Review: Pixar’s ‘Coco’ is visually gorgeous, surprisingly grounded and vaguely formulaic

After over two decades and nearly 20 films, it’s refreshing for Pixar to provide its most grounded premise yet.

Following sustained success by way of talking bugs, talking toys, talking cars, talking fish, talking emotions, talking rats and “talking” robots, something about a Dia de Los Muertos-centric story featuring human characters (and, yes, talking humanoid skeletons) feels much more relatable, like Pixar declaring a coup upon itself.

But then again, that was the point of “Coco” – to showcase a world with more connections to reality than any other Pixar offering before it, and to flesh out that world with the humanity the animation giant has the reputation of conjuring. Continue reading →

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Review: The ambitions of ‘Sing’ don’t match those of its characters

Maybe in any other year, Garth Jennings’ “Sing” would rise to the top of the animated crop. But with its holiday release, when many in the audience has experienced “Zootopia,” “Finding Dory” and “Moana,” “Sing” subsequently falters against the heavy expectations we might unconsciously place upon it.

But even when watching “Sing” on its own merits, its notes still fall flat. It’s an entry that, with its overabundance of characters and storylines, doesn’t wrap up in a way that isn’t predictable or particularly memorable, either.

The film’s boasts a pretty impressive cast, with Matthew McConaughey, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johnansson and others lending their voices to animated counterparts. Those include Buster, a naïve and overambitious theater-owning koala, the self-indulgent mouse Mike, and Johnny, the gorilla who participates in his family’s criminal ways when all he wants to do is sing.

None of these narratives are particularly new, and, unfortunately, neither are their conclusions. The bigger problem – and the biggest of the movie’s downfalls – is that these are only three in at least six or seven storylines that are all seemingly at odds with each other for the spotlight. It seems like Buster should be the protagonist, along with his quest for redemption, but if it is, it’s hard to feel any sympathy for him.

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As far as the other characters, they are frustrating in their own motivations that seem consistently forced on the screenplay’s part. Daddy issues, stage fright, having to choose between possible superstardom or current responsibilities – it’s all here. The difference is that the characters feel like they are always choosing the path that obviously leads to trouble down the road.

And that’s without mentioning that a prosthetic body part of probably the most charming scaled creature we see onscreen tips the first domino that sets the overarching plot in motion.

But most people might not go to “Sing” looking for innovative storytelling. They’re banking on the nostalgia of hearing some of their favorite tunes. The good news for those viewers: They’ll get what they came for, and then some.

Especially in the first act, where the movie’s setup amounts to little more than an assault on the senses as we move from character to character setting up their stories; and then eventually from song to song in one particular sequence that is headache-inducing in how much it throws at you.

I’m not saying you won’t be able to tell songs apart – you will, and one of your favorites perhaps even makes it into “Sing’s” over-inflated final act.

But for a movie that seemingly is supposed to be a reflection on the power of individual dreams and the songs that are involved on the way, “Sing” sacrifices charm for cheap attempts at empathy when so many other animated offerings this year have excelled at providing both.

 

“Sing” is rated PG for some rude humor and mild peril 

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane and Scarlett Johansson 

Directed by Garth Jennings 

2016

Review: Disney tops itself with ‘Moana’

An edited version of this review originally appeared in the ABQ Free Press, and can be viewed here

 

It’s been remarkable to see how Disney has been able to reinvent itself at the theater in recent years, doing away with decidedly outdated stories, most of them which can be summed up as Anglo prince saves Anglo princess.

The world has moved on from being constrained to such narrow-minded themes simply being the way of things. Wisely, Disney’s films have followed suit. With “Moana,” Mickey Mouse’s house dispels once and for all the traditional notion that there can only be heroes, not heroines, and that the most rewarding connections with others are always heteronormative romances.

“Moana” is as grand and epic as “Frozen” was intimate and personal, without losing any of the latter’s ability to tell a story with universal themes and messages.

Whereas “Frozen” portrayed relationships in an unorthodox way (at least by Disney’s standards), there is, refreshingly, no romantic subplot of any kind in “Moana.” Instead, Disney spins a tale about finding our place in the face of uncertain futures, while subtlety commenting on our duty to the environment.

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It does it all through the strength of a monumental score and IMAX-worthy visuals. Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton” fame lends his talents to the songwriting of “Moana” to wondrous ends, with every tune fulfilling a real purpose in the narrative while also managing to be compelling and emotionally stimulating.

The music works particularly well when complimented by the fantastic visual elements. At some points I had to remind myself that what was transpiring on-screen wasn’t live action. The animation is simply that engrossing.

Moana herself sets a new mark for how far Disney has come with its female characters. She is endearing, but also captivatingly independent; at times too curious for her own good in her larger-than-life quest, but never crossing a boundary where the audience questions her actions.

16-year-old Auli’I Cravalho deserves acclaim for her turn as Moana, providing a grandstanding performance as a voice actor and singer despite being having nary a single big-time acting credit to her name. The same goes for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the demigod Maui (who knew The Rock could sing?), a character with an engaging and thoughtful story arc of his own.

“Moana” also has laughs (a surprising amount of them coming from Moana and Maui’s companion, a chicken) for both the younger and older crowd. Parents, this is one you’ll want to watch with your kids, as the film also provides genuine thrills. One sequence in particular, a “Mad Max: Fury Road”-inspired affair, provides one of the best action action set pieces this year, lifting the film beyond the label of “just another kid’s movie.”

“Moana” has a lot to offer, with middle and concluding acts that are equal parts satisfying after a beginning that could have felt much more sluggish in different hands. Its biggest success, however, lies in how Disney is able to poke fun at itself for having been so reliant on one-dimensional stories of the princesses of yestercentury, in a way that signifies a changing of the guard.

Moana would never call herself a princess. As this film shows, she doesn’t need to be to aspire to something great.

 

 

‘Moana’ is rated PG for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements

Starring: Auli’l Carvalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison

Directed by Ron Clements, Don Hall, John Musker and Chris Williams

2016