The studio that has dominated CG animation for over fifteen years offers up their biggest challenge to Disney’s supremacy yet. Continue reading
The studio that has dominated CG animation for over fifteen years offers up their biggest challenge to Disney’s supremacy yet. Continue reading
Of all the studio’s output Cars is probably Pixar’s least well thought of film among critics. The concept of sentient vehicles living in a world devoid of humans has always been one of their toughest sells, it’s a gimmick that raises a lot of questions about how such a world could work. How are new cars born? How are the buildings constructed? If there are no humans to drive the cars why do they have things like doors and mirrors? Such observations are a little pedantic after all I’m fairly sure there were some Tex Avery cartoons that presented similar ideas and no-one ever complained about them, after all this is animation and it’s intended for kids. Perhaps Pixar are just victims of their own success. The authenticity of films like Toy Story has led us all to expect a higher level of thought in their films but for once we were being asked to just go along with what we were seeing without thinking too much about it.
The other chief criticism of the film, one I’m more inclined to agree with, is that it doesn’t really do much with its conceit. The NASCAR background makes perfect sense but setting most of the film in a sleepy Route 66 town where the hot-headed race car Lightning McQueen learns some life lessons from a cast of colourful characters. Sure the film is bookended by a pair of thrilling race sequences but it still felt like a wasted opportunity.
In spite of the film’s faults, its moderate reception and relatively disappointing box office takings I have a soft spot for Cars and welcome this sequel which comes as no surprise considering the huge popularity with youngsters the first film and its endless merchandise has found. Best of all the sequel represents a chance for Pixar to get it right at the second attempt.
Cars 2 is a very different film from its predecessor. While the first film was a relatively easy-going story of an overconfident young athlete learning some humility the sequel is a fast paced, action packed and surprisingly complex riff on the James Bond tradition of globetrotting espionage and conspiracy. It’s all about Allinol, a clean, renewable fuel for electric cars that is designed to allow maximum performance for racers. The fuel’s creator, voiced by Eddie Izzard, proposes a Grand Prix series for the world’s greatest race cars using Allinol. Lightning McQueen, by now the proud owner of four Piston Cups, decides to participate in the event after being insulted by an obnoxious Italian Formula 1 car and flies to Tokyo with sidekick tow track Mater and his pit team for the first race. At the same time British spy car Finn McMissile (a gadget packed Aston Martin played by Michael Caine) is on the trail of a shady organisation of old bangers with a vested interest in seeing Allinol fail.
There’s no denying that Cars 2 makes a lot more of its concept than the first film with more races and high octane action all the way through with a constant stream of gags to boot. But it comes with a number of slightly strange decisions. McQueen takes a backseat to Mater this time as the tow truck is mistakenly drawn into Finn and resourceful Bond girl style sports car Holly Shiftwell’s investigations having been reprimanded by the Owen Wilson voiced McQueen for his hillbilly behaviour. The race sequences likewise become less important as they are cut into with action segments involving the three spies as they work against the efforts of the criminal conspirators to sabotage proceedings. It’s quite a full on approach to the set pieces but it feels like we’re being cheated of some exciting racing at times.
Of course the way the movie is organised means you will have to like Mater to get on with it. His screen time is considerable compared to McQueen’s and although I’m generally very patient with characters like Mater I found him starting to grate by the end. The fact is he was originally designed as a comedy sidekick and bringing him to the fore doesn’t work very well. Fortunately there’s enough of the much more entertaining Finn to balance him. On the other side of things McQueen’s rivalry with Francesco the F1 Italian stallion provides consistent entertainment.
As you can expect from Pixar the visuals are superb. An opening sequence with Finn infiltrating an oil rig features some astounding water effects and some of the vistas on show are absolutely gorgeous especially the Italian racecourse. There’s also a catchy little theme tune that strikes up whenever Fin starts getting his Bond on. The script is littered with puns and gags, many of which are a little obvious and the best friends falling out story feels rather tired for family storytelling but other more original aspects of the eventful plot make up for this.
Cars 2 fixes a lot of what was wrong with the first film but can’t avoid raising new ones in the process. The James Bond concept is fun throughout but it creates a slightly jarring departure from the first and the level of action and quick pace does rather invalidate the first film’s message that sometimes it’s best to live life in the slow lane. I realise I’m contradicting myself somewhat to the point at which Cars 2 is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t but I greatly appreciate the risks that were taken and the spirit of escapism John Lasseter and his team have tapped into here. Like the first film I enjoyed the film immensely in spite of its glaring flaws but like The Tree if Life I sense the film will be divisive. My housemates both hated it as a hackneyed mess that puts its most annoying character centre-stage, a view I completely understand but while those of us more in awe of the brilliance of Wall-E, Up and the Toy Story trilogy will have a problem with these flaws, kids, the film’s primary audience will lap it up and you can’t ask fairer than that.
A flawed but fun action comedy that fondly sends up the James Bond genre in unique style. The complexity might be lost on some sprogs but the other ingredients mix together for a breathless and perfectly paced giggle.
I think reviewing movies is going to be a tricky thing for me. Games and books take quite a long time to read and play through which gives me plenty of time between reviews. Movies are generally over in a couple of hours which means I could watch two or three in a day if I were so inclined. The trouble is that usually when I watch a film I want to review it but I don’t have time to review every film I see. It’s especially troublesome over Christmas when there are usually lots of films worth watching on TV. I’ve seen loads this year I’d like to review but I think I’ll have to post a roundup of said pictures with star ratings and maybe a comment just so I can do something.
Some films however demand to be reviewed properly, and this closing chapter in one of the great movie trilogies, which I received for Christmas on DVD is one of them. There was a heck of a lot riding on Toy Story 3, a lot of pressure for it to live up to the enormous quality of the first two films. The first Toy Story was one of those films that comes along maybe once a decade, if not even less frequently than that, a wholly fresh and beguiling escape into imagination. It’s no accident that it won the hearts of the vast majority of people who saw it and was instantly hailed as a modern masterpiece. A combination of faactors made it so. The very concept of toys that come to life is the most obvious. Every child who has ever pretended their toys are alive can instantly relate to the wonder of the idea. That was the sprogs won over. Then there was the depth and knowingness that came with the premise. The characters weren’t merely a collection of colourful playmates but believable adults with real insecurities (Woody’s jealousy of superior new colleague, Buzz). Add to that a number of funny asides and the grown-ups were hooked too. Better still the characters were fabulous, all voiced brilliantly and instantly memorable. Oh and the fact that it was the first ever fully CG animated feature ever helped a bit too.
Too often great movies give birth to mediocre sequels, especially in the direct-to-video world of animation. That nearly happened with Toy Story but thanks to a lot of important people seeing sense it didn’t. Toy Story 2 was greenlit to be made as a top-budget theatrical follow-up but that was only half the battle. The triumph of Toy Story 2 lay in three chief parts. First there was the plot, which saw Woody taken by toy collector Al and prepped for shipment to a Japanese museum. Cue plenty of rescue high-jinks, memorable new characters and nicely realised settings to put them in. By repeating the scenario of having toys leave the comfort of their owner’s bedroom and explore the outside world we were treated to a thrilling sense of adventure. Secondly there was the pacing which was much quicker than the first film, which was necessarily preoccupied with painting the vivid picture of the toy’s world and needed to be slower to do so. The quick action made room for tons of gags and ably kept the laughs flowing. Finally and crucially we gained some maturity. Toy Story was a grown-up film but the sequel really upped the ante by facing head-on certain thoughts that are normally kept well clear of kids flicks. The major theme of Toy Story 2 lies in the threat of obsoletion. Woody’s fears about Andy growing out of his toys run through the whole film. It’s the kind of focus that can affect anyone who remembers loving the toys they once played with and has the ability to miss those simpler times. It’s even more powerful for the youngsters who are still in that zone. What really hammers it home is the absolutely heart-breaking sequence, set to melancholy song depicting Jessie’s long lost relationship with past owner Emily.
So we had two films that maintained huge appeal for young and old, not merely by being good but by being original and going above and beyond the call of duty emotionally. How could the geniuses at Pixar repeat the trick again?
I went to see Toy Story 3 with a lot of good friends. I was visiting Lancaster where I went to uni at the time and by the time we walked into the cinema the few days I spent there had already been one of the highlights of my year. I was desperate for the film to be a match for its predecessors and I was confident it would be after reading reviews in Empire and Total Film. But you never know. Thankfully the film turned out to be everything I wanted it to be and a little bit more and, quite possibly, the best in the trilogy.
Toy Story 3 takes place about ten years after Toy Story 2. Andy has grown up and is on the verge of leaving for college. Many of the toys he once cherished have passed out of his possession leaving only the core collection of characters we’ve loved for years, Woody, Buzz, Slinky, Rexx, Hamm, Jessie, Bullseye and Mr and Mrs Potato Head. Very quickly that theme of obsoletion comes back into the forefront of the story but not before a thrilling opening fantasy sequence that sees a younger Andy enacting one of his classic good-guys-versus-bad-guys routines. It’s an opening that puts the Buzz Lighyear video game effort from last time to shame and joyously celebrates the power of imagination.
Fast-forward a few years and Woody and the gang are reduced to working elaborate plans with mobile phones to draw Andy’s attention and get some play time. Toy Story 2 presented the theme of Toy’s no longer being wanted as a far-in-the-future threat but 3 brings it right into the present. The toys face three possible fates, being stored in the attic, thrown out with the trash or donated to the local daycare centre. One quickfire series of events later and it’s off to the daycare centre.
The daycare centre is Sunnyside, a bright, colourful place packed with toys, a place of joy and happiness that happens to be in the grip of a fascist regime. It’s a tremendous place to set the majority of the film. I’ve often thought recently that a good setting is the key to quality adventure storytelling and Toy Story 3 absolutely nails it. What we have in this place is basically a prison-break movie and the film’s most entertaining scene is a vibrantly-handled escape sequence.
It’s all about balance. The plot moves at the right pace to remian engaging without ever getting too bogged-down by sentimentality or silly jokes. The gags are well-judged, ranging from character humour to more of the same delightful observational humour about toys. All of the classic charcters get plenty of screen time to do their thing but there are plenty of new characters. Sensibly, though, none of them dominate the film, indeed only a couple really come to the fore, strawberry-smelling bear Lotso and Barbie’s long-time boyfriend Ken, voiced by Michael Keaton and undoubtedly the best newcomer, holding down a lot of the best laughs.
Woody is still the hero and his story takes him elsewhere as he rather touchingly refuses to give up on Andy. The structure provides us with two story strands that mirror the second movie, one one side there is Woody and on the other the rest of the toys. We never stay for too long with one side of the story and things move quickly. And what about Buzz? Pixar, knowing what the fans want were well aware that the space ranger needed more to do then be just another character and they haven’t disappointed as his journey through the film has a couple of neat twists loaded with comedy.
By the time we reach the final act we’re all absolutely addicted again, the characters, the jokes, the better-than-ever visuals, the tear-jerking story all transport us for the third time into the realms of pure pleasure. You forget yourself when watching this film. Escapsim simply doesn’t get better than this.
Just when you think you’ve seen enough to confirm Toy Story 3 as the worthy concluding part to the trilogy it needed to be and you’re enjoying the thrilling final act the film hits you with a moment of pure beauty and raw emotion that most people won’t be prepared for. Even watching the film for a second time on DVD I felt myself welling up and I never ever cry at movies, that’s how powerful it was. It’s not just what happens but the way it’s done, the way it’s drawn out that makes it stand out. For me it was hands-down the best moment of the trilogy.
And even then it’s not over. The film ties up the plot of the trilogy beautifully with an extended final sequence that ties up all the loose ends and prolongs that something in your eye right to the end. It’s entirely, perfectly satisfying. Some fans will long for a fourth movie but the way 3 is wrapped up means it shouldn’t happen. It would be messy to continue and when we’ve signed off with such a gloriously entertaining, mesmerising and powerful third carrying on just isn’t necessary.
As closing chapters to trilogies go this has to rank up there with the very best of them. Everything we need is here, laughs, colour, action, characters, and heart and it’s never been better. This towering achievement in escapist entertainment is lined with a tremendous sense of affection for the characters and everything their story stands for. It’s sad to finally see the end of this wonderful story about toys but the tears are accompanied by beaming smiles.