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The Good Dinosaur
2015, directed by Peter Sohn
I think when The Good Dinosaur was released in the fall of 2015, we were all so emotionally exhausted by Inside Out that summer that just about anything would have been extraneous. Certainly viewers rejected The Good Dinosaur, which is a good, solid movie rather than a landmark, which is what people were (wrongly) treating Inside Out as. And Pixar is undeniably late to the prehistoric animated picture. But The Good Dinosaur has an unusual premise. The asteroid which struck our planet 66 million years ago, as any six-year-old can tell you, was the chief instigator of the Cretaceous extinction event. This movie hypothesizes a timeline in which that asteroid just misses us instead, dinosaurs continue to evolve, and humans come around as a less evolved species which are a menace to the crops the dinosaurs have planted. It took me a second to realize that the dinosaurs were farming in the beginning of the movie, because that was not a thought I had ever come close to entertaining; it’s a clever premise, and making humans into a pest which can break into the dinosaurs’ silos (I know!) is a stroke of genius. If all of this sounds weird, it’s nothing compared to the weirdest trip in a Disney/Pixar movie since Dumbo:
What The Good Dinosaur has is an awful lot of heart. Arlo is not much more interesting than Miguel from Coco, if he’s even more interesting at all, but the movie gives him ways to grow as a character. From the beginning he is thought of as a weakling by his siblings, and even his patient parents are a little frustrated by how bad he is at doing his chores on the farm. When Arlo gets into a situation which forces his father to save his life at the expense of his own—a scene that one isn’t any more prepared for than one in which a spaced-out Styracosaurus calls an animal resting on his horn “Dreamcrusher”—it’s painful. We can get into his head just fine. If he had been stronger, if he had been smarter, if he had been more ruthless, then his father would be alive. But Spot, a human boy about the age of a first-grader who sports similar table manners, would be dead. Far from home and more helpless than he’s ever been before, Arlo comes to rely on Spot, and Spot, who is a mark for predators, comes to rely on Arlo. The Good Dinosaur is a predictable movie, but it’s moving. Spot is very cute, and he also has no language. When Arlo comes across some other early people, he knows what the right thing to do is just as he knew he couldn’t kill a person. The human woman touches Spot’s face, and he closes his eyes and smiles; it is the first human contact he’s had since he lost his own parents. He returns to Arlo and climbs on his back and smiles; Arlo is his family now, and he recognizes the Apatosaurus as his people more than he recognizes his own kind as his people. It only makes the goodbye more painful for us to watch. There are no words to muddy the purity of our feelings, or to get in the way of expressing the closeness that Arlo and Spot feel for one another. Not all of the movie is so effective as this moment, but tell you what, this one hurts.
1973, directed by Wolfgang Reitherman
Disney movies and opening credits aren’t exactly a match made in heaven, but Robin Hood hooks us with Roger Miller’s whistly, twangy, countrified “Whistle Stop,” which flows neatly into the equally catchy “Oo-de-lally.” There aren’t any songs in the movie which match the ones that fill the first five minutes or so, but by then we’ve seen just about all of the characters in one way or another, and we’ve had ample time to buy into Robin’s daring and Little John’s ironic humor. Robin Hood is the dashing Disney hero that I think most of us have been brainwashed into believing Peter Pan is. “But faint heart never won fair lady,” Robin Hood declaims. “This will be my greatest performance.” It’s certainly a good one. A master of disguise, either a woman fortuneteller or an ungainly stork, Robin takes particular joy in getting as close to Prince John as he can and then slipping out after a good swordfight. If it weren’t for Errol Flynn, there’s a good chance that Robin Hood the fox voiced by Brian Bedford would be the definitive one of American cinema. He is everything that we can hope for in a Robin Hood: acrobatic, arrogant, sly, lithe, wry, romantic (maybe a little too romantic?), and most of all, vulnerable. The shot of him that I remember more than anything else from this movie is where he’s swimming desperately in the moat, his face stricken with panic. Robin Hood is not King Arthur or Sir Lancelot: this is a cocky terrorist with a social agenda, not a stoic knight, and a little weakness makes him all the more human.
The prize of this movie is not Robin Hood or Little John or Maid Marian. It’s the Prince John-Sir Hiss tag team, voiced by two of Britain’s great actors, Peter Ustinov and Terry-Thomas. This is a great part for Terry-Thomas, who gets to be that wonderfully neurotic character whose only form of fun is being as big a buzzkill as he can wangle. When Robin Hood and Little John, in truly strange drag, decide to rob the royal carriage, Hiss has the measure of them from the outset. “Sire, they might be bandits,” he tells Prince John. It doesn’t get him all that much in the end; he gets tied in a knot and stuffed in a basket, which, as I recall, is not unlike what happens to him in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Ustinov gets to soak up most of the good moments in the movie, though. There’s Prince John’s singular laugh (“Ah ha, ah ha!”) which, to hear once, is to remember forever. John is a ferocious tyrant, snarling and demanding heads and, occasionally, even coming up with fairly intelligent plans designed to get Robin Hood in his clutches. Then again, this is a thumb-sucker who responds to adversity by crying, “Mommy” in a plaintive whine. I like him best when he’s falling for the gas: the fortune-tellers, Little John as “Sir Reginald, Duke of Chutney.” Sir Reginald calls him “P.J.” once, and in that flat oboe voice of his, Peter Ustinov gives one heck of a line reading. “P.J.,” he says. “Oh, I like that, you know, I do!” He turns to Hiss, who is not buying “Sir Reginald” but who of course can’t say anything about it. “Put it on my luggage!” Something about that line gets to the heart of this weak-kneed villain, who has all the power in the world as far as the characters in the movie are concerned but who wields it like a toddler wields a hammer. What he likes is to be liked, to be taken into confidence, to feel like he’s fun enough to have a pal. It makes “The Phony King of England,” an otherwise forgettable song (with some of that bizarrely reproduced animation from Snow White and The Jungle Book and The Aristocats), into a weapon as powerful as Robin Hood’s bow.
A Bug’s Life
1998, directed by John Lasseter
Flik is a rube, and an imaginative one at that. It’s a bad combination, and so the little twist of brilliance this movie needs is brought about. What if, A Bug’s Life wonders, a villager who went out to find ronin to defend his village from bandits couldn’t tell the difference between samurai and actors? Thus we get this wonderful little menage of Kurosawa, Aesop, and Pixar, and even though it has a title so bad it makes me a little angry, A Bug’s Life has a basis about as strong as any Pixar movie’s. The story doesn’t disappoint, either. Most stories which rely on some kind of wholesale deception get tiresome while we wait for the other shoe to drop, but the ease with which the circus bugs integrate themselves into the life of Flik’s colony negates that issue. Watching Francis connect with the Blueberries while he recovers from his injuries is pretty fun, and seeing the others throw themselves into Flik’s plan to scare off Hopper and the grasshoppers when they return is engaging, too. Dim’s strength is essential to the work, as are Rosie’s webs and Gypsy’s flight. I’ve always thought that the part where the colony and their helpers start to prepare the bird is the most interesting part of the movie: the enthusiasm everyone feels about getting it ready is infectious, and watching a process come to fruition is usually more interesting than not. Thus that summer montage ropes us in, keeps us from dreading the reveal of the circus bugs, and makes Hopper’s reappearance even more unwelcome than it would have been otherwise.
Flik is, regrettably, the least interesting character among the ensemble. (There’s a reason Seven Samurai spends most of its time with Shimada or Kikuchiyo once it has them.) His ideas are essential, like finding “warrior bugs” and building a bird with their help. Many of the movie’s best visual gags (that daddy longlegs striding confidently and ginormously above the other creepy-crawlies in the city, the mosquito fattening up on a droplet of blood at a bar, etc.) need him as an audience. But all in all, the movie is more tied to him than excited about him once Hopper returns to Ant Island; that scene where Hopper obliterates a couple of his cronies as a fable about letting the majority combat an oligarchy remains one of the better ones that any Pixar villain gets. When he begins to hold court again, it’s the circus bugs who take center stage, not Flik, and although the first performance we see them give is truly bad (“I only got twenty-four hours to live, and I ain’t gonna waste it here!”), this one has some character. I say this every time I talk about this movie, but Manny’s increasingly loud repetitions of “Transformation! TRANSFORMATION!” as the Moon is covered by a cloud gets fabulous commentary from Francis: “Wow. Manny’s gettin’ good.” A Bug’s Life may have a huge stable of supporting characters to deal with, and not all of them are essential; however, it does have what’s arguably John Ratzenberger’s finest vocal performance for them. Before his token appearance in each of these movies was a meme, they actually gave him stuff to do, and P.T. Flea, author of Flaming Death, is spectacularly ludicrous. Future Pixar movies from Finding Nemo to Cars to Coco would stuff themselves full of minor characters, but A Bug’s Life really does a good job of balancing their appearances and lines and making each one individually memorable.
2013, directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee
Frozen came out when I was twenty-two. For my money it was the biggest Disney phenomenon in nineteen years, since The Lion King. Frozen is the crown jewel of the Disney Neoclassical Period, which began in 2009 with The Princess and the Frog and as of this writing is still ongoing, although it’s reaching a natural ending point with the release of Frozen 2 later this year. The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, and Moana form a loose sisterhood with Frozen; each focuses on the highly profitable princesses that Disney has made an awful lot of hay off of, each one is a musical, each is loosely based on some folktale or cultural story, and each one puts its major male characters aside so its female characters resolve the plot. Belle watches the Beast fight Gaston, or Ariel watches Eric take on Giant Ursula, or Jasmine is basically stuck in an hourglass while Aladdin outwits Jafar in the Disney Renaissance. In the Disney Neoclassical Period, Rapunzel’s magic saves Flynn Rider, Moana discovers the singularity of Te Fiti and Te Ka, and Elsa and Anna rekindle their sisterly affection and end the Long Night. All this is to say that Frozen very quickly, in the space of months, became something so big that it’s almost hard to talk about the movie by itself anymore. When the evangelists bring their knives out because they’re afraid there’s a hidden homosexual agenda in the movie or because the lyrics of “Let It Go” include an offhand comment about not having rules anymore, you know that the movie has transcended the cinema and become a phenomenon. For better or worse, Anna and Elsa and Olaf are as essential to the story of 21st Century cinema as Chow and Su from In the Mood for Love, as Diane and Rita from Mulholland Dr., or Daniel Plainview of There Will Be Blood.
I think the most important reason that Frozen has stuck to America’s heart like glitter on anything is the music. Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez will never be mixed up with Alan Menken or Howard Ashman, but this is probably the foremost set of Disney sing-along songs of its period. The Princess and the Frog and Tangled have no anthem to compete with “Let It Go,” which I think you’ve probably been humming since you saw the title of the movie up there. Moana has “How Far I’ll Go” (“How Far I’ll Go” is to “Reflection” as “Let It Go” is to “Colors of the Wind”), but Lin-Manuel Miranda is given fewer opportunities to create winning songs than Lopez and Anderson-Lopez. “For the First Time in Forever” is a great song on its own merits, and Kristen Bell in 2013 sounds better than Idina Menzel in 2013. I love that it gets a reprise which becomes the turning point of the film in the way that, y’know, musicals tend to work. “Love Is an Open Door” is my personal favorite from the movie, one of the finer romantic duets that Disney has done since it set the bar way up there with “A Whole New World.” Bouncy and a little silly, it’s the perfect cover for Hans’ villainy in the movie; who could imagine being betrayed by someone who finishes your sandwiches? But more importantly, it fits Kristen Bell and Santino Fontana beautifully. You can hear both of them stretched a little bit by the song, but neither one is ever given much trouble in singing it.
Toy Story 3
2010, directed by Lee Unkrich
The third and most recent animated movie to get a Best Picture nod is easily the weakest of those so honored, the weakest movie (until Friday, probably, God help us all) in the Toy Story movie franchise, and what used to be my hot take a few years ago—”How to Train Your Dragon is better than Toy Story 3“—is creeping close to AVCC (Accidental Viral Critical Consensus) nearly a decade since those two were released. The hype around Toy Story 3 is centered on the deep, almost cynical sentimentality of the movie’s final act. After tenderizing the audience by threatening a fiery death for Woody and Buzz and their pals, we breathe in our emotional napalm in an entirely different way. Andy goes to Bonnie’s house and drops off the toys from his childhood. Jessie and Bullseye, Rex, the Potato Heads, Slinky, Hamm, Buzz. And finally, unexpectedly, Woody. An era passes in the blink of a tearful eye, maybe a little hard to hear over the sniffling. In 1995, when we first met most of these guys, kids still had toys. In 2010, toys were on the way out. Bonnie is just a little too old to be on her mom’s tablet playing a game. But all the same these outdated mementos of a different past still speak to us of our childhood and get us right where it hurts. I think Pixar has done a better job at getting us back into our childhoods with a vengeance in other movies—Inside Out is still the winner in my book—but this works. It’s a great scene, and one that even the movie’s minor detractors, such as myself, point to as evidence that another Toy Story movie just feels wrong. It’s a great ending to a saga which genuinely belongs to the number of memorable movie trilogies made over the years. Woody has always looked at change with a skeptical eye. He looks at the world and wants it to last. He wants Andy to stay a kid forever, to play with him first and foremost, and when Andy starts to get older in Toy Story 2 he makes a substantial choice: better to last forever than to fade away. It’s not a choice that he sticks with for long, at any rate, and in Toy Story 3 Woody learns to treasure the ephemera, to allow himself to touch the live wire of emotion day in and day out rather than sit in a bag in the attic until Doomsday. That’s what that last scene tells us, and it is potent. If I were making an ordered list of great Disney/Pixar scenes rather than Disney/Pixar movies, and don’t tempt me, man, offhand I’d say this belongs in the top 10.
But the rest of the movie? A little tired! Lotso has Jessie’s backstory down to the color scheme and hazy cinematography. We’ve already watched Buzz stare down the failures of his programming, and I prefer Hardcore Out of the Box Buzz to Boy, The World’s Second Most Spoken Language Is Exotic Buzz. (In 2010, Buzz speaks Spanish and it got some of the loudest laughs I’d ever heard in the theater. In 2017, Coco used Spanish casually in its dialogue. The world moves fast.) Although Pixar had successfully pulled off B-plots before (Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo), Toy Story 3 doesn’t really know what to do with Woody when he’s not helping to spring his buddies from Sunnyside. His time with Bonnie’s toys is fine, I guess, but it’s only ever a way to reach that payoff we’ve talked about already as opposed to an important part of the movie for its own sake. Trixie and Buttercup and
Mr. Pricklepants Baron Von Shush aren’t given enough time or personality to become Rex or Slinky or Potato Head, and so as much as we’re meant to understand that Woody is enjoying Bonnie and her active imagination, it’s never got the verve that any of Andy’s playtime had. Remember how wonderful Potato Head’s attempted robbery of that cardboard bank was? There’s no moment like that in Toy Story 3, and it’s because the movie takes our devotion to these characters for granted instead of working to refresh it.
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