Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is, surprisingly, genuinely great. No kidding. It’s very very good. It’s been eleven years since the first Puss in Boots spinoff, and that itself was seven years after the character was introduced in 2004’s Shrek 2, and there hasn’t been a Shrek movie since the franchise-killing Forever After in 2010. I would have assumed that Dreamworks had just moved on from this character in the ensuing years, especially as How to Train Your Dragon became their big new commercial franchise, until they too ran that into the ground with 2019’s disappointing third film. I had little expectations of greatness once I heard there was a new Puss in Boots feature, even after I started hearing the growing critical consensus. Early in, only mere minutes, I realized that a Puss in Boots sequel was one of the best movies of 2022 and an exciting and heartfelt sequel that proves that with the right artists and storytellers, any old character can still have vibrant relevance. It’s a children’s movie that can appeal to everyone.
Puss (voiced by Antonio Banderas) is a famous adventurer, sword fighter, and lover of women, but he’s also nearing the end of a long journey. He’s used up his eight lives and is now on his ninth and last, and to escape Death, he sets out on a quest to retrieve a fallen star that will grant one person a wish. It just so happens there are a lot of other characters in this fairy tale kingdom that want to get there too.
It is amazing how hard this movie goes. In its opening sequence, it establishes its bold artistic style that enlivens every second onscreen, it establishes its caliber of exciting action that feels akin to wild comic books and anime, and an emphasis on mortality that provides a sense of danger and emotional foundation for what could have been just another shoddy animated sequel drafting off brand recognition. Let’s just focus on the animation style to begin with. I was expecting the same old CGI that has dominated the world of animation for twenty years, but The Last Wish has been clearly inspired by the greatness of 2018’s Into the Spider-Verse. There is a distinct 2D edge given to the designs, accenting the imagery, and during bouts of action they will lower the frame frate, making the movements much more stark and pronounced. Add to this a lovely, painterly watercolor visual style, more emphasis on the overall impression than finite definition, and the movie is a consistent feast for the eyes. There are stylized sequences that communicate fear and desperation, as well as sequences that exemplify the kinetic movement of superhuman action, smartly altering its visual appearance to better serve whatever emotion it wants you to feel. I hope more and more animation companies continue this magical hybrid of CGI and traditional animation techniques, as also seen in 2021’s The Mitchells vs. the Machines. It’s a great step forward combining the old and the new into a stylized look that allows the creators to make the best of both animation worlds.
The action is also satisfying and surprisingly well developed. The opening sequence involves Puss awakening a giant behemoth and it made me think of the exaggerated and intense action of anime series with giant kaiju monsters like in Attack on Titan. The camera will freely circle and zoom around the theater of action, heightened with exaggerated motion lines and split screens and POV swaps. I also love that the filmmakers understand the inherent qualities of what makes for good action, incorporating the personality of the characters into the situations, providing organic consequences, tailoring to the geography, and providing clear mini-goals. After introducing the secondary antagonist of greedy Jack Horner (John Mulaney), as well as Goldilocks (Florence Pugh) and the three bears (Ray Winstone, Olivia Coleman, Samson Kayo) “crimin’” gang, the movie transforms into a delightful and unexpected fantasy version of Midnight Run. There are multiple groups racing against one another to a destination, all the while jostling for supremacy and bumbling into one another’s way. It makes for a fun series of events as every group has their own reasons for gaining the wishing star. Because of this, their behavior feels in-character and the cross-purpose motivation allows for fun combinations of characters getting in the way of one another and utilizing the specifics of their fantasy character details. There was a midpoint sequence combining all sides in a colorful brawl, including unicorn horns exploding into confetti upon contact, and I just felt a surge of pure incandescent joy.
In yet another of the movie’s pleasant surprises, it has one of the best villains of the year as it deals with the concept of mortality with actual nuance. The main antagonist is literally Death itself, personified as a red-eyed, grinning bounty hunter wolf and voiced by Narcos’ Pablo Escobar, Wagner Moura with a menacing purr. This Wolf is after Puss because he’s now on his last life and the Wolf is personally offended at the idea of having multiple lives. Their first encounter makes Puss feel fear for perhaps the first time in his nine lives. In a morbidly amusing montage, we zip through Puss’ previous eight lives and specifically the moments leading to their comical end. He’s flippant with an unchecked ego, and Death seriously humbles him, being the first to ever land a blade on Puss in Boots, a detail he’d been bragging about even in song. From here, Puss is deathly afraid and the hairs of his body will stick up whenever he suspects the return of the Wolf, who certainly enjoys terrorizing his targets with an ominous whistle to announce his presence. So at a moment’s notice, the crazy and colorful hijinks can stop from hearing that familiar yet eerie whistle. In some ways, it’s a family-friendly depiction of working through trauma. The larger theme is Puss acknowledging his moral shortcomings with his many lives, the time wasted on frivolity and ego, and making the most of the time he has left. The need to re-up his lives is a fine starting motivation based upon fear, personified as trying to literally escape the scary wolf, but it’s also what makes Puss confront his own behavior and want to change as well as hold himself accountable.
The heartfelt portion of the movie is its emphasis on found families, and it was done so well that I actually teared up at points. Yes, dear reader, Puss in Boots 2 had me on the verge of tears more than once. Goldilocks is the leader of her gang of squabbling thieves, but she still views herself as an orphan first, whereas the bears view her as an equal and valued member of the family and crime gang. Even her character arc comes to a poignant conclusion where she realizes that her real family isn’t the one she comes from but the one who makes her feel that she belongs. This theme is also demonstrated with little Perrito (Harvey Guillen, What We Do in the Shadows TV series) as the adorable and undying optimist puppy sidekick. His selfless vantage point contrasts with Puss, and greatly annoys him, but Perrito also has his own goal. He wants to be a comfort dog, and one of the sweetest moments of the movie involves him helping Puss come back from a traumatic response through a shared moment. Even typing these words makes me tear up. The screenplay knows how to develop characters that can grow as friends and family and the drama is directly connected to well-honed characters and thoughtful story without being overly sentimental and maudlin, a slippery slope to doom many child-friendly animated efforts with messages.
Puss in Boots: The Last Wish does everything well. It’s funny and colorful and exciting and meaningful and heartfelt and everything you would want in any movie, let alone one featuring a talking cat swashbuckler in tiny boots. No matter your mixed feelings on Dreamworks animated movies, or their iffy sequels, or even children’s movies as a whole, I whole-heartedly recommend that everyone give this magical movie a fighting chance. The animation is gorgeous and vibrant and colorful, the vocal performances are terrific, the action is fun and well-developed, and the themes and character arcs have substance to provide meaningful layers and emotional heft. This is superior entertainment and all in about 90-some minutes. While I’d slot it below Guillermo del Toro’s masterful stop-motion Pinocchio, this is a wonderful movie and one of the best to ever bear the Dreamworks mantle. It’s the 2022 sequel you never knew that you needed but will be oh so happy that it rightly does.
Nate’s Grade: A-
The feature-length movie based upon the short stop-motion films about a mollusk in sneakers, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On might just be the most precious movie of the year. It’s set like a faux documentary where a lonely filmmaker discovers a magical inhabitant in his Air B&B, a very soft-spoken little guy with a heart much bigger than his actual size. Marcel (voiced by co-creator Jenny Slate) is looking for his lost family who were unknowingly absconded when the original couple who lived in the house broke up and gathered their things quickly before storming off. Dean (Dean Flesicher-Camp, also the movie’s director) records Marcel and his innocent little observations on life and the bigger world and posts the videos online, and Marcel becomes Internet famous, for good and bad. The plot of the movie is less important than its overall gentle nature. There’s not a lot that happens in the movie, but you dont mind because it’s really an 80-minute sit-down with Marcel. The entire movie is just so sweetly innocent that it’s hard to resist. It also has some bigger things to say about our place in the world as well as mortality. Marcel has a loving yet ailing grandmother shell (voiced by Isabella Rossellini) who is beginning to lose her lucidity, and it will hit home for anyone who has watching a loved one suffer from mental decline. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is a perfect little antidote for our modern cynical lives. It’s overwhelmingly adorable and wholesome and winsome and just plain cute.
Nate’s Grade: B
It seems 2022 has unexpectedly become the year of Pinocchio. The 1883 fantasy novel by Carlo Collodui (1826-1890) is best known via the classic Walt Disney animated movie, the second ever for the company, and it was Disney that released a live-action remake earlier in the year on their streaming service. Now widely available on Netflix is Guillermo del Toro’s stop-motion Pinocchio, so I wanted to review both films together but I was also presented with a unique circumstance. Both of these movies were adaptations of the same story, so the comparison is more direct, and I’ve decided to take a few cues from sports writing and break down the movies in a head-to-head competitive battle to see which has the edge in a series of five categories. Which fantastical story about a little puppet yearning to be a real boy will prove superior?
1. VISUAL PRESENTATION
The Netflix Pinocchio is a lovingly realized stop-motion marvel. It’s del Toro’s first animated movie and his style translates easily to this hand-crafted realm. There is something special about stop-motion animation for me; I love the tactile nature of it all, the knowledge that everything I’m watching is pain-stakingly crafted by artisans, and it just increases my appreciation. I fully acknowledge that any animated movie is the work of thousands of hours of labor and love, but there’s something about stop-motion animation that I just experience more viscerally. The level of detail in the Netflix Pinocchio is astounding. There is dirt under Geppetto’s fingernails, red around the eyes after crying, the folds and rolls of fabric, and the textures feel like you can walk up to the screen and run your fingers over their surfaces. I loved the character designs, their clean simplicity but able readability, especially the sister creatures of life and death with peacock feather wings, and the animation underwater made me question how they did what they did. del Toro’s imagination is not limited from animation but expanded, and there are adept camera movements that require even more arduous work to achieve and they do. I loved the life each character has, the fluidity of their movements, that they even animated characters making mistakes or losing their balance or acting so recognizably human and sprightly. There’s a depth of life here plus an added meta-textual layer about puppets telling the story about a puppet who was given life.
In contrast, the Disney live-action Pinocchio is harsh on the eyes. It’s another CGI smorgasbord from writer/director Robert Zemeckis akin to his mo-cap semi-animated movies from the 2000s. The brightness levels of the outside world are blastingly white, and it eliminates so much of the detail of the landscapes. When watching actors interact, it never overcomes the reality of it being a big empty set. The CGI can also be alarming with the recreation of the many animal sidekicks of the 1940 original. Why did Zemeckis make the pet goldfish look sultry? Why did they make Jiminy Cricket (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) look like a Brussel sprout come to life? It might not be the dead-eyed nightmare fuel of 2004’s The Polar Express, but the visual landscape of the movie is bleached and overdone, making everything feel overly fake or overly muddy and glum. The fact that this movie looks like this with a $150 million budget is disheartening but maybe inevitable. I suppose Zemeckis had no choice but to replicate the Pinocchio character design from 1940, but it looks remarkably out of step and just worse. When we have the 1940 original to compare to, everything in the 2022 remake looks garish or ugly or just wrong. The expressiveness of the hand-drawn animation is replaced with creepy-looking CGI animal-human hybrids.
Edge: Netflix Pinocchio
2. FATHER/SON CHARACTERIZATION
The relationship between Pinocchio (voiced by Gregory Mann) and Geppetto (David Bradley) is the heart of the Netflix Pinocchio, and I don’t mind sharing that it brought me to tears a couple of times. As much as the movie is about a young boy learning about the world, it’s also about the love of a father for a child. The opening ten minutes establish Geppetto’s tragedy with such surefooted efficiency that it reminded me of the early gut punch that was 2009’s Up. This Geppetto is constantly reminded of his loss and, during a drunken fit, he carved a replacement child that happens to come to life. This boy is very different from his last, and there is a great learning curve for both father and son about relating to one another. This is the heart of the movie, one I’ll discuss more in another section. With del Toro’s version, Geppetto is a wounded and hurting man, one where every decision is connected to character. This Pinocchio is a far more entertaining creature, a child of explosive energy, curiosity, and spitefulness. He feels like an excitable newborn exploring the way of the world. He’s so enthusiastic so quickly (“Work? I love work, papa!” “I love it, I love it!… What is it?”) that his wonder can become infectious. This Pinocchio also cannot die, and each time he comes back to life he must wait longer in a netherworld plane. It provides even more for Pinocchio to understand about loss and being human. This is a funny, whimsical, but also deftly emotive Pinocchio. He points to a crucifix and asks why everyone likes that wooden man but not him. He is an outsider learning about human emotions and morals and it’s more meaningful because of the character investment.
In contrast, the Disney live-action Pinocchio treats its title character as a simpleton. The problem with a story about a child who breaks rules and learns lessons by dealing with the consequences of his actions is if you have a character that makes no mistakes then their suffering feels cruel. This Pinocchio is simply a sweet-natured wannabe performer. He means well but he doesn’t even lie until a sequence requires him to lie to successfully escape his imprisonment. The relationship with Geppetto (Tom Hanks) is strange. This kindly woodcarver is a widower who also has buried a son, but he comes across like a doddering old man who is quick to make dad jokes to nobody (I guess to his CGI cat and goldfish and multitude of Disney-tie-in cuckoo clocks). I don’t know what Hanks is doing with this daffy performance. It feels like Geppetto lost his mind and became stir crazy and this performance is the man pleading for help from the town, from the audience, from Zemeckis. It’s perplexing and it kept me from seeing this man as an actual character. He bounces from catalyst to late damsel in distress needing saving. The relationship between father and son lacks the warmth of the Netflix version. Yet again, the live-action Pinocchio is a pale imitation of its cartoon origins with either main character failing to be fleshed out or made new.
Edge: Netflix Pinocchio
There are a few key themes that emerge over the near two-hours of the Netflix Pinocchio, which is the longest stop-motion animated film ever. Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor) repeats that he “tried his best and that’s the best anyone can do,” and the parallelism makes it sound smarter than it actually is. The actual theme revolves around acceptance and the burdens of love. Geppetto cannot fully accept Pinocchio because he’s constantly comparing him to Carlo. When he can fully accept Pinocchio for who he is, the weird little kid with the big heart and unique perspective, is when he can finally begin to heal over the wound of his grief over Carlo, allowing himself to be vulnerable again and to accept his unexpected new family on their own terms. There’s plenty of available extra applications here to historically marginalized groups, and del Toro is an avowed fan of freaks and outcasts getting their due and thumbing their nose at the hypocritical moral authorities. By setting his story in 1930s Italy under the fascist rule of Benito Mussolini, del Toro underlines his themes of monsters and scapegoats and moral hypocrites even better, and the change of scenery really enlivens the familiar story with extra depth and resonance. All these different people want something out of Pinocchio that he is not. Geppetto wants him to strip away his individuality and be his old son. Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz) wants Pinocchio to be his dancing minion and secure him fame and fortune. Podesta (Ron Perlman) wants Pinocchio as the state’s ultimate soldier, a boy who cannot die and always comes back fighting. When Pinocchio is recruited to train for war with the other young boys to better serve the fatherland’s nationalistic aims, it’s a far more affecting and unsettling experience than Pleasure Island, which is removed from this version. In the end, the movie also becomes a funny and touching exploration of mortality from a magic little child. The Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton), this version of the Blue Fairy, says she only wanted to grant Geppetto joy. “But you did,” he says. “Terrible, terrible joy.” The fleeting nature of life, as well as its mixture of pain and elation, is an ongoing theme that isn’t revelatory but still feels impressively restated.
I don’t know what theme the Disney live-action movie has beyond its identity as a product launch. I suppose several years into the Disney live-action assembly line I shouldn’t be surprised that these movies are generally listless, inferior repetitions made to reignite old company IP. For a story about the gift of life, the Disney Pinocchio feels so utterly lifeless. I thought the little wooden boy was meant to learn rights and wrongs but the movie doesn’t allow Pinocchio to err. He’s an innocent simpleton who gets taken advantage of and dragged from encounter to encounter like a lost child. The Pleasure Island sequence has been tamed from the 1940s; children are no longer drinking beer or smoking cigars. They’re gathered to a carnival and then given root beer and told to break items and then punished for this entrapment. The grief Geppetto feels for his deceased loved ones is played out like a barely conceived backstory. He’s just yukking it up like nothing really matters. By the end, when he’s begging for Pinocchio to come back to life, you wonder why he cares. If you were being quite generous, you might be able to uncover themes of acceptance and understanding, but they’re so poorly developed and utilized. That stuff gets in the way of Pinocchio staring at a big pile of horse excrement on the street, which if you needed a summative visual metaphor for the adaptation, there it is.
Edge: Netflix Pinocchio
4. EMOTIONAL STAKES
One of these movies made me cry. The other one made me sigh in exasperation. The Netflix Pinocchio nails the characterization in a way that is universal and accessible while staying true to its roots, whereas the Disney live-action film feels like a crudely packaged remake on the assembly line of soulless live-action Disney remakes. By securing my investment early with Geppetto’s loss, I found more to relish in the layers of his relationship with Pinocchio. In trying to teach him about the world, Geppetto is relying upon what he started with his past son, and there are intriguing echoes that lead to a spiritual examination. Pinocchio is made from the tree from the pinecone that Carlo chased that lead to his death. Pinocchio hums the tune that Geppetto sang to Carlo. Is there something more here? When he visits Death for the first time, the winged creature remarks, “I feel as though you’ve been here before.” These little questions and ambiguity make the movie much more rewarding, as does del Toro’s ability to supply character arcs for every supporting player. Even the monkey sidekick of the villain gets their own character arc. Another boy desperately desires his stern father’s approval, and he’s presented as a parallel for Pinocchio, another son trying to measure up to his father’s demands. Even this kid gets meaningful character moments and an arc. With this story, nobody gets left behind when it comes to thoughtful and meaningful characterization. It makes the movie much more heartwarming and engaging, and by the end, as we get our poignant coda jumping forward in time and serving as multiple curtain calls for our many characters, I was definitely shedding a flurry of tears. Hearing Geppetto bawl, “I need you… my boy,” to the lifeless body of Pinocchio still breaks me. Under del Toro’s compassionate lens, everyone is deserving of kindness.
As should be expected by now, the Disney live-action movie is lackluster at best when it comes to any kind of emotional investment. The characters stay as archetypes but they haven’t been personalized, so they merely remain as grubby facsimiles to what we recall from the 1940 version. Jiminy Cricket is meant as Pinocchio’s conscience but he vacillates from being a nag to being a smart aleck who even breaks the fourth wall to argue with his own narration. I hated every time he called the main character “Pee-noke” and he did it quite often. He’s far more annoying than endearing. There’s also a wise-cracking seagull that is just awful. The Honest John (Keegan Michael-Key) character is obnoxious, and in a world with a talking fox who dresses in human clothing, why would a “living puppet” be such a draw? He even has a joke about Pinocchio being an “influencer.” The only addition I liked was a coworker in Stromboli’s traveling circus, a former ballerina who injured herself and now gets to live out her dancing dreams by operating a marionette puppet. However, the movie treats the puppet like it’s a living peer to Pinocchio and talks directly to the puppet rather than the human operating the puppet, and the camera treats her like she’s the brains too. Safe to say, by the end when Pinocchio magically revives for whatever reason, just as he magically reverted from being a donkey boy, I was left coldly indifferent and more so just relieved that the movie was finally over.
Edge: Netflix Pinocchio
This was one area where I would have assumed the Disney live-action film had an advantage. Its signature banger, “When You Wish Upon a Star,” became the de facto Disney theme song and plays over the opening title card for the company. It’s still a sweet song, and Cynthia Erivo (Harriet) is the best part of the movie as the Blue Fairy. It’s a shame she only appears once, which is kind of negligent considering she sets everything in motion. The Netflix Pinocchio is also a musical and the songs by Alexandre Desplat (The Shape of Water) are slight and low-key, easy to dismiss upon first listen. However, the second time I watched the movie, the simplicity as a leitmotif really stood out, and I noticed the melody was the foundation for most other songs, which created an intriguing interconnected comparison. While nothing in the Netflix Pinocchio comes close to being the instantly humable classic of “When You Wish Upon a Star,” the songs are more thoughtful and emotionally felt and not just repeating the hits of yore, so in the closest of categories, I’m going to say that Netflix’s Pinocchio wins by a nose (pun intended).
Edge: Netflix Pinocchio
One of these Pinocchio movies is a visual marvel, heartfelt and moving, wondrous, and one of the best films of 2022. The other is a hollow vessel for corporate profit that copies the imprint of the 1940 animated film but only more frantic, scatalogical, and confused. In the year of our lord Pinocchio Two Thousand and Twenty-Two, there is only one movie you should see, and at this point ever see as it concerns this old tale. Guillermo del Toro has harnessed magic, and we are all the better for his bayonet imagination and enormous heart for his fellow outsiders.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio: A
2022 Pinocchio: C-
After two years and three movies sent straight to Disney’s burgeoning streaming service, Pixar returns with a theatrical movie that taps back to the very beginnings of this storied storytelling company. We’re told, via opening text, that Lightyear was Andy’s favorite movie and thus the reason he was so excited to bring home a Buzz Lightyear action figure in the first Toy Story. However, if this is Andy’s “favorite movie,” then this kid needs to be exposed to more movies. It’s an acceptable sci-fi story about Buzz (voiced by Chris Evans) learning the value of others and that being vulnerable is not the same as being weak. He’s a space ranger stranded on an alien world. Every time he attempts to restart their fuel system, it jumps him forward in time four years, and soon enough he’s a man out of time and those stranded have built a colony civilization over 100 years. There’s a band of misfits, who aren’t terribly funny, and some laser fights and action sequences, which aren’t terribly exciting, and the third act twist is predictable. The animation is top-notch, but the storytelling is definitely a few notches below infinity and beyond. What astounds me is that Andy could watch this movie and want a Buzz toy instead of the real breakout, the robotic cat Sox (voiced by Peter Sohn) who is wonderfully droll. I cannot fathom anyone watching this movie and desiring owning another character above this delightful supporting character. This movie makes me think a little less of Andy as a discerning arbiter of pop-culture zeitgeist. Lightyear is fine as escapist entertainment but too facile and inessential to the Toy Story universe.
Luck is the first animated feature from Skydance, a production company that entered the animated realm by hiring former Pixar head John Lasseter as their chief creative executive. In some ways, Luck feels reminiscent of early Pixar movies, exploring the “secret life of” those in charge of dictating the forces of luck. The problem with Luck is that it is overwritten and overburdened with world building that crushes the emotional core. We follow a young woman aging out of the foster system and she’s been besieged with bad luck all her life. She follows a talking cat and discovers a hidden world where workers mine luck crystals and have lucky pennies as portal generators and there’s a dragon, for some reason, as the CEO of Good Luck, and to get back home she needs to team up with the cat to find a thing, but to find that thing they need to go to a place, but to go to that place they need to – and you get it. The plot is overworked with a chain of tasks that explain more of this world’s mechanics without connecting to the emotional journey of the character, like in 2015’s Inside Out. I was amazed that this woman lacks even a shred of bitterness about her own trenchant bad luck. There’s a nice message about accepting the bad with the good in life, and how both are opportunities for growth, but I kept wondering why our hero didn’t once lash out at those responsible. I’m also a little hesitant about using whether a little girl will be stood up by her potential new foster family as the stakes of completing the good luck reset goal. That seems pretty heavy for wackiness. The animation isn’t quite at the level of Pixar, or the best of Dreamworks, but it’s colorful and bright even if lacking more advanced lighting and texture. Luck lacks enough gravitas and development to really appeal to adults but it’s also probably too busy and convoluted to entertain small kids.
Even though it’s based on a popular series of children’s books, if you’ve seen Zootopia, you’ve seen the better version of The Bad Guys. As far as entertainment aimed at the wee ones, you can certainly do worse. It’s brisk, silly, and the animation is quite enjoyable, adding hand-drawn overlays and accents that really make the images pop and provide additional, gratifying textures. The story, on the other hand, is the same old-same old. We have a group of “scary animals” in a world where anthropomorphized creatures walk side-by-side with humans. These spooky creatures get a bad rap because people fear them, so they lean into social prejudices and become a notorious criminal gang. Except now they might want to go good because being good feels better than being bad. Thematically, it’s the same territory that Zootopia trod and with better world-building. We have “bad animals” that are tired of being looked as bad because people wrongly interpret them as scary threats. It’s the predator/prey dynamic but without the depth. Having an all-animal heist crew provides some creative entertainment and Ocean’s 11-style moments of frothy fun; I especially enjoyed that the giant shark is the team’s master of disguise and always very obvious. The character arcs, supposed betrayals, redemption, and plot should be familiar and predictable, which means much of the movie must coast on the appeal of the animation, vocal actors, and general sense of humor. The comedy can be amusing but too often falls upon cheap gags, like the piranha’s defining trait of being a nervous farter. The Bad Guys is suitable for animation aficionados, fans of the book series, and people who have never seen Zootopia, and if that’s you, then just watch Zootopia.
Nate’s Grade: C+
It’s fair to start to wonder whether Disney has some kind of grudge against Pixar at this time. The last three Pixar movies have been pulled from theatrical release and made exclusively available as part of their streaming war chest with Disney Plus. You can blame COVID for Soul being pulled, and the theatrical market was still recovering by the time Luca was scheduled to be released during the middle of summer 2021, but this didn’t stop Disney from releasing both of its own in-house animated efforts to theaters. Both Raya and the Last Dragon and Encanto played in theaters in 2021 and both under-performed at the box-office, which is clearly not close to where it was pre-pandemic. No animated movie has earned over $100 million at the U.S. box-office since COVID, and maybe that’s the reason that Turning Red has become the third Pixar movie to go directly to streaming. There are rumors that this trend has been demoralizing for Pixar employees, and explanations by Disney brass that these movies move valuable subscribers to their service, but I guess we’ll see when the Buzz Lightyear movie comes out summer 2022. Regardless, Turning Red is a high quality movie that made me feel warm and fuzzy all over.
Meilin Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) is a 12-year-old student trying to live her best life in Toronto circa 2002. That means she’s one way with her friends and one way with her domineering mother, Ming (Sandra Oh). Mei is an overachieving student, devoted daughter to her family’s business caring for a Chinese temple honoring their ancestors and red pandas, and a fangirl in the extreme for the popular boy band, 4-Town (even though there are five members). Mei’s mother does not approve of her devotion to this band, or the influence of her friends, and doesn’t understand the new person her daughter is turning into. However, Mei also happens to turn into a giant red panda whenever she feels any strong emotion. She has to keep herself in check, which is hard to do with mean students, an embarrassing mother, and the prospect of scrounging up enough money so she and her three besties can see their favorite boy band live.
I had to consider what about Turning Red worked for me and what about Luca did not. They’re both relatively smaller scale movies about characters who transform into fantastical creatures, who have to hide their secret, deal with parental disapproval, and come of age while pushing their personal boundaries and re-examining who they are and what they felt was important. There are several points of comparison but I found Luca to be broadly lackluster and low in stakes. With Turning Red, I found the movie to be much more engaging and poignant. So what’s the difference where one feels shallow and the other feels personal and resonant? I think the difference is that Turning Red’s relationships feel more realized and complex. The mother-daughter dynamic is fraught with tension, as trying to live up to the standards of the prior generation is often a surefire way to disappointment. That stuff is relatable, and the drama is potent, but the movie doesn’t lose sight of the generational love underneath all the headaches. Both movies are in essence about growing up and finding your identity, relishing different parts of you that stand out as unique, and coming to terms with differences in perception, but I felt with Turning Red that the film embraced these themes, integrated them better, and also built a sturdier foundation of enriched character relationships.
The animation is irrepressibly gorgeous but I really enjoyed the added style of Turning Red. It had a more tactile physical presence that reminded me of the Aardman models (Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run). The color balance also emphasized bright colors that popped with subdued hues as a background. I especially enjoyed playful little touches from anime that emphasized the overly dramatic nature of the personal stakes, like when Mei is sweating over whether her mom will find her notebook filled with pictures of a crush that she felt compelled to draw. There’s a definite energy to this movie that’s missing from plenty of other Pixar movies. It follows the perspective of its heroine, so it’s joyfully excitable and goofy at points and definitely over-the-top, like when she’s calling out her besties and we flash to a rotating mountain they’re all triumphantly scaling. It’s adopted her perspective in a way that makes the movie feel more personable, and I appreciated Mei’s character even more. Special credit should go to whoever was in charge of designing the fur textures for the red panda. When she fully panda’s out, Mei resembles a wonderfully realized version of a Totoro-styled demigod.
It was the third act where Turning Red went from amusing to surprisingly poignant for me. The central conflict is between Mei trying to be herself and the version her mother thinks she should be, which is naturally more deferential and devoted to the family at the expense of independence. This isn’t the first story to explore the difference between traditional families and their children becoming more influenced by Western pop-culture. It’s also not the first story about finding your voice and making a stand, or about parents coming to terms with the realization that their little kid isn’t so little any more. That’s fine. The supernatural elements are also pretty straightforward to follow and in service of the central relationships and metaphors. It’s the personal details that make this movie feel specific to its voice while still being accessible and relatable. It’s easy to cringe when Mei’s mother shares Mei’s private drawings with her fleeting crush. While many of us might not have been diehard fans of a boy band, we all had some phase where we felt more mature, more grown up, and dramatically different because of what this interest meant for us. I found myself battling genuine tears by the end. The end comes down to a conflict between mother and daughter, itself an echo of past conflicts, of overbearing generations being less flexible. It’s also ultimately about acceptance, but the idea that the aspects about yourself that you feel embarrassed or insecure about do not need to be expunged from your identity I think is a worthwhile message about growing up. It’s not about shedding parts of yourself, killing off things you dislike. It’s more about transformation and acceptance of self.
Turning Red is a briskly paced comedy with a precise, charismatic lead character letting us in on the pressures of her world and of being a teenage girl in the early twentieth century. It’s colorful and frenetic at points but feels completely in keeping with the personality of our plucky protagonist. The combination of puberty and monster transformation has been a ripe area for films especially in the realm of horror. This also might be the horniest Pixar movie to date, and a climactic confrontation involves shaking one’s butt, as they kids are wont to do in leisure. It’s got the substance I felt was missing with Luca and the simplified and streamlined world building that I felt could have improved Soul. In short, Turning Red isn’t top-tier Pixar but it’s an irresistible urban fantasy that has plenty of heart and whimsy to enchant audiences no matter the age.
Nate’s Grade: B+
No more and no less than exactly what you’re expecting, Rumble is a giant monsters wrestling movie that’s cute enough to entertain young kids and pass the time agreeably and not much more. The world isn’t exactly fleshed out and the characters are very archetypal and the plot is entirely predictable, but I found it mostly fun and low-level escapism. It’s nothing that will wrestle with the better animated films of the year, but if you have little ones that are fans of wrestling or giant monsters then that might be enough to keep their attention for 90 minutes.
Nate’s Grade: C+
2021 has been quite a year for Lin-Manuel Miranda who has provided the musical accompaniment to three movies, Vivo, In the Heights, and now Encanto, Disney’s latest animated musical (Miranda also has the live-action Little Mermaid, though that’s 2023). It would be unfair to expect a generation-defining Hamilton-esque masterpiece every time Miranda sets pen to paper; I’d happily settle for even a lesser Moana, as far as quality goes (to be fair, Moana is also brilliant). With Encanto, the musical numbers have interesting tone/melody shifts and the hip-hop syncopation we’re used to from Miranda’s style, but none of them will be able to be hummed by the end credits. They evaporate from memory pretty quickly. They seem on par with Vivo and less than In the Heights. With that being said, I found the remainder of Encanto to be quite charming and emotionally resonant. It’s set in Columbia and follows a magic home to a magic family where at a certain age the children are blessed with a unique magic power with a ceremony and celebration. Except for Mirabel (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz) who was denied a power and is looked at with skepticism by her Abuela, who insists on sticking to their family traditions no matter if her children and grandchildren chafe from her expectations. This is a much more insular and contained musical, almost taking place entirely on the family grounds. Its great quest is much more about repairing family relationships and actually listening to another person rather than making assumptions about their life because of their status. Because of this story design, it leads to plenty of catharsis and reconciliation, and it made me blubber like a baby at points. I bought into the emotional stakes of the family, of Mirabel feeling like an outsider, and the pressure to conform. I enjoyed that near everyone in this extended family gets a chance to share their own perspective. The story felt very empathetic to its supporting players while still remembering to be entertaining and funny. The conclusion feels a bit rushed, with happy endings being doled out rather hastily, but quite satisfying. I found Encanto to be colorful, rich in feeling and theme, and delightful to experience. Also, the animated short with the raccoons beforehand hit me hard too.
Nate’s Grade: B+
For a generation of millennials, those of us who came of age in the 1990s, Space Jam has miraculously accrued a nostalgic fixation. Michael Jordan starred alongside cartoon favorites and we all learned valuable lessons about teamwork. The soundtrack also, as the kids say, slapped, with that titular banger welcoming us to the jam and the R. Kelly eponymous ballad, “I Believe I Can Fly.” Flash forward 25 years, and a new basketball superstar is looking to relaunch the franchise and reinvigorate the Looney Tunes pals for a new generation. Lebron James plays a fictionalized version of himself struggling to connect with one of his sons. He wants the boy to take basketball seriously but worries about his commitment and thinks video games, the child’s true passion, are a distraction for him. He and his son get sucked into the “server-verse” of Warner Bros. studios thanks to an angry A.I. (Don Cheadle) who just wants respect. The scornful A.I. challenges Lebron to a basketball game while tempting Lebron’s son to the dark side. Lebron teams up with Bugs Bunny to reunite the classic Tunes to put together a winning team.
This movie is clearly not intended for adults but at the same time it feels engineered from their references. Are children going to understand William Shatner impressions? Parodies of The Matrix, or Mad Max: Fury Road, or Casablanca? To that end, I question if we’ve come to a point in popular entertainment where the Looney Tunes characters have been eclipsed. When I grew up, cable television, let alone channels devoted to entertaining children, were just beginning in the 1980s, so I did grow up with classic cartoons from decades prior. I knew about Bugs and Daffy and Tom and Jerry and Hannah Barbara and the old guard. Modern American children have grown up with a generation of original cartoons and programming and I would argue they have more nostalgic reverence for shows like The Fairly Odd Parents, Gumball, and other popular Cartoon Network originals. I strongly doubt that the majority of the movie’s stated target audience, children, have any emotional investment or recognition for the old Looney Tunes characters. Perhaps the entire Space Jam sequel is designed to reignite interest in a certain younger demographic, and this wouldn’t surprise me as its real source for existence. To be fair, the original 1996 Space Jam was created to sell sneakers, so it’s not like this is out of step for the franchise’s integrity.
The conception of this movie is less about Lebron James interacting with the classic Looney Tunes characters than Lebron James being the spokesman for a catalogue of Warner Bros. intellectual property (IP). What children are sitting around saying, “I can’t wait to interact with all my favorite Warner properties?” Children do not think like this, they don’t segregate into tribes for different corporate masters. They like what they like and don’t think about whether its corporate parentage is with Disney or Viacom or whatever. Space Jam: A New Legacy feels less like a story or even a movie and more like a catalogue launch for the Warner Bros. gift shop (get your Grandma Matrix sweaters just in time for the fourth movie coming out these holidays!).
The intermingling of different worlds and properties can be done, see The Lego Movie, but more needs to be done other than transporting characters into a world they do not belong. Watching Granny perform moves from The Matrix isn’t funny because what is even being set up for comedy? It’s not a tweaking or commentary on the original, nor is there any recognizable comedy angle; it’s what Family Guy typically does – repeating the scenarios but with different faces. There is a key difference between reference and parody (a point I have discussed at EXTENSIVE LENGTH in my reviews of the very bad Friedberg and Seltzer spoofs). Nobody cares that much about these characters that just seeing them in a different environment is enough. Watching Wile E. Cayote as one of the War Boys in Fury Road is not enough, and I absolutely adore that movie and consider it an instant classic, but if I wanted to just watch Fury Road, I would gladly just watch Fury Road (they do not even call it “Furry Road,” come on!).
By far, the most confounding part of this new Space Jam is the decision-making process over what IP should be included and what should be excluded. I would be fascinated to watch a documentary series just on the creative clashes with studio execs. There are some bizarre choices selected to attend the culminating basketball game as rowdy spectators. I can understand memorable figures like King Kong, Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, the Iron Giant, and the Scooby Doo van. Those are immediately recognizable for modern-day children. However, why is Jim Carey’s Mask character there? Why is the grotesque Danny DeVito version of the Penguin there? Why is the Night King from Game of Thrones there? Why is Pennywise the Clown, a vicious and frightening character, there? Why are the droogs from A Clockwork Orange there? Who is that supposed to appeal to? Why would anyone in their right mind include a gang best known for wanton violence and rape to be faces in the crowd to cheer on a basketball game? It would be akin to taking the hillbillies who rape Ned Beatty in Deliverance and placing them side-by-side with cartoons for a movie intended for children. If the droogs and Pennywise made the cut, what inappropriate characters from the vaults of Warner Bros. were denied? This fascinates me.
I also have problems when Bugs and the other Tunes step into the third dimension. Characters that were intended for two-dimensions always look awkward when transported into a three-dimensional realm. It was a smart move keeping the cartoons as their standard hand-drawn selves in the original Space Jam. When the big basketball game commences, the Tunes and James are pulled into three dimensions and the characters do not look good. The circumference of their heads and how it relates to their mouths moving looks all wrong. Bugs looks like a Mylar birthday balloon that has somehow gained sentience. This extra step is likely meant to appeal to modern-day audiences who have turned their noses on more traditional hand-drawn animation in feature films (Tangled and Frozen began as 2-D animated films before going to 3-D). It’s another curious case meant to modernize the Looney Tunes and appeal to a younger demo, and yet it runs counter to so much more of the programming choices and contradictory decision-making.
Is Space Jam: A New Legacy a good movie? Quite simply, no, but then by objective standards neither was the original Space Jam. Lebron James may still be trailing his Airness in a few more NBA records but King James has more natural charisma and acting ability than Jordan who settled as straight man/pitch man. There is an occasional joke that earned a laugh from me, the best being the bait-and-switch reveal of Michael Jordan returning to the Tune Squad, which also seems to imply that Sylvester the cat is kind of racist. I liked Lil’ Rel. Congrats also to the filmmakers for bringing back Lola Bunny, having her voiced by Zendaya, and realizing she can just be a lady bunny good at playing basketball. The original Lola Bunny was hyper sexualized and I’ve already read too many comments from dregs on the Internet upset this new rabbit doesn’t make them feel funny in their pants (“IF I CANNOT OBJECTIFY THIS CARTOON RABBIT, THEN WHY AM I EVEN WATCHING A MOVIE INTENDED FOR CHILDREN?”). The moral or message is pretty simple about accepting others for who they are and not how you demand, which is weirdly exemplified in a cross-generational conflict where Lebron will not allow his son to play video games because his coach growing up thought they were a waste of time. As if he’s only allowed to play basketball with every waking and sleeping second of his existence. Lebron grew up in the late 90s when video games were mainstream and great. His son is an obvious game design prodigy, but it will take him the whole movie to see.
Feeling like the unholy IP orgies that were Ready Player One and The Emoji Movie, the Space Jam sequel (or reboot) feels more like a catalogue launch or a streaming channel opening its vast archives for ready-made consumer consumption. There are several moments where I just shrugged and said to myself, “Well, that happened,” like Granny doing her fancy Matrix moves or Porky Pig battle rapping. I think the idea of Lebron helping the classic Looney Tunes characters in another wacky edition of basketball would have made for a suitable children’s movie. The original only focuses on the Looney Tunes and gets by. For whatever reason, the studio execs insisted to the six credited screenwriters (pity them all, and the sixty un-credited) that this serve not as a franchise relaunch but as a corporate portfolio branding showcase. The movie gets lost in the shuffle from all the haphazard and contradictory impulses to see this through, turning from the game of basketball into decades-past-their-prime Austin Powers jokes. Regardless, Space Jam: A New Legacy is less new and more everything Warner Bros. owns the rights to in the past that they would like to remind you about. Watch it all now on HBO MAX, folks!
Nate’s Grade: C-
Final Fantasy is an exciting venture in the history of animation. It’s the second video game to be turned into a feature film this summer, though exponentially better than Tomb Raider. It took the makers of Final Fantasy four years and the creation of new technology to capture what will be a benchmark in animation for years to come.
The story concerns a future Earth where aliens have crashed and invaded long ago. These “phantoms” are slightly invisible energy creatures of different size and roam around various areas with the ability to suck the life force or soul from a human being. General Hein (James Woods) is trying to convince the Earth council to allow him to fire a satellite called the Zeus Cannon to obliterate the alien menace. In opposition to Hein is Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) who believes with his adventurous pupil Aki Ross (Ming-Na) that the Zeus Cannon will obliterate the “spirit” of Earth. Their solution it to collect eight spirits in whatever forms they might be including plants and small animals to gather together and… do something that will send the alien life force repelling.
Now I know Hein is supposed to be the bad guy as he’s a military man complete with the evil looking black leather cloak, but I couldn’t help but find myself agreeing with his logic. He wants to use something that has already been proven to kill the aliens whereas these two new age scientists want to collect a bunch of plants and animals and have their collective spirits ward off the interplanetary menace. I’d stand in my chair and say thank you to Hein when he dismisses the doctor’s plot. I know that Aki and Sid are the heroes and of course whatever theories they have will be proven true, but hell, I found myself agreeing more with General Hein than these two.
Complicating matters Aki is infected with a piece of the alien phantom that is slowly taking control over her body. Along in her quest to discover the final spirits is aided by a military commander Grey (Alec Baldwin) and his company of men. Turns out Grey and Aki are former sweethearts, so of course expect them to reconcile before the end credits.
The plot consists of something that could be an average episode on Star Trek: Voyager but does meander along at times. The dialogue is typical sci-fi buzzwords like “Fire in the hole” “The perimeter’s been breached” and the sort. Final Fantasy does have great excitement to it and some terrific action sequences better than most anything this summer. The ending is a disappointment as all the action hinges on two globs of energy propelled against one another. Globs or energy are not exciting. I thought we would have learned this by now.
Final Fantasy is a landmark in animation. Never has so much detail been put into a movie and pulled off so amazingly well. To the nit-pickers out there the animation isn’t exactly the Holy Grail of photo-realism, but it’s closer than anything ever before. At times the characters come off as too plasticy (like Jude Law in A.I.) and tend to move too much, notwithstanding that their mouths don’t always follow the words coming out of them. Put aside these small grievances and what you have is stunning animation that makes one constantly forget it is animation. There are numerous moments of eerie precision like when a character’s nostril flares and their nose scrunches up in response, and the movement of every one of Aki’s 60,000 strands of gorgeous hair, to even a kiss between two characters. Even inanimate objects like a crumbled wall, a glass of alcohol, or a gun and its rounds are given startling accuracy. Backgrounds and scenic vistas are beautifully rendered with great care. There has been nothing ever like Final Fantasy before and it is the first movements toward an exciting area in animation.
The discussion must be raised can actors be phased out by computers now and will they ever? No, never. Actors can portray nuances that computers will never be able to master. Despite some actors best attempts to prove otherwise, we will always need actors. Now that you have the near photo realism one might be led to question what is the greatness of creating a fully realistic looking CGI tree when one can just be shot on film for millions of dollars cheaper. The all CGI world will not replace the real world of film making.
The mediocre story can be excused by the awe-inspiring animation. Despite the clunker of a plot Final Fantasy is entirely enjoyable because it always gives the viewer something to sit in wonder and take in. There’s always something to mesmerize the eyes on screen.
Nate’s Grade: B
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
There was a time where the world wondered whether 2001’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was going to put actors out of business. The Columbia/Sony animated feature, the first the studio released theatrically since the second Care Bears Movie, was a big technological leap. Square Studios, the makers behind the extremely popular video game RPG series, opened a new studio stationed in Hawaii to enter the realm of Hollywood, and they devoted four years and countless hours of processing to create photo-realistic visuals. This was still at the dawn of CGI animated features taking over the landscape and the leap was impressive. None other than Roger Ebert wrote in his review that he considered the movie a milestone along the lines of the first talkies. Before its release, there was scuttlebutt whether or not this was the wave of the future and actors would be replaced with computer versions, never mind that vocal actors were still being employed. The lead “actor,” Aki, was depicted in a swimsuit on a Maxim cover as an icky promotion. The 2002 movie S1mone satirizes this concept further, with Al Pacino fed up with temperamental industry actors so he secretly uses a photo-realistic computer program instead.
I don’t really know why people got so worried. There are nuances that humans can convey that machines cannot, but even beyond that distinction, it’s simply a lot cheaper to hire an actor, put a costume on them, and record them than to build a model from scratch in a computer and toil for hours just to get the right look of the character raising an eyebrow. The listed budget for Spirits Within is $137 million, though has been rumored to be as high as $170 million (even more than Waterworld). For reference, the budgets of other 2001 movies include $125 million for the first Harry Potter, $93 million for Jurassic Park 3, $100 million for the Tim Burton Planet of the Apes, and $93 million for The Fellowship of the Ring. Even if you view Spirits Within as paving the way for motion-capture animated movies, the kind Robert Zemeckis spent a decade of his career slaving over, even those were eventually deemed too expensive for their returns. I think we can, at least for the time being, put this question to rest. Beyond the complexity that real actors can bring to performances, there’s the ease and cost that cannot be beat by a computer. Maybe in time this will change but for now rest easy Tom Hanks. You’re not going anywhere.
Twenty years later, the animation that once inspired awe now feels dated and surpassed. That’s the nature of the speed of technological advancement; even the company had to redesign scenes from the movie as they finished because the tech improved dramatically over the four-year development process. The visuals of the movie have become the norm for modern-day video games. There are aspects of the animation that are missing or just unable to be fully formed at the time. The faces look too slick and plastic, absent grooves and pores and imperfections that provide texture to people’s faces. The human appendages move like rubber. The hair seems to flow like it’s captured from a bouncy shampoo ad (apparently a fifth of the processing power went to animate the lead heroine’s 60,000 follicles). The character’s mouths look to be wired shut and unable to articulate their words. From a 2021 standpoint, the animation looks more like an extended video game cut scene from late 2000s. Its innovation has become commonplace.
It should be no surprise that the script went through numerous rewrites. All the attention for Sony and Square was on the technical achievements and much less so on the story, which I guess they assumed would come together at some point. The project began with the Final Fantasy writers coming up with the initial plot, which would make sense until you realize the RPG fantasy series isn’t known for its sense of realism or cohesion. The plot of Spirits Within is not very in keeping with the more fantastical Final Fantasy series world. Screenwriter Jeff Vintar (I, Robot) was asked to read the script because the studio reportedly did not understand the project at all. His analysis was that they should completely start from scratch. The studio asked if he wanted to rewrite the script and gave him three weeks. His words were translated from English to Japanese and then back into English, which left something lost in translation a couple times over.
It’s surprising that the movie is even slightly coherent with everything it’s been through. It’s still a mess of a plot, with aliens having crashed onto Earth and made parts of the planet uninhabitable by their presence. They’re also revealed to be ghosts. So… alien ghosts. And there are eight horcruxes, I mean, um, spirits that need to be found to… something. The screenplay, under all of its laborious mutations, is really about a military team and a pair of scientists collecting MacGuffins and trying to use dreams to thwart a fascist from using a doomsday laser. It is simultaneously overly simplistic and overly complicated and quite silly. The villain, voiced by James Woods, even gets the full Nazi wardrobe but his viewpoint seems logical considering he’s pitted against scientists saying they need to break through to the “spirit of the Earth.” It’s hard to take their claims and wild speculation seriously in this more realistic world. Apparently, there was a plot development where Aki was revealed to be pregnant and her unborn child was the eighth and final spirit needed. You can still see its place in the plot. Reportedly, this storyline was cut because it was deemed “too Japanese” and I have no idea what that means.
The real reason to ever watch The Spirits Within has come and gone. It’s now a footnote in animation history and a mild curiosity at best. I suppose you can still try and think how cool everything must have been to experience in 2001, and then your mind will wander because the nonsensical story will do little to hold your attention. It was such a financial disaster that Square Studios closed down and the company went back to focusing on video games full time with the occasional CGI direct-to-DVD movie (2004’s Advent Children and 2016’s Kingsglaive). Square Studio did make one of the CGI animated segments for 2003’s Animatrix, a concept paving the way for other ambitious animated anthologies like Netflix’s Love, Death, and Robots. The entire emphasis of this expensive production was slated onto its visual decadence, but the story was muddled, confusing, trite, and alien to the source material and the fanbase it was appealing to. I want to give my 2001 self a high-five because I’m happy that even at 19 years old in my original review I could see the evident faults of the mediocre storytelling as well as the arguments for replacing real actors with virtual facsimiles. Back in 2001, I said Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within had the benefit of always giving the viewer “something to sit in wonder and take in.” Twenty years later, that lone benefit has all but disappeared. Conversely, video games have become so much more ambitious, artistic, and emotionally engaging since 2001. So skip the movie and just play a game instead.
Re-View Grade: C