Pixar’s second straight direct-to-Disney-plus outing, Luca, is a decidedly lesser movie from the creative powerhouse. It’s more in keeping with the low stakes and minimal characterization of something like the Cars franchise or Monster’s University. It has its gentle charms and important themes about acceptance, accessibility, and identity, but Luca feels a bit too shallow and lacking in magic. Two sea monster boys want to feel the thrill and freedom of living on land, and it just so happens they transform into looking like humans as long as they don’t get wet. They must learn the ways of blending in, keep their secret, and win the local triathlon to achieve their dream of owning a Vespa scooter. Yes, ostensibly it’s about two kids, and a third once they become friends with a rambunctious redheaded girl in town, wanting to win a race to get a scooter, and you can see the larger theme about friendship and self-acceptance in the name of intolerance, but the movie feels like Ponyo meets The Little Mermaid with the setting of Call Me By Your Name (with maybe some of its coming-of-age queer coding?). The movie barely gets to 84 minutes long, pre-credits, and even that feels very lackadaisical and padded, stretching a thin storyline with minimal development. The animation is expectantly gorgeous and colorful, the lovely daubs of light are so soothing to watch, though I didn’t care for the Gravity Falls-style character designs. The stakes are low and personal but I didn’t really care about the broad characters. There are some fun farcical hijinks trying to hide their monster selves from being seen, and the conclusion has a sweet message without being overtly sentimental, but Luca is little more than a fitfully amusing yet slight seaside vacation for your hungry eyes.
Nate’s Grade: B-
I don’t care one lick about cars and I was greatly entertained by Ford vs. Ferrari, a thrilling look back where the gear-heads at Ford wanted to build a new model of racing car that could challenge the seemingly unbeatable Italians at the Le Mans raceway. The smartest move the movie makes is placing this as a character-driven story with a group of big personalities solving a puzzle and trying to prove the arrogant suits wrong. It has such winning elements that it’s got crowd-pleaser DNA all over it, even if you’ll likely predict every step of the story. Even if you know nothing about the history of racing and motor vehicles, you can suspect that designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) will, through grit and confidence and outside-the-box thinking, overcome their obstacles to win the 1966 Le Mans race. The movie even realizes this, and that’s why the climax of the movie isn’t whether or not Ford will triumph but on a very personal dilemma and choice. It’s less about the mechanics of cars and more about simply solving problems with innovative solutions, and there’s a great satisfaction in watching characters we care about get closer to solving a puzzle that has outwitted the masses. As the characters get excited, we get excited because the personal is what is felt most. Miles is an arrogant, disgraced driver that Ford doesn’t want being the face of anything for the company. Shelby is trying to transition from being in a car to the head of a company, and he’s the heat shield for his team, taking the corporate ire and laying more and more on the line for their experiments. Damon is great, and sounds uncannily like Tommy Lee Jones, but this is chiefly Bale’s movie and he is fantastic. He once again just disappears into a character, this time the lanky, cocky, hard-driving family man, and the scenes with Miles’ wife and son actually provide important dimension to all the participants. They aren’t simply there to express concern or admiration. The screenplay by the Butterworth brothers (Edge of Tomorrow) and Jason Keller (Machine Gun Preacher) have opened up these characters, their fear, anxieties, hopes, and dreams in a way that feels genuine and considerate. They hook us in with the characters early, so that the rest of the film serves as a series of payoffs for our investment. The racing sequences are thrilling as director James Mangold (Logan) has his camera career around the cars, placing the audience in the middle of the RPMs and feeling that immersive sense of speed. I never knew that the Le Mans race is 24 hours long, and the scene of these 1960s cars, with 1960s windshield wiper technology, driving in the rain and dark at 200 miles-per-hour is starkly terrifying. I still don’t care much about cars or their history, but you present me engaging characters and Oscar-caliber performances to boot, and I’ll watch those people anywhere. Ford vs. Ferrari is a bit long (150 minutes) but a well-crafted, potent crowd-pleaser with exhilarating racing and strong characters worthy of cheering.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) and his best pal Vanellope (voiced by Sarah Silverman) must venture out of their arcade home once Vanellope’s game gets broken. She’s in danger of having her racing game shelved for good unless they can find a new steering wheel controller. Thanks to the installation of wi-fi, Ralph and Vanellope hop along the information super highway and visit an online metropolis bursting with life and possibility. It’s a world of advanced games, races, and interactivity and Vanellope might not want to go back to her old world, much to the chagrin of Ralph.
Fear not, this is not Disney’s rehash of The Emoji Movie, a slapdash gallivant through Internet culture, apps, and the most famous online brands. The first forty minutes or so of Ralph Breaks the Internet are silly and visually appealing as our familiar characters expand their horizons to the world of online gaming. Much like the first film, there are a lot of rules and mechanics to establish as a foundation before things can get too complicated. The first Wreck-It Ralph was a bit more structured and clean in this aspect whereas the sequel gets to feel a tad episodic. The Grand Theft Auto/Twisted Metal world of street racing provides a splendid contrast and plenty of satirical touches. It’s still amusing as Ralph and Vanellope discover the new worlds and we see how the filmmakers choose to depict their inner workings, like a concierge working a search bar or spammers as pushy street promoters. Although it also leads to some questions, like this world has Google but no YouTube, instead combining YouTube and Buzzfeed into one entity where hearts count as upvotes/likes. Is there a reason Disney might not want to have steered children to YouTube? Or is there something more corporate about promoting a rival media company when Disney is planning their own online streaming magical kingdom? It’s an entertaining beginning but I started to get worried about whether or not this was the extent of what we were going to get with a Ralph sequel. Is this really all going to be about raising money to buy an arcade controller wheel?
It’s about the forty-five minute mark where the film takes a welcomed turn, where it focuses far more on the character relationships between Ralph and Vanellope, and that’s when the film deepens into something much more special. The antics beforehand were colorful and amusing but too episodic, but once Ralph and Vanellope are split apart, now those same imaginative antics are used in the service of developing characters and exploring their inner conflicts. It’s like the movie went next level with its potential. Vannelope’s excursion into the Disney Corporate Realm leads to fun cameos (Groot), and newly sad cameos (Stan Lee, R.I.P.), but the meta interaction with the Disney princesses is a hoot. The film cleverly ribs the Disney traditions of old but, and this is the key part, finds ways to relate it back to character conflicts and assumptions. The Disney princesses lead Vanellope into a new soul-searching direction, which leads to an inspired musical number that’s filled with silly, ironic non-sequitors and a declaration of purpose, a wonderful melding of the Disney storytelling of old and new. From here, the movie gets better and better as Ralph goes to greater lengths to sabotage Vanellope’s plans to leave him for a new game. The final act grows from this misguided attempt to hold onto selfish needs and rebuke change, and it culminates in a climax that is built around the characters and what they’re willing to give up for one another. For a movie that starts with silly gags about eBay and Twitter, it grows into something that genuinely could bring some tears.
The overall message, that growing apart is okay and can be healthy, that friendships will inevitably change over time and to not stand in the way of change, is a lesson I was not anticipating from a “family film.” I was expecting Ralph Breaks the Internet to mostly cover the dark side of the Internet, in an albeit family-friendly manner, about the casual cruelty and lack of empathy that is magnified from the perceived anonymity. The movie does cover some of this material briefly when Ralph stumbles into a hall of mean-spirited comments (“First rule of the Internet: never read the comments”). I was expecting a more simplified and pat lesson about the evils of the Internet, but instead the filmmakers deliver something far more applicable and important for young people. They could have gone for easy life lessons about online behavior, and instead Ralph Breaks the Internet goes above and beyond to make its message more personal and sympathetic.
Reilly (Kong: Skull Island) provides a lot of heart to his doofus; enough to keep him grounded even when his character starts making bad decisions to keep the status quo. Silverman (Battle of the Sexes) has a harder time just because she’s asked to keep her voice at a childlike level, which can be grating at certain points. She is still able to convey an array of emotions. The relationship between Ralph and Vanellope is key to the series being more than the sum of its parts, and both actors help this through their sometimes warm, sometimes bickering interactions. The biggest new addition is Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman) as Shank, the leader of a gang of car thieves. She’s a tough lady that takes an immediate shine to the attitude and gusto of Vanellope. The character and her world are more welcomed than Gadot as a vocal actor. She’s fairly limited in range. I did enjoy that they specifically animated Jason Mantzoukas (Netflix’s Big Mouth) as a nerdy question-asker and Oscar-nominee June Squibb (Nebraska) for five seconds each.
The Wreck-It Ralph franchise is another stellar plank in a growing armada of Disney animated franchises that could challenge Pixar for supremacy. Walking away from Ralph Breaks the Internet, I had to think it over but I concluded that I was more emotionally fulfilled and pleased than with Pixar’s Incredibles 2. I’m not going to argue that Ralph is the better of the two movies when it comes to storytelling, visual inventiveness, or action, but I was happier and more satisfied leaving Ralph. This is an imaginative, colorful, cheerful, and heartfelt movie with a valuable message and the understanding of narrative structure to see it through. I’m now thinking about a potential third Ralph movie (the director says there won’t be another, but let’s see what Disney says after those box-office grosses come in). We’ve gone to the realm of online gaming, so what’s next? Maybe Ralph’s game gets transferred to a collector’s home out of the country, like in Japan, and then it’s about Japanese gaming culture. Or my pal Ben Bailey suggested Ralph’s game gets relocated into a movie theater, one of the few places arcade machines are still present, and it’s Ralph in the world of the movies. The fact that I’m pitching sequels says something about the franchise’s potential and its accomplishment. Ralph Breaks the Internet is a worthy sequel with of equal parts compassion and wit.
Nate’s Grade: A-
I have never been a fan of racing of any sorts, be it horse or NASCAR or Formula One, the subject of the biographical documentary, Senna. So naturally I never felt like I’d been interested in a documentary about Ayrto Senna, the brilliant Brazilian driver who was the head of the pack. I was wrong. Even non-fans like myself can get enjoy Senna, a lean doc that doesn’t waste a second. In fact, never do talking heads, interviews, or reenactments enter the frame. The movie is completely made up of archival footage, some of it astonishing like Senna’s dashboard recordings that immerse you into his world of speed. The vintage race footage is thrilling. The film ably portrays the driver’s life, his passion, his controversies with league officials who disliked the young man’s style, his competition with rivals, and his impact on the sport. Here’s an instance where being completely ignorant of the subject and its sport will come in handy, since you don’t know what befalls Senna, though most will be able to pick up the ominous tones and markings of tragedy. This is a doc that just flies by with skill, precision, and enthusiasm, much like its charismatic and confounding subject.
Nate’s Grade: B+
I was wary of this film from the first frame. I think the original Speed Racer cartoon is dopey and insipid. I didn’t really want to pay to have my retinas destroyed by the candy-coated color scheme of the big-budget movie. But I must say, I didn’t hate this movie and that’s a major accomplishment. That’s not to say Speed Racer is a good movie; its script is cheesy, the dialogue is silly, the comedy is dead on arrival, and many of the races end up becoming incoherent flashes of color and noise. But God help me, the Wachowskis have produced a unique movie experience that will likely induce epileptic seizures. Speed Racer has way too much plot going on for a cartoon about a kid who races a fast car. The movie reminds me in a lot of ways of the Wacky Races cartoon where the various teams have theme-driven cars. This provides for plenty of outlandish action sequences that manage to tickle the senses, that is, when the images are somewhat stable. The movie aspires to be a “family film” and with that comes the half-hearted moral message (corporations are evil) and a reminder that family is important. Did I mention there’s also a monkey that gets treated like a member of the family? The movie sometimes feels like the cinematic equivalent of an ice cream headache, but you’re unlikely to see anything like it again in the near future. That may be both a good and a bad thing.
Nate’s Grade: C+
When it comes to clowning around, no one does stupid more smartly than Will Ferrell, a man perpetually in a state of arrested development. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby succeeds both as a satire on uplifting, redemptive sports movies and on the culture of NASCAR. The product placement is obscene in this movie, but then again, the same can be said with NASCAR racing. PowerAde had a contractual obligation to be cited at every family meal prayer, which itself turns into a competitive sport. Title buffoon Ricky Bobby (Ferrell) is so arrogant that he gets an ad for Fig Newtons on his windshield (“This ad is dangerous… but I do love Fig Newtons.”). Even the title is a perfect send-up. The redneck riffs are never very mean-spirited, but I like that the Southern bar keeps disco on the jukebox to “profile.” The sports clichés are picked apart, like the absentee father (Gary Cole) reappearing to learn the error of his ways. There’s a heavy reliance on slapstick and pretty much everyone in the movie is either a cad, a buffoon, or a jackass, so there are limits to that comedy.
True to 2004’s Anchorman, this movie hits its high points with the spontaneous moments of tangential weirdness, from sports announcers explaining how to put out invisible fire to Ricky Bobby learning to drive with a live cougar as a co-pilot. Talladega Nights doesn’t quite hit the absurdist highs of the infinitely quote-able Anchorman, and the movie spins its wheels all too often, but it’s got a greater number of solid belly laughs than most any movie out there today. Sacha Baron Cohen plays Jean Gerard, the gay, French Formula-One driver that upsets the stock car world. Cohen has great fun in an English language mangled performance Peter Sellers would have loved. When Ferrell and Cohen are face to face, you feel like anything can happen between these two quick-witted comedy titans. Ferrell has assembled another game cast of gifted improvisational artists and their blend of loony comedy feels like jazz. The downside with such a huge cast of very funny people is that not everyone gets the face-time they deserve (Oscar nominee Amy Adams comes to mind).
Talladega Nights is a big broad comedy with a great cast and some inspired chuckles. What other movie this summer could climax so perfectly with a man-on-man smooch and the observation, “You taste like… America”? Only one, baby, and it’s Ricky Bobby.
Nate’s Grade: B
While I’d never call Pixar’s latest animated film a disappointment, it is the company’s first speed bump in their unprecedented reign of unmatched quality. Cars is technically dazzling; it’s almost redundant to say a CGI film is the best-looking ever because the technology keeps improving with time but Cars is incredible to watch. The lushly painted vistas, the way light gleams on surfaces, the blurs of color, the near-photographic likeness of cars themselves, this is a beautifully animated film, obviously. What isn’t as beautiful is the lackluster storyline. I can feel Pixar’s heart in the right place but they don’t put enough effort to touch our own hearts. Cars lacks the depth of Pixar’s other features. The two Toy Story films managed to take a kiddy concept of the secret life of toys when no one’s watching and infuse it with serious moral dilemmas and a mature insight into mortality and community. In Cars, the main storyline involves a cocky hot rod Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) who lives in a glitzy world that revolves around him. He goes off the beaten path and finds himself trapped in Radiator Springs, a tiny town that’s all but been dried up since the interstate took folks away from them. There, Lightning learns there’s more to life than material riches from this eclectic mix of good, honest small-town folk. What I’ve just described to you could be the plot of hundreds of movies championing the likes of small town folk. They surprisingly never really go much deeper, though Paul Newman is terrific as an old time car that had a taste of the glory and arrogance way back.
This is the first Pixar movie to exist in a world without humans, which begs the question how living automobiles were able to construct their world minus opposable thumbs. Cars themselves are weirdly inexpressive creatures.
The climax to Cars is suitable and heartfelt but the movie, at two hours in length, sputters a while in the middle. This is the first film directed by Pixar’s big cheese, John Lasseter, since 1999’s Toy Story 2, so excuse me for expecting a little more. Still, the movie is certainly fun, exciting, more cute than funny, and it has a genuine sweetness to go with its visual prowess. I just wish the 8 credited screenwriters, including Lasseter himself, had revved up their imaginations a bit more beyond the conceptual stage. Cars isn’t a great movie, but coming from Pixar, it’s still very good. Hey, anyone that can make the voice of Larry the Cable Guy tolerable deserves my thanks.
Nate’s Grade: B
You want to know how bad Torque was? Until I began typing this article, I had completely forgotten I had even seen it. I suppose the film was an attempt to grab the attention and dollars of young, car-obsessed males who made The Fast and the Furious a hit. Somebody should have told that to director Joseph Kahn. A veteran of music videos, Kahn was more interested in making a collage of visually alluring shots than telling a story; not that Torque’s story would have excelled in other hands. This was a fast-forwarded video game populated with bland actors, bright colors and shiny bikes, which mean it’s only suited for moviegoers post-lobotomy.
Nate’s Grade: D+