Pixar Review 11: Monsters Inc

monsters incOk.  Do I like Monsters Inc? This should give you some idea.

monsterscostume2Yes, I like Monsters Inc!

As the 4th feature film from Pixar and their 3rd original story Monsters Inc is a total delight.  This time we get a new director with Pete Doctor with Lee Unkrich and David Silverman (of Simpsons fame) co-directing.   The story is wildly creative with humor, adventure and something to appeal to the entire family.

monsters inc2Monsters Inc takes us to a ‘parallel city’ of Monstropolis that is full of different monsters of all shapes, sizes and varieties.  In order for the city to run they rely on human screams that are collected when top monsters go into the closets of human children and scare them.  So the monster really is in the closet!

Our lead characters are a Jewish eyeball Monster named Mike Wazowski voiced by Billy Crystal and his best friend James P Sullivan or Sully voiced by John Goodman.  They are a great duo with Mike being the neurotic optimist and Sully being a bit lazy top dog at the plant.

monsters inc5When you think about the characters in the previous films and look at Monsters Inc it is remarkable.  Look at the fur on Sully’s coat.  It’s amazing! All the monsters are that way.  They are all lush and textured.

monsters inc3Randall is the other top scarrer and main competition for Sully and he is a chameleon who’s leathery skin looks so real. He kind of looks like his voice actor Steve Buscemi who is very creepy (much better here than in Home on the Range!).

monsters inc9The plant is ran by an Octopus Monster named Henry J Watermoose voiced by James Coburn.

monsters inc4And Jennifer Tilly is a delight as Celia Mike’s girlfriend with the oddest hair you’ve ever seen.

I’m sure from those character descriptions you can get a little bit of a feeling for how creative Monsters Inc is.  It’s also bright and colorful and Billy Crystal is hilarious as Mike.

monsters inc10

The people in Monstropolis believe a human child is toxic and that even the touch of a clothing will require decontamination for a monster.  They have an entire defense team that sanitizes and cleans anyone who has contact with a child.  Well , the story starts into gear when a little girl gets let into the scare floor and ends up in the possession of Mike and Sully.

monsters inc8The little girl who is named Boo is super cute, so much so that she might annoy some more jaded viewers.  I think she kind of needed to be that cute in order to warm over the hearts of monsters who think she’s a killing machine.  Imagine if she was some bratty little girl?  They would have disposed of her right away.  But Sully becomes attached to her and they end up on an exciting adventure to get Boo back home.

monsters inc15The highlight is an amazing chase sequence in the library of doors they have both chasing Randall and trying to find Boo’s door. It is so exciting and one of Pixar’s best animated scenes. I mean look at this scene!

All the while the tension is cut by humor from Crystal who evidently loves playing the part.  On the audio commentary the directors said they got both Crystal and Goodman in the same recording sessions which almost never happens in animated films and you can tell.  There is a kinship and closeness the two friends. There is also a great little cameo from the Abominable Snowman voiced by Pixar favorite John Ratzenberger.

monsters inc18The only caveat I would say on Monsters Inc is it might be a little scary for children under 5, particularly when the monsters are scaring kids at the beginning. Randall is also a very scary villain and the fact he is hunting down a child may be too much for little ones.

monsters inc7That said, the relationship between Sully and Boo is just lovely and something you don’t see that often between a male character and a child.  Usually such tenderness is reserved for maternal female characters.

monsters inc 19Sully is willing to do anything to help Boo, even risking his and his friends safety because he knows he needs too.  That kind of bond is rare and gives the film a heart elevating it beyond a silly kids film.

Randy Newman’s score is great especially during the door scene and I love the finale song between Mike and Sully.

I went into this rewatch wondering if Monsters Inc would hold up and it is better than I remembered it.  It’s a delight.  Full of humor, amazing animation, adventure and as I just said real heart.  It just shows how great the Pixar movies are that it still will probably rank 9th but we’ll see.  (who cares about stupid rankings anyway!).

Overall Grade- A (only because I think those 8 are just a hair better but its amazing!  I also still stand by a recent debate I had with online friends that Frozen is better than Monsters Inc.  It has characters I related too more, a story less predictable and gorgeous songs. Frozen A+, Monsters Inc A.  That’s how I really feel!).

Pixar Review 7- Bug’s Life

bugs life15Hey guys! I hope you all had a good Mother’s Day.  Let’s celebrate by talking about what I think is an underrated Pixar film, A Bug’s Life.  After the epicness of Toy Story Pixar’s second feature had a lot to live up too.  To add to the tension was the premiere of Dreamworks Antz that same summer which I reviewed last week.

With all of that pressure I think they came up with a charming movie with some lovely animation and nice messages for kids.  Is it perfect?  No but if it was the only Pixar movie I’d still say it was a strong effort.

A lot of people criticize Bug’s Life because it is a formula picture.  It tells a story of the oddball character who is sent on a journey where in the end he is finally shown to be special. This is an especially popular formula because of all the writers who no doubt have a similar journey.  We also get the liar reveal which we see in lots of movies.

bugs life5If all that is true then why do I say it’s underrated?  Because I think a film doesn’t necessarily have to be original to win an endorsement from me.  A movie can follow a formula but do it well and that’s great.  One of my favorite movies of all time is You’ve Got Mail and that is a total formula picture.  It works because the writing is good and the characters are easy for me to relate too.   I think you can say the same for A Bug’s Life.

bugs life 7A Bug’s Life is about a colony of ants that live by a tree surrounded by water called Ant Island.  They are a timid species and afraid of any kind of change (even the great twig of 93!).  Except for one ant named Flick voiced by Dave Foley who is an innovator and is trying to make things better.

bugs life10The ants are ruled with an iron fist by a grasshopper named Hopper voiced perfectly by Kevin Spacey.  He intimidates them to giving an ‘offering’ every year of food, so it basically works out to servitude but the ants are too scared to fight back.

bug's life3The ants have their own leadership- a queen voiced by Phyllis Diller and her daughter Princess Atta voiced by Julia Louis- Dreyfus who are both great and 2 of the more dynamic Pixar female characters we see for a long time.  We also get little princess Dot voiced by Hayden Panettiere.

Eventually Flick screws up the offering and he is sent away on a seemingly fools errand of finding bigger bugs to help defend the colony.

bugs life6Through various circumstances Flick stumbles on to a troop of circus bugs he mistakes for warriors and they return to the ant colony.  The troop is a total delight with great vocal performances and really funny writing with characters like Francis the ladybug that’s actually a dude (and voiced by Dennis Leary which is so perfect!).

bugs life 11I also love Heimlich the German caterpillar who dreams of being a beautiful butterfly ‘and then everything will be better’.  Joe Ranft, who was an animator at the time, did the voice and he gets a laugh from me every time he is on screen.

Like I said at the beginning, the story isn’t really what attracts me to A Bug’s Life.  It’s a lot of other things:

1. It’s bright and colorful.  It looks great and every scene has texture unlike the brown, brown, brown of Antz.  The soil looks like little craters and the grass looks like giant trees because we are seeing it from a bug’s perspective.

2. The voice cast is great. It runs so deep with everyone from Madaline Kahn, Bonnie Hunt, Brad Garrett, Richard Kind and more.

3.  Hopper is a terrific villain that is menacing and extremely scary from the point of view of the ants.  He also has some great sarcastic remarks.

4.  The writing all around is really good.  It elevates the more ordinary material. There are a lot of laughs and genuine moments of heart . I particularly like when Flick is trying to convince Dot that she’s just a seed using a rock.

I also really like a scene where the ant children put on a little play letting the circus bugs know what they expect.  It’s very funny.

bugslife55. The score is some of Randy Newman’s best.  I know a lot of people deride Newman but I like his cheerful style and found this to be just the right tone for the story they were telling. The finale song is also great.  One of his best.

And that’s enough for me to give it a hearty recommendation.  It’s bright colorful, sweet time at the movies.  And it’s a movie that will appeal equally to little girls and boys, which can sometimes be hard to find.

Overall I give it a B.

They ended off Bug’s Life with this very cute ‘outtakes’ segment which was kind of a thing in the 90s but I enjoy it.

Movie 49: The Princess and the Frog

The_Princess_and_the_Frog_posterWhen Princess and the Frog came out I was so excited! A Disney princess movie and hand drawn animation and a musical!!!  It had been since Mulan that a non-Pixar Disney movie had really moved me so we are talking over a decade!

I also thought it was cool there was an African American princess; although, a side of me wondered if it was stunt casting but I hoped it would be like Mulan and be a great story with a non-Caucasian leading lady. So full of enthusiasm I went to the theater and walked out underwhelmed.

Was I too excited? Expectations too high?  I don’t think so because the next year I’d see Tangled and be borderline obsessed with it but I may have been a little harder on it than I should because it was more middle-of-the-road than perfect.  Don’t know.

At the time I felt it was too cluttered.  Too many side characters.  Too much going on that it became kind of boring (kind of like you get to know so many people you don’t really know anyone).  Also I felt like every character was shouting at me all the time. All the songs were big and shouty and the dialogue too.

tiana as princess

So now 5 years later what did I think? Well, I was nicer in a lot of ways but it still has some of the same issues. A mixed bag, but overall, I liked it better this go-around.

Production-

In 2004 Disney announced Home on the Range was going to be their last hand drawn animated film.  I remember hearing that when I came home from my mission and feeling so sad it was all over.  However, in 2006 when John Lasseter came on board he reversed that decision, and they started work on the Princess and the Frog.

New animators had to be hired and the department rebuilt and Ron Clements and John Musker from Aladdin, Hercules and Treasure Planet were brought back to helm the new film.

I was hoping in the audio commentary the directors would elaborate on why they wanted an African American heroine for this particular project but they didn’t.  I guess they just did which is neat.  They did say that Oprah was pitched early storyboards and was so excited she ended up speaking the voice of Eudora, Tiana’s mother.

From the beginning there was controversy.  They had to change her name from Maddy because of slave connotations and her job became a waitress after a maid was deemed derogatory.  People even had issues with New Orleans being the setting because of the treatment of African- Americans during Hurricane  Katrina…(geesh!).

But they changed it around and it took 4 years to complete with hand drawn backdrops, characters, everything and it looks gorgeous.

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Their goal in writing Princess and the Frog was to create a ‘princess movie for people who don’t like Princess movies’.  The Prince is poor and powerless. Tiana is a uber-hard worker who’s dream is to own a restaurant not find her Prince so in those ways it is very unique.

The voice cast is all excellent. In addition to Oprah, Anika Noni Rose plays Tiana, Bruno Campos is Prince Naveen, Keith David as Dr Facilier, Jon Goodman as Big Daddy and Jennifer Cody as Charlotte. The music is done by Randy Newman and Musker and Clements said they picked him because ‘he is Americana’.  There are 2 good songs in the movie but the rest are kind of so-so.

I still think they are kind of shouty and I’m a jazz fan.  If it were me I would have gotten Harry Connick Jr to do the music because he is New Orleans and is fabulous at doing soundtracks.  Still, Newman’s music isn’t terrible but most of the songs I can’t even remember.

The Story-

The story starts with Tiana and Charlotte as little girls hearing the story of The Frog Prince.  girlsCharlotte is my favorite character in the movie.  So funny in every scene even when she is little.  I think she is one of the most likable rich characters ever in a movie.  Charlotte is a dreamer and wants her prince where Tiana is a realist and will work instead of wish for her dream. 05_princess_and_the_frog_blurayTiana works very hard at 2 jobs and finds out she has enough for the down-payment on her dream spot for her restaurant. TianaTiana is an extremely likable character and I love the example of hard work for little girls.  We also get my favorite song as Tiana excitedly announces ‘she’s almost there’.

Again, the animation is gorgeous

Charlotte finds out she is going to be the princess of Mardi Gras parade and that a prince is coming for the event.  We then get introduced to the foppish Prince Naveen and his manservant Lawrence. I’m not sure if Naveen is ever quite worthy of Tiana but I guess hard to know since he’s a frog for half the movie. naveen naveen and girls They meet shadowman Dr Facilier who is a voodoo witch doctor and this is where I start to have problems.  Dr Facilier is very well drawn and Friends on the Other Side is very well animated.  I also get the links between New Orleans and voodoo.

Nevertheless, I am still uncomfortable with this movie’s embrace of the occult and demonic.  I recognize that is my own personal religious convictions and others may not see a problem but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me uncomfortable.  I just avoid things like ouijia boards or tarot cards. But like I said it is a very well done number.

Prince Naveen becomes a frog and through a long drawn out sequence at a ball he thinks Tiana is a princess and asks for a kiss (if I explain every detail in this movie we will be here forever).  Initially repulsed she agrees hoping to get money out of the deal. Princess-And-The-Frog-movie-705124 But since Tiana is not really a prince and just playing the part for Charlotte she also get’s turned into a frog. frogsThen we get the next segment of the movie where I started to get more of that cluttered feeling back in 2009.

Tiana and Naveen go on a road trip of sorts to find Mama Odie who can change them back.  Along the way we meet a redneck fly named Ray, and Louis a jazz playing alligator along with other creatures, chases and races.

I wish there was a little more dialogue between Tiana and Naveen in these scenes and less of the music but still a lot for a Disney movie. No instant love here!

princess-and-the-frog-cast At the same time you have a plotline of Dr Facilier needing Naveen’s blood in order to keep Lawrence looking like Naveen so he can marry Charlotte and become King of Mardi Gras (or something like that). It get’s very complicated!

Along the way there is a funeral and a wedding and it is nice our happily ever after is post-wedding when Tiana gets her restaurant.

That’s the best I can do to explain it.

Movie Review/Conclusion-

I clearly have mixed feelings.  I still think it is a little cluttered and the music for the most part is shouty and I don’t like the voodoo occult elements. That said it looks gorgeous.

All of the animation is a joy to watch.  It’s positive and teaches a great lesson on hard work and the right kind of dreams.

I also like It introduces an actual culture to kids as opposed to a vague European land like most Princess movies.  A culture right here in America, which is great.

All the voicecast is superb (better than the music deserves to be honest).  It’s cheerful and upbeat and I enjoyed watching it even with my misgivings.  (I actually watched it 3 times for this review!).

I still haven’t decided if it is one I would want my little girls to see but for older kids who can understand the use of voodoo as a storytelling device it should be fine.

That said, it would be fun to watch and then go to New Orleans Square, order beignets and gumbo.

A lot of people claim racism as the reason Princess and the Frog didn’t do better (it did ok but not the mammoth hit of say Beauty and the Beast or Frozen) but I think most people had high expectations like I did which it did not quite meet.

This go-around I had lower expectations so I enjoyed it more.  (I should probably always have low expectations for movies but it had been a freakin decade!!). The story is very convoluted and complicated but it does teach a nice message and like I said it looks stunning.

It’s certainly a huge step up from the dreck I’ve been watching so I’m inclined to be forgiving!

Overall Grade- C+ 

Tangled up next and I’ll give you a hint, I like it!!!