Review: “Inside Out”

Inside out

Don’t call it a comeback.

After years of dominating the field of animated films, Pixar has been showing signs of weakness since 2010’s “Toy Story 3.” At the same time, other animated filmmakers have shown serious improvements with films like “How to Train Your Dragon” and “The Lego Movie.” With Pixar’s newest release, the company is hoping to solidify their reign at the top before companies like DreamWorks can take over.

“Inside Out” is a daring idea in that the film takes place almost entirely inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley. Though briefly interrupted here and there with a real-life plot, the main storyline follows Riley’s emotions Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black). When her parents move the family from Minnesota to San Francisco, Riley (and her emotions) have a tough time adjusting to the new lifestyle. When chaos ensues inside the control room where Riley’s emotions live, it’s up to Joy and Sadness to save the day before Riley loses what makes her Riley.

Probably the two biggest attributes that have followed Pixar films throughout the years are great animation and heartfelt characters. The former is certainly on display with “Inside Out.” Everything about this film is aesthetically beautiful. Whether it’s the imaginative world inside Riley’s head or the scenes on the streets of San Francisco, the animation is some of the best work the medium has ever seen.

As for the latter, “Inside Out” may be the most emotional film Pixar has put out to date. Of course in a film where the majority of the characters are actual emotions, that shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. The only problem with this setup is that most of the characters are also very one-dimensional. There’s not a lot of growth opportunity for a character named Anger who’s voiced by Lewis Black.

Fortunately for the film there are other characters inside Riley’s head who give the film a little more heart, namely her childhood imaginary friend Bing Bong (wonderfully voiced by Richard Kind).

Humor is another important part of any Pixar film and there’s plenty to go around in “Inside Out.” Not every joke is a rousing success but there are several funny sequences and ideas tossed around in the film that you may not catch on the first watch.

What keeps “Inside Out” from piercing the upper echelon of Pixar films is its so-so plot. Though it stays mostly entertaining for the length of the film, watching Joy and Sadness walk around the recesses of Riley’s mind just isn’t as compelling as watching the superhero family from “The Incredibles” fight off bad guys or Carl and Russell defeating an evil explorer in “Up.”

It may not be as entertaining as some of Pixar’s better films, but “Inside Out” is an important film for kids and adults because it teaches audiences about the process of growing up. While that isn’t necessarily a new concept for film or children’s stories, the way in which Pixar is able to approach the subject makes it very unique.

If nothing else, “Inside Out” proves that Pixar still has the juice to make thought-provoking films for the whole family and that the company’s legacy is in good hands.

Grade: B+

Happy viewing.

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Review: “Monsters University”

MONSTERS UNIVERSITY

Pixar is living proof that too much of a good thing can be bad. One would think after “Cars 2” the studio would go back to original films, but between “Monsters University” and the upcoming “Finding Dory”, this doesn’t appear to be the case.

“Monsters University”, the 14th film by Pixar, tells the early story of Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman) as college students studying the art of scaring. The first act of the film focuses on Mike’s journey to Monsters University, as he has always wanted to be a scarer since meeting one as a young, marginalized child. During his studies under Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), Mike comes across Sully, a stereotypical college slacker who is riding his father’s scary coattails at the school. Around the time that these two meet, the film turns into a “Revenge of the Nerds”-type competition when Mike and Sully are forced to compete in the Scare Games with the unpopular fraternity, Oozma Kappa.

Most of the humor found in “Monsters University” is, unsurprisingly, from how college life translates to the monster world. From the orientation process to greek life to even how uncool your parents are once you set foot on campus, the film cleverly makes it all fit a world where scaring children each night is the bread and butter of energy infrastructure.

Though Billy Crystal and John Goodman both return to their roles as leading men (as if anyone could replace those voices), one of the film’s problems is that most of the laughs don’t belong to either Mike or Sully. Crystal and Goodman both coast their way to an easy paycheck while smaller characters carry the comic relief on their backs.

The Oozma Kappas are highlighted by hippie Art (a very funny Charlie Day), non-traditional student Don (Joel Murray, from early seasons of Mad Men) and the Squibbles (Peter Sohn and Julia Sweeney). The oddball humor of these characters is really what saves the film from a future in the discount bin at WalMart.

“Monsters University” is a pleasant film that is safe for families visiting the theater, but there was a time when Pixar was known for aiming so much higher than that. The story is very safe and, aside from the ending, entirely predictable.

One aspect of the Pixar brand that is evident here, however, is the incredible quality of animation. Compared to films that were coming out just a few years ago, “Monsters University” makes the gap in technology appear a decade longer. It’s exciting to see where animated films are taking us and that’s really the best thing that can be said for “Monster’s University”.

Grade: B-

I’m hoping to post reviews for “The Heat” and “The Lone Ranger” here in the next week or so before I head out of the country for a little bit. Check back later this week and see what’s going on!

Happy viewing.

Batman Countdown: Animated Films

So, I’m kind of a nerd. Kind of obvious from the whole movie blog thing, but I’m even moreso when it comes to my favorite comic book character, Batman. I grew up watching “Batman: The Animated Series” which originally ran from 1992-1995 and, to a lesser extent, “Batman Beyond” (1999-2001).

While I read some of the comics off and on, those cartoons were my source material of choice. So it only makes sense to start off my Batman countdown with my favorite animated films.

Not counting several Justice League films (all of which I would recommend if that’s your cup of tea), there have been a few animated films released in the last 20 years that I have enjoyed. These are great additions to the live action stories I’ll mention in later posts because they explore stories that would be too difficult to tell in a big Hollywood production. The average runtime is about 75 minutes, so it’s not much of a time commitment either.

So, without further ado…

“Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” (1993)

Before “Batman Begins,” there weren’t really any movies that told the story of Bruce Wayne’s transformation into Batman. While “Mask of the Phantasm” doesn’t show as much as “Begins” (as far as Bruce ordering the parts and such), we do get to see Bruce as a vigilante. There is also a strong theme surrounding the oath Bruce took after the death of his parents. We see the things he is forced to leave behind in order to don the cape and cowl and the inner turmoil he suffers because of it.

On top of this, the story sees a new vigilante that has come into town. One who is not afraid to break Batman’s one rule. Between the Phantasm taking out gangsters left and right and the story’s inclusion of the Joker, the film is pretty dark for an animated film. I consider “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” to be the best of the animated films for its action scenes and its development of the story and characters.

As for my other favorite among the animated films, that belongs to…

“Batman: Under the Red Hood” (2010)

As much as I have always enjoyed Batman cartoons (not to be confused with the animated films), they always seemed a little too safe for a Batman story. People rarely, if ever, die and there’s almost always a happy ending. That’s why I was pleasantly surprised with “Under the Red Hood.” It’s a great adventure for characters in the Batman universe and its more violent than probably any other of his animated films.

The film is basically centered around three individuals: Batman, Jason Todd (the 2nd Robin for those unfamiliar) and, of course, the Joker. Without spoiling too much of the film, its plot shares a few elements with “Mask of the Phantasm.” A newcomer to Gotham challenges the local crime syndicates and takes over the drug trade by killing off the competition. Obviously, this puts him in Batman’s cross hairs. Also featuring characters like Black Mask, Nightwing and Ra’s al Ghul, the film shows a side of the Batman story that isn’t always featured in the live action films.

With a great story, dark tone and interesting characters, it’s easily the 2nd best of the animated films.

I only used this post to talk about these two films, but other recommendation of mine would be “Batman: Year One” (very similar story to “Batman Begins”) and “Superman/Batman: Apocalypse” (more of a Superman story, but still great). And for those of you who are Batman fans and enjoy these animated films, there will be another Batman film this fall based on Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns,” which is excellent.

That’s all for this first part of the countdown. Next I’ll talk about the Burton and Schumacher films.

Happy viewing.

Review: “Brave”

I love Pixar films.

Great animation, compelling storylines and wonderful characters. What’s not to love?

Aside from the mediocre “Cars 2,” the studio that can do no wrong has been pumping out hits for years. The stories themselves are diverse, ranging from the bottom of the ocean to the ends of space.

Pixar’s latest film, “Brave,” takes on the story of the princess of a mythical Scottish kingdom. Princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald), the daughter of King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), struggles with the constraints of life as royalty. Instead of climbing mountains and honing her archery skills, Merida is forced to endure hours of queen preparation.

The premise of a daughter who disagrees with her parents is not exactly new, nor is the theme of arranged marriages in those disputes.Where the story takes this setup is what makes “Brave” a little more unique. I won’t spoil too much about that part of the film, but a magic spell is involved.

Pixar is known for producing near-perfect animation and this latest effort is no exception. The film opens and closes on beautiful landscapes. In between, there are wispy blue spirits, wild bears and Merida’s flowing red hair. From start to finish, “Brave” features some of Pixar’s best animation.

One of my biggest worries in the early parts of the film was that Merida would become a whining little girl who pouts until she gets what she wants. If you’ve seen “Flicka,” think of the way Alison Lohman’s character defies her parents over and over again until she gets her way and the parents are totally cool with it. I quickly learned that Merida is a much better character than that and I, along with parents of impressionable children, had nothing to worry about. In fact, aside from a scary scene or two and a little nudity (You could see worse on an episode of Spongebob), parents should have very little to worry about.

Merida’s parents are also pretty good characters. Fergus is almost a little too similar to Gerard Butler’s Stoick the Vast in “How to Train Your Dragon,” but his relationship with Merida provides enough of a difference. Elinor, on the other hand, is given nearly as much material as Merida for her character to grow throughout the film.

As good as “Brave” is at times, it’s lacking in something I can’t quite put my finger on. Perhaps its due to the film being a little less funny than most Pixar films (not that it needs to be). Or maybe it’s because the supporting characters are underused or less memorable. The conclusion of the film and its main conflict also seems to be a bit rushed, so that could be it.

Whatever it is, something is holding the film back from being as good as “The Incredibles” or the “Toy Story” franchise. The problem could even be just that I am comparing it to other Pixar films that have grown dear to me.

Since I’m comparing it anyways, I’ll share where I would rate it with other Pixar films. On a scale of “Wall-E” (my favorite, tied with “The Incredibles” and closely followed by “Up”) to “Cars 2,” I would put this film smack dab in the middle between “Monster’s Inc” and “A Bug’s Life.”

“Brave” may not be the best film Pixar has ever offered, but it shows a maturity in filmmaking and animation that has me excited for what comes next.

Grade: B

Happy viewing.