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The Incredibles 2
2018, directed by Brad Bird
Somewhere towards the end of this movie, I had to level with myself. I was laughing my butt off at basically everything Jack-Jack did, but as the movie decided to get closer to solving its plot and further away from the raccoon fight, what I’d laughed at seemed increasingly unimportant. The Incredibles 2 is split into three pieces. The first piece is about Helen’s attempt to figure out who the Screenslaver is and defeat…her. It’s obviously “her.” The second is about Bob’s attempt to take on parenting duties, especially as everyone discovers what puberty is thanks to Violet. The third is the Jack-Jack Show, and it’s far and away the most entertaining stick in this bundle. He fights a raccoon who just does not realize what he’s decided to get into. He becomes Edna’s best friend. He does some poltergeist stuff and only comes back in order to score cookies. In other words, he achieves most of my personal goals, and it’s a blast to watch. Helen rediscovering herself after years of being on the shelf is also fairly interesting in the abstract. We get a fabulous chase sequence as Elastigirl uses her new Elasticycle to hunt a train, one which uses every inch of her capabilities to effect. (Listeners of “Jawn Voyage,” which is on accidental hiatus, will remember how important I’ve found Helen.) In the abstract, Bob’s struggle—he can save the world but he struggles with pre-algebra!—is not so bad. But once everyone gets onto an enormous boat and fights hypnosis and momentum, in that order, the film is very much about what the Screenslaver wants to get done, and that was the least interesting part of the movie from the beginning.
If The Incredibles 2 had been released before Iron Man, or, heck, even The Avengers, I think it wouldn’t have been so tired. The Incredibles remains the best superhero movie ever made because the stakes are fairly low and the superpowered individuals are the latter first. There’s no pseudointellectualism to cut through in The Incredibles like there is in Nolan’s Batman movies, and the jokes are an additive instead of a distraction, as they are in most of the later Marvel movies. The Incredibles 2 puts the Parrs in new situations, but those situations feel awfully pat from the get-go. Instead of Bob stretching his legs in the service of becoming a superhero again, it’s Helen. Instead of Violet taking on new responsibilities, Violet backslides into being an adolescent. Worst of all, and most representative of the weaknesses of the movie’s ideas, the Screenslaver is a trite take on everything she stands against. Born from Evelyn’s bitterness that her father waited for a superhero to save him instead of saving himself, she takes advantage of people’s addiction to their devices to lull them into a state of weakness and suggestibility. It’s a great elevator pitch, but the movie fails to make those ideas shine. The animation when Helen faces who she thinks is the Screenslaver—a pizza guy wearing goggles—is exciting and strobey, enough to make us worry about triggering an epileptic seizure in some audience members. But it couldn’t be clearer when the fight happens that the Screenslaver is someone else entirely, and the movie puts so much stock in the reveal rather than the Screenslaver’s ideology that it loses our interest too easily. Ironically, Brad Bird has done what Kevin Feige would have done, and it’s only disappointing in the end.
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad
1949, directed by Jack Kinney, Clyde Geronimi, James Algar
The final Disney package film and the best of them (although that isn’t necessarily high praise), The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad certainly has its moments. First among them is the sequence where the Headless Horseman intercepts Ichabod Crane on the road back to Tarrytown, which is a fairly adept horror-comedy sequence. Some scary things happen to Ichabod in those woods. The plants are as unfriendly to him as the trees were to Snow White once upon a time, and the Horseman appears on his bucking steed with his sword in the air and the sky a swampy gray behind him. The horse is in some ways scarier than its rider; its mouth glows with the hellfire which is supposed to spur it on, and its eyes are as red as one of those apples we’ve seen Ichabod scarf down already. This is a strong sequence, paced well, given as much to developing Ichabod’s baseless fears and then giving them a truly dangerous base all at once. Ichabod and his horse are a well-matched odd couple; neither one of them seems like they should stand much of a chance against the Horseman’s scimitar, and yet they contend fairly well with this corporeal apparition which all of us at home know is the envious (and spectacular equestrian) Brom Bones. As well as this famous sequence works, the rest of the Sleepy Hollow story is ironically too laconic for its own good. Bing Crosby has the name recognition, and naturally we get some crooning, but his narration leaves something to be desired.
On the whole, the better half of the movie, less flashy though it is, is the take on Wind in the Willows. Perhaps this is because Basil Rathbone doesn’t have to stretch himself quite as far as Crosby does: this one has dialogue and music within the story itself, and the characters are much more fun than what we see in Sleepy Hollow. Proto-Gaston and Cleavage van Tassel and Ichabod are all well and good, but none of them have the spark that Toad brings to his story. Toad is given to changing manias; a cart and a horse friend (“Cyril”) give way to a maddening desire to land an automobile. (Would that the rich would limit themselves to buying cars when they don’t have anywhere else to blow their millions; they’ve decided that they want to obliterate public schools or our faith in government instead. But I digress.) This leads to him, quite legally, giving up the deed to Toad Hall in exchange for a car. No one believes that he’d do it, although anyone who knows Toad should understand that this is exactly the sort of thing he’d be inclined to do if the urge struck him, as we learn from an impromptu poem spoken by Cyril detailing how he lost the deed. What we get as a result are some sequences which, though not quite as thrilling or funny as Ichabod’s ill-fated ride, are entirely serviceable. Toad escapes from prison with a little help from Cyril and a lot of help from a stolen engine. He recovers the deed to Toad Hall in a no-holds-barred battle at the manor itself, which pits Toad and his friends against a veritable boogle of weasels led by Mr. Winky, a barman with a wide smile and curvy mustache. It’s a little short of riveting, but it is slightly trippy fun all the same.
2012, directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman
Brave is the lowest ranked non-Cars, non-sequel Pixar movie on this list, and I spent a lot of time being disappointed in this movie because it wasn’t what I’d hoped it would be. Years later I’ve tried to wise up a little. Brave still suffers from a stilted second half, which always felt like an oddly preachy way to deal with a universal family experience. Elinor and Merida butt heads, which is the lot of mothers with teenage daughters, and the headstrong daughter can no more understand her traditional mother than the mother could give a display of fancy archery. Elinor’s transformation into a bear is always going to be a disappointing choice for me, but it is functional. Merida is forced to hide her mother and take care of her while she’s a bear, and that time away from the castle and Merida’s impending engagement clarifies things for both of them, although that new understanding bears a strong resemblance to the kind of understanding that Lucy or Ruthie would be likely to gain in the last eight minutes of an episode of 7th Heaven. It means that we spend a lot of time trying to find a place to engage in other parts of the film, or in other characters. There’s a historical corollary for Merida in the demon bear Mor’du, the Prince Who Was Pawmised, and although there’s some interesting animation in this flashback it’s not terrifically engrossing on its own. Fergus trying to kill the bear in the castle that is in fact his wife has some pizzazz—sort of like B-side Sophocles—but I don’t think anyone, least of all the people at Pixar, would be ready to watch a Pixar movie where a man kills his wife who has been accidentally transformed by their daughter. I love watching the triplets running around and doing bizarre stuff, but as we discussed earlier, mischievous toddlers are sort of low-hanging fruit. If any of this works, it’s because of some of Pixar’s better voice acting. Kelly Macdonald and Emma Thompson are so good as Merida and Elinor. Macdonald is voicing someone less than half her age, which is no little thing. Her pangs and whines are entirely accurate, but there’s a maturity in her voice that melds with Merida’s character. And of course Thompson is good enough that every fifteen minutes or so you remember that she is not actually Scottish after all.
What does work about this movie is its look, which is an object lesson in how to use complementary colors. Merida wears a dark viridian dress and spends most of her time outdoors. The movie’s most striking scene takes place in the forest as Merida rides out on her black horse. The trees are in full leaf, and the leaves are only a little darker than the bright grass that the horse’s pale hooves fly over. It’s a clear blue day, but the shadows still fall dark on the ground. There are some yellow-brown or yellow-greens that light the screen, but for the most part there is only one warm color in the entire sequence: it’s the carrot-once-it’s-been-peeled hair. Merida’s hair is an accomplishment in the animation above all else: I can imagine the difficulties in getting that bouncing red head to make sense from frame to frame was a task not unlike making Sully’s fur look real in Monsters, Inc., or drawing all those bubbles for The Little Mermaid. Of course it’s also a wonderful piece of silent characterization. Merida meets her three suitors wearing an outfit which entirely covers her hair; she makes sure that one little strand peeks out. And when her father puts on a falsetto to talk about his daughter’s wishes, the hair is an essential bit of the line. “I don’t want to get married,” he says. “I want to stay single and let my hair flow in the wind as I ride through the glen, firing arrows into the sunset!”
Lady and the Tramp
1955, directed by Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, and Hamilton Luske
The movie this one reminds me of most visually is Heaven Can Wait, which has a similarly sugar-rushed visual aesthetic and a thoroughly purple resonance. Watching both of those movies you feel like you could reach out your hand and feel the richness of the material, and knowing that you can’t actually do that is saddening. How many colors can you squeeze into the frame before it bursts? How can you show the wetness of a street after the rain, the way the sun falls on a valley, the whorls of a carpet, a view of two fine houses from across a shady street, and make all of them equally lovely? I love seeing Jock and Trusty, bum nose and all, sniffing around in the cobblestones, looking for some clue that will help lead them to Lady. The giant puddle in the road is reflecting the gas lamps, and so the near edges of it unevenly reflect the light and the far edges are as shadowy and frightening as the far shores of a lake. The establishing shots in this movie, like the two houses in summer, or a train steaming coolly on the tracks, are unbelievably artful. Maybe Lady and the Tramp has more in common with Breaking the Waves (hahaha), which features those gorgeous title cards announcing where the movie is going. There are some frames in this movie that make me wonder if I should have put Lady and the Tramp in the top twenty instead of casting it down here in the bottom half of these rankings, although this is the same problem I’ve had with Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty already. What I’ve come away with in each case is that those lovely visuals never do take us very far.
Petit fours and macaroons are almost too pretty to eat, and when they’re gone it’s the prettiness, not the heartiness, that remains. Lady and the Tramp is nice enough when we’re watching Darling and Jim Dear settle into their happy lives, when Lady is teaching generations of little children that having a puppy is actually a giant pain in the rear, when she prances around to share the good news with her friends that she’s officially registered and has a collar to prove it. (Lady prances indecently, more than I’ve ever seen a cocker spaniel actually do.) The trouble with Tramp is that for a presumed scalawag, our bad boy is neither all that bad nor adventurous. His badness appears to be limited to being a stray, or maybe to picking a fight with a cop to sneak into the zoo. His adventures are limited to dinners at an Italian restaurant, and if Billy Joel has a song about it I’m not sure we can reasonably refer to it as an adventure. Although circumstances make it clear that Lady would do better to do her prancing a little further from the house while her people are away, it’s not as if begging for spaghetti or listening to Peggy Lee’s Pekingese sing at the local pound feels like a better option. The movie works far better when it’s at the house, even if it means that Lady is in trouble because a pair of cats (as far as I can tell, Disney’s most random decision to err on the side of casual racism) have decided to knock everything over, or the baby is in trouble because a satanic rat has snuck into the infant’s room and it’s up to the dogs to kill the blighter.
One Hundred and One Dalmatians
1961, directed by Wolfgang Reitherman, Hamilton Luske, and Clyde Geronimi
Although there’s not all that much separating One Hundred and One Dalmatians from other Wolfgang Reitherman movies like The Aristocats or The Sword and the Stone in terms of story, there’s a carefulness in the artistry of the movie that just sets it apart even from its higher-ranked fellows. One Hundred and One Dalmatians is a gorgeous movie, at its best insinuated more than it is actually drawn. There are shots where the focus might be Pongo, or a number of puppies, or whatever. The white of the dog’s coat, or of Cruella’s coat (shivers) is like a floodlight. A few other colors fill the screen. A dirty pink; a toothpaste green; a dim lavender. And then there will be, just barely sketched in, the outline of a can or a beer bottle or some other junk that just suggests the squalor of the place rather than forcing each little detail onto us. The effect is a little overwhelming anyways, which is more than fine. I love the way snow looks in this movie, like it’s always just been piled on a little more but not so much that we can’t see footprints or tire tracks. There never seems to be enough light once the dalmatians are in danger, but when there is light, it’s always in a conical band that can never quite fill the frame. As a kid I was as much taken by Cruella’s cigarette smoke as I am now. That stuff is a poisonous chartreuse, and although she’s not the only character who has to stop by the tobacconist, she’s certainly the one who lets us all know where the cancer comes from. The image above is the ultimate proof of the artistry of this movie; obviously this is much easier in an animated movie than it is in Milk or The Aviator, just to name two of my favorite movies with unconventional reflection shots. What makes that little look back in the car mirror great is how unexpected it is in a movie like One Hundred and One Dalmatians. The perspective work is stunning, the detail on the fingers is remarkable, and the crack in the mirror is what sells it. Jasper and Horace are clowns, but the seediness they represent, and which is in that jalopy they flog about, is very real.
The movie doesn’t need to get further into the darkness, though it relies pretty heavily on Cruella and her threat to make us worry for the enumerated little critters of the title. There may not be a Disney villain who has been devalued by inflation more than her; where villains like Lady Tremaine or Maleficent have continued to land their punches over the years by being disdainful or snooty, Cruella’s act is surprisingly yappy. In any event, the dogs are put on the run, and thus the typically episodic aspects of the movie come through. As much as we’re rooting for the dogs not to be turned into coats (or, based on the sheer number of them, into a polka-dotted wedding dress with a train that would have outdone Diana’s), where they go to escape is never all that interesting, and what happens to them is never quite engaging either. The surprisingly military animals (the sheepdog “Colonel,” the horse “Captain,” the cat “Sergeant Tibbs”) are mostly forgettable, and the Labrador Gambit of 1961 has the accidental consequence of taking away a lot of the visual fun of the characters we’d come to see. Weirdly enough, in a movie that has this many cute animals, a bumbling pair of villains, and the hypnotically grating Cruella, the characters I’m most interested in are Roger and Anita. Their courtship is accidentally the funniest and most interesting part of the movie because the two of them are charming together; clever animation and all, the movie never does get better after they’re hitched.