Disney’s new animated feature, Raya and the Last Dragon, is coming at an opportune time and in some ways it’s a movie of the moment. It’s all about a divided nation learning to heal and learning to trust one another despite bitter disputes. I can only hope the ensuring months and years of political dispute in this country can end as fortunately as Disney’s fantasy fable.
We follow Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) as she embarks on a quest to save her people and the divided lands of Kumandra from a mythical evil that has returned to the land. Dragons gave their lives to fight this monstrous force known as the Druun that turns life into stone. The world has been divided into separate nations surrounding a dragon-shaped body of water. There is Tail, Claw, Heart, Fang, and Spine, Raya ventures to uncover the last dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), the dragon that originally thwarted the Druun, except Sisu says she’s not exactly the best at magic and dragon stuff. Together, Sisu and Raya are chased by Raya’s childhood nemesis Namaari (Gemma Chan), the next-in line with Fang, the nation blamed for the new outbreak of the Druun. Raya must find a broken piece of Sisu’s dragon stone from each nation to level up her powers and banish the Druun once and for all and return everyone who has turned to stone, including her father.
In many ways, Raya feels like Disney trying to do its own fantasy universe akin to the Last Airbender series. The world building is tantalizing and feels lived-in, the lands distinct and with personalities and different cultures, and those cultures are respective of their environments. I was pleased to continue with the movie and discover more well laid details that built out this world and its inhabitants, the relationships to the dragons, and the veneration of magic. The stone statues each represent a person succumbed to the evil, itself a byproduct of the inability of the splintered nations to unify and trust one another (more on theme later). I appreciated the respect and reverence given to the fallen and to the dragon statues as well. There’s a scene where Namaari and her crew are walking through a field of overgrown dragon statues and they treat it with such reverence like it was a war memorial. For Namaari personally and for Fang especially, the sacrifice of these creatures is one that humanity has been struggling to live up to. I also appreciated that the magic and lore is presented as we need it, so that the audience is overloaded early with an onslaught of new information needed to orient this make-believe world. The filmmakers do a fine job of building from previous established information and expanding naturally to complicate their world and the larger conflict. The plot through line is left pretty simple, collect the pieces of the magic rock, but because of the accessible formula it also builds anticipation we can attune to. It gets me to wonder what new power Sisu will inherit, how that new nation has dealt in the ensuing time with the power and influence of the magic shard, and what new fun character we’ll pick up along the way.
Raya is also an exciting edition to the Disney animated collection. I’ve watched the movie twice, and would watch again, but I really honed in on the action during my second viewing. The fight choreography is impressive and not simple standard kicks, punches, and sword slashes. There are specific moves and countermoves here, and the long takes with the action allow the audience to appreciate the complexity of the brawls as if we were watching The Raid. There were some moments that genuinely gave me goosebumps. I also appreciated that the action isn’t gratuitous; each scene has an emotional connection to a character and their conflict, even the many run-ins between Raya and Namaari trying to prove themselves against one another. This is also a movie where we are replete with strong female characters, diversity, and women in positions of power, and nobody makes a big deal out of it. It’s accepted as the norm and I think that’s smart. It’s nice to add another kick-ass Disney “princess” and for there to be not a single mention of romance throughout the movie. There are bigger issues and the ladies aren’t fighting over a boy’s attention but over their personal rivalry and anger. For a briskly paced 100-minute movie, Raya and the Last Dragon has enough action and awe to provide satisfying thrills for all ages.
Where Raya admirably succeeds is with its adherence and execution of theme. The characterization can be limited at times for anyone beyond our protagonist, but that doesn’t mean that the supporting players are without charm and resonance and importance. They contribute nicely, just in other ways. The screenplay does an excellent job of supporting the theme of trust and unity, a topic that is in short supply today in a turbulent time of social and political upheaval. The different clans of this fantasy land have resentment, animosity, and decades of score-settling to make it even harder to trust, especially anyone from the Fang nation, the people blamed for the current epidemic. It’s much easier to project anger on an outward force rather to blame than look at our own culpability, and it’s even harder to take that first step to repair the damage done from broken trust and manipulation. Still, the entire journey of Raya, both film and character, is on the importance of taking that step regardless of whether or not it works. Each character from a different nation represents another factor in dealing with grief, and each has reasons not to trust the others, to only think about themselves and their interests, to perpetuate a failing cycle.
The movie articulates the dangers of holding onto grudges and distrust with every moment, so when the climax happens it’s a small yet very meaningful payoff, where the characters don’t make grand final stands and showcase amazing powers against an overwhelming force. No, instead it’s about demonstrating faith in the possible goodness of another person and taking a leap. Sisu suggests offering a friendly gift to make amends and it becomes a running joke but it’s also indicative of her character and personal experiences, how she differs from the contemporary and more nihilistic world, and the larger theme. The movie mentions several points how empowering trust can be, to be valued and believed in, regardless of mistakes and misgivings, and Raya embodies this with every decision, meaning even the small moments and silly side characters have a larger purpose and contribution to the overall message of this tale.
There are some elements that hold Raya and the Last Dragon back from true greatness, joining the ranks of Disney’s recent epic 2010s run of Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia, Moana, and yes, Frozen (sorry haters, it’s still great). As I said before, the supporting characters are kept more at the idea level than multi-dimensional. They each represent a facet of loss, but I would have liked a little more attention given to them to have more tiny character moments and maybe even some realized arcs. As it stands, they support Raya on her arc and they become subsumed by her arc, and it works, but there was an opportunity to deepen these cute supporting players into more meaningful members. There are some elements that feel like holdovers or clues about earlier drafts, little remnants of scrubbed storylines. Repeatedly Sisu will remind us what an excellent swimmer she is as her special dragon power and we witness this once to use in a minor escape. With the build-up given, you’d expect the movie would make more with this in a climactic manner.
Raya and the Last Dragon is a worthy and exciting entry into the Disney animated canon and presents a fantasy world of its own making with detail, ingenuity, and care, supporting a central theme with every primary creative decision, even if some of them hinder what could have expanded the film into an ever bigger and more diverse ensemble. As it is, it’s all about Raya, who is an engaging and compelling figure trying to prove herself and atone for her own guilt. Her rival is given consideration as well from the pressure she’s under to serve her people. However, this is the Raya show (her name is in the title after all) and that’s plenty for 100-plus minutes of entertainment. Raya and the Last Dragon is a good-to-great animated fantasy film and one I think could support further exploration. This could be the start of Disney’s own Airbender world if they wanted. The animation is fluid and colorful and gorgeous and the character designs are easy to distinguish without placing undue emphasis on exaggerated features to characterize this as a Chinese fable. The vocal acting is great, and by the end of the movie, as its theme comes full circle, I don’t mind admitting I was even tearing up a bit. It’s a well-designed and well-developed fantasy with a secure emotional foundation to build upon.
Nate’s Grade: B+
I strongly urge everyone out there if ever given the opportunity to see this movie. Do not confuse Chicken Run as a “kids only” affair while you yourself sneak into something “better.” This movie is easily the best movie of this lackluster summer of commercial perpetual bile, and possibly one of the better if not best films of the year. It’s no secret I have an affinity for animation and the claymation choices of directors Nick Park and Peter Lord, of Wallace and Gromit fame, give the characters real emotion. I can just look at one of the chickens in the eye and feel emotion that I couldn’t get seeing many Hollywood films. The cinematography and animation is lush, vibrant, and breathtakingly beautiful. The story is fresh, wonderfully hilarious, and even touching. The voice artists are terrific, with Miranda Richardson pulling out as my favorite for her delightfully vile Mrs. Tweedy. Treat yourself to one of the very few decent movies this summer and see the incredible fun of Chicken Run, and if you still feel conflicted it has Mel Gibson in it. And if you still feel bad you can say you got lost on your way to the restroom.
Nate’s Grade: A
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
I’ve been a fan of animation since I was young, and stop-motion animation has its own unique and impressive charms. While it has been smoothed out with recent high-profile Laika entries (ParaNorman, Kubo and the Two Strings), there’s a distinct un-reality to stop-motion animation, a stutter-stop to the movements and its physical details that can place it in a beguiling middle-ground between fantasy and reality. I know thousands of hands toil many thousands of hours with every hand-drawn and CGI animated film, but seeing a literal canvas of three-dimensional physical proportions and knowing, with every second, that a person individually moved this figure bit by infinitesimal bit to provide movement, it gives me awe. It’s one of the reasons why 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is one of my all-time favorite movies, plus its top-shelf soundtrack by Danny Elfman at the peak of his talents (I wore out my cassette tape listening to the soundtrack so often). The Aardman production team became famous from the success of their Creature Comforts and Wallace and Gromit shorts, but it wasn’t until 2000 that they tackled their first feature film. I saw Chicken Run in theaters three times that summer. I was so taken with the imagination, humor, storytelling, and efficiency of it, that I kept returning for more. Checking back in twenty years after that initial release, it’s still an effortlessly enjoyable comic caper.
This is an all-ages comedy that asks what if you remade The Great Escape but from the perspective of poultry. It’s a prison break movie that takes its stakes seriously but can still find room for goofy humor and a little romance. The screenplay by Karey Kirkpatrick, working off the story by directors Peter Lord and Nick Park, is minus any fat. Everything in the script sets up the characters, their distinct personalities, goals, stakes, and complications, especially once our main characters of Ginger (voiced by Julia Sawalha) and Rocky (Mel Gibson) are at cross-purposes; he only wants to think of himself and she can only think about saving everyone. He’s hiding the secret of his limitations; she sees him as the answer to their plight, and they’re both growing closer to one another as their time to escape dwindles. Every character is responsive to the action of the others, so the repercussions of the escape attempts lead to the villains escalating their plans. Instead of seeing the chickens as egg providers and meat when they can no longer produce eggs, now they are all expendable and meat is the top Tweedy Farm meal ticket. There’s a clear connection between all the plot beats that is deeply satisfying. Chicken Run is only 85 minutes long and it doesn’t waste a moment to make you smile and tell a good story.
I laughed several times, especially with the daffy Babs (“Are we going on holiday?”), and also the ingenuity of the slapstick. There’s a sequence going inside the machinations of a pie-making machine that is wonderfully developed with great obstacles leading to great slapstick. There’s one stretch where Ginger and Rocky find themselves inside a giant lit oven and they have to race out by leaping from pie to pie. Ginger is fleet and gets ahead, but Rocky tumbles into one pie after another, which is already good slapstick paired with an exciting scenario. Then it cuts to an overhead shot and you see that Rocky has somehow managed to trip and fall in every pie in the oven. It’s small comic touches like that where the Aardman team excel with their funny.
This is also a deceptively visually impressive movie. The Aardman design, the big eyes and buck teeth, seems underdeveloped to a layman but Chicken Run is a beautifully made movie. The stop-motion animation is professional and fluid, but it’s the degree of camera movement and visual enhancement that wowed me. There are long camera pans between human-sized characters and chicken-sized characters. There are visual gags that pop, especially during its thrilling finale when the chickens build their own flying contraption to escape. Mrs. Tweedy (an amazingly wicked Miranda Richardson) is hanging by a cord of lights, smashes through a billboard advertising her pies, and her face is replaced with the smiling billboard version a second before she rips it apart to reveal her frenzied homicidal expression. The use of montage in the opening to establish the many failed escape attempts by Ginger and her solitary confinement punishment is fantastic. Even just keeping the scale between the humans and dogs and chickens is an impressive feat as a physical production. The color palette can be, understandably, a bit muddy, but the imagination on display on a micro and macro level is thoroughly entertaining.
The vocal cast perform excellently. In my original review, I cited the inclusion of Gibson as a reason to encourage animation-wary moviegoers to see Chicken Run. In the ensuing twenty years, Gibson is definitely not seen in the same light thanks to his anti-Semitic and misogynist rantings. I can understand not wanting to watch this gem of a movie simply because you don’t want to listen to the man’s voice. I get it, but if you can overlook the man’s failings, his performance is lively, brash, and all the character requires. Sawalha (TV’s Absolutely Fabulous) is a plucky and expressive lead and gives a real heart to the movie. Ginger could easily escape but she’s determined to save all her peers even if they don’t appreciate her help. In 2020, Netflix announced they were producing a sequel to Chicken Run, and they also announced they are replacing Sawalha as the voice of Ginger. This deeply hurt her and the stated reason was that she sounded too old now. Sawalha recorded herself reading the same lines from twenty years ago, and she sounds identical to her 2000-circa self (listen for yourself), at least to my ears. Ginger just won’t be the same without her.
This was also one year before the Academy created the Best Animated Film Award, which would go onto 2001’s Shrek. I’m convinced if this award had been established one year earlier that Chicken Run would have been its very worthy inaugural recipient. Other animated films released in 2000 that might have contended: The Emperor’s New Groove, The Road to El Dorado, Titan A.E., Sinbad, and France’s Princes and Princesses. It seems bizarre today but there wasn’t a single wide-release CGI animated movie from Pixar, Disney, DreamWorks, or Nickelodeon. This was the last-year it was predominantly hand-drawn animation, which I do miss dearly.
Looking back on my brief review in 2000, I cannot recall why I had such antipathy for the major studio releases that summer. Gladiator was a success, though Mission: Impossible 2, Gone in 60 Seconds, Shaft, Titan A.E., Me, Myself & Irene, and The Perfect Storm disappointed me. Plus, there was the cataclysmic misfire Battlefield Earth. Whatever the case, Chicken Run was a breath of fresh air for my 18-year-old self that summer season. My younger self felt more compelled to argue that animation was not merely a medium for children, a stigma I believe has been significantly chipped away over the decades, especially with the publicity of Pixar. The Academy Award also gave the field a long-overdue honor and boost to the public. Aardman has released several movies after Chicken Run, including the absolutely delightful 2012 Pirates: Band of Misfits, which I highly recommend for all ages. I love animation and filmmakers that take advantage of the overwhelming possibilities the medium affords. My A grade stands. Chicken Run is just as enjoyable today. It might not be an all-timer of animation but it’s 85 minutes wonderfully spent.
Re-View Grade: A
In a modern fantasy suburbia, Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland) and older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) have been gifted with a magic staff from their long-departed father. Barley was only a young child when their father died, and Ian never knew him, and now both are granted an opportunity via magic to bring their dear old man back for one more day. The magic spell is interrupted and, as a result, only one half of their father is brought back to life, the lower half, chiefly his legs. The boys must travel on an epic quest in order to bring the rest of their father back to life before all of him disappears again.
Onward is the first time Pixar has ventured into a fantasy realm and the mixture of the modern with the high-fantasy setting allows for some fun juxtaposition. The teenage worries about fitting in, testing your boundaries, and finding out your sense of self can be very relatable, even in a world of trolls and elves. I enjoyed the combative and compassionate brotherly dynamic between Ian and Barley, and Holland (Spider-Man: Far From Home) and Pratt (Avengers: Endgame) are terrific together and really do feel like feuding family members. Their high energy performances translate well to animation. The Pixar creative team does enough to provide little distinguishing character touches for both, enough to provide some extra shading so they don’t quite feel like cartoon versions of their more famous Marvel counterparts. Ian is all awkward and lacking in confidence whereas Barley is overloaded with self-confidence and an unshakable sense of arrested development. I enjoyed the small number of memories relating to their father that Barley holds onto, and I enjoyed how Ian listens to a brief, ordinary test recording of his father on a cassette tape and creates a dialogue between father and son. It’s such a sweet moment that also demonstrates Ian’s ache. I enjoyed how the screenplay connects the external to the internal, namely the obstacles on this quest to the personal trials for Ian and Barley. It allows more meaningful payoffs and more rewarding character growth for our duo. I enjoyed spending time with both boys and was glad their quest was more about them than magical ephemera.
Amazingly, what works best in this movie is its emotional core, which sounds slightly bizarre considering it’s a road trip with a pair of legs. As Onward progresses and settles down with its better honed second half, it puts more emphasis on the relationship between the brothers, their hopes and worries for one another, their sacrifices and shames, and ultimately it becomes a movie about two boys trying to find closure with the memory of their dearly departed dad. The genuine emotion of the brothers is enough to pave over most of the undeveloped elements of the world and storytelling (more on that below). I would have thought, going in, that Onward would present a so-so story with an intriguing world of possibility. I’m surprised that my experience was the exact opposite. The story and central relationships are what kept me going, and it’s what ultimately earned some teary eyed responses from me late in the movie. The topic of seeking closure is a personal one for me and something I value highly, so it was very easy for me to plug my own yearning and vulnerability into these characters. They’re going through all this dangerous trouble not just to see their departed father one last time but also to say goodbye, and that got me big time. It gave the entire movie a new weight that I wasn’t expecting. Who wouldn’t want another chance to tell a loved one how much they miss and appreciate them?
The whole concept of being stuck with a loved one’s lower torso allowed me many moments of contemplation. First, I wondered what their father must be going through to only experience the world through his legs. It felt limited. How do you communicate to others? The film finds its ways. How do you express emotions simply from a pair of disembodied legs? The film finds its ways. As Ian and Barley drag him along on a zipline leash, I kept thinking about the dad. What is he thinking in this moment? Is he waiting for some kind of comforting confirmation from his sons to tell him where he is and what is happening? I kept thinking how confused he must be. To the filmmakers’ credit, they don’t ever emphasize the potential hell of this half-existence. He’s presented often as a figure of comic relief, especially as his upper torso pile of clothes sloshes around and tumbles off. In a way, the pair of legs reminded me of the visual metaphor of the floating house in 2009’s Up, the manifestation of the protagonist’s heavy grief. They’re tethered to this half-formed memory of their father, unable to fully interact with him and let him go. I was worried that Onward was going to be the Pixar equivalent of Weekend at Bernie’s and it is not.
There are some issues with the movie, nothing major, but enough to make it feel under developed, especially in comparison to the Pixar movies of past. The imagination is there, however, the world-building of this fantasy world is decidedly lacking. There are some cute asides like unicorns as the equivalent of trash-eating raccoons, but as a whole the fantasy world feels underdeveloped to its full potential. There’s a significant story point where the current world has forgotten its magic roots thanks to the ease of technology and its inoculating effects, which seems like a pretty straightforward message for our own lazy world. Again, though, Onward doesn’t dig deeper into this theme or what it could mean for the larger mythology of its own world and its history and the rules governing its magical creatures. I started to wonder whether Pixar could just have set this story anywhere.
Likewise, the supporting characters don’t amount to much and feel like leftovers from earlier drafts where they had richer involvement. The ongoing subplot with their mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) teaming up with the fabled beast-turned small business owner Manticore (Octavia Spencer) offered little other than occasional exposition. The Manticore is supposed to best represent how the new world has traded its culture and history for comforts and safety, but it’s not clearly realized and integrated. My pal Ben Bailey reflected that the Manticore seemed like a one-scene character that the filmmakers didn’t want to drop, and so she was stretched through the rest of the film to diminished returns. The last act has a sudden and arbitrary monster to defeat that feels like the kind of thing expected in these sorts of movies, which is a rarity for Pixar and thus a slight disappointment.
Lastly, much of the humor just doesn’t work. The jokes can be stale, safe, or one-note, like a team of very tiny pixie bikers. It’s often silly without exactly being clever. There’s more fleeting visual humor with the incongruous nature of fantasy in a modern setting. There’s less slapstick than you would think considering one of the main characters lacks a torso. I chuckled a few times but, much like the fantasy setting, felt the humor was kept at an superficial level of thought.
Onward isn’t top-tier Pixar but it’s a solid mid-tier entry, an enjoyable adventure with a resonant emotional core that makes me forgive many of the film’s other aspects that don’t quite work. The brothers are the best part, their interactions are the most interesting, and their heartfelt journey and hopeful desire for closure is what ultimately left me emotionally satisfied. The jokes and world and supporting characters don’t feel as developed, but it hits with its core relationship and its emotional center, so Onward works where it counts the most with its storytelling. Mid-tier Pixar is much like mid-tier pizza — still satisfying and better than a lot of other options.
Nate’s Grade: B+
While it’s become somewhat fashionable to call Frozen overrated, I still think it’s a great movie with an even better soundtrack, songs that I can instantly think of and hear them immediately in my head. I figured Disney would be very careful about a Frozen sequel out of a tactic understanding that they didn’t want to damage their brand. It was six years ago so I figured they hatched a sequel worthy of the big screen and legacy of their billion-dollar hit, but what I received with Frozen II was more akin to a direct-to-DVD sequel that is meant to jump start an afternoon cartoon series called Elsa’s Magical Friends. Prepare for mediocrity, folks, and start dialing back those expectations. The story revolves around Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) discovering her past, traveling to a magical land, meeting magical tribes of creatures, and helping to unite a divided people. The sloppiness of the storytelling is staggering. The plot is filled with exposition and the world building is clunky and unclear, designed more to move things along and set up cute creatures ready for holiday merchandise. The characters arcs are nebulous, in the case of Elsa considering she’s never longed to discover a past, and resoundingly lightweight in the case of everyone else; Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) is worried about having the perfect proposal (yawn), and Anna (Kristen Bell) wants to support her sister but also doesn’t want her to march off into danger needlessly (yeah, and…?). Olaf (Josh Gad), the magic snowman, remarks about the nature of change, but by the very end of the movie nothing has really changed, and that’s even after a gigantic potential sacrifice that Anna makes by her lonesome. I felt some emotional pull for the characters but that was because of the holdover of my feelings for them and less because of the situations they found themselves in with this sequel. And let’s get to the songs, which are shockingly forgettable. I was forgetting them even in the middle of them being performed. There’s no “Let It Go,” but there’s also nothing as low as the troll song, but what we’re left with are milquetoast ballads and tunes low on hum-worthy melodies. The best song might actually be a jokey power ballad along the lines of Bryan Adams where Kristoff sings his woes. That’s right, a Kristoff song is maybe the best track in this movie. That feels like a pretty big indication something went wrong. It felt like the kind of quality you’d expect from a direct-to-DVD sequel’s array of new songs. Frozen II feels so bizarrely perfunctory and routine, absent a cohesive theme holding everything together and providing a firm landscape to direct the characters, and going through the motions. It’s not a story that adds greater depth to this world. If you’re expecting something along the lines of quality from the first Frozen, it’s better to simply let those feelings go. And what’s the deal with Elsa’s neck on the poster? It’s far far too long.
Nate’s Grade: B-
The Toy Story franchise has been the gold standard for Pixar with three excellent movies, the last of which was released back in 2010. When the Pixar bigwigs announced they were making a fourth entry, I felt some degree of concern. The hidden world of toys still felt like an interesting world with more stories to be told, but did we need to revisit Woody and Buzz and the gang? Everything ended so beautifully and perfectly with the third movie, with the toys getting their sendoff from their original owner and a new life in the possession of a new child, little Bonnie. I’ve been more wary about this movie than just about any other Pixar film because the audience had something that could be lost, namely closure. If they harmed that perfect ending in the crass desire to extend the franchise for an extra buck, it would have been aggravating and depressing to disturb something that felt so complete. It’s like when Michael Jordan came out of retirement (the second time) to be a shadow of himself for the Washington Wizards in order to sell tickets for the team he was part owner of. Nobody wanted that. I’m happy to report that Toy Story 4 is a treat of a movie and a worthy addition to the franchise.
Bonnie is gearing up for kindergarten and nervous about the change. She isn’t allowed to take toys with her to school, though that doesn’t stop Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) from tagging along. In her desire for a friend, and with a little assist from a certain cowboy, Bonnie creates a fork-figure named Forky (Tony Hale), and amazingly it comes to life. Woody tries valiantly to convince Forky that being a toy to a child is the greatest gift but he’s also really reminding himself now that he sees his influence waning with Bonnie as he’s selected for play time less and less. During a family road trip, Forky escapes and Woody leaps to find him, both of them coming into the clutches of Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), an antique doll missing a functional voice box who has her sights set on Woody’s voice box. It’s at this small-town pit stop for a carnival that Woody discovers Bo Peep (Annie Potts), an old flame he never thought he would see again. She’s assured, happy, and preaching a life of being independent from a kid. Woody has defined himself for so long by one identity, and now he must decide which to follow.
In many ways, Toy Story 4 takes themes and questions from the third movie and improves upon them, making what could have been a retread feel like a do-over you didn’t know you desired. It’s been many years since I saw the third film but I recall the major themes being the fear of change, reconciling one’s self-identity, and the courage of letting go and starting over. The toys had to recognize that their owner was growing up and their old place wasn’t going to be the same. This same issue finds new life in Toy Story 4 primarily through the lens of Woody, who finds himself on the decline with his kid’s interest. He’s not offended or upset by this but is still trying to provide what assistance he can as a beloved toy, even if that relationship becomes more and more one-sided. His identity is in selfless sacrifice for another, but with the re-emergence of Bo, he is now contemplating a life on his own, a life without a kid. This alternate path never seemed a possibility until his former flame stepped back into his life. It challenged Woody in a way that feels more personal and more relevant than it did with 3, especially with the removal of a larger external threat to occupy the attention of our main characters. This places a renewed focus on Woody’s internal dilemma beyond his role as leader and protector.
Toy Story 4 might also be the weirdest movie of the franchise, which really elevates the comedy into another realm. I thought the characters played by Jordan Peele (Us) and Keegan Michael-Key (Predator) were going to quickly wear out their welcome; they seemed to be a heavy part of pre-release teaser trailers. The filmmakers don’t overdo them and use them in clever ways, which is a compliment that can be applied to every new character in this sequel. The plushies by Key and Peele have a hilarious running gag of their increasingly absurd plans to attack a woman, and one instance deliciously prolongs the eventual punchline, becoming more bizarre and macabre to the point that I lost control from laughter. Keanu Reeves (John Wick 3) is fun as a very Canadian Evel Knievel motorcycle driver, and the weird references to the Canada-ness of it are played completely straight, making it even funnier (his laments with the French-Canadian boy’s name made me snicker every time). There’s a trio of action figures, Combat Carls, and one of the three is always left hanging for high-fives and he just leaves his arm up waiting, silently pleading, and then lowers it in defeat, and it’s hysterical even just as a background gag. The ventriloquist dummies are routinely played for creepy laughs and physical humor. There’s a running joke where Buttercup, the unicorn voiced by Jeff Garlin, is always suggesting getting Bonnie’s father sent to jail no matter the circumstances. It’s these touches of weirdness that make the movie stand out that much more from the three others.
The villain of Toy Story 4 is given a surprising sense of poignancy, enough that I genuinely sympathized with her plight. She’s a damaged doll used to being behind glass, isolated and separated from the children she wishes to be part of. She views her salvation in fixing in her damaged voice box, her perceived disability. She’s after what Woody has physically, the voice box, but it’s a means to an ends to have what Woody has had emotionally, the love of a child in need, the connection she yearns for. I won’t spoil what happens with her but even when there are setbacks the film and the characters don’t give up on Gabby Gabby. Her perspective and desires are still seen as valued, and the eventual resolution of her character put a lump in my throat. She wasn’t really the villain after all. She was just another toy in pain looking for acceptance and having to adjust her identity. I feel like there is a conscious disability empowerment message implanted in Toy Story 4, namely that those who are disfigured, disabled, or seen as “broken” can continue to be valuable and that their lives don’t end.
If this serves as the finale of the franchise, it will end on a fitting and resonant high-point. As much as Toy Story 3 was about change and acceptance, this sequel does a very respectable effort of personalizing that message even more to one central character’s dramatic arc. It also works wonderfully playing off of our collective investment in the character over the course of four movies and twenty-four years. There are some drawbacks to this approach. It makes the majority of the other toy characters feel like they have little to do on the sidelines, other than fret about retrieving Woody and Forky. Buzz is given a cute joke about listening to his inner voice but it doesn’t amount to much more than a cute joke. The inclusion of Forky feels like an exciting and even daring addition, tackling some existential questions and how and when toys are “made” and brought into being, and he presents these for a while. Once we get to our carnival setting and Forky is captured, he seems to be forgotten about. He’s more a motivation point for Woody than overtly anything else. I suppose you could make the analysis that Forky represents how Bonnie is moving on even with invented toys at the expense of Woody. However, these are minor quibbles considering the quality and emotional involvement of what Pixar has produced.
It goes without saying that the animation is beautiful but what amazed me is how expressive the faces of the characters could be, even when they were relatively inflexible toys. The relationship between Woody and Bo actually has a surprising amount of nonverbal dramatic acting to communicate nuance. As the years go by, I continue to be further and further amazed at the Pixar animators and their abilities.
As protective I was over Toy Story 3’s perfect ending, I am happy to say that Toy Story 4 more than justifies its own existence in this hallowed franchise and even improves from the third film. The themes are something of a repeat but the filmmakers have elected to focus almost entirely on Woody and his personal journey, and it makes the loss and possibility more robustly felt. In many ways the film is an exploration on relationships and the need to redefine ourselves, to move onward when the time is right, and to try something new even if things get scary. Between Woody and Gabby Gabby, ostensibly the hero and villain of the piece, they’re looking for meaningful connections where they can. They may be secondhand, they may be disabled, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of affection. This is a joyous movie that finds time to be wonderfully weird and often funny. It might not have the set pieces or ensemble showmanship of the prior Toy Story tales, but what it does have is a character-based emphasis on the most complex figure in this universe of toys. The conclusion is moving and satisfying and I don’t mind admitting that tears were shed. I even teared up at different other earlier points. Toy Story 4 could have gone a lot of different ways but I’m relieved and appreciative with this new sendoff we’ve been granted.
Nate’s Grade: A
The stop-motion animation wizards at Laika have made some of the most charming and visually impressive movies of the last few years, including The Box Trolls, Kubo and the Two Strings, and ParaNorman. They’ve built up enough trust that I will see anything that they attach their name to. Missing Link is probably their least successful big screen effort yet, though that still means it’s only perfectly fine rather than great-to-amazing. It’s a heartfelt buddy comedy about a Bigfoot creature (voiced by Zach Galfianakis) that seeks out mentorship from a dashing adventurer (Hugh Jackman). It’s a sweet story but not fully emotionally engaging because the characters are fairly simplistic. There isn’t a lot of depth here and, surprisingly, more crass jokes aimed at a younger audience than their earlier output. From a visual standpoint, it’s beautiful with vibrant colors and fluid animation that has become indistinguishable from CGI nowadays. The action set pieces, usually appearing at a regular clip with each new location change, are fun and have their clever moments, like a capsizing ship that reminded me of the spinning Inception hallway. It’s an amusing, lower tier animated movie for Laika, but I’m worried that there might not be more of these movies the way they’re going at the box-office. Laika was treading financial water with excellent movies, and anything “less than” seems like it could possibly tip the independent animation production company over for good. Missing Link is a cute, mostly harmless, mostly entertaining movie that just doesn’t have the same ambitions and level of execution that previous Laika films have had. With that being said, it’s still worth a watch on the big screen for any animation aficionado.
Nate’s Grade: B
How to train your expectations for the concluding chapter in the How to Train Your Dragon franchise: step one, lower them. I was dispirited to discover what a disappointing final chapter The Hidden World comes across, especially considering the previous movies, including the 2014 sequel, are good to great. At its core it’s always been a tale of prejudice and family, dressing up a simple boy-and-his-dog story with fantasy elements. It also presents a world with danger and cost; even the fist film ended with the main character, Hiccup, losing a freaking foot. He loses his father in the second film. It’s a series that has grown naturally with heart, imagination, and a real sense of stakes. This is why I’m sad to report that the third film feels like a different creative team made it. The villain is a repeat of the second film, a dragon hunter with little to be memorable over. The plot is very redundant, stuck in an endless loop of capture, escape, capture, escape, etc. The addition of the new lady dragon is a perfunctory means to drive a wedge between Hiccup and toothless, his dragon. The lady dragon has no personality and needs rescuing too often. Her inclusion relates to a rather regressive emphasis on the need for coupling and marriage. The titular Hidden World amounts to a grand total of five minutes of screen time. The action starts off well involving the various colorful side characters but misses out on that sense of danger that defined the other movies. It feels goofy and safe and listless. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is a sizeable disappointment and coasts on the emotional investment of the first two movies. You’ll feel something by the end, sure, but it’s because of the hard work of others and not this movie.
Nate’s Grade: C
I have no real investment in Mary Poppins as a character or the original 1964 movie, so I was expecting to walk out of Mary Poppins Returns with a shrug, likely finding it middling at worse. I was unprepared for what I endured, and endured is the accurate statement. Mary Poppins Returns is an insane movie and one of the most maddening and painful experiences in a theater I’ve had all year, and no number of spoonfuls of sugar will help this bad medicine go far enough down.
It’s the “Great Slump,” a.k.a. Depression, in London and the Banks children have grown up. Michael (Ben Whishaw) has three young children of his own and he’s struggling to maintain his job at the bank and be the father they need in the wake of his wife’s death. His sister, Jane (Emily Mortimer), has moved into help but it’s still not enough. Enter that famous nanny, Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), who takes it upon herself to watch over the children, help them through the grieving process, and explore the outer reaches of London with some help from some friends, chiefly Jack (Lin Manuel-Miranda). The Banks family is in danger of losing their home to the head of the bank (Colin Firth) unless they can find a specific title of shares that will grant them a wealth denied their adult lives.
This movie felt like it was eight hours long and I had no sense of how much time was passing, mostly because of its misshaped structure and general lack of pacing. Mary Poppins Returns feels like it could have been renamed The Tony Awards: The Movie. It’s one unrelated song-and-dance number after another, rarely building from the previous one, and so it feels like an eternal televised awards show that just shuffles from one set piece to the next, never providing a sense of direction or finality. Things just happen in this movie and then different things happen but rarely do they feel consequential. This makes the film feel endless because you have no real concept of progression. It’s just another unrelated song into an unrelated magical realm that doesn’t really seem like it matters, and then we’re off to the next. I think some part of me is still trapped watching Mary Poppins Returns, never allowed to leave.
This would be mitigated if the songs were any good. There are over a dozen and not a single one is memorable. It was mere minutes after leaving the theater that I pressed myself into trying to hum any one of them, and I could not. They instantly vanish from your memory because there are no melodies or interesting production aspects that cause them to stand out. They assault you with their blandness and staid orchestration. They’re a careful recreation of an older sounding, 1950s musical, an antiquated sound that doesn’t have the same traction today. The only way you can remember one of these songs is if you have a traumatic experience forever linked to one of these mediocre, warbling collection of sounds.
There are two astoundingly peculiar songs. “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is a big ensemble number involving the lamp lighters lead by Miranda. However, the song reference is clearly evocative of the Timothy Leary “trip the light fantastic” comment about LSD. It’s strange to think this is only a coincidence when the lamp lighters are dubbed “learies.” It’s not a good song to begin with and the performance literally involves men on BMX bicycles flying around and doing tricks. How is any of this happening in a reported Disney family film? The Meryl Streep “Turning Turtle” song may be the most excruciating five minutes I’ve sat through for all 2018. It’s just embarrassing to watch and made me honestly think of the children’s movie disaster, The Ooogieloves, where you watch once proud actors debase themselves and their legacies in depressing fashion. That’s the level of dread and mourning I had watching Streep slog through a Bela Lugosi accent and dance upside down. It has to be seen to be believed but you shouldn’t ever have to see this. I have a new appreciation for the La La Land songs.
The continual removal of stakes robs the movie of feeling like anything onscreen genuinely matters. Mary Poppins is a magical creature without clearly defined rules or limits. At any point she might simply have the solution to a problem that she wasn’t sharing. Take for instance the ending (spoilers for the duration of this paragraph, but really, who cares?) where the lamp lighters and the Banks family race to ole Big Ben to literally “turn back time” by adjusting the clock hands. The lamp lighters use their ladders to free climb the face of the clock to the very top, only to be undone by not being able to reach the minute hand at it nears twelve. Then all of a sudden Mary Poppins scoffs to herself and flies up to the clock face to adjust it. If she could do this the whole time why did these very mortal men risk their lives in this exercise? I think Mary Poppins may be a cruel god (more on this later). The concluding dash to ensure the Banks family can keep their home involves not one, not two, but three deus ex machinas, a “Turducken of ex machinas” as my pal Ben Bailey termed it. Ultimately all of their actions do not even matter because the film routinely provides an unknown escape route that invalidates their efforts. It turns out, in the end, they weren’t even going to lose their home thanks to (at my best guess) a magical bird head that is best friends with the head of a bank and who never mentioned this before, the same head of the bank who has just been off in what appears to be an adjacent room for whatever reason and that also knows that Michael Banks has accrued a hefty fortune from a childhood investment, and has never mentioned it as well except in this crucial moment. Why, why does Mary Poppins Returns do this? Why does it present stakes or the illusion of stakes only to sabotage them every time?
Is Mary Poppins really a creature of good or does her need to be loved prove her a fickle god who demands adulation, subservience, and obedience? When Mary Poppins travels from world to world, some live action, some animated, all fanciful, every inhabitant seems to know this woman and love her unconditionally despite her prevalent smarm. The bigger question is do these magical worlds exist independent of Mary Poppins? Is there a pocket universe in existence on the side of a chipped porcelain bowl, or did it only come into existence when Mary Poppins decided it would be a lovely vacation spot? If so, that means she is calling into being a throng of adoring creatures that exist to validate her impulsive whims. She is a selfish god that demands an audience of servants and sycophants, not unlike the Javier Bardem character in Darren Aronofsky’s polarizing polemic, mother!.
The actors acquit themselves fine for their roles. Blunt (A Quiet Place) and Miranda (Moana) will still be charming performers even when given substandard material. Blunt holds your attention with her prissy, schoolmarm persona, balancing the audience’s memories of Julie Andrews without going into parody. Her singing (as also evidenced from 2014’s Into the Woods) is above average and can help make some of the songs more tolerable to listen to. Miranda is a talent bursting with charisma and range, which makes it all the more frustrating to squeeze him into the narrow confines of a cockney scamp. He does get a rapping reprise in “A Cover is Not the Book” with a group of cartoon penguins. The stranger element is that it really feels like Miranda’s character wants to have sex with Mary Poppins. They slot him as a forced romantic option for Mortimer’s underwritten sister, but his eyes are clearly set for the woman who bosses people around and has magic in her fingers. He remembers her when he was a boy chimney sweep and I think he’s been fantasizing about her every day since. Plus, she hasn’t aged in 30 years.
Mary Poppins Returns is a bizarre artifact of a displaced time, taking great pains to recreate a style but without providing a purpose or sense of feeling beyond emulation. I don’t know who this movie is for besides the hardcore fans of the original. There are dancing dolphins, talking dogs, bathtub portals, an upside down house, flying balloons, union protests, Angelina Lansbury or an animatronic lookalike, and there’s lots of songs you will be unable to recall and a story that repeatedly removes any stakes or grounding from beneath itself so that the movie never feels firm or purposeful. There were several points where I just wanted to throw up my hands and ask, “What am I watching?” I still don’t know. Mary Poppins Returns is a movie musical that is nothing short of super-cali-fragil-awful.
Nate’s Grade: D+
Walking out of Brad Bird’s hotly anticipated sequel to The Incredibles, I was convinced there wouldn’t be a better-animated film for the rest of the calendar year. Then I saw Ralph Wrecks the Internet and felt the same conclusion. What could top these two incredible movies from Disney? I wasn’t expecting a parallel world Spider-Man animated film to contend with that heralded echelon, but after watching Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, I am now certain. This is the best-animated film of the year and one of the best films of the year, full stop. It’s rich, imaginative, exciting, satisfying, and way too much fun.
Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) is an ordinary teenager starting a new school he’s eager to leave. His police officer father, Jefferson Davis (voiced by Brian Tyree Henry), is pushing him and can be embarrassing. His cooler uncle Aaron (voiced by Mahershala Ali) encourages Miles to express himself through his graffiti art. One night, Miles encounters the famous Spider-Man, a particle collider, and a special spider from another dimension that bites him. He develops super powers and seeks out Peter Parker (voiced by Jake Johnson) as the only other person who might understand what he’s experiencing. Except there happens to be multiple Spider-laden heroes, including Spider Gwen, a.k.a. Gwen Stacy (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Pig (voiced by John Mulaney), Spider-Man Noir (voiced by Nicolas Cage), and an anime heroine Peni Parker with a giant spider robot friend. They’re all from alternate dimensions, dragged into Miles’ world thanks to Kingpin’s (voiced by Liev Schreiber) particle collider. If they don’t get back to their original worlds they’ll glitch out of existence, and Miles’ own world, and everyone inside it, is threatened by the instability of that collider.
Into the Spider-Verse is bursting with color, imagination, kinetic energy, and a real celebration of the art form of animation and comics. Once that super spider bites Miles, the visual mechanics of the movie alter as well as him. Suddenly his thoughts are louder and appear in floating boxes (only we can see), in addition to thought bubbles, sound effects, and the occasional panel shifting transition device. It gets far closer than Ang Lee’s Hulk at recreating the experience of a living comic, and it’s joyous. The animation style too recreates the cross-shading effect of comic artists and the fluidity of the animation has purposely removed frames, giving it a slight stutter-step more often found in stop-motion animation. This distinct style might be off-putting to certain audience members accustomed to the smooth movements of modern animation mimicking real life, but for comic fans, it better approaches the captured stills of comic panels being connected into a whole. The different animation styles of the new Spider characters, Looney Tunes to anime to stark noir Frank Miller riffs, become reminders of separate universes with their own visual rules that keep things fun. The film is vibrantly colorful and gorgeous to watch on the big screen where a person can best luxuriate in that flamboyant palette. The finale feels like an explosion of splash pages and graphic designs merging together, even mimicking the sprawling graffiti art of Miles. It’s a spectacular visual feast that manages to be that rare treat of something new yet familiar.
The action of Into the Spider-Verse is delightful when it’s comedic and thrilling when it’s serious, but at every turn its fun, well developed, and wonderfully rendered. Early on, as Miles learns the tricks of his new and confusing abilities, the action is wildly funny. Take for instance a sequence where he becomes attached to an unconscious Peter Parker through the Spider-Man webbing. Soon after, the police approach Miles, and now he has to make a break for it while still attached to another body, forcing him into a series of comic escapes. It’s highly spirited and filled with enjoyable jokes. Later, as Miles gets more centrally involved in Kingpin’s scheme, the action becomes harsher, more violent, and dangerous. A battle between Miles and The Prowler gets more and more extreme, especially after some twists an audience may or may not see coming depending upon their source material knowledge (this is a parallel universe, after all). The action is frenetic, inventive, and visually engaging, easy to follow and filled with wonderful organic complications that allow each scene to feel vital and different from the last.
Into the Spider-Verse is also brashly hilarious from beginning to end. Being co-written by the writers responsible for The Lego Movie and 22 Jump Street, I was expecting a combination of clever and antic, and that’s what they delivered and then some. There are brilliantly conceived and executed jokes but, and this is what separates the professionals, they do not distract from the larger work of the characterization. Often the humor is built through the characters, their personality and motivation differences, and the unique circumstances, so even when its zany it feels connected or grounded. There’s a silly joke about getting more bread from a waiter that works on multiple levels and they keep going back to it for further meaning, and it’s one example of many that shows the work put into their funny is meaningful and smart. After six movies and several animated series, audiences are well versed in the origin of Spider-Man, so Into the Spider-Verse even turns that knowledge into a source of humor itself, laying a formula for each new Spider character to introduce themselves with the same fill-in-the-blanks origin speech. The alternate universe Spider heroes do not overstay their welcome and, miraculously, even find themselves with some potent small character moments, which is an amazing feat given the 100-minute running time. The laboratory break-in with Peter Parker and Miles is a comic highlight with plenty of complications, and there’s a smart, sly joke about personal biases that just slides by nonchalantly that had me howling. The post-credit scene had me laughing so hard that I was crying. Please, I implore you, stick around for it and go out laughing with the biggest smile on your face.
Besides being a great comic book movie and a great action movie, Into the Spider-Verse is also just a great movie. The Spider-Man character is so familiar that the film easily could have gone on autopilot yet it puts in the work to build characters we care about, give them arcs, and provide setups and payoffs both big and small to maximize audience satisfaction. Miles is a terrific new character with a voice all his own, and his teenage foibles are both recognizable and refreshing. He’s a hero worth rooting for, and his more personal family issues can be just as compelling as the end-of-the-world adventures. That’s the core of what makes Spider-Man still an invigorating character 50 years later, and Into the Spider-Verse taps into that essential element even with an alternate universe Spider hero. It’s got the DNA of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s original creation and given a welcomed jolt of relevancy thanks to the onscreen racial diversity and youthful perspective.
There are two relationships at the core: Miles and his father and Miles and Peter Parker. The latter is an unexpected mentor/pupil relationship that provides the enjoyment of watching both members grow through their bond, and the former allows a familial baseline to come back to and demonstrate how far we’ve come. The Peter Parker/Miles relationship has that big brother/little brother angst that keeps things sharp while still maintaining an undercurrent of emotional need. There were genuine moments where my eyes welled up. The film can be that affecting because it is so well structured and developed from a characterization standpoint. Even the chief villain, the Kingpin, has a motivation that is personal and effectively empathetic. Everyone involved gets careful consideration, even the bad guys.
Let me cite one prime example that showcases how great the storytelling can be (minor spoilers). At one point, Miles is bound and gagged by the other heroes to prevent him from joining them in a dangerous activity they do not believe he is ready for. They’re removing him from the team for his own good. Then, at this low point, his father comes to visit him and tries talking to him through the other side of his dormitory door. They’ve had some challenging moments between them and what Mr. Davis has to say is extra challenging. He’s trying to connect with a son he feels he’s losing touch with, and it’s a one-sided conversation where Miles is unable to respond to his father’s pleas, who eventually walks away knowing his son is there but not ready to talk. Right there, the screenwriters have gone from the fantastic to the personal, finding a way to bring Miles even lower but in an organic fashion that plays right into his ongoing communication problems. It’s a simple moment to start with, standard even, but then having it contribute to the father/son estrangement is beautiful and handled so well. The sparkling screenplay for Into the Spider-Verse is packed with moments like this.
The voice acting is perfectly suited for their roles. Moore (The Get Down) is an expressive and capable young actor that brings a terrific vulnerability to Miles, selling every emotion with authenticity. Johnson (Tag) is the absolute best choice for a slacker Spider-Man who has become jaded and self-indulgent. His laid back rhythms gel nicely with Moore’s eager breathlessness. Henry (Widows) is so paternal it hurts your heart. Steinfeld (Bumblebee) is poised and enjoyably spry. Cage (Mandy) is doing everything you’d want a Nicolas Cage-voiced crime fighter to be. Schreiber (Ray Donovan) can be threatening in his sleep with that velvety voice of his. Plus you get Katheryn Hahn as a villain, Zoe Kravitz as Mary Jane, and Lily Tomlin as Aunt May, and they’re all great.
As the credits rolled for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, I tried searching my brain for any flaws, minor quibbles, anything that would hold the film back from an entertainment standpoint. The only thing I could think of is that animation style, but different people will either find that look appealing or irritating. This is a glorious and gloriously entertaining movie replete with humor, heart, surprises, payoffs, and a great creative energy that bursts from the big screen. This really is a movie to see on the big screen as well, to better feast on the eye-popping visuals and pop-art comic book aesthetics that leap from the page to the screen. It’s the second best Spidey movie, after 2017’s impeccably structured solo venture, Homecoming. The late addition of the other alternate universe Spider heroes keeps things silly even as it raises the stakes. The film is a wonderful blending of tones and styles, from the different characters and universes to the heartfelt emotions and vicarious thrills of being young and super powered. This is a movie that even Spider novices can climb aboard and fall in love with. Into the Spider-Verse is a film for fans of all ages and nothing short of the best animated film of 2018. It’s as good as advertised, folks.
Nate’s Grade: A