The Perfect Thanksgiving Movie: Coco

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Dia de los Muertos is a hard sell in America.

In general, all movies about other cultures and countries are. We’ve westernized the world through Hollywood, and we don’t really care for anyone else’s films.

On a deeper level, though, Dia de los Muertos is a Mexican holiday about death that coincides with our date for Halloween. It’s about celebrating and remembering those who have died. And here in America we prefer not to think or talk about death, thank you very much. We don’t die, we “pass on,” and to where? Who knows! But please don’t speak about it too loudly, lest the Grim Reaper come for me before my preferred time.

But, if there is any movie studio able to tackle this holiday and present it to an American audience, it is Pixar. There is nothing the studio behind Finding Nemo, Inside Out, Toy Story, and Up can’t do. Add a big-eyed boy with a guitar and some musical numbers, and maybe Coco will manage to sneak into your heart, and family viewing rotation, after all.

Coco tells the story of Miguel, the youngest of the Rivera family, who wants to be a musician. He wants to be like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz. The only problem? The Rivera family does not do music. A guitar cannot even be in their line of sight. So on the Day of the Dead, Miguel skips his family’s celebration to compete in a talent competition to show off his skills, and through a series of mishaps, finds himself in the Land of the Dead.

The first act, and probably the weakest part, of Coco is the only area that isn’t highly original. The son-who-wants-to-be-a-musician-but-his-family-doesn’t-want-him-to is not only a trope, but was the plot of 2014’s The Book of Life, an animated movie also about the Day of the Dead.

On a side note, the 2014 animated film The Book of Life is an enjoyable film for kids, but if you have to choose between it and Coco, Coco is the Target brand, Book of Life is the Walmart brand (and Book of Life also includes a mariachi version of Mumford and Sons “I Will Wait,” so decipher from that what you will).

Once the “nobody understands my sensitive musician soul” storyline is established, everything else in Coco shines. It builds up to a well-earned, intense, emotional conclusion that I didn’t see coming. And while there are a few tear-jerker moments, the film doesn’t pry open your tear ducts in the way Pixar usually does. They’ve been accused of being emotionally manipulative, which I think is true in some cases, but here, it doesn’t feel pushed.

I don’t want to say much more about the story or characters, because I think the less you know the better for this film. But, I will say that the voice acting is top-notch, and the adventure the characters go on is full of twists and turns. There are some serious moments, but nothing truly scary, so consider looking at a content review of the film before taking a young child to see it. The toddler I took to see the film was fully engaged the whole time.

What struck me while watching the film is that Coco, even though it starts on October 31st and the skull motif fits for Halloween, is actually the perfect Thanksgiving movie, a genre that is severely lacking. Thanksgiving as a holiday is about family, being thankful, remembering your past, and appreciating your life and culture. Coco does all of that.

In America, we take two distinct views on death. Either we ignore it and don’t talk about it, or we say it’s natural and a part of life. As a Christian, I don’t think either of these are healthy. Ignoring death, not talking to children about it, and refusing to acknowledge or prepare for it is not only an act of fear, but simply unreasonable. We can’t protect anyone from death. Christianity is all about death- the death of Jesus, the death of our sins on a cross, death of our former selves when we come to Christ, and our eventual death so we can go to a new heavens and new earth.

As for saying it’s a natural part of life, ala the Lion King, that also doesn’t seem right either, because we weren’t made to die. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were made to be eternal with God forever. Sin is the unnatural thing brought to mankind. For those who are not Christians, death is something to be afraid of, and as Christians, we should mourn for them.

So Dia de los Muertos- a holiday that acknowledges death, believes that there is an afterlife, teaches children that death isn’t something to be afraid of, and celebrates family- is a great thing. It’s a very Christian thing, I believe.

The only thing that makes this particular Presbyterian pause is that Coco sometimes leans a little too close to ancestral worship. Also, the afterlife presented here isn’t really a heaven. In the film, it explains that if you aren’t remembered by people on earth, then you have a “final death,” where you are gone forever, which isn’t what Heaven is.  

I think these issues can be talked through with children if you go as a family to see Coco, which I highly recommend you do. It is not only a lovely film that shows off Pixar’s storytelling and artistry, but it also has another message that is ripe for discussion. Coco explains how we are responsible for each other. Miguel is responsible for his family members being remembered, and his family members are responsible for him and helping his future, and they all create a tight net that will never let the others fall. We are responsible for each other, whether in death or life, and through those loving bonds, nothing can really separate us, because one day, I hope, we will all be united together again.

-Madeleine D

Do Not See The Emoji Movie

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Like all well-intentioned people, I didn’t mean to see The Emoji Movie. But life happened, and I saw it.

For all the parents out there, I understand. You just need to get the kids to be quiet for an hour and a half. Non-parents, I’m sympathetic. You think it can’t be that bad.

If you want to get the experience of The Emoji Movie without seeing it, go outside when it is 110 degrees. Sit in a metal dumpster, then set the dumpster on fire. Bring all of your favorite books, movies, and music with you. As all of that creativity and inventiveness (because no matter your tastes, I’m sure it will be better than this) burns around you, you will understand The Emoji Movie. The amount of effort put in the title of this Sony flick is how much effort was put into the film.

If you are a parent and are looking at Fandango anxiously, your fingers inching towards the “buy ticket” button, because it’s Summer and you just need a break, please bring your child over to my house. I will personally babysit them for an hour and a half, just to spare their innocence, and increase the brainpower of the future generation.

To say anymore about this piece of 💩 would be to give it more thought than it got during its entire two years of production.

-Madeleine D

Gru Isn’t The Only One Not Living Up To His Potential: Despicable Me 3

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Despicable Me still stands as one of the most innovative, unique, and heartfelt animated movies ever made.  It took a creative premise- bad guy adopts three little girls to help out with his villainy- and added even more creativity through layered storytelling and stylistic touches.

Despicable Me 2 was a forgettable sequel, but it still showcased the very specific style that Illumination animation has.

Then there was Minions. We don’t talk about that film.

But I still had faith. Despicable Me 3 could be a return to form. Never mind that it was going to do the lazy move (in my opinion) of introducing a surprise twin brother. There was still a chance!

Or so I hoped.

Despicable Me 3 operates more as a series of vignettes than a singular story. Each of the characters go off on little solo missions. If you were to choose an A-plot, though, it would be the newly married Gru, Lucy, and daughters Margo, Edith, and Agnes going off to meet Gru’s newly discovered twin brother Dru. In a nice change of pace, Dru isn’t an evil twin. Sure, he wants to be evil, but he isn’t the exact opposite of Gru. He’s more of a whiny, please release Steve Carell from the recording studio version of Gru. As the brothers learn to get along, Lucy tries to bond with her stepdaughters. The family reunion goes south when they are threatened by rejected ‘80s child star villain, Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker).

The signature Illumination animation is still breathtaking after three movies. Each location is gorgeously animated. The action sequences have a rube goldberg-like quality, and there are small, clever details in each piece of weaponry the villains and agents in the movie use. The exaggerated style of the character designs are similar to that of a quirky children’s book. Also, along with this film and Hidden Figures, Pharrell  proves that he should be in charge of all movie soundtracks.

But the children’s book analogy works against the film, too. It has style, and a cute factor, but very little substance. The film’s message about family goes only so far as the previous films have gone. The brotherhood angle is used much more as a vehicle for visual jokes than any meaningful commentary. Even Gru’s existential questions about not living up to his potential and his family’s legacy is quickly forgotten by the next fart joke. The movie tries to appeal to adults through ‘80s nostalgia and scenes with Gru and Lucy trying to parent, but there is really no point to the scenes except to exist. Since they are so disjointed from the film, they don’t even serve the plot. They are cute, but that certainly won’t keep an adult entertained, and little kids won’t find it exciting.

Overall, the film is a missed opportunity, and lacks the stronger direction of certainly the first film, but even the second. It’s sloppy, when it has every advantage not to be.

I have to admit, I felt a little sentimental watching Despicable Me 3. I’ve seen all the movies in theaters, from little ten year old me in 2010 for the first film, to the second one in 2013. Now I’m 17 years old, driving my sister and friend to the movie theater in my own car, and we’re the only teenagers in the audience; but who cares, because supervillain family.

Unfortunately, this kid’s movie may have pushed me closer towards being a cynical adult. I’ve never automatically been skeptical about sequels and trilogies and so on. I’m the person who has advanced tickets for the 16th Marvel movie next week. However, this is certainly not the first time I’ve been disappointed by a franchise. It just hurt a little more. There is too much talent involved for this level of sloppiness, and kids deserve the same quality entertainment everyone does. Don’t we want them to love good films, too?

-Madeleine D

Movie Minute

Because I haven’t seen a new release in a couple weeks, I’m presenting for your consideration short reviews for a few films I have seen recently. These are not new releases, and vary in how old they are. Maybe one of these could be the perfect film for a sweltering hot summer day!

As you like it

As You Like It (2006) dir. Kenneth Branagh

As You Like It, an HBO movie from Hollywood’s favorite drama nerd director, has three things going for it. One, a marvelous ensemble cast, the majority of which is grossly underused. Two, a setting that distracts you from the oddly-paced story. And three, Bryce Dallas Howard, who has an energetic charm that keeps you from thinking too much about how terrible her disguise as a man is and how much of her role has been cut.

Those positives are about it. The biggest problem with As You Like It is that it doesn’t feel whole. Howard’s Rosalind does not seem to have the starring role she should have, and David Oyelowo does not get near his due with his Orlando. Branagh seems to try and make the minor characters have equal roles with Rosalind and Orlando, and in doing so creates a play that has no central storyline to hold on to. It is spread thin. Even similar plays like it, such as A Midsummer’s Night Dream, still have major and minor characters. This adaptation of As You Like It does not seem to have this distinction. And while the aesthetics of Japan are a unique addition, it is simply one more task the film cannot take. It buckles under the weight of its underdeveloped ambition and does not leave any strong impressions in its wake.

Bridge-of-Spies

Bridge of Spies (2015) dir. Steven Spielberg

A Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, and Coen brothers collaboration is no joke, yet Bridge of Spies was relatively neglected when it came out. While this story of an American insurance lawyer negotiating the trade between two Americans and a Russian spy during the Cold War did win Mark Rylance an Academy Award for his supporting role, it is nowhere within anyone’s list of favorite Spielberg movies. That makes sense when you take into account Spielberg’s resume, but does not when you take in its fellow movies of that year. Bridge of Spies is small and mighty, and it succeeds not only because of the talent involved, but because of its message. It might be one of the most patriotic movies ever made, while also being incredibly sympathetic to our country’s enemies. The film’s message is about everyday men and women who work hard and do their jobs. While these jobs might not always be noble, human dignity and the work we do are inseparable to many, especially in the context of our western ideals. It shows that our justice system is dependent on the people who run it, and when those people fight for ideals, we become more of the nation we inspire to be. A well crafted story with thoughtful themes makes a film worth watching, and maybe makes it worth being on a favorite list of some kind.

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The Wind Rises (2013) dir. Hayao Miyazaki

Set in the early beginnings of World War 2, The Wind Rises is the loosely biographical story of aerial engineer Jiro Horikoshi, who designed the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, a plane used by Imperial Japan during the war.

It goes without saying that the Studio Ghibli work, lead by animation legend Hayao Miyazaki, is stunning. The film could be watched on mute, and the visual experience would be on par with its greatest contemporaries.

But don’t turn off the sound, because the story is just as worthwhile. There is something very disarming about being an American, watching the story of Japan’s entrance into World War 2 through the eyes of a civilian who just wants to make the world a more beautiful place. Jiro sees airplanes as one of the greatest achievements of mankind, and only wants to make them better. This intrinsic desire to make beautiful things is a message that should resonate with everyone. As a Christian, this desire is near the core of my belief, because it reflects on the nature of the greatest creator of them all.

More than what Jiro does, though, is who he is. Jiro is one of the best heroes I have ever met, despite what he creates being used in horrific ways. The love story between him and his wife, Nahoko, is a touching story of sacrifice and care, one of the best I’ve ever seen on film. Jiro is who we should aspire to be, and his personal integrity and strength defies all politics, all sides, and all situations we find ourselves in. If we all carried ourselves like Jiro, the world would be a better place.

-Madeleine D

Let’s Put on a Show: Sing

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Buster Moon. Showman. Owner of the grandest theater in town. Suave businessman. Charmer. Koala Bear, in this land of anthropomorphic animals.

Also, broke.

After a string of misfires and bad shows, Buster Moon (voiced by an admirably passionate Matthew McConaughey) only has one more chance to save his theater. He’ll do anything necessary to pull off his wild, crazy, totally unique idea.

A singing competition! You aren’t sick of those yet, are you? I didn’t think I would be when I sat down to watch Sing. Okay, maybe a little. I stopped watching “American Idol” and “The Voice” long ago. But I’m a fan of Illumination Entertainment, the studio behind Despicable Me and this year’s earlier The Secret Life of Pets. The trailers looked cute, the cast looked promising, and I was sure a good studio like this one could elevate the concept.

Sing, in its defense, is heartfelt. As heartfelt as a movie that pushes every successful, money-making kids movie button it could press can be. The cast (a lot of them unrecognizable in their voice roles) especially put a lot of effort into it, and I have no doubt director Garth Jennings poured his heart into the film. It simply cannot escape one thing: it always stoops to the lowest common denominator.

When discussing pop music on the radio once, my mom told me that most songs talk about love and sex and romance because they are the things everyone has in common. Mass appeal.  A good artist can elevate those concepts. Bad artists just talk about them in unoriginal, common ways.

Sing is like its unoriginal soundtrack, full of the most over-used and basic songs you could possibly choose for its audience. It always chooses the least original way out. Need a gag for not really any reason? Fart joke. Need to make it obvious who is a girl and who is a boy in these animal animated movies? Sexualization of cartoon animals, check. Need to pack as many songs in for promotional appeal? Skim through that playlist like you’re David Ayer editing Suicide Squad. Need rational explanation for events? Don’t bother! It never reaches for anything higher, and never pushes itself to be funnier or nicer or more well animated or better in anything.

Sing is not the first movie to do this, of course. Some of my favorite animated movies have some of these problems. But this one especially disappoints, because I hoped this film would be better, and it includes all of these elements without much to redeem it.

That said, it isn’t devoid of funny moments. It has nice messages about working hard and enjoying being a performer because you love it, not for the glory or fame. If you take little kids to see it (and that’s about the only audience who will really love it, unless you’re raising young movie reviewers, in which case, congratulations! And they’ll probably be unimpressed too), they could learn some good things. Having a conversation afterwards about talent and doing things that scare you would be a good use of time.

“You know the great thing about hitting rock bottom?” Buster Moon asks his assistant, Miss Crawley (director Garth Jennings), during the film. He stands on a stage prop- a big crescent moon- and it ascends upwards. “The only place to go… is up!”

Sing however, never lifts off the ground

-Madeleine D

Not a Revolution, but Maybe a Revelation: Moana

MOANA

What makes the perfect Disney movie?

Disney is probably the most mainstream of corporate media companies, and their films represent the times perfectly. So what do the great Disney films of each generation say about that generation? And what makes them great?

If it’s the animation, Moana is certainly at the forefront. The hair animation alone is breathtaking. The technical achievement is obvious from even the trailers.

So is it the music? Disney is known for its songs. Well, have no fear. While there might not be any Let It Go’s in the Moana soundtrack with Lin Manuel Miranda (disclaimer, I’m a huge Hamilton fan), the music hits the right beats and leaves a few memorable tunes in your head. (Although, side note- Moana not rapping in this movie, with music by Broadway’s rap king, is one of the biggest let-down of the years. And this is 2016. That’s a low bar.)

The plot? Moana does boast a fun adventure movie about a girl and a demigod teaming up to save the girl’s people from famine and destruction of their land. There are battles, heartfelt Life of Pi-esque moments on a boat, and an uplifting coming of age story. The finale is even really unique. Then again, other Disney movies have had great plots, too.

So those are staples of a Disney movie. But what makes it iconic? A classic? The originality?

Going into Moana, I had heard all sorts of things. Most were positive, and along the lines of, Moana is the most unique Disney princess movie I’ve seen. I’ve never seen the “earnest girl teams up with a scoundrel with a heart of gold” before.

flynn maui

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Moana looks so different from the other Disney princesses!

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Well, I guess unique is a strong word.

I really don’t want to rag on Moana. There are a lot of good things about her. My problem is when I see other reviews with titles like, “Moana is the anti-princess,” or “Moana is not like anything I’ve ever seen!” Disney cannot physically make the anti-princess. They have created our idea of what a princess is, and furthermore, they aren’t going to radically change what a princess is. Moana isn’t even really a princess-princess, but because they need to market her as a princess, they have a character in the movie call her a princess, to remind us that she is one, so go buy her Halloween costume already. To make an anti-princess would mean to not make a female character a princess, and heaven forbid we not have an animated leading lady that isn’t a princess.

So Moana isn’t an anti-princess. She fits into the Disney Princess spunk like a glove. She’s got the big eyes, flawless hair, and perfect physique (that’s right, nice try Disney, but I’m not going to congratulate you just for making her waist bigger than her neck. I don’t applaud fish for swimming.) She has an earnest heart, a sense of adventure, and courage.

Even though I don’t think Moana’s personality is drastically different from other princesses, she is undeniably likable. She’s more flawed than just being clumsy like Anna from Frozen, and she’s more three-dimensional than Elsa. She has a relationship with her family (both parents live! yeah!) and we get to see her do something no other Disney princess has ever done- actually rule her kingdom and interact with her subjects. That’s right, being in a leadership position actually requires something out of you. Who knew?

Moana is voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, who deserves all the credit for making Moana likable and complex. Moana’s coming of age story is made powerful by Cravalho’s emotions, and I hope she does a lot more work in the future.

Now we can’t have a movie without a macho dude character to bring in the boy audience. We get that macho dude in Maui, a shapeshifting demigod, voiced by the closest thing we have to a real demigod on earth- Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Maui, like Moana, isn’t a character we haven’t seen before, but Johnson brings warmth to the role, and while I hope one day I can see a movie with the roles reversed, Johnson and Cravalho do a great job with their chemistry and banter.

Moana is a fun movie. It will scratch a Disney itch. It would even be fair to call it a great movie. But I would hesitate to say it is groundbreaking. It is a step in the right direction though, and I think it has the Frozen-effect. With Frozen (in my humble opinion), so many people fell in love with what the movie was supposed to be, what it stood for, rather than the actual film. I think Moana is much better than Frozen, even though they both stand for the same ideal. I think one day there will be a movie that will achieve what a lot of people are looking for- a thoroughly modern, feminist, game-changing fairy tale. So no, Moana is not a revolution, but it is a revelation.

One last note- I went to see this with my sister and a friend. As the movie closed, I looked over and saw that my friend was teary-eyed. She told me it was because Moana was her. No, my friend isn’t a pacific islander, nor does she really have much else in common with Moana, although they both have long, crazy hair. But Moana has that adventurous spirit, that drive, that sense of purpose that my friend has and felt she had never seen on screen in a relatable way. Moana was the Disney Princess she had been waiting for.

So, while Moana is not the Disney Princess I’ve been waiting for, she may be the one you’re waiting for, and that’s awesome. She’s accompanied by a great movie.That is something Disney can pat themselves on the back for.

Okay, okay, that’s enough, Disney. Get back to work. You’re not out of the woods yet.

-Madeleine D

 

Pete’s Dragon: A Rewatch

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I’m not reviewing the newest Pete’s Dragon remake.

Sorry. Here instead is a rewatch of the original!

I must confess, before anything else, that I am quite partial to this film. It’s been an important film to the Dorst family for a while. When my dad was a kid, he watched it with his family. When my sister and I were little, we watched it, too. We’re very defensive about it, and it gets quoted a lot in our household.

However, I’m going to do my best to put that aside and review the film for what it is- a heartwarming, wholesome and sweet film that, while it is no Citizen Kane, is too much fun to pass up.

The film begins with easily one of the darkest Disney scenes ever. The Gogans, a nasty family, have adopted Pete (Sean Marshall,) a young orphan, and are trying to find him after he runs away. They sing a lovely song about how they’re going to brutally murder him. You thought Bambi was bad.

This scene of the Gogans hunting down Pete and singing about working him to death is disguised with slapstick and mud-pits, so everybody wins. They eventually leave, and Pete comes out of hiding. We discover he has a dragon with him- an animated dragon named Elliot- who can turn invisible at will. He’s big, green, pink, friendly, and best of all, doesn’t act like a dog. That’s something I like. The filmmakers decided to take the time to decide what a dragon would be like, and didn’t just give it the personality of a dog, unlike more modern Disney fare where all the animals act like dogs (Maximus the horse from Tangled, Sven the reindeer from Frozen, etc…).

Pete and Elliot rhapsodize their love for one another in a song, then Pete decides to head to the nearest town, Passamaquoddy. There, Elliot causes mischief and scares the local drunk Lampie. Pete gets upset with Elliot, but later in a cave they make up. Meanwhile, Lampie (Mickey Rooney) goes around to the local bar, yelling about the dragon. His daughter Nora (Helen Reddy) comes and gets him. They go back to their lighthouse, where Nora finds Pete. She invites him inside, and she learns about his abuse.  Nora doesn’t believe in Elliot, but she wants to take care of Pete, so she humors him about his ‘dragon.’ About the same time, Dr. Terminus and his “intern” Hoagie, con artists pretending to sell miracle cures, arrive in Passamaquoddy. When they hear about a dragon, they get interested and team up with the Gogans to snatch Pete and Elliot.

Dr. Terminus’ first scene (and really, let’s be honest, every one of his scenes) is one of my favorite scenes in all of cinematic history. Jim Dale kills it as a whimsical, memorable, yet still subtly menacing villain. All the characters in the film shine, because they’re allowed to be big and bold. The film is a musical, and it has all the sensibilities of one.

Another standout in the cast is Nora, one of the most underrated film role models I have ever seen. Films today are so focused on making their female characters strong physically that rarely do they give these characters mental strength, and more importantly, acknowledge and appreciate that type of strength. Nora is kind, wise, compassionate, while at the same time also being brave, determined, and smart. She works hard and never lets people take advantage of her or the people she loves. Helen Reddy, who was mainly known as a singer at the time, is fabulous in the role, and her singing shines.

Pete’s Dragon is a movie all about love. The love between Pete and Elliot. The love between Nora and Pete, Nora and Paul, and Nora and Lampie. The film ends happily because all the characters find a home with love in it, and it succeeds, not in a Pollyanna way, but because it earns its happy ending. The characters go through hardships, but endure. The optimistic outlook on life is a nice reminder in an age that is obsessed with darkness and gritty realism, and it’s only accentuated with the bright settings, jokes, and of course, Elliot. The animation for Elliot holds up surprisingly well, and even if some effects are outdated, the timeless setting of Passamaquoddy makes up for it.

The film, however, isn’t without its flaws. The plot sometimes drags. The slapstick can get old. The musical numbers can feel long when the actors are just standing and singing them. In case you need to take a break during the film, I’ve helpfully listed the soundtrack below and what purpose each song serves, so you know what you can miss.

The thing is, Pete’s Dragon doesn’t need a remake. It doesn’t need a reality check because it uses its fantasy-reality mix perfectly, not only on the animation but the story. Real life magic is around us, and while in this story it takes the form of Elliot, in our world it takes the form of love. How can it get any better than that?

Soundtrack:

“Happiest Home in These Hills” – Child-labor laws song

“Boo Bop Bopbop Bop (I Love You Too)” – Actors attempting to interact with animation

“I Saw A Dragon”- The waste of good beer ft. Nora

“Passamaquoddy” – Before we had the FDA….

“It’s Not Easy”- Emotional bonding

“Candle on the Water”- Oscar please!

“There’s Room for Everyone”- Strangely timely song about how we should all just care for one another

“”Every Little Piece”- The PETA song

“Brazzle Dazzle Day”- This seems like a rather informal adoption, but okay

“Bill of Sale”- Don’t peeve off Nora

“Brazzle Dazzle Day (Reprise)”- Mary Poppins ending song

-Madeleine D

How to Not Make A Disney Movie: Kubo and the Two Strings

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

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2016 has been a spectacular year for animated movies. Not really for anything else, but animation is at least on a roll. The year started off with Kung Fu Panda 3 and Zootopia, and has recently had strong entries like Finding Dory and The Secret Life of Pets. Later this year will be Moana, Sing, and Storks, which all look solid to me.

Now, along comes Kubo and the Two Strings, which I went into cold. I usually do research beforehand on all the movies I see (i.e, watch trailers, research the studio and talent names, etc.). With Kubo, all I knew was that it was from Laika entertainment, and starred Matthew McConaughey and Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road’s Furiosa!).

I was a little nervous because so far I haven’t loved any of Laika’s stuff. Laika is the only studio right now doing stop-motion films. They are known for being dark, creepy, and very artistic. Laika is the Martin Scorsese of animated movies. Everyone respects them, they always get nominated, but Pixar always wins anyway.

So, in a year of great animated movies, will Kubo and the Two Strings ruin the streak of coming in #2? Or will it represent proudly and possibly win Best Animated Oscar?

Kubo and the Two Strings begins with Kubo (voice of Art Parkinson), a young boy who had his left eye taken from him by the Moon King, his grandfather, in an act of revenge against Kubo’s parents. His father was lost, and now Kubo spends his days taking care of his sickly mother. She warns him to never go out after dark, or the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) will be able to see him and take his other eye.

One day Kubo sees the people of his village celebrating their ancestors and praying to them. He goes with the group to a river and makes his own monument for his father, and tries praying to it. He doesn’t get a response, and starts to go home angry, when he suddenly realizes it is after dark. The Sisters (Rooney Mara), henchmen of the Moon King, attack Kubo. His mother comes to save him, giving up her life, and telling Kubo to go find a suit of armor that will protect him. He is joined on his quest by Monkey (Charlize Theron), whom his mother sends to guide him, and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), who used to serve Kubo’s father.

Right off the bat, the film warns you it is going to be dark, and it is not going to take its themes of death and loss lightly. In just this short intro, two people have died, and a child has had his eye removed. This is not a little-kids film, the deaths portrayed being more Grimm Brothers than Disney. There was some crying in my theater. I went with my family and two elementary school kids, and both talked about how scary the film was afterwards. I myself was a little freaked out by the villains in this film. Laika doesn’t mess around. That is what makes it work so well.

Speaking of Disney, there are some things I really appreciate about this film that I wish Disney (representing all mainstream animation) would take notes on. To be clear, I enjoy Disney movies, they’re some of my favorites. But, I also have a lot of beef with them as a studio and the formulas I see emerging in their newest movies (impress me, Moana). Here is a film that does anti-Disney so well, and it works wonders.

What Kubo and The Two Strings does that no other animated movie so far this year has done:

  • Some of the most breathtaking, painstakingly detailed animation that I have ever seen. I saw this film in 2D, yet it felt 3D with its textures, colors, and worldbuilding.
  • The quiet moments. Films this year have had a few quiet moments, scenes that focused on worldbuilding, character development, and mythology more than action or comedy, but not many. Kubo takes every opportunity to sit the characters down and have them talk, banter, and share stories.
  • A plot with stakes. A plot that lets people die, doesn’t give us boring fake-outs, and one that commits to its premise.
  • Save for Finding Dory, it is one of the most family-affirming films of the year, and shows how we all need parents and/or mentors in our lives.
  • Despite some of its Eastern-religious themes, the film explores how we relate to the dead, and the people (God) put in our lives to guide us.
  • Every. Single. Action. Sequence is memorable. They are all different, they all use their locations creatively, reveal character, and advance the plot.
  • A beautiful use of score.
  • It made me feel the feels without manipulating my emotions.

Besides the breathtaking animation (describing it here doesn’t do it justice), the voice acting is a highlight. Charlize Theron brings a sweet, yet fierce, wit that really works in the film. I loved every second her character was on screen, and the emotion portrayed with her voice. Matthew McConaughey gives it his all, and while at first I was apprehensive of his character, I grew to like him more and more. However, his very-American country twang sounds out of place sometimes more than others, but I appreciated the energy and enthusiasm in the performance. Art Parkinson, Rooney Mara, and Ralph Fiennes all do admirable work too as their respective characters. Maybe one day we’ll get Japanese voice actors to play Japanese characters, but since this is animation and the cast does a fine job, I’ll let it slide.

I can’t recommend Kubo and The Two Strings enough. Suicide Squad got you down? Remakes making you bored? Want to see something different? This film will do the trick.

-Madeleine D

So That’s What My Hamster is Doing While I’m Away: The Secret Life of Pets

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With the number of animated movies these days revealing the truth to us about the secret life of our household when we’re not around, it’s a wonder more people don’t quit their jobs so they can stay at home and catch their household possessions in action.

As we found out with Toy Story, Flushed Away, Bolt, and The Aristocats, our toys and pets have lives of their own. The Secret Life of Pets is here to bring us another story from that world.

The film is about Max (voiced by Louis C.K), a spoiled yet lovable dog that has an unshakable bond with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper). Max lives a comfy life, split between being with Katie, and when she is gone, being friends with the fellow pets next door. Everything is great until one day, when Katie brings home a big, unruly dog named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Max tries to get rid of Duke, only to find himself and Duke lost in the city, and at the mercy of a vicious pet gang led by a savage bunny named Snowball (scene-stealer Kevin Hart).

The Secret Life of Pets’ plot is a tried and true staple of kids’ movies, but that in itself doesn’t create a winner. What creates a winner is the film itself, and The Secret Life of Pets does a great job of taking the elements that work in this sub-genre and making the whole movie about these things. For example, the best parts of the things-that-don’t-talk-now-talk stories are the secondary characters we meet along the way, the bonding that happens between the two main characters, and the adventure. The Secret Life of Pets hits all these marks.

The secondary characters in The Secret Life of Pets are the most fun and interesting I’ve seen in this type of movie since Toy Story. There are a lot of characters to be sure, making me wish for more screen time for some of them, but they all add something. None of them were annoying or useless. Whether they were there for visual gags, or witty dialogue, or animal jokes, each character had a place to shine. The bonding between Max and Duke worked. Duke’s backstory is heartbreaking, and the bonding seemed earned. Max learns a lesson, and so does Duke. That’s a solid message, even if it has been done before.

The adventure through New York City is enchanting. It can be chaotic, silly, and sometimes long, but it is always creative. Alleyways, sewers, cars, streets, building tops, and fire escapes all become exciting props for this cast to use.

The biggest flaws in the movie aren’t anything new for this type of film. The pacing can be wonky sometimes. There are some unnecessary butt jokes that are becoming a staple of Illumination Entertainment. The film doesn’t have any deeper meaning than “be nice to people that annoy you and don’t judge.” There is not one, not two, not three, but four scenes where an animal drives a car (and you thought Finding Dory was bad).

For its flaws though, I had a smile on my face the whole time. I laughed out loud. I want a sequel starring Kevin Hart’s crazy bunny. I would easily watch this movie again. This is a great choice for families. It will entertain kids, make parents smile, and maybe make you hug your pet one more time before walking out the door. It’s a celebration of fun, summer, and our loved ones (furry or not), and that’s not something to dismiss.

-Madeleine D

Formulas Can Be Fun: Finding Dory

*Minor Spoilers Below

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It’s sequel week here at madeleinelovesmovies.com! First Now You See Me 2, and now Finding Dory. Luckily, Finding Dory has a much more steady foundation than NYSM2. Finding Nemo is still one of the most successful animated movies of all time, critically and commercially, winning Best Animated Feature Oscar in 2004. Now it’s been 13 years, and director Andrew Stanton is back. No pressure, right?

If you haven’t seen Finding Nemo (in which case, I’m so sorry, here are my condolences, I’ll send you the DVD within 5-10 business days), don’t worry. Just take Finding Dory, switch Dory and Nemo, and the various animals they meet with other animals, and you have Finding Nemo. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad, though. Finding Dory has a lot of charm and wit to offer. Just know going in that it isn’t going to live up the the insane expectation of Finding Nemo. And that’s okay, because it’s still the best sequel Pixar has made (save for the Toy Story films).

Finding Dory starts off a little shaky, retreading old ground and reminding us of old characters. Dory is with Marlin and Nemo, and it’s clear Marlin is getting a little tired of having her around. She is forgetting things seemingly faster than ever. She’s also having flashbacks to her childhood, remembering her parents, her home, and losing them. So she gets Marlin and Nemo to help her try and find her family. Within five minutes, they’ve crossed the entire ocean, making me wonder what took Marlin so long in the first movie (the characters even express this: “Isn’t crossing the ocean something you only do once!”).

I’m not saying these Finding Various Talking Fish stories are the epitome of realism in cinema, but at least Finding Nemo had challenges that seemed logical for a fish. I sat down and talked this out with the ghost of my betta fish, Wilson, and he assured me that yes, things like trying to get out of a whale, trying to escape a tank, and trying not to be eaten on a daily basis are reasonable struggles for a fish that could probably be overcome. Finding Dory’s challenges are not in this same realm of possibility. Marlin had to follow a boat, Dory has to help an octopus drive a truck. Marlin had to ride the EAC, Dory has be guided through pipes with the help of a beluga whale’s echolocation. Marlin had to raise a son, Dory has to ride in a stroller with the help of said octopus that can live out of water.

All that said, Finding Dory shines with dazzling animation (you only thought Pixar couldn’t outdo themselves), great voicework from everyone involved (especially Ellen DeGeneres and Idris Elba), and humor. The film has some great one-liners and really funny scenes. Finding Dory never loses its sincerity, though, and there were several eye-watering moments here. I don’t want to give anything away, but I really liked how the messages of family were addressed. It’s good to have a loving family (a strongly traditional one, I might add), but also that you can make your family, and the people around you are just as important and can love you just as much as your biological parents. This message in particular is quite important for adopted, fostered, and neglected children.

Speaking of children, another message that really stands out is the idea that what others perceive of weakness can be a special type of strength. In the film, characters say in times of trouble, “what would Dory do?” For a special needs child, or anybody that feels different and out of place, this message is extremely important. We all have gifts and talents. They just may be different from what we expected.

Finding Dory is not a masterpiece, but it is still a great film. I would highly recommend it for anyone, and I hope Pixar stays this solid on future sequels. However, let’s hope Finding Marlin is not in the works.

-Madeleine D