A Simple Story Told Well: Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur

the-good-dinosaur-storyPeople expect a lot from Pixar movies. They expect them to be visually amazing, emotionally compelling and engaging for all ages. They expect them to deal with serious themes, to confront hard topics head-on, and to leave viewers thinking. When a Pixar movie does something less than that, it’s normally panned.

The problem is that sometimes stories don’t need that. They don’t need to have deep themes or intense emotions. Sometimes simple stories are enough.

Let’s be clear: I didn’t think The Good Dinosaur was great. It isn’t another Up, and it isn’t even another Inside-Out. But it is good, and it is worth watching.

The story follows Arlo, a young dinosaur who, after his father dies, sets out to make his mark on the world. The mark metaphor is given a tangible manifestation in a tower that Arlo’s dad built before he died. On the tower are the pawprints of his father and mother, and two siblings, all of whom have “made their mark.” Arlo wants his pawprint to join theirs.

Here, I feel, is the biggest difference between The Good Dinosaur and the majority of Pixar movies. The characters in most Pixar movies have tangible goals–Carl wants to get to Paradise Falls, Woody and Buzz want to get back to Andy, Joy wants to get back to headquarters so she can solve everything–but those goals are tweaked. Round-about halfway through many Pixar movies, the goals change. The change is subtle, but its real.

Often it comes through the main character realizing that they’re pursuing the goal improperly, or have misunderstood its significance. Carl realizes that getting to Paradise Falls, while perfectly fine, is really a refusal to move on and love someone else. Woody and Buzz realize, in Toy Story 3, at least, that they shouldn’t trying to get back to Andy, but to get back to some child. Joy realizes she can’t solve the problems, Sadness has to.

Nothing like that ever happens in The Good Dinosaur. Arlo tries to make his mark. That’s the movie.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. But going in you, the viewer, have to understand it. I don’t think this is Pixar’s deepest movie. It’s a simple movie about a young dinosaur trying to make his mark and teaching a cave-boy about the importance of family along the way.

The animation is gorgeous, the scene where Arlo tries to explain family without words (since Spot, the cave boy, can’t speak) is touching, and the animation is gorgeous. Did I mention the animation is gorgeous?

Simply put, The Good Dinosaur is good. It’s simple, it’s well told, and that’s it. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it can be enjoyable as long as you know what to expect going in.


Do You Want to See a Magic Trick? A Review (and Defense) of Interstellar

Random fact time: a few months ago I was really into illusions. My interest and abilities have tapered off, but as a magician I learned one thing very quickly. More important to a good trick than executing the moves is how you sell the trick. If you sell the trick as “the laws of science are being disproven,” it’ll usually fall flat. People won’t buy that. If you sell the trick as a question, though, people will usually accept it.

The question is simple: do you want to see a magic trick? Contained within that are layers and layers of questions. Do you want to see a mystery? Will you come with me on a journey? Will you suspend your disbelief so that I can show you something extraordinary? A really good magician, and a really great trick, capitalizes on those questions perfectly.

Christopher Nolan is a really good magician. Interstellar, his latest film, is a really great trick.

Interstellar hinges on the audience accepting one thing. I highly encourage you to accept it, because the journey is so very worth it.

I say that because of one thing: Interstellar is fundamentally different from many of Nolan’s previous films. Interstellar doesn’t invite you to scrutinize its plot half to death. Interstellar doesn’t invite you to rigorously apply the laws of logic to it. Unlike Inception, for example, Interstellar is something entirely different–and it knows it.

In Interstellar, Nolan tells a tale that hinges on the audience’s accepting one rule. That rule is stated up front, within the first ten minutes, and is hammered home throughout the film: within the world of Interstellar, anything that can happen, will happen. If you accept the rule, Nolan gives you wonders. If you accept the rule, Nolan gives you a breathtakingly expansive and thrilling plot. He gives you a beautifully developed relationship, fantastic performances, and a heart wrenching drama.

But first, you have to accept the rule.

If you do the film is phenomenal. Like I said, the plot hits all its beats perfectly, gliding smoothly along. Even when the science gets wonky and the exposition is unclear, the relationship at the heart of the film carries the audience through. And what a relationship it is.

Interstellar, simply and without spoilers, is about a man named Cooper, and his quest to find a new world for the dying human race to inhabit. He has a family and a life back on earth, but he leaves it all behind with a promise to his daughter: I’m coming back.

Interstellar hinges on the relationship between Cooper and his daughter. In fact, the film’s heart isn’t what it’s been billed as. Nolan seems to be less interested in humanity finding a habitable world, and more interested in Cooper trying to get home. And the way that desire for home is developed, is beautiful. Even as the team tries to find a new home for humanity, Cooper knows he’ll never be home unless his daughter, Murphy, is there.

The audience feels that ache, and that longing, viscerally, and Nolan takes that to new levels. For example, because of relativity, time passes far more slowly for Cooper than for Murphy and the rest of the people back on earth. Those people are, somehow, able to send Cooper messages, though Cooper can’t reply.

Every time Cooper watches those, the emotions rage–both for him, and for the audience. And like I said before, those emotions form the heart of the film. By the end, the audience, like Nolan, almost cares more about Cooper getting home than him saving the human race.

That takes skill to pull off, but Nolan rises to the task with considerable aplomb. Except for, of course, one thing.

The film, if nothing ielse, is most certainly visually stunning.

All of the drama, all the emotion, everything in the film past the ten minute mark necessitates the audience accept the rule–that anything that can happen, will happen. And so, at the end of the day, the feeling I have about the film hinges on what I said at the very beginning.

Interstellar is a magic trick, and Nolan is a magician. Like any magic trick, the magician can sell it as best he can, but the magician can only sell it. Nolan sells the rule the film is based on as best he can, but he can only sell it–he can’t make the audience buy the rule. So Interstellar ends up throwing itself on the mercy of its audience, and Nolan asks very similar questions to those asked by a magician.

Nolan asks you, the audience, right at the beginning of the film, do you want to see something extraordinary? Do you want to see emotions and relationships stretched across years and years, forcing a visceral reaction? Do you want to see a thrilling plot? And just like the magician, Nolan’s questions can be summarized into one. The magician asks, “Do you want to see a magic trick?

Nolan asks, “Do you want me to tell you a story?” I answered yes, and I encourage you to the do same.

Why Do the Mighty Fall?

I’m always fascinated by how films are sold. The way that studios set up the story–the ideas that they convey, the things they foreshadow, everything. It’s fascinating. Recently, The Avengers 2 trailer came out and slipped into a familiar marketing trope: the heroes are falling.

And this time it struck me in quite a different way. Why is this the way movies are sold? The original Avengers didn’t get painted as that sort of story, and yet did phenomenally in terms of monetary gain. It’s obviously not necessary to pull audiences in. So why is this where studios decide to go? It’s happened before, too. Think of Iron Man 3, and all the marketing for that. Every single trailer was about Iron Man meeting his match, apparently, and falling. Of course the film was nothing like that, and I’m sure Avengers 2 won’t be anything like a “heroes falling” story. But yet why sell it that way?

The Dark Knight Rises was sold this way explicitly, especially with the tagline for the film: The Legend Ends.

The Legend Ends...Or Does It?

In a sense, the marketing of movies seems to me to be a story before the story. The studios tell a story about the story. The story before the story of Iron Man 3 was, “Iron Man is meeting his match and will fall.” The story The Dark Knight Rises marketing told was, “Batman will have to give up his life to save Gotham.” Avengers 2 seems to be, though we’ll have to wait for the rest of the trailers, “the heroic team has created their own demise.”

So why? Why do audiences come and see this type of story?

Of course, there’s the obvious answer: audiences love these characters and want to see if they’ll defeat evil. Honestly, though, this seems to fall short for me. How many of us actually think that Captain America, or Thor, or Iron Man are going to die in Avengers 2? How many people really bought that Iron Man 3 would have a tragic ending for the hero? I’d be willing to wager that very few actually thought that.

But yet studios tell that story. Why? “The mighty are falling” stories can be quite good, but why must the mighty fall?

Aren’t superheroes supposed to be the saviors? Aren’t they supposed to rise above evil and triumph? A lot of people in writing about the superhero movie trend, have observed that these films are almost an extension of our desire for a hero–for someone to save us. The superheroes seem to be able to save us, ergo we go to see these films.

So then, if we love superheroes stories because they seem to display our saviors, why sell the superhero films as “the mighty are falling?”

In my thinking about this over the days since The Avengers 2 trailer came out, I haven’t firmly come to a conclusion. I’m glad I haven’t, because I don’t think a few days can really answer the question. But a possible answer did arise, and that is that the mighty fall, or at least we go to see films sold as that, because we want to make sure the superheroes can triumph.

Or, to put it a different way, we’re afraid that perhaps our heroes won’t be the saviors we need. We don’t want to think that Iron Man can’t defeat evil, we don’t want to think that Batman will ultimately fall. That threatens our hope, our longing, for a savior that these superheroes might be. This type of marketing threatens our faith in these saviors, and so we go to these films hoping that our faith won’t really be destroyed.

To propose another answer that follows from the same basic idea, perhaps we go to these films because we know our heroes won’t die. We know Batman, and Iron Man, and the Avengers won’t fail, and so we go to see them triumph over the “death of the hero” story that’s been sold to us before the film. We go to see our faith in the superheroes reaffirmed. I’m really going out on a limb here, but I’ll throw this out: maybe we go to see the heroes triumph, not just over the story of death, but over death itself.

Why do we tell stories of the mighty falling, like Avengers 2 or Iron Man 3?

That’s what happened in The Dark Knight Rises–both in the marketing and the actual film–metaphorically speaking. Batman “dies” and rises again. Quite literally, he descends into the pit of death and defeats it by escaping. As his father tells him in flashbacks over the trilogy, he falls into the pit for the explicit purpose of defeating it. “Why do we fall? So that we can learn to pick ourselves back up,” his father says. Of course, the villain defeats the pit of death by rising from it as well, which throws a wrench in that theory.

So why do the mighty fall? The obvious answer is, “well, they don’t actually” and that’s true in the actual story. But in the story before the story–the story the marketers tell us–the mighty do fall. And so the question remains. And to put it in a slightly cheesy, but hopefully illuminating way: why do we go see movies where the heroes seem to be falling? Is it because we are scared the heroes will fall? Or is it so we can see them pick themselves back up?

The Broken Community and the Lost Boy: A Review of The Giver

Whatever your opinion is of Lois Lowry’s The Giver, the story behind it is fascinating and heartbreaking. She wrote it because she was asking a question–as she puts it, she wrote it because she was wondering about something. It was something her son had asked her, when he was flying missions in the first war in Iraq. He said that every day he was flying he would look down through the smoThe Giver tries to say something meaningful, but is too big for its own good. ke and ask himself, “why do people do such terrible things to each other, and what can we do to stop it?” Her son tragically passed away.

That’s a powerful reason to write a book, and that’s an incredibly difficult question. When Lowry attempted to answer it in The Giver she gave us what is, in my opinion, an absolutely amazing book. To be honest, it’s one of my favorites, if not my favorite. Thus, I was quite excited for the film, but had low expectations. I was worried that since the book was so introspective the film wouldn’t be able to capture the emotion, the drama, and the conflict that goes on.

Sadly, I was right.

The Giver, the film, should be given credit for trying really hard. Whether for good or for ill, the film sticks rather close to the book. While it did introduce more action, as well as increase the scope and focus of the film, by and large this is The Giver.

And actually, I think that’s one of the flaws of the film. Like I said, the book is incredibly introspective, and that’s one of the primary reasons it worked, in my opinion. The book isn’t about a community that’s lost emotion and color and beauty, it’s about a boy who’s lost emotion and color and beauty. The difference is everything. The book doesn’t try to make grand statements about humanity and all of human experience. Instead, it tries to tell the story of one boy and his experience, and in so doing happens to say something grand.

The film reverses that. It tries to say something grand, and happens to have a boy at the center of it. Which, of course, misses the entire point.

The film, instead of being an emotionally charged character study, is a critique of society. That means that now the question of the importance of emotions is being discussed on a massive scale, as the powers in the world of The Giver grapple with the equilibrium they’ve created and that is now slowly slipping away. Now, in of and itself, a critique of society isn’t a bad story, but the critique cannot fall prey to the same problems it is criticizing. The Giver does just this.

The Giver Film Review SceneThe Giver film starts out well–it seems like it’s going to create the emotional pull that made the book what it is. But very quickly, you realize that because the questions and themes of the book are being played out on a large scale, the emotion is disappearing. The film rises to its climax where it attempts to tell us how important and vital emotion is to human experience, but ironically fails to contain any emotion of its own.

In short, it’s an emotionless movie about the importance of emotion, and it simply doesn’t work. I think most of the other problems in the film stem from this simple fault; and as a result, the film never manages to get itself off the ground. Lois Lowry wrote The Giver to examine an important question, and she knew just how to do it. The Giver film tries to examine an important concept, but never manages to do it in the right way. I can’t recommend this film.

A Long Line of Scenes: A Review of The Amazing Spider-Man 2

I know I’m in the minority here, but I wasn’t a fan of the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy. While I can’t pass judgment on the third installment, since I haven’t seen it, I didn’t particularly care for the first two. To me, they felt too over-the-top, and never had any moments of true emotion, opting instead for what seemed like very forced character development and sometimes silly villains. The AmThe Amazing Spider-Man 2 Is Full of Scenes, but Devoid of Plotazing Spider-Man reboot, back in 2012, fixed many of these problems for me, though definitely not all of them.

While the villain was still rather silly, there was actual emotion. These were characters that I cared about–I wanted to see Peter find out about his father. I was sad with him when Uncle Ben died. There were real relationships, not just the obvious one between Peter and Gwen, but others: Peter and Aunt May, Peter and Captain Stacy. These characters were far more realistic.

And then…this one came along.

I really wanted to like this film, but it was plagued by so many problems I simply couldn’t. The biggest problem, though, is that I can’t even give you a synopsis. Primarily because a synopsis is a summary of the plot, which necessitates that a plot exist in the first place. If someone could explain to me the plot of Amazing Spider-Man 2, I’d be much obliged because I haven’t the faintest idea exactly what this film was about.

Was it about Peter trying to discover what happened to his parents? Then why Electro, and Green Goblin? Why all the drama with Gwen (which for the most part ceased being believable, sadly)? What was the point of the city turning against Spider-Man? Why all the questions about the justifiability of allowing a vigilante?

That last question actually brings up another point. This film, at so many different points, could not be more cliche. There are the villains with personal vendettas against Spider-Man, but most of them being totally unbelievable and rushed. There’s the internal monologue the villains have with themselves. There’s the evil “big corporation,” the silly scientist who stupidly tortures the villains, the dangerous experimental drug that turns people into villains–it’s all here. The one that got to me the most though was, like mentioned above, the dialog in the city about the legitimacy of Spider-Man.

In the Dark Knight Trilogy, this discussion was done well. It was a primary theme, allowing it to be fleshed out over the course of three films, each looking at a different aspect. Batman Begins examined the drive of the vigilante, and whether or not that was justifiable. The Dark Knight dealt with the concept of escalation, and what the vigilante creates. The Dark Knight Rises concluded with a discussion of the legacy left by the vigilante, and what the purpose of Batman is.

In Spider-Man, the extent of this discussion is several news reports all in one montage. Why was it necessary?

But really, you can ask that question of just about anything in the film. This is because the film has no plot–or at least it didn’t seem like it. There were multiple really good scenes. By and large the returning actors did a great job, even with the script that they had. Some of the action was fun, some of the new characters–if they had been given proper development–could have been interesting. Look, even the villains had potential. The way the Green Goblin story was executed was great, until they actually turned him into Green Goblin at which point he became boring. Many of the emotional scenes were truly emotional.

But none of it was part of a plot. It seemed like the writers said this: “Okay, so here are a couple cool scenes that we came up with. We also think it’d be cool to have these characters. Great!” And then they stuck those scenes up on a storyboard and threw in a bunch of other stuff to make it two hours. And then called it a plot. Which it wasn’t.

Like I said, I really wanted to like The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but every time I tried it was right there to stop me. The ending was well-done, and there were some truly fantastic scenes scattered throughout. Otherwise, it’s not much more than a story-board–a long line of scenes, some characters, but nothing to tie it all together. I can’t recommend the film.

Deadly Viruses and Talking Apes: A Review of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

So, this is a movie about talking apes. As such, one might expect that it would be difficult to have a serious discussion on the movie, much less a serious review. Interestingly enough, though, that’s one of the great strengths of the film–it allows for discussion and analysis, even with the fundamentally silly premise.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

To summarize the plot quickly, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes place 10 years after Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The apes have developed even further, constructing their own society and culture. They have a home, a governmental structure, schools–they are a fully-functioning society. The only way they’re able to do this, though, is because humanity has by and large been wiped out by a virus (as suggested during the end of the last film). The Apes believe all the humans are dead, until they encounter several.

These humans have set up a colony in San Fransisco, and they need a nearby dam in order to restore power. The problem is that the dam is in the middle of the apes’ forest. What follows is a tense diplomatic period, as the apes struggle to decide what to do with these new humans.

Let me start off by saying this: I had really low expectations going into this. I didn’t expect much of anything from it, even though I enjoyed the first one. I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that this was actually a really good film.

It’s slow at the beginning, which caught me off guard. Until the end, there really isn’t much action. Much of the screen time is devoted to developing the diplomacy between the apes and the humans, which frankly is the most interesting part of the film. Once the explosions start the film begins to cover familiar ground, even though it maintains a strong character base at its center.

That’s one of this film’s strengths: the characters are phenomenal. Cesar, the main ape, is played brilliantly by Andy Serkis (no surprise there), but multiple other apes are also developed. Even with the minimal dialog between them, these creatures still have emotional depth. The humans are, for the most part, just as good. While Gary Oldman’s character is actually quite minor (and thus not developed), the main humans are all built up well. The annihilation of the human race by the virus has affected all of them deeply–and you can tell. They go through all the standard emotions, but underneath it you get the sense of pure devastation that they feel.

The screenwriters did something interesting in that they didn’t much explain the back story of any of the main human characters. Instead, they let the actors make the characters three-dimensional, opting to focus all the character development in the present moment. It’s something out of the ordinary, but it works.

The other ingenious thing done here is that 2/3 of the film is basically drawn-out diplomatic proceedings between the two parties. It’s not what I expected, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was fascinating to see the humans overcome the communication barrier and begin to talk to the apes. The response of the ape community fit in well and added yet another layer to the plot.

Ultimately, though, the writers wrote themselves into a corner. The tension got so high, and there were so many different variables going on in the negotiations, that it simply had to devolve. Now, if they had let it devolve but then simply had a minor skirmish instead of all out war, the last 1/3 of the film could have been just as good as the first 2/3. But the problem is that once war started, there was no going back. The negotiations had been broken, and so from there on out it became a matter of simply beating the other side.

The climax was satisfying, but it was nothing new. Giving the innovation on display in the majority of the film, it was slightly disappointing. On the whole, though, I do recommend this movie. It has its flaws, but overall it’s a well-written, well-acted, and enjoyable film. There was a lot going against it (like, I don’t know, talking apes) but the screenwriters pulled it off. And for that I congratulate them.

Developing Through Danger: A Review of Captain Phillips

I once read, in a book on writing, that one of the best ways to create emotional investment in a character was to put them in a serious situation. Make them undergo serious physical or mental duress, and the audience will likely sympathize with them. I don’t know if this always works, but it certainly did in Captain Phillips, the Oscar-nominated film starring Tom Hanks.

Captain Phillips kept the tension high throughout.The film follows its title character, Captain Phillips, the captain of a transport vessel traveling through waters off the coast of Somalia. The ship is taken by pirates, who hold the ship, and its captain, for ransom. Eventually, the crew is able to get the pirates off the ship, but they take Phillips with them. As the US Navy tries to buy time in order to get Phillips back, tensions aboard the small pirate vessel rise.

I’ll just say this before going any further: this movie is great. The actors do a fabulous job developing the characters in a script that doesn’t give much time to it. The vulnerability and fear that the crew feels is displayed perfectly. Even the pirates, and their slow recognition that they weren’t going to get their ransom was believable and worked. Tom Hanks gives a good arc to the captain, showing his desperation kick in and his hope for survival fading away.

The way the film does character development isn’t traditional, but it works. Instead of developing the characters primarily prior to them being put in danger, it is the danger that develops them. It’s an interesting approach that I’ve seen utilized before, but, to my remembrance, never better. It works, and it works well. The danger and peril are high, which is why I think it was effective.

If the Captain hadn’t been in quite so much danger, I doubt the development would have been as rounded. As a result, there is quite a bit of peril in this film, which contributes to the overall intensity and “dark” feel. Thankfully, however, the film doesn’t spend all its time emphasizing the darkness, and moves along quite well.

Another thing that struck me as a wise move was the decision to limit the action. By that, I mean that there was quite a bit of news coverage, etc. going on while Phillips was being held hostage. The film could have easily cut away to show some of the reactions of the outside world, but it didn’t. It kept the action, the emotion, and the audience focused on the specific events taking place aboard the pirate ship.

I will say that the shaky camera oftentimes frustrated me. While it worked in some scenes, I found it simply distracting in others. Given that the film was directed by the same person who directed the final Bourne movie (which was also quite liberal with its shaky camera), I wasn’t surprised. Nevertheless, it did frustrate me.

Even with that, though, the film was great. The pacing was good, the acting lent great believability to the entire film, and the script kept the plot focused. I highly recommend you see this film.

Note: This film is quite tense, and on occasion somewhat graphic. Take great care before allowing young children to see this film.