Incredibles 2

Written and Directed by: Brad Bird

The_Incredibles_2      In a pre-show interview montage shown before screenings of Incredibles 2, writer-director Brad Bird is asked what has happened to his characters since their last film appearance. A smiling Bird assures us, very little, as Incredibles 2 starts ten seconds after the original film ended. Bird’s comment sums up my impression of his sequel: on the one hand its very much in the spirit of the original film, on the other hand it perhaps doesn’t do quite enough to cements its legacy as a standalone work.

Whenever a (non- Toy Story) Pixar sequel comes out, viewers will inevitably rumble about whether it is a truly inspired and justified idea or whether it is a mere money grab. With Incredibles 2 there’s a third explanation that lies between these two poles: it’s a superhero movie. We live in a day and age where Marvel (and other companies who make films about Marvel characters) are having great success producing story after story introducing different heroes and, to a lesser extent, different villains.

The Incredibles (2004) is not a superhero movie in the sense that Iron Man is. It was not created to be part of a complex, ever lasting universe and action-figure industry. Rather, like other Pixar films, it is an attempt to tell a story using a type of character (super heroes, as opposed to toys, bugs, monsters, etc) as a springboard. The impression I got from watching Incredibles 2, however, is that Brad Bird must have gotten into the fact he was now the creator of a superhero universe. Having ended the last film with the introduction of a new supervillain, The Underminer (John Ratzenberger), Bird felt he had another movie, or to put it more aptly, another metaphorical comic book issue, to put out.

The development of the Incredibles as a multi-film superhero universe has some good elements to it. The Underminer makes for a good villain in the Batman/Spiderman tradition. Furthermore, perhaps taking a page from The Avengers’ book, Bird used this movie to bring heroes besides the Incredibles and Frozen out of hiding. These characters are well designed, and the one we get to know a bit, Void, (Sophia Bush) has powers that perfectly straddle the line between being useful and being hopelessly cartoonish.

The downside of the Incredibles becoming a superhero franchise, however, is that the film relies heavily on its internal logic. What do I mean by this? Well, Pixar films are generally defined by being about a unique subset of characters, and their plots are creatively extracted from that source material. The Toy Story Series worked, because each film was based on the foundational question. “What themes should and could a story about toys deal with?” This led to a series of further questions that defined and distinguished the three films: What is it like to have your favourite toy status challenged?/What does it mean not to be real?; How do you deal with abandonment?/ Is immortality in a museum worth it?; and Can your human love you forever?/Is life with preschoolers bearable? Incredibles worked similarly, asking questions about what it means to have powers and to be admired for it. The difference between Incredibles 2 and Incredibles, however, is smaller than that between Toy Story and Toy Story 2. This is because Incredibles 2 was not rooted in the foundational question: “What would it mean to make a movie about superheroes?”. Instead, its foundational question was: “What would it mean to make another movie about the Incredibles?”.

Furthermore, the villain of Incredibles (I won’t be specific in case you haven’t seen it yet) has an origin story rooted, again, in the question of “What kind of characters could exist in a superhero movie?.” While this logic applies somewhat to the villain- origin story in Incredibles 2, the latter villainous motive feels a tad more forced: it is a motive that can’t be (or at least wasn’t) expressed as smoothly and succinctly as the motive in Incredibles. Further more, while the revelation of the villain in Incredibles is a clever, witty reveal, the equivalent moment in Incredibles 2 can be sensed from a mile away (the only surprise for me was the number of villains not their identity).

Another notable element of Incredibles 2 is its gender politics. The film casts Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) as opposed to her husband Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) in the central action roll. Mr. Incredible meanwhile is left to care for superhero kids Violet, Dash and Jack-Jack (Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner and Eli Fucile). Elastigirl is given the opportunity to go on missions after a billionaire hero-fan Winston Deaver (Bob Odenkirk) decides, she as the less reckless of the two, would be the best option for rehabilitating the reputation of heroes. For a moment this idea seems to develop into a deeper theme. At one moment Elastigirl and Winston’s sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener) share a conversation, in which Evelyn bemoans that her brother has been more successful than her, despite his reliance on her invention skills (a joint critique of patriarchy and capitalism). This theme, however, is ultimately left underdeveloped. The Incredibles has an intentionally ambiguous gender politics: on the one hand it depicts a traditional nuclear family, while on the other, hand making clear that Elastigirl had an assertive, Rosie Riveter side to her. Incredibles 2 rocks the boat a bit more, but ultimately stays loyal to this formula. Perhaps this was the wise move given that the series’ premise is that a family can thrive as a Fantastic 4-like-super-team despite its mild dysfunctions.

Incredibles 2 is dynamic and full of funny moments. It also manages to be better than most superhero movies in that it is not too reliant on action. When it is action rich, the action is humorous, or at least creative. Perhaps this Pixar sequel does not enrich its universe with characters comparable to Jessie, Lotso Huggin Bear or even Emperor Zurg, but even as Incredibles 2 doesn’t sore to new heights, it doesn’t disappoint either—dah-lings.

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Isle of Dogs (2018)

Written and Directed by: Wes Anderson

IsleOfDogsFirstLook       A 12-year old boy (Koyu Rankin) with superficial resemblance to Le Petit Prince crash lands on an island of trash. He meets a team of stray dogs classically named King (Bob Babalan), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray), Rex (Edward Norton) and Chief (Bryan Cranston). Four of the dogs eagerly assist the teary-eyed boy on a quest to find his own dog, Spots (Liev Schrieber). Chief, by contrast, is reserved, but we can foresee that he has a soft exterior. What I have just described probably sounds like a children’s movie.

Except, early in this “children’s movie” a dog’s ear is ripped off, and we see it in its bloody glory (violence against dogs is a recurring motif of Wes Anderson’s: needless to say there’s a beautiful, dark irony to referencing the subject in this film). We also learn that the dogs on his trash island are exiles, deported by dictatorial, strong-willed Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), victims of (albeit cartoonish) harsh, populist bigotry. Finally, we are given strong reason to believe that the boy, Atari’s, dog Spots is no longer alive. Suddenly, this film no longer sounds like a children’s movie.

This is an issue Wes Anderson acknowledged at a Q&A, saying it was a question he and his team grappled with in the plot development process: they considered that their film would be quite disturbing for children. Anderson and the audience, however, questioned the dichotomy of thinking of films as being for children or adults, noting the role of anime in Japan. While an audience member pointed out that in America animation is either Frozen or South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut, anime films appeal to a spectrum of audiences, and even (eg Spirited Away) straddle the children’s-adult line in uncomfortable ways akin to Isle of Dogs.

While anime was perhaps an influence on Isle of Dogs (Anderson cited his interested in Japanese filmmakers like Miyazaki as the reason for his setting Isle of Dogs in Japan), there is something distinct about Anderson’s approach to not-for-kids animation. As a filmmaker coming from the American context, and as someone whose last animated feature was a Roald Dahl adaptation, Anderson’s decision to make his film not exactly kid-friendly has a (somewhat) shocking affect. Anderson is aware of this tonal quality of his work, and thus doesn’t miss an opportunity to be playfully shocking. A recurring motif in the film is dogs getting into fights. These scraps are covered up by cartoon dust clouds. On the one hand Anderson is depicting his cute doggie characters as fighting, thus disrupting the illusion of his movie being for kids. On the flip side, he covers up the fights with a Looney Tunes style visual-aid, disrupting his adult-darkness.

Isle of Dogs can thus be said to have a distinct aesthetic: a little bit cute, and a little bit scrappy, much like its stray protagonists. This aesthetic juxtaposes nicely with Anderson’s established practice of depicting quirkily colourful, yet meticulously organized backgrounds. One of the film’s iconic scenes features the dogs examining a bag of “food,” which is in fact a maggot covered collection of scraps. The food items are meticulously lined up in the bag, and are named one-by-one, complete with adjectives, by one of the dogs. This makes them beautiful, even as, from multiple sensual perspectives they are thoroughly unappealing to human and dog-stomachs alike.

Plot wise, Isle of Dogs is a bit simple, which is not necessarily a bad thing given the film’s pseudo-children’s-movie styling. While it opens beautifully with reference to a heroic young warrior standing up to ancestors of Mayor Kobayashi who wanted to wipe out Japan’s dogs, this legend is never revisited over the course of the script. Mayor Kobayashi’s own anti-dog policies are portrayed “as corruption,” rather than part of a deranged, multi-generational ideology. The uneven depiction of the mayor may have several explanations. Perhaps, like The Shape of Water, Isle of Dogs wants to reference oppressive politics, without muddling its script in the details ideology. Perhaps Anderson wanted to make vague anti-Trump illusions (Kobayashi is not only an anti-dog bigot, but his political opposition comes from “The Science Party” (perhaps reference to Trump and his party’s persistent climate change denial)), while still making his film enjoyable to audiences of all political persuasions.

One might also assume that since Anderson is an aesthetic-driven filmmaker, he saw Kobayashi not so much as a depiction of real world politicians, but as a politician-doll in the elaborate dollhouse of his movie. This third argument makes sense when one considers some of the more effective parts of Kobayashi’s portrayal. For example. there is one scene where the members of Kobayashi’s administration are introduced one by one, as he meticulously explains his devious anti-dog plot. This scene is comedic rather than sinister as it comes across as a gleeful imagining of what cartoon, corrupt politicians could look like, rather than a realistic depiction of an evil scheme. Another example of Kobayashi being a mere “dollhouse villain” comes when a dynamic speech of his is interrupted by an electric sign announcing that it is time for the opposition party to  offer a rebuttal. While the opposition (Science Party) is clearly not given a meaningful chance to challenge Kobayashi’s rule, that is given this tokenistic avenue to interrupt Kobayashi is a credit to Anderson’s imagination of the absurd nuances that could exist in a futuristic, oppressive polity.

In all, Isle of Dogs is a visually masterful effort, particularly as it makes use of its multiple genres of animation. Like its predecessor, The Grand Budapest Hotel, it can also be seen as a successful combination of established Andersonian visual techniques with broadly-appealing comedy. It is dark and playful and as such should capture the imaginations of a broad range of viewers from those who appreciate the unmistakably Andersonian tone of Nutmeg the reluctant-show-dog (Scarlett Johansson), to those who simply appreciate a good Yoko Ono cameo.

 

Note: Isle of Dogs was recently subject to some scrutiny in regards to the question of cultural appropriation. I will be following up with some views on that topic in a separate piece.

 

Loving Vincent (2017)

Written by: Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman and Jacek Dehnel. Directed by: Kobiela and Welchman 

Loving_Vincent            Let me begin by saying that Loving Vincent is a work one should see independent of one’s opinion of its narrative merits. Those who have heard of it previously surely know why. It describes itself (presumably accurately) as the world’s first oil-painted movie. The project consists of 65 000 frames and was painted by a team of 115 painters. In short, it is an animation miracle.

That said, I hope my first paragraph does not sell the film’s narrative short. The movie takes place following Van Gogh’s death and tells the story of Armand Roulin, a young man, and subject of one of Van Gogh’s portraits. Roulin is sent by his postmaster father (also the subject of a Van Gogh painting) to deliver a final letter from Vincent to his brother Theo. As Roulin’s task grows more complicated, his journey turns into a mystery, one where he questions whether Van Gogh in fact committed suicide or whether he was murdered.

The film is arguably sold short by its title. It is not a predictable, gushy tale of people feeling guilty and learning to love a mentally ill man and his work too late. Rather it is a work that maintains a constant air of mystery. Roulin’s journey to understand Van Gogh ultimately sheds a light on how he does not and perhaps cannot understand Vicent. Perhaps, the film implies, this is because Roulin is not himself an artists, but a more typical hot-headed male hero-figure. An alternative explanation is that the film intentionally limits itself with its medium. Characters move slowly through their viscous, post-impressionist surroundings, surroundings that limit their abilities to express themselves. Therefore, even as the film is a post Van-Gogh work, it ultimately only retells the story that Van Gogh, through his work, had already made public.

While the film is meant to resemble a Van Gogh painting, its artists did not attempt to create facsimiles. Rather, actors were cast in the roles of Van Gogh’s painted subjects, and the film’s painters painted over digital renditions of their faces. Roulin’s features, for instance, are firmer then they are in Van Gogh’s original depiction of him, giving him an air of toughness (in contrast to the sadness Van Gogh may have seen in the then teenage boy, whom the film’s creator’s imply he did not know well).

In essence, viewers should go to Loving Vincent to appreciate its visual singularity, and in doing so can enjoy a decently compelling story. While the animation pace may take some time to get use to, the film makes for a pleasant celebration of a beloved historical figure.