Film Review

Inside Out

Here be spoilers. So just go see Inside Out.

The part of Inside Out that made me teary was at the end when Riley returns home from her aborted runaway attempt and admits to her parents her true feelings, which by then had been overtaken by Sadness, Anger, and Fear mostly. Her parents don’t yell at her or demand an apology; they offer grace, a powerful, often unexpected or seemingly undeserved force that supersedes all emotions. It’s the force Joy receives from Sadness on their journey together, and that Joy gives back to Sadness after being properly humbled.

As for the film itself: With abstract emotions literally characterized and Jungian concepts casually name-dropped throughout, the film’s overtness as one large, extended metaphor sometimes distracted me from the story. I wonder how a repeat viewing would change that. It’s probably the weirdest Pixar film to date, and we’re talking about a lineup of films that includes talking cars and a rat chef. But it’s weird in the best possible ways: imaginative, as in that Abstract Thought scene, and daring, in that it manages to build a new cinematic world in the head space of an eleven-year-old girl and toggle between it and the story developing on the outside.


Disney, Pixar, And The Golden Age of Animation

Published in the North Central Chronicle in  September 2009.

Everyone has a favorite animated movie. I’m a Toy Story man myself. But no matter which film you prefer, it’s clear that our generation—the Millennials, born between 1983 and 2000—has been the most spoiled in history in terms of the animated films we’ve grown up watching.

The first phase of the most recent golden age of animation began unofficially in 1989 with The Little Mermaid. The film was Disney’s reentry into relevance after decades of forgettable material. It was a box-office smash, spawning merchandise like nobody’s business and charming young girls worldwide, making them Disney customers for life.

After The Little Mermaid came Beauty and the Beast in 1991 and Aladdin the next year—two more cash cows and critical darlings. Beauty and the Beast even earned a nomination for Best Picture, the only animated film to date to do so. From there we were awed by The Lion King and Pocahontas. The former remains the Lord of the Rings of kids’ movies with its epic scope and affecting story.

Perhaps the most appealing part of these movies is the music. The composer Alan Menken created the music for all of those films and all of it is fantastic. I marvel every time I listen to “A Whole New World” at how perfect a pop song it is. “Part of Your World” and “Kiss the Girl” and “I Just Can’t Wait to be King”—each song is so flawlessly constructed in melody and tone.

These songs compose the soundtrack of our lives, whether you admit it or not. The stories and characters are fun, sure, but when you’re driving with your friends, only a Disney song will get the whole car singing. In 40 years we’ll be singing these songs along with our kids as they discover these films for the first time, just as we watched Pinocchio and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs six decades after they were made and were nevertheless enchanted.

The release of The Lion King in 1995 was the apex of Disney domination. But that year also became the springboard for the second phase of the golden age of animation: the Pixar era.

I often think about how lucky I am to be growing up in the age of Pixar. Their films are renowned for their universal appeal, but there’s nothing like having watched Toy Story as an eight-year-old boy and being fascinated by the notion that all your toys could actually come alive. On the other hand, as an adult I’m equally entertained by the complexity of The Incredibles and the pure joy of WALL-E and the surprising tenderness of Up.

I’m also struck by how Pixar’s most recent projects—the triple whammy of RatatouilleWall-E and Up—showed something important. All three were predicted to fail to earn as much money as their most successful predecessors. Yet all three dominated the box office and won over audiences and critics with equal admiration. This proves the staying power of Pixar’s pictures lies not in the breadth of their merchandising but in their smart and sophisticated storytelling.

I’m not sure how long this gilded age will last. After all, not all the animated films of the last two decades were good (anyone remember The Road to El Dorado? Didn’t think so). But looking forward a few years may give us a few clues. Next summer Pixar will release Toy Story 3 and Disney will release The Princess and the Frog, which will be a return to the classic 2-D animation style and feature Disney’s first African-American princess. Those two films alone make me confident that this current age of awe-inspiring animation will take us to infinity and beyond.


Rockin’ Guat 2009: Episode 3


Estamos en Guatemala! But it took a long time to get here. We had to wake up at 3:30am for a 6am flight. Luckily we had a friend in Chicago who was willing to drive us to O’Hare at that time. Our whole reason for the early flight time was to avoid the lines and save money; we saved lots of money but met lots of lines. Apparently our strategy was not unique. We saw at least three different high school groups in brightly colored t-shirts, probably on mission trips. Oh, the good old days when adult chaperones took care of all the busy work that travel requires.

After a connection in Fort Lauderdale, we finally made it to Guatemala City, where mom and our local friend Jeanette were there to pick us up. It’s a surreal thing arriving at the Guatemala City airport. Outside the doors hoardes of locals wait for their loved ones. We had to walk through the crowd as the only gringos in sight. Driving through the city, the cultural immersion takes effect immediately. The city rests in a beautiful verdant valley, so as we wind around curvy mountainside roads we pass beautiful homes in gated communities and then makeshift huts of corrugated tin and found trash. This is Guatemala.

The view from our homestay.
The view from our homestay.

But we won’t be able to start serving until next week. Right now we’re just settling in and enjoying some downtime. The house we’re staying in right now is very nice. Definitely not like what rural houses look like.

Some important things that one discovers while living in Guatemala:

  1. You can’t drink the water. Only severe diarrhea and upset stomach await those foreigners who drink the water or eat any of the food that is not processed, cooked, or boiled. This means no brushing teeth from the tap, no buying vegetables or watered fruit from the market, and extreme caution when taking a shower. Which leads to lesson #2…
  2. Depending on where you’re staying, you may have to take a bucket shower. Music festival goers may know what I’m talking about. I took one just this morning since our house is currently lacking hot water. All you do is boil some water on the stove, put it in a bucket, bring it in the shower, scoop the water with a cup, and go to town. I’ve learned that all you really need to clean is your head and your arms and you feel clean. But getting the other essentials, especially by pouring hot water on them, is an adventure in itself.
  3. You can’t put the toilet paper down the toilet. The plumbing in Guate is not very good, so no paper products are allowed. There are waste baskets next to every toilet, so after you wipe you toss it in the basket. Talk about culture shock.
  4. Most people are really friendly here, which means that when you enter a room, you give a cheek-kiss as a greeting, even to perfect strangers. This happened today when we visiting a local water birth clinic. Some clients came in as we were talking to the nurse and just jumped right in with kisses. It’s as automatic as a handshake. Again, something that will need some getting used to.

After I hit up the ATM for some cashola (the currency down here is the quetzal–which is also the national bird–and the current exchange rate is 8 quetzales to one dollar. In other words, very favorable), Elise, Mom, Jeanette, her husband JuanCarlos, I went to see Up in the theater here — in Spanish. I was curious to see how the movie would hold up in another language and was relieved to find out that the storytelling survives beyond the language barrier. Cheers to Pixar for that.

Pan dulce. The greatest thing in the world.
Pan dulce. The greatest thing in the world.

We had some pan dulce (sweet bread) at dinner tonight, which so far has been the highlight of my stay (alumni from my last Guatemala trip know what I’m talking about).Tomorrow night from 6pm to 6am our host family is hosting an all-night worship session for a local group. Jeanette is bringing a guitar on which I can play my newly learned Spanish songs. More on that later.

Next time: playing Spanish songs and pulling an all-nighter?


All Animated Films Are Not Created Equal

Originally published in the North Central Chronicle in October 2008.

Are all movies created equal? The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) doesn’t think so. With the creation of the Best Animated Feature category at the Academy Awards, animated movies that deserve to be nominated for Best Picture are unfairly pigeon-holed into this marginalized category.

Only one animated movie has ever been nominated for Best Picture. It was Beauty and the Beast in 1991. Though the AMPAS rules don’t prevent a film to be nominated for both categories, the chances of an animated movie being nominated for Best Picture are greatly reduced because of the animated feature category.

Take last year’s Ratatouille for example. It was one of the best reviewed films of 2007. It currently has a 95% certified fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, which is better than There Will Be Blood. So why wasn’t it nominated for Best Picture? Because an animated movie aimed at kids does not meet the same high-brow expectations as art-house flicks like There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men and so Disney would never try to lobby for a Best Picture nod, even if every member of the Academy loved it.

That’s understandable, I guess, but the real problem is how animated movies as a whole are regarded. Critics and audiences as well as the Academy ooh and ahh over the good ones but never even think Best Picture is in the cards. The Pixar animation studio has put out an unprecedented string of commercial and critical hits since Toy Story in 1995, its first feature film. Three of their films have won the Best Animated Feature award, deservedly so. But the fact that such acclaimed work does not get a fair shot at the biggest possible award for filmmaking shows an implicit condescension and under-appreciation for the animated genre in general.

Brad Bird, director of The Incredibles and Ratatouille, put it bluntly: “People keep saying, ‘The animation genre.’ It’s not a genre! A Western is a genre; animation is an art form, and it can do any genre.” Using animation is simply one way of telling a story. To box it in as a separate entity is to belittle the work writers and animators do to create an entire fictional world from scratch in order to tell a story.

And animated movies may not just be for kids. Look at last year’s Persepolis or Beowulf or the Japanese films Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away. Even the more commercial Shrek and all of the Pixar movies appeal to young adults and parents because of the subtle (and not so subtle) pop culture references. I love Ratatouille and the other Pixar movies not just for their artistic shimmer and sly wit, but for their solid storytelling. That, above all, should be the litmus test for Best Picture nominees, which is how Beauty and the Beast earned a nod a decade and a half ago.

The animated feature category may do a good service by acknowledging excellence in that medium, but it does harm by allowing poor movies to be nominated. Because there are only so many feature-length animated films that wouldn’t embarrass the Academy by being nominated (I’m looking at you, Space Chimps), movies that don’t deserve the recognition sneak in beneath the far superior works. Shark Tale and Ice Age have been nominated, as well as Happy Feet, which won unjustly in 2006. The Academy needs to fill the void somehow, so they have to nominate non-Pixar movies to try to make the category relevant.

Film should serve the story. It shouldn’t matter if the film is computer-generated. The stories in Ratatouille and Toy Story 2, another animated film that got short-changed, deserve the recognition that lesser live-action movies often times receive. Pixar’s latest, WALL-E, will no doubt receive the same treatment as its predecessors, even though it was the most daring and exquisite film of the year. It will win Best Animated Feature, but it’s not just that. The level of praise it has garnered from critics and audiences is bested only by The Dark Knight which already has a better chance of scoring on Oscar night because it stars real human beings.

The best films of the year should be recognized as such. Period. Hollywood politics get in the way of this too often, which is how lesser pictures win. But because I’m not an Academy member, I can only sit back and hope the best of best get a shot at the big prize. One can only hope.