get more screen time and not have to share it with the perpetually-doing-a-period-piece-movie Orlando Bloom. Unfortunately, the phrase “you can have too much of a good thing” applies to Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, as once again the franchise has no real idea where to go or how to deliver a satisfying payoff. The film is all build up and then fizzles due to clutter. This is not to say it’s an awful movie but it sure appears like this was just a quick paycheck for everyone involved with it.
The glaring problem with On Stranger Tides is the script that it has to work with. Sure, the story has been trimmed down, but it drops the ball when it comes to the effortless humor and whimsy that the other entries executed with outstanding ease. Perhaps it’s the fault of new director Rob Marshall, who is inexperienced with Hollywood blockbusters, as he is the man who was behind the glittery musicals Nine and Chicago. He poorly paces the film to the point where he seems blatantly eager to rocket into one action sequence after another. While the action sequences are fine, the Pirates of the Caribbean films could always pride themselves on their clever and hilarious banter.
The storyline this time around is pretty straightforward: Jack Sparrow is suckered into finding the Fountain of Youth for the dread Blackbeard (Played by Ian McShane). He is fooled at the hands of Blackbeard’s feisty daughter, Angelica (Played by the sexy Penelope Cruz), while he is traipsing through Britain. The British Royal Army also wants the Fountain of Youth and dispatches the dreaded Captain Barbossa, a role reprised by the stellar Geoffrey Rush, to find it before Sparrow. On top of that, a mysterious group of Spanish Conquistadors also wants possession of eternal youth.
Sounds simple enough, right? It is for the most part. The film still takes outlandish detours and introduces new side characters that are there to fill out a two hour run time. The film looks nice and the 3D will wow the kiddies. Yet the film has an abnormally flat personality. It does not have hints of the spark that made the original film so damn fun. It shows brief glimpses of intrigue mostly when the film runs aground and the characters take to dry land. It also contains a bone chilling sequence that features a hair-raising encounter with mermaids. I will commend the film on it’s top notch directing and the infusion of new supernatural elements into the film. We get zombies this time around that is a brilliant tribute to I Walked With a Zombie and White Zombie.
Even if the film appears to be phoned in, the performances from Depp, McShane, and Rush are all in top form. They seem to be having a great deal of fun playing these grubby, rum-guzzling pirates. Rush steals the show as the grotesque and vengeful Barbossa. McShane is the embodiment of evil as the glaring and mystifying Blackbeard. McShane is the best villain of the series since Barbossa intimidated his way through the first film. Unfortunately, director Marshall didn’t seem to really know what to do with Cruz’s Angelica. She seems there only to provide a pretty face juxtaposed with the breathtaking backgrounds. It’s a shame, really, due to her talent that she so gracefully posses.
Then we have Mr. Depp as the infamous Jack Sparrow. He embodies the role like no one else could and it’s a thrill to see him back doing it. It’s funny because we get to see Johnny Depp playing Johnny Depp. He’s still the king of getting himself into sticky situations, deadpanning his way out of them, only to find himself in a worse predicament than before. Sadly, he lacks the effortless charm he once exuded. He’s a victim of poor writing and the film banks on the audience’s laughs just at his presence alone. He does muster up a few classic one-liners and reactions, but it makes me wish that he wasn’t front and center in the spot light. He needs another character to anchor his lofty persona.
The film also suffers from an unsatisfying payoff that seems like mere set up rather than unambiguous conclusion. The film raises more questions than it answers and you’ll see what I mean when you take yourself to see it. Characters seem present only to create unnecessary conflict. The ending is especially guilty of this crime, as at least one group battling for the Fountain seems to have no purpose there at all. To trim them out would have been a wise choice by Marshall. The film leaves us with the sinking feeling the Disney is certainly going to churn out more of these. I hope they don’t bog it down in needless muddle and meaningless characters.
No matter what I say, everyone will flock to see it and many will dash to the store come the holidays to pick up the Blu-ray and DVD. After all, it is your obligation! If there are to be more of these, I ask that Disney pay closer attention to the script and keep things light. It’s what gave them a winner in the first place. Hell, bring back those seriously awesome mermaids! They have solid characters to work with and a fresh slate to draw on. But On Stranger Tides feels oddly pedestrian when it could have benefitted from much more of the promised strangeness.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.