Only Yesterday (1991)

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Only Yesterday’s opening images resonate with me because of their sheer familiarity. The reflections of urban life in a skyscraper. Office buildings with desks, computers, copy machines. All those necessities of the modern working world.  This is the personification of the status quo that many of us are used to, not simply in a place like Tokyo in the 1980s, but all over the world even right now. Many of us know that life intimately. It’s the first of innumerable moments where Only Yesterday will provide instances of immediate recognition.

From what I gather, Only Yesterday redefined what anime was capable of and really what was considered appropriate subject matter for the medium. This is not only a children’s film though it looks back at adolescence. It’s equally a film for adults and a female audience with its narrative fluidly cycling between childhood memories and current recollections; the point of view belongs to a single independent working woman named Taeko.

These are the two distinct time frames that Isao Takahata’s film works within. In 1966 Taeko was just a girl. And it’s true that all those remembrances of childhood only exist as wisps of their former clarity. Visually the flashbacks are composed of minimalist watercolor backgrounds that manage to capture the transient nature and washed out qualities of our memories. Often recalled fondly but never captured with the same vibrancy that we had in the moment.

And the mystery of the mind is that it can so quickly recall a moment based on a time, a place, a person, a thing, or for no particular reason at all. It could be a vacation floating in the baths of Atami. The novelty and the ultimate letdown of a pineapple not yet ripe. But there are cultural recollections too like the Beatles exploding at Budokan or your older sisters sporting miniskirts as members of the emerging pop culture generation.

Meanwhile, school life is full of your typical scenarios including landmark decisions about hall monitors chasing offenders through the hallways. Young romance is awkward and innocent, blooming around a baseball diamond.

After a single injudicious conversation, talk of periods blows up all across school with the subject becoming the boys’ new favorite point of humor. Taeko also shows off her talents as “Village Child A” in the school play, finding ways to extend her performance and make something out of nothing. She simultaneously looks to commit death by fractions. I must say that I relate. I never did like fractions.

Further still, there are sisterly tiffs over enamel hand bags and altercations with fathers who are normally calm and distant but in a single moment lash out in anger. They are the type of incidences that remain emblazoned on your mind. Meanwhile, mothers scold and chide their children.

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But the true fascination in these events come in the very fact that once more they are tied to the present and lay the foundation for who Taeko is. The same can be said for each and every one of us. However, in 1982 she is now a young working professional. Still, unmarried and quite content with that aspect of her existence even as she bonds with her distant cousin Toshio.

Her aspirations are to spend more time in the countryside — a  countryside blessed with tranquility and gorgeous panoramas — situated in sharp contrast to her life in Tokyo. Because it is in the said countryside where she begins to find a life that somehow feels far more fulfilling. The work and the living are simple but the people are kind and it somehow feels more purposeful. It’s also a prime environment to gather yourself and reflect on life.

Only Yesterday exhibits truly breathtaking imagery that captures both the minutiae and the exquisite scenery of Japan with this fascinating mode of realism. It is only improved upon by the fact that it is a drawn world capable of gravity-defying feats that nevertheless personify authentic emotions. And yet it fits the film on the whole because this is a story that seems to find a rooted contentment in what we would term the mundane. As this is a film that evokes memory, it’s fitting that such a thing would be so.

One of the great mysteries of the world even today is that it’s these very things that are most meaningful to us as human beings. Sure, we remember the big life events but oftentimes equally important are the other times. Because what is life if not a series of small incremental events connected together through experience, jubilation, sadness, wistfulness, pain, and contentment? Each of us carves out a road for ourselves that cuts through the past to the present to a future that we have yet to discover.

The original Japanese title translated is “memories come tumbling down” and somehow that resonates with me far more, being the nostalgic person that I am. It’s true. Certain memories will always be attached to a distinct time and place. Some good, some bad, but all a single element in this patchwork of life. Here is a film that deftly navigates the past and the present through various fragments, assembling the shards into a story that derives satisfaction in all its diversions. Taeko is able to get nearer to the life that she longs for. In that respect, Only Yesterday is in one sense an enchanting film but also a sincerely fulfilling exploration of humanity.

4.5/5 Stars

 

 

From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)

Kokurikozaka_kara_film_poster.jpgThe song “Sukiyaki” sung by Kyu Sakamoto proved such a charming enigma for me. Here was a record that was so quintessentially Japanese, a melodious ballad, that was nevertheless branded in the West with a more novel title and became a smash hit. However, here within the framework of this anime, the song feels perfectly at home once more as “Ue o Muite Arukō” an impeccable benchmark of an era in Japan’s history. It’s true that the full extent of the musical score is noticeably more western than we might be used to with anime yet the cornerstone of the soundtrack is Sakamoto’s iconic tune.

What we are given by director Goro Miyazaki and a script by his father Hayao Miyazaki is a small-scale nostalgia piece that still manages to have broader implications for all of Japan. More crucial yet is how it aims to hone in on a story that is part family melodrama, part love story, and even a high school feel-good tale.

We are planted in Yokohama (south of Tokyo), circa 1963, with the nation setting its sights on the 1964 Olympics famously documented in films such as Kon Ichikawa’s official documentary and Walk Don’t Run (1966). Here Up From Poppy Hill gives a more up close and personal approach that allows us to empathize with a very different type of narrative.

Because even with the pull for modernity feeling so prevalent, there is this sense that Japan, as not only a nation but a culture, must not forget the past. Yes, the war years were rife with so many tragedies but therein still lie traditions and the ways of old that must not be forgotten.

The greatest emblem within the confines of the film is the so-called “Latin Quarter” on the high school campus — a dingy rickety old building that serves as headquarters for many of the school’s circles including philosophy, chemistry, archaeology, and of course, the school newspaper.

Umi is a young student who must help run her family’s boarding house by preparing meals daily after school and the like. But after a fateful encounter, she is drawn to become a member of the academy’s journalism circle transcribing news.

One of the figures who leaves an impression on her is Shun, a stalwart member of the journalism circle, who is part of a band of students intent on fixing up their headquarters. But more so than that these audacious students must plead with the local chairman to reverse his plans to demolish the old relic. For them the reasons are twofold. First off, it’s their home and secondly, it’s part of their history.

Poppy Hill also takes great care to consider Umi and Shun’s parents. Her mother is a professor and her father was a sailor who died during the Korean War. Shun’s past is something that’s even more murky, clouded by facts that he’s never quite been able to reconcile. Their coming together at school proves a near act of fate since their personal histories are tied closer than they could have ever known. Again, the past and the present prove equally important to their identity.

The main draw for me is the throes of nostalgia that wrap up the picture. Pictorials that capture the innate beauty of living in Japan generations before with the harbor and the fresh sea air off in the distance. While simultaneously you have the degradation left over from the war and the increasing pollutants which come with what is termed “progress.” It’s true that in all things there can be derived both a positive and a negative. The same could be said of the love/hate relationship with the U.S. and the constant give and take between progress and remembering the past. These issues prove universally applicable.

But this is never a story to dwell on the bad, far more content with forging an innocent and genial path. That’s one of its finest attributes and you can see Hayao Miyazaki’s own warmth coming up through the seams. There is little animosity here as it’s replaced by laughter and more pleasant aspirations. While son might never reach the heights of his father as a storyteller, Up From Poppy Hill is nevertheless a quaint tale that brims with benevolence.

3.5/5 Stars

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Grave_of_the_Fireflies_Japanese_poster.jpgAnime is very much a Japanese art form denoted by its style, the visuals, and even the depiction of its characters with wide eyes all the better to convey emotions. Oftentimes the images onscreen are a great deal more stagnant than the real-time action that American animators try and replicate with a greater frame rate.

Maybe American animation is more “realistic” but what the Japanese films have is an unrivaled beauty almost like watercolors or as if canvases of actual paintings are making up the backdrop for our characters to reside in. There’s even a line of inspiration that can undoubtedly be drawn from Japan’s own rich tradition of vibrant scroll and woodblock paintings.  Far from being derided as childish fare, cartoons are given a platform as art and they are executed as such.

Thus, it’s fitting that Grave of the Fireflies brought to us by renowned Ghibli Studios and the acclaimed director Isao Takahata would utilize this very Japanese style to tell a native story full of pain, suffering, chaos, and survival. His canvas includes exquisite landscapes that glorify the Japanese countryside but more often than not provide a muted even sobering lens to view the ashes and destitution that war sows. The wounds and the scars. The dead bodies left in the streets and the dirtiness that pervades daily life. It’s offensive to the eyes. All of this because American planes drop fire bombs to break the will of the enemy.

In western minds, it almost seems like an incongruity that a film can be both a stark war-torn drama and an animated picture but Grave of the Fireflies proves emphatically that this simply is not the case.

There are very few films brimming with so much emotion, so powerful and evocative and so fully invested in the human experience. There is an innate understanding of the pure destructiveness in the totality of war. It breeds very little that is good. Ripping families apart, causing children to grow up too fast, and subjecting mankind to excruciating loss and indignity.

But in my estimation, it remains far too simplistic to simply state that Grave of the Fireflies is an indictment of the carnage of war or that it is an anti-war picture because its scope is so much greater than that.

Notice what Takahata doesn’t do. He doesn’t make the Americans into dehumanized monsters or anything else. They are just absent, faceless individuals that we will never know. However, he does give us a front row seat to the events through the eyes of two other people.

I think it’s an especially uncomfortable and maybe an important perspective for Americans because instead of seeing ourselves front and center of this epic story of WWII amid both its victories and tragedies, we are only a distant force. This film causes us to take on the viewpoint of those on the other side of the Pacific. This wasn’t just an emblematic figure like Tojo or some crazed, inhuman killer that we were looking to take down.

It becomes clear from the outset that the people being displaced from their homes by firebombs and struggling with rationing and families getting split apart by conflict are not so unlike us.

Takahata brilliantly gears us up for a story that could not be more universal. It doesn’t take place on a battlefield. It doesn’t involve war rooms or army barracks. It’s about two siblings. An older brother Seita and his little baby sister Setsuko.

Together they provide the core of the film. Because Setsuko is one of those precocious little kids who undoubtedly does not comprehend the gravity of all the chaos that swirls around her. All she knows is that she wants to see her mother or that she’s hungry or that she wants her favorite Sakura fruit drops. And her brother provides for her and sticks to her closely with fortitude and faithfulness that makes their bond one of the most affecting connections between cinematic siblings.

I would be hardpressed to guess how old Seita is but there’s no doubt that he’s forced to act quite a lot older than should be necessary under normal circumstances. His father is gone in the navy. His mother is debilitated. He must be his sister’s keeper and everything else for her. Her friend, her playmate, and her protector from a traumatic world that she cannot begin to understand. Since they only have each other and as they skrimp by, as an audience we realize just how abhorrent their conditions are and how no child should ever have to know a life of malnutrition or obliteration.

It’s easy to marvel at the animation because whereas normally we would probably take care in depicting actions of great consequence, a picture such as this finds time to articulate the little things that feel so human. Fiddling with a piece of clothing, scratching an itchy mosquito bite, or simply frolicking along the shoreline for the sheer relish of the moment.

It’s these smaller interludes and touches that give even greater import to the larger ones. A childhood home burning down with a whole host of others so that an entire town looks drastically different. A brother and sister who are forced to live on their own thanks to the glacial welcome they receive from distant relatives. And ultimately the inevitable comes knocking: death.

But just as the titular fireflies fill young Setsuko with a certain awe and wide-eyed wonderment, even in death there seems to be some distant even elusive sense of hope. In a world that can hardly be fathomed, Seita and Setsuko are reunited; no longer plagued by their suffering, their path illuminated once more by nature’s shining beacons of light. While we might have slightly different views about the afterlife, there’s no doubt that we share a desire for such an outcome after death.

Where graves will be emptied. Death will be no more. Pain will have ended. War will be over. Families will be restored. Wounds will be healed and peace will be the final resounding note. Do not let your flame be extinguished by hate, burdens, or dissatisfaction but know that there is so much more to life. In their enduring innocence in the face of such devastation, Seita and Setsuko are a stirring reminder.

Because life is not simply upended by tragedy. It is also fortified by hope. That’s part of what makes it worth living. As Dylan Thomas once eulogized, “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Do not let your youth be quelled. Do not let your optimism be forfeited. Do not give up your capacity for love. It’s well worth the fight.

5/5 Stars

Coco (2017)

Coco_(2017_film)_poster.jpgIt only serves to show where my mind goes when I watch a movie. I couldn’t help but think of Harry Chapin’s elegiac and stirringly heart-wrenching tune “Mr. Tanner” as I was ambushed with some of the most revelatory notes of Coco. The most meaningful line out of that song relates how music made our eponymous hero “whole.” I feel the same guttural satisfaction blooming out of this picture.

Coco proves to be a film about many things. This is a film about music melded with family. The wholeness that comes out of music when you do it for sheer love and passion. Because you couldn’t live without picking up a guitar or throwing back your head to sing. Serenading family or penning a love song is just an extension of who you are. If you know anyone like that you can thoroughly appreciate what we have here.

In the best ways, it’s also about when families and our passions and the traditions that we’re taught to live by and that are passed down to us seem to collide — wholly impervious to any type of reconciliation on first glance — yet still somehow capable of fitting together.

Our hero Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) is a precocious boy who lives with his family in Mexico as part of a shoe-making matriarchy where they have long been taught to despise music because their no-good great-great-grandfather left his family behind to pursue his dreams as a musician. The conflict is created right there.

Visually it’s another inventive landscape for Pixar to play with under the helmsmanship of Lee Unkrich because though the setting and storyline are planted in the present world of Miguel’s family, it’s infused with rich undertones of Mexican tradition. Not least among those is “Dia De Los Muertos” or “The Day of The Dead.”

Except instead of taking that as a mere tradition or a cultural practice the film translates that into a fully animated reality as Miguel experiences the “afterlife.” There the spirits of his ancestors exist in skeletal form making a yearly pilgrimage to commune with their still-living relatives. Family is still of the utmost importance to their lives and the most tragic reality is to have no one left to champion your legacy.

The hero’s journey laid out before Miguel is direct and compelling so we know what he is up against. He must receive the blessing of one of his blood ancestors before sunrise or else spend his days forever in the land of the dead. Even now he’s slowly losing more of his definition a la Back to the Future (1985). The stakes are obvious and his inner conflict stressed by the very fact that his relatives will only provide their blessing if he gives up his true love: music.

There’s so much else that could be lauded in the film for how it dares to explore its setting much in the way Inside Out (2015) did. It boasts some clever reversals akin to those found in something like Toy Story 3 (2010) and plays on the themes of hero worship in a similar fashion to UP (2009) with Miguel being charmed by mythical singer Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). It’s also a bit of a Ratatouille (2007) tale of someone pressing against the currents around them to realize their individual gifts. But far from being to the detriment of the film, every one of these similarities is a genuine compliment. Could there be too many themes even? I’m not sure.

However, the idea I was most taken with deserves a bit more explanation. I’ve purposefully refrained from talking about Coco until now. If you were like me you probably assumed that our hero was named Coco or something like that, without giving it much forethought. However, we soon find out that she’s the fairly senile great-grandmother of our main character.

Because a major aspect of this film has to do with this idea that can best be described as transgenerational memory — where we pass down our recollections of the people that came before us to the younger generations. It’s no small coincidence that the lynchpin track is called “Remember Me.” Because in digging into his family’s personal narrative Miguel develops a deeper bond with his great-grandmother. It’s striking how even as we grow forgetful our long-term memory, the entrenched recollections of childhood or even muscle memory, often stay with us. That’s precisely how it is with Coco and Miguel aids in keeping her memories alive.

In these moments I could not help but reminisce about one of my favorite musicians Glen Campbell who passed away just this past year. He was a high profile casualty of Alzheimer’s and yet during his last tour though he could hardly remember the words anymore to his most famous songs, his fingers were just as nimble on the guitar frets as they were as a young man. Amazing. One of his final tunes was the brutally honest admission “I’m Not Gonna Miss You.”

And I mention it in passing only to suggest that if the idea is that you will only be remembered if other human beings remember you then that’s a terrifying world to be subjected to. As a writer that means that I will fade away unless someone actually unearths some of the mindless drivel I penned and shares it. If I’m single it means I better find someone quick and start a family so my children can not only pass on my gene pool but keep my name.

Even the pervasive theme that two people’s love for each other will live on forever, though a nice sentiment, still rings slightly hollow. Not to be a nitpicker but eternity is a long time. Even a blazing meteor burns out at some point. So if you’re like me maybe Coco will get you to think long and hard about your mortality. I’m not sure the answers are that easy to come by but they’re necessary to consider nonetheless.

In the context of this life at present, Coco fittingly rewrites the negative admonition to never play music with a more positive call to never forget family. Taking the restrictive and making it ripe with promise. That’s something most of us can probably get behind and share with our kids and grandkids as the years go by because we won’t be on this earth forever. The question remains, what do we do if we aren’t so lucky?

4/5 Stars

 

Song of the Sea (2014)

Song_of_the_Sea_(2014_film)_posterIn an animation market saturated by the likes of Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks, those that have become some of the foremost names of the latest wave of animation, we sometimes forget that there are other voices as well. Song of the Sea is one of those alternative stories that is ripe for discovery.

Tomm Moore’s creation is so rich and vibrant, steeped in mythology and Irish folk tales. In some strange way, there’s a very cursory resemblance to some of Hayao Miyazaki’s worlds — the way that this story is similarly immersed in the culture in wonderful ways as well as fantasy elements entrenched in the culture (ie. Selkies), yet it still manages to remain universal, grounded in the everyday relationships of a family that pertain to all of us.

It becomes this grandiose mixture of the depressed and even decrepit streets of Ireland, wind-tossed waves, and hardened rocks. But against that very austere environment is something so luminous, magical, and life-giving. It gives the story an immense character both pictorially and thematically that runs through its entire narrative with every frame reflecting a certain essence of Irish culture, history, and even topography.

We watch with a degree of awe as young Ben is brought up to look at the world with the same wonderment in his Irish heritage. His father (voiced by Brendan Gleeson) is the local lighthouse keeper and his mother raises him up in a loving spirit. But with the birth of his younger sister and the loss of his mother, Ben’s life is different. He’s faced with loss just as his father is but he’s also faced with a promise he must keep. To love and protect his little sister Saoirse — to be her guardian — as his mother entreated him to.

Of course, the story devolves into a tale of annoyance and jealousy as Ben grows a little bit older and slowly becomes peeved with his sister’s ways. She still doesn’t talk and seemingly beats by a slightly different drum. He quickly loses sight of the value in her — only seeing the nuisance that dwells there.

But if anything, Song of the Sea is a story of discovery or even rediscovery if you will. Like Narnia or any such fantasy tale, it asks its main protagonist and the audience as well to grab hold of their child-like sensibilities and lose everything that causes them to grumble on a daily basis. That is the road that Ben is taken on. First, his goals are simple. He’s sent away from the family home he’s lived at forever and so his main objective is to escape grandma’s house in the city and get back to his dad and his dog, the massive, huggable, lovable sheepdog Cu.

However, Song of the Sea’s stakes heighten so much more because he comes to realize, begrudgingly at first, how special his little sister is and as his mother entrusted him so long ago, he must protect her. It’s a struggle but to the end, he honors that promise and it reflects the maturity that comes over him. It makes the film’s conclusion especially meaningful because we have seen the full progression and know truly what is at stake. That’s the sign of quality storytelling that will meet both kids and adults and leave them changed for the better.

In truth, my own name is Irish Gaelic and though I don’t speak a lick and the closest I’ve ever gotten geographically is Scotland (not quite close enough), there’s still a fascination I have with the very spirit of the place embodied so perfectly by this film.

The folk songs are elegantly mellifluous and even in all the chaos, all the darkness, great light can still be revealed. That is the hope of this film and even as families are fragmented and split apart. They can be mended and healed. Even if all the pain and hurt does not evaporate, the fact that we can hold family close, share the laughter as well as the tears together, that is often enough. Because it teaches us to care about others — to leave our petty, selfish endeavors behind to love others well.

4/5 Stars

101 Dalmatians (1961)

One_Hundred_and_One_Dalmatians_movie_poster.jpgDisney is, by now, a gargantuan media empire of parks, merchandise, and movie magic. It’s easy to forget that there were days when the studio was in desperate need of a hit. 101 Dalmatians proved to be just what the vet ordered.

The film enters the story originated from the Dodie Smith novel, by utilizing the point of view of our protagonist, the Dalmatian  Pongo (Voiced by Rod Taylor). He’s intent to get his faithful “pet” Roger the songwriter hitched, in order to liven up his life a bit. His escapades eventually end in success with Roger landing Anita and Pongo winding up with Perdita. They live in a humble little home perfectly happy with the kindly maid Nanny and a litter of puppies on the way.

In walks one of Disney’s most glorious creations in Cruella De Vil, the witchiest, cruelest, villain you could ever happen to encounter. With billowing furs and long cigarette holder, her presence is hard to avoid and she’s very eager to get some puppies for her nefarious purposes.

15 little bundles of fur arrive, but Roger puts his foot down and won’t give them up. Not about to be foiled, De Vil gets her two hired cronies Jasper and Horace to swipe them. And so begins Pongo and Perdita’s journey across hill and dale to rescue their children. They utilize the “Twilight Bark” to spread the news about the missing pups to try and get any help they can.

The word spreads and they are led to an old mansion in close proximity to a shaggy sheepdog “The Colonel” and his cohorts “Captain”  the horse, and “Sergeant Tibbs” an adroit tabby. Together they begin the operation to extract the pups. Although after doing recon, Tibbs realizes there are a few more hostages than he was expecting. Still, they put the plan into action trying to flee from the two menacing buffoons.  Jasper and Horace look threatening but only succeed in hurting each other. Pongo and Perdita arrive just in time to lead the pilgrimage back to London, but the snow and the adversary are nearly unrelenting. It’s in these moments that the tension is built up because on one side we have 10s upon 10s of these cute puppies fleeing in the snow with Cruella De Vil hot on their cute little tails. It’s enough to make kids young and old get invested in this animated classic. The most important part is that it ends happily ever after — at least until they have to feed all those dogs.

Although the animation is certainly not their most polished effort, Disney once more develops a setting in London and the surrounding countryside that is thoroughly engaging as a visual feast for the eyes. The voice work from the likes of Rod Taylor, J. Pat O’Malley, and Betty Lou Gerson is impeccably spot on. Perhaps most importantly of all, this film gives the dogs and other creatures of interest the perfect balance of reality and anthropomorphism. And of course, the pups like Rolly, Patch, Penny, and Lucky are endearingly cute with their baby British accents. Yet another reason Cruella De Vil is so evil. How could she ever want to harm cute bundles of joy like that?

4/5  Stars

“Cruella De Vil, Cruella De Vil
If she doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will
To see her is to take a sudden chill
Cruella, Cruella De Vil”

 

Finding Dory (2016)

Finding_Dory.jpgI heard it from the fish’s mouth that the main question behind this film began to gnaw away at Andrew Stanton relatively soon after the release of his first effort Finding Nemo. The question of, Where are Dory’s parents? Nemo found his father. They got their happy ending. But what about the hapless Dory, always trusting, forever faithful and also hopelessly lost. There’s a story buried there somewhere.

Out of a character who exudes so much joy and positivity, there’s definitely the potential for a lot of heartbreaking moments and this film has those no doubt. After all, Dory (Ellen Degeneres) is a fish who we all know has short-term memory loss and so-called psychological issues often lead to moments of great emotional turmoil, even in fish. This story does have some of those heart-wrenching moments, but it’s also a film of discovery, building off what we already know and love about these characters and reinforcing them in a number of ways.

New and old acquaintances are brought back to the fore namely Crush, Mr. Ray and of course Marlin and Nemo. New castmates including Ed O’Neill, Ty Burell, and Kaitlin Olson entertain us with their own ticks and foibles including faulty echolocation and nearsightedness, reflecting just how much Dory is not alone. Then there are a couple downright oddballs in the dippy sea lion Gerald and a certifiably insane loon Becky, who nevertheless prove their own individual worth.

But it’s the ornery octopus (or septapus) Hank who is the key to much of the plot because it is thanks to his agility and camouflage alone that Dory is able to navigate the Jewel of Morro Bay’s Marine Life Institute with any sort of success. She is, after all, a fish and a fish out of water is far from a good thing.

Still, this film certainly pushes the envelope as far as human-fish interaction. If the fish seemed anthropomorphized before, just wait. Without too many spoilers it gets even more pronounced this time around involving a big rig on the freeway among other shenanigans.  Enough said. It’s a more constrained film, set in and around an aquarium, but the Pixar animators show an adeptness for moving around this world in new dynamic ways with relative ease.

But there’s also a flipside to this. As the voice of God, Sigourney Weaver, so aptly reminds us, “rescue, rehabilitate, release.” That’s the name of the game. Still, it seems like sea life has never been more encroached upon, more endangered or monetized. This negative impact is seen implicitly throughout the film, but it’s never more haunting than the moments when Dory is seen wrapped up in six-pack rings. Being the bright and bushy-tailed tang that she is, no comment is made about it. But in the back of our mind’s we cannot help think about what that image represents. She gets put into captivity for this precise reason, but she wouldn’t have to be removed from her home in the first place if it wasn’t for our own ineptitude as humans.

It’s hard to put a finger on it exactly but there’s also something slightly off about Finding Dory‘s pacing. Perhaps it even has to do with the stakes of this film. It’s not truly driven by some high conflict. Yes, we know Dory needs to find her parents, but there’s something in us that realizes she already has a type of family, Marlin, and Nemo. This idea is explored a little bit while at the same time Dory tries to find her birth parents. But it’s admittedly hard to top a 13-year-old classic and I laud Finding Dory for not trying to do that. Instead, it shows a continued appreciation and care for its characters, in this case, Dory. If Finding Nemo was this rollicking, rip-roaring adventure at sea, then its sequel can best be described as a well-wrought character study. And when that character is such a well-meaning personality as Dory, that’s not a bad thing in the least.

4/5 Stars

Finding Nemo (2003)

Finding_NemoI don’t usually do this because it dates me, but I still remember buying Finding Nemo on DVD, because it was one of the first films I ever bought. It was one of the first films I ever felt was worthy enough to spend my hard-earned birthday money on or whatever the case was.

Certainly, I jest, but I also say this to note just how impactful Nemo was for kids of my generation. Pixar, in general, has left an indelible mark on many folks, but Finding Nemo had it all, garnering inspiration from the vast underwater worlds of the great ocean blue. And as they always do Pixar is able to wholly animate, literally bring to life and attribute human characteristics to non-human subjects, whether they be toys, fish, monsters, cars and so on. But Nemo was near the top of the creative spectrum, and a lot of that sits squarely on the shoulders of its characters. It was the brainchild of Andrew Stanton and with the subject matter of a young clownfish and his overprotective father he found true narrative gold.

However, it was really the supporting characters that color all portions of the frame. First and foremost in\s Dory (Ellen Degeneres), the insanely positively and joyously scatterbrained blue tang who joins Marlin (Albert Brooks) in his quest to find his son. She is the perfect foil to bounce off his dour sensibilities. In time connecting him to a band of recovering sharks with a heavy fish addiction, a band of ultra chill sea turtles, and a silently charitable Blue Whale who propels our two heroes toward their final destination: P Sherman 42 Wallaby Way.

But of course, there are always two sides to every story and Finding Nemo does well to work from both angles. There’s the father who goes on this epic hero’s journey and the lore of the mighty clownfish searching for his lost son begins to take the ocean depths by storm. Meanwhile, Nemo has been placed in captivity against his will in the fish tank of an idiotic orthodontist but spurred on by news of his father, he gains a new resilience. He resolves to make his way back to his dad because he realizes just how much his father cares. It’s a galvanizing experience and he proves just how much he is capable of. Because he disregards any hint of inferiority and realizes his potential–the kind of potential that is not reserved for certain types of individuals, but really anyone who is willing to step out in courage. And that’s how Nemo concludes, by suggesting the importance of family and really pushing ever onward. Just keep swimming. Just keep persevering.

As we wait in exuberant expectation for Finding Dory, it’s nice to reevaluate this modern classic and be rewarded by the pleasant surprise that it truly does hold up even after all these years. The animation is still wonderfully immersive, the characters compelling and the script boasts not only master storytelling from Andrew Stanton but a remarkable melding of both humor and heart. In the modern generations, that’s an extraordinary precious combination and not something that we see all that often. That’s what makes Finding Nemo enduring, and it endures not only for children, but any demographic or audience really. Because Pixar never talks down to their audience or marginalizes certain groups with their humor or a very particular brand of storytelling. In fact, their storytelling is almost classical like the films of old, which were meant for the masses no matter age, beliefs or inclinations. It’s for everyone and it’s a wonderful gift in a century that so often is restrictive and exclusive, even despite its best efforts.

5/5 Stars

Zootopia (2016)

ZootopiaDisney has scored again. On almost all accounts Zootopia is grade-A family entertainment. To address the elephant in the room, the film is rather formulaic in its hero’s journey and at times it feels like we are attempting to systematically check off all the necessary moments in the rise, fall, and redemption of our spunky heroine. However, there are moments of wit and grace that begin to slowly grab hold of us an audience. It, in turn, becomes ceaselessly inventive with this metropolis of anthropomorphic animals, whether it is the rhythms of daily life or the social issues present that look strangely familiar.

In truth, it works as a thinly-veiled parable for mankind in our present condition. The lines are not black and white, but predator and prey. True, there are differences and they give way to pernicious spells of racism or more aptly in this context, “specism,” but there is room for understanding and symbiosis, to use an ecological term. We could go back and forth for a long time about the actual mechanisms and minutiae of evolution and whether it makes sense or not, but the bottom line is that humans and animals have a lot in common.

Zootopia playfully makes that blatantly clear, and within all the subtle ribbing, it does have a broader message which is true of all great pieces of family-oriented animation. Movies have the ability to allow us to more fully understand the world we live in and that applies to children as well–in fact, they are even more malleable.

There are various other reviews alluding to Animal Farm, In the Heat of the Night, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. All are interesting touchstones for this film, but obviously, all comparisons falter at some point. For me, Zootopia has surprisingly interesting social undertones to its drama that try to make sense of these things even for young viewers. That’s no small feat and perhaps even more praiseworthy it delivers it in a delectable story that follows in the footsteps of the best buddy films and police procedurals. It’s all wrapped up in the encapsulating animation of Disney that at points feels overwhelming, but the characters of Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), and even the likes of Clawhauser give it winsome charm.

Everything from Sloths at the DMV to a raspy Godfather possum is on point, and the film continues with a stream of gags. However, we are always being drawn back to the journey of Officer Hopps as she tries to prove herself and solve the mystery behind the 14 missing animals. But if this was only her journey it wouldn’t be all that interesting. Thank goodness she has a buddy to cross her will, make her stop and think, and ultimately stand by her when the world isn’t a utopia anymore. I’m not sure what I think about Shakira’s presence in the film, but I’ll let it slide this once.

4/5 Stars

Inside Out (2015)

Inside_Out_(2015_film)_posterIn a generation often bloated with unoriginal ideas, Pixar has been one of the most prominent fountains of creative inspiration. Pete Docter has always been a master class storyteller (“Monster’s Inc.” and “UP”), but “Inside Out” finds him at perhaps his most innovative yet if you can believe it. Not everyone would be audacious enough to make their latest animated film on the inner workings of the human psyche. A film following a girl and her emotions could easily be insensitive or some downer emo tale at best.

However, Inside Out ends up being a wonderful and heartfelt film that comments on a difficult time in life without making the parents flat out buffoons or the children complete jerks. It finds a great deal of its substance in the personified emotions, positive and negative, that course through a young 11-year-old girl on a daily basis. Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and most certainly Disgust.

From the get go it looked to be a veritable field day for stars like Amy Poehler, Mindy Kalig, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, and Phyllis Smith. In other words, the casting was impeccable and everyone delivers the goods.

As Pixar so often does, the characters are wonderful and the writing develops a tirelessly inventive world full of creative entities for the main players to bounce off of. Our two main settings are essentially San Francisco and the mind, and both come off pretty well, although by default the mind becomes the visual playground of abstraction that lends itself to the most mirthful moments as well as touching enlightenment. San Francisco is the city that ruined pizza. That’s pretty bad.

Above all, I think Inside Out makes a powerful suggestion to its audience. Going in we have a certain set of presuppositions. We live in a society that says joy is good. Sadness is bad. Among other things. However, this film dares to point out that all emotions have their places. All of them are meaningful and there is a season for each. Because as it turns out, without Sadness, you really would not be able to know what true Joy feels like. And that is a beautiful thing. Overall, this is not the best of Pixar, but it is a wholly memorable outing, especially when we are allowed to get inside the heads of each character. That’s when the story is at its creative best. Those jingles in commercials are really annoying too. They really struck a chord with that.

4.5/5 Stars