Relax, FINDING DORY is good

There are fewer scarier possibilities for today’s modern moviegoer than a Pixar sequel. I personally cope with this by tempering my excitement for new Pixar fare in a way I didn’t used to, and emotionally holding out as long as I can to see if the films can win me over (Inside Out did, The Good Dinosaur did not). Is it fair to hold every new movie from the studio up to the “Pixar standard?” That’s a big question, but thankfully we can table that discussion for another day because Finding Dory both manages to justify its existence as a sequel to one of the most-loved family films of the ‘aughts and a comfortable addition to the Pixar canon.

Finding Dory feels retroactively necessary to the first film in a way few sequels do, primarily by taking the title to heart and giving Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, returning to the role that pushed her back into the mainstream over a decade ago) new dimensions that were only hinted at in Nemo. Her short-term memory loss is taken seriously as a disability instead of a cute narrative device, and the consequences of her mental handicap are brought into an uncomfortable new light. The sadness in her parents’ eyes as they try to teach a young (and dangerously cute) Dory how to survive is an unforgettable beat.

Dory’s search for her parents (Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton) provides the narrative thrust for the story, and their clear love for their daughter (expressed through extensive and meticulously-constructed flashbacks) and how that manifests is the most touching take-away from the film. The movie doesn’t venture into the same three-hankie territory as Up or Toy Story 3, but in some ways that’s a relief. There are a few big emotional moments that land well, but the film wisely doesn’t dwell on them for too long.

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The film struggles for the first half hour as it covers familiar territory (there’s an action beat designed to mirror the shark scene from the first film that doesn’t feel essential), and straightens out and takes off like a rocket once it sidelines Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence, taking over for Alexander Gould). Dory’s new foil is Hank the octopus (Ed O’Neill) who provides some comic edge and visual dynamism that help the film tremendously. Hope you like tentacles. There are interesting hints in the script that Hank has had a rough go of it, but they’re mostly subtextual touches for those who are paying attention.

Like the best Pixar films, Finding Dory is both consistently and unexpectedly funny. Pixar films are workshopped and tweaked within an inch of their lives, and while this vetting process may take away a sense of individual authorship, it means few jokes are duds. The few obvious pop culture references (some obvious but very funny references to Inception and Alien come to mind) work and won’t date the film but most of the biggest laughs come from well-constructed character moments. Also, make sure you stay through the credits.

It’s not top-tier Pixar (neither, arguably, is Finding Nemo), but it’s a very worthwhile addition to the studio’s stable and justifies its existence in a way that’s unexpected and heartening. Unlike the lesser Pixar sequels (ahem, Cars 2 and Monsters University) Dory succeeds by staying true to its source material and expanding on it meaningfully, as opposed to trying to switch genres or get too clever. You’re going to see Finding Dory no matter what, but rest assured, it’s worth it.

Fall 2015 Review Blow-Out (Part 3)

Welcome back, folks! Our review round-up continues with three films that all have their own problems.

SPECTRE

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Daniel Craig in Spectre (Columbia/MGM)

Spectre is this year’s Star Trek into Darkness. I haven’t found a better way of putting it. Both films are sequels to massively successful franchise films that fail artistically by giving fans what they think they want, and clumsily calling back to the series’ past. Into Darkness aped Wrath of Khan in an irritatingly obvious way, and Spectre‘s third act is a soup of Connery- and Moore-era tropes somehow designed to act as a coda on Craig’s entire run. It’s unconvincing and ruins what is otherwise a fairly enjoyable mid-range Bond pic.

Spectre peaks early. In fact, it peaks in its first sequence, designed to look like a minutes-long unbroken take as the camera slinkily follows Bond through a Dia de los Muertos parade, in a building, up an elevator and out to a roof. It’s great, but it’s a red herring and the proceeding two hours don’t contain a moment that comes close to matching the excitement of the first two minutes in terms of either storytelling or technical bravado.

Much of the team from the previous Craig 007 outings, including director Sam Mendes, cinematographer Roger Deakins and several members of the Skyfall writing team, return for this installment. Much of the cast returns as well, and turn in typically fine work. Individuals aren’t the problem with Spectre, it’s the weak script. More so than any previous Craig outing, the script pulls heavily from elements of Bond’s history and the parallels are mind-numbingly obvious. Dave Bautista’s evil henchman, Mr. Hinx, is clearly meant to be a stand-in for Oddjob from Goldfinger. The big bad, Christoph Waltz’s (SPOILER ALERT I guess but really) Blofeld is ripped directly from previous installments. What this does to the admittedly muddy Bond continuity is left unaddressed. This stuff would be fine if it was handled with a bit more care, but all of the callbacks are handled with the subtlety of a chainsaw. Bond viewers are smarter than Spectre gives them credit for. The pattern of every other Bond film being good persists; Spectre is a misfire.

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART 2

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Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (Lionsgate)

The deck was stacked against this one from the beginning. The Hunger Games film series has excelled partly because the films are faithful to the books while taking out some of the stupidest YA crap, and this approach worked in the previous three installments. However, Mockingjay Part 2 had a problem this approach can’t solve: the end of the Hunger Games book series is a huge letdown.

The film sands off some of the ending’s roughest edges, but the fundamental flaws remain. To end a huge series like this on such a dour note may have seemed bold if it was the film’s decision to make, but in reality it’s just playing the book’s shitty hand. If you read the book and disliked it like most people did, the movie won’t make you feel any better. The ending is problematic, but instead of feeling edgy and challenging it feels needlessly grim. A disappointment, but perhaps an inevitable one.

Because the Hunger Games film franchise hews so close to its source material, really assessing it means we have to look closer at its cinematic elements, and set the tricky story elements aside. All four installments, this one included, are well-made and competently constructed. Mockingjay Part 2 is solid but not artistically distinctive, director Francis Lawrence has shepherded the final films to their release ably but not with the intent to distinguish himself as an auteur. David Yates had a similarly long run directing all of the Harry Potter films from Order of the Phoenix on, but those four films all managed to be uniquely distinct from one another. The Hunger Games films share a unified artistic approach that is in its own way unique, but as the relative box-office disappointment of Part 2 indicates, we’re all a bit tired and ready for this journey to end, for now.

THE GOOD DINOSAUR

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The Good Dinosaur (Disney•Pixar)

Let’s just get this out of the way now: The Good Dinosaur is second-tier Pixar. It’s not going to lead you to emotional places you haven’t been before, and feels more like a kid’s movie than Pixar’s usual four-quadrant fare. That being said, it’s pretty weird and dark for a movie aimed at children and had several moments which genuinely shocked me.

The publicity for The Good Dinosaur leaves out the single most interesting element of the film, and that’s how deeply strange the whole thing is. Dinosaur seesaws wildly between different tones and genres as the story progresses, even becoming a take on  John Ford westerns for about half an hour. There are some gnarly and violent moments that come out of nowhere; the movie does not mess with the fact that these characters are all, at the end of the day, wild animals. Some of the dinosaur characters the protagonist, apatosaurus Arlo, encounters are clearly damaged and feel legitimately dangerous. The film also includes a drug-trip sequence that looks like it came from experience.

It has to be said that The Good Dinosaur looks gorgeous. Every Pixar film has some big technological leap forward (Monsters, Inc. nailed fur, Incredibles figured out hair, etc.), but Good Dinosaur feels like it has maybe ten. Except for the dinosaurs, which look bizarrely cartoonish compared to their surroundings, everything in the frame is rendered in jaw-dropping photorealistic detail. Computer-generated water has never looked so good.

The Good Dinosaur suffered a famously arduous production process, the film’s release was delayed 18 months and the original director was replaced. The film is odd and disjointed enough that I don’t think it’s a stretch to say what we see on screen is not the original intent of the project. It may not be one of Pixar’s masterpieces, but The Good Dinosaur is an interesting oddity that’s worth seeing.

Thanks for reading and watch this space, there might just be a part 4 to this review round-up before Star Wars comes out. Once December 18 hits, you won’t care about anything else and neither will I. In the meantime, here are links to PART 1 and PART 2 of this piece.