TOY STORY 4

Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A-
Animation: A

My love of the Toy Story franchise cannot be overstated, especially since Toy Story 3 became not only my favorite in the series, but my favorite movie of 2010. When the first Toy Story was released in 1995, it established Pixar Animation Studios as the industry standard for CG animated features, for visual impressiveness and storytelling power in equal measure; with Toy Story 2 in 1999, Pixar’s first-ever sequel proved that they were capable of sequels equal to their predecessor. But, a second sequel, eleven years after the last installment? Which was more emotionally affecting even than the previous to put together? The achievements of Toy Story 3 astonish me to this day.

So, I had mixed expectations for Toy Story 4 — and, in the end, somewhat mixed feelings about it after the fact. Could the lightning in a bottle they managed with a third film in a series, which still woks perfectly as the final installment of a trilogy, be repeated with a fourth installment? In short: no. But, it’s more complicated than that. Toy Story 4 feels like a revisit to a world we all love, and it is undeniably fun and emotionally affecting in its own right. But it also doesn’t not particularly innovate the story in any way, doesn’t move these characters’ universe any further forward than they had gone the last time around.

With eleven years between 2 and 3, and nine years between 3 and 4, there has been an average of ten years between the release of every Toy Story sequel. Entirely new generations of kids exist with the release of each new installment. It seems kind of fitting that much of this new one takes place inside an antique store. Granted, these toy characters have been talking about their conditions as antiques since the second film, but 4 contains a fully contained environment housing relics collecting dust. It feels like a vague allusion to this franchise itself, were they to continue making them.

Sadly, the truth is, of all four of these movies, Toy Story 4 is the least vital. Unlike the first three movies, this one doesn’t even have Andy as part of the narrative thread that connects them all — only the memory of him, which Woody (voiced, as everyone should know by now, by Tom Hanks) can’t learn to let go of. And strangely, even though Toy Story 3 aged its characters close to the amount of time passed between the Toy Story 2 and 3, Toy Story 4 starts with a flashback to “nine years ago” that would actually place it closer to the time of Toy Story 2. In the narrative of 4, Bonnie, the little girl Andy gifted all his toys to at the end of 3 as he headed off to college, is still the same little girl. It has a slightly discombobulating effect, a decade between movie releases but time passing that much in the story with one but not at all with the next.

But. But, but, but! I freely admit I am being nitpicky here. I can nitpick even more: if Bo Peep has been living such a wild outdoor life all this time at a carniva (Annie Potts, who voices the character, did not appear in Toy Story 3), how the hell does her porcelain face and clothes remain so clean and spotless? Pixar is usually better at attention to detail than this. But I’m digressing again! Because: seriously, so what? Toy Story 4 not being the truly great movie I wanted it to be certainly doesn’t change the quality entertainment it offers in its own right and on its own terms.

The new toy characters alone make this movie worth seeing. “Forky” (Tony Hale), a spork with googly eyes made by little Bonnie at kindergarten orientation, is a delightfully weird addition to the gang. Keanu Reeves voices Duke Caboom, a Canadian toy daredevil motorcycle rider with a hilarious amount of pride in himself. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele show up as the voices of insanely cute and also unruly plush carnival prizes, a bird and a bunny, with overactive imaginations. An antique doll with a pull string but a malfunctioning motor that makes her borderline villainous in her desire for the working motor in Woody’s back, is voiced by Christian Hendricks.

And yes, of course, Tim Allen also returns as Buzz Lightyear, with an amusing running joke about considering his button-press recorded sayings his “inner voice.” Pretty much all the rest of the regular toys return as well, particularly Bo Peep, here basically getting a co-lead part in the story.

Thus, as you might imagine, a whole lot is going on in this movie. It’s an hour and forty minutes long, and it zips along so quickly it feels much shorter than that. And, I must also admit, the more I think about it after the fact, the greater my appreciation for it becomes. That doesn’t make it any more vital as an addition to the series, but it does illustrate that not a single moment of time is wasted watching it either. As with its predecessors, I will no doubt by happy to go see it again.

As always, I must mention the animation. It is as impressive as ever, and here easily the most impressive part of the film — pretty on-brand for Pixar. Because Bonnie’s family has chosen to take a road trip in the interim between kindergarten orientation and the official start of the school year, the majority of the story takes place first on the road, and then at the aforementioned carnival — only a fraction of it takes place in Bonnie’s bedroom. And this carnival allows for some spectacular visual backdrops, the lights, the colors, the spinning rides, the occasional fireworks. This could easily have been a sensory overload, but the animators here present it with a unique beauty, often as deliberately blurred background for the action of the story. It’s animation that looks remarkably like a location shoot.

I suppose these flourishes are increasingly necessary, lest the repetition of the conceit, that toys get misplaced and must find their way back to their kids, get stale. It’s true that these stories are really just variations on the same basic concepts — but then, aren’t all stories? The joy is in the details, and this is a film with plenty such joy to offer.

A return to something we did not need but are sure glad to have.

A return to something we did not need but are sure glad to have.

Overall: B+

SIFF Advance: PACHAMAMA

Directing: B+
Acting: B
Writing: B+
Cinematography: A-
Editing: B+
Animation: A

Although its run time clocks in at an unusually brief 72 minutes, Pachamama is an animated feature the allows its story to settle and sink in, rather than presenting itself as though it is competing for the minuscule attention spans of eight-year-olds. The truth is that likely means it won’t get seen by a particularly wide audience, and that makes me sad. Its animation, “inspired by colorful indigenous art,” is reason enough to be seen on its own.

And herein likes a minor bit of catch-22: it’s wonderful that Netflix has picked up the rights to stream this film, which it reportedly will begin doing as soon as next month. Look for it on Netflix then, if nothing else; it’s better seen that way than not seen at all. But, that also will likely dissuade viewers from seeing it in movie theatres, where it truly is best seen. The artistry is truly unique and beautiful, and there just won’t be the same appreciation for detail on an iPad screen.

A joint production of France, Luxembourg, and Canada — and a 2019 César Award nominee for Best Animated Film — Pachamama is actually directed by Argentina-born Juan Antin, who bases this story largely on the Earth/Time Mother goddess revered by the indigenous people of the Andes. The story thus takes place in a small village just outside the city of Cuzco, once the capital of the Inca Empire, and is presently in modern-day Peru, about 47 miles from the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu.

No “ruins” figure in the story here, as Pachamama takes place during the reign of the Incas — although the two children, Tepulpai (Andrea Santamaria) and Naïra (India Coenen), take a journey by foot from the village to Cuzco. They are seeking the return of a golden totem they use in ceremonial offerings to the goddess Pachamama. In the process, the film Pachamama illustrates a bit of the hubris of both the Incan rulers as well as colonialist conquistadors, as Tepulpai and Naïra get caught in the crosshairs of those conflicts.

All the while, though, always steeped in indigenous Andean mythology, Tepulpai in particularly must learn the importance of both sacrifice and tradition. He’s defiant in the face of offering his “most prized possession” to Pachamama, and starts off pretty petty and selfish. In short, he’s a little asshole — behaving the way a whole lot of children in need of a lesson behave. The is thus the focus of a parable, and a very well rendered one at that.

The story, quite well polished considering there are five credited script writers, offers backdrops of both historical and mythological complexity, behind a veneer of pretty simple and straightforward plotting. Adult viewers will find a film of both visual and narrative depth. Young children are apt to be dazzled both by the story and the colors, provided they give the movie a chance to begin with. If they are desensitized by frenetic animation that relies on chaotic, rapid-fire editing, they might have little interest.

Longer attention spans, however, will very much be rewarded by this film, which is a genuine work of art.

Our young heroes soar above a truly unique template.

Our young heroes soar above a truly unique template.

Overall: B+

THE LEGO MOVIE 2: THE SECOND PART

Directing: B
Acting: B
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B-
Editing: B-
Animation: B+

I would argue that calling this sequel The Second Part is at least partly misleading: after The Lego Movie (2014) and before The Lego Movie 2, we already got The Lego Batman Movie (2017) and The Lego Ninjago Movie (also 2017). I suppose since The Lego Movie 2 is the only one of these actually to be a direct sequel, but these movies clearly all inhabit the same universe, maybe it would be more accurate to call this one The Lego Movie 2: The Fourth Part.

Four movies and five years in, is no one experiencing “Lego Movie Fatigue”? It would seem in fact they are, what with this movie’s opening day box office pulling in 46% less the original film did in 2014.

It’s kind of too bad, honestly — while The Second Part is hardly a masterpiece, and there are periods that are strangely dull for a movie overstuffed with action, I actually did like this one at least slightly more than I did the original. It has something a little more interesting to say about how children breathe life into their toys, at least. In The Lego Movie, that idea felt swiped wholesale from the Pixar Toy Story movies. This time, Director Mike Mitchell expands that to consider how kids’ imaginations change as they get older.

More specifically in this case, the whole conflict between who we are supposed to regard as “the good guys” (voiced by Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Alison Brie, Nick Offerman and Charlie Day) and “the bad guys” (voiced fantastically by Tiffany Haddish, and Stephanie Beatriz), arises as the result of a growing boy’s younger sister wanting to play LEGOS with him, and their competing imaginary ideas. Much like the far superior Toy Story 3, it gets into how toys are affected by their child owners starting to grow up. The Lego Movie 2 does offer a take all its own, exploring how adversarial ways of thinking can be made to work together.

As is typical with these movies, though, I just wish it had a bit more wit about it. This movie is all of an hour and 46 minutes long, but a good fifteen minutes could have been shaved off of that, saving a whole lot of unnecessary animation work and really tightening up the gags — many of which are pretty good. Movies like this, which clearly aim to pummel the viewer with both humor and action, start to fall flat when the wit dries up.

That said, within this particular series, I can’t help but say one thing I’ve said about all three that I saw: kids will love it. No young child who loves animated feature films and LEGO toys will feel like watching this was a waste of time. They may not re-watch it quite as much as they did previous “Lego Movies,” I suppose. And when it comes to holding the attention of the adults accompanying said children, it does a sufficient job, with plenty of funny pop culture references. It’s always nice, though, when a movie can do better than just be sufficient.

—But wait! One thing I will give this movie that’s way better than sufficient: its soundtrack. The Lego Movie 2, in fact, could be considered at least partly a musical, which at least one character refers to as “the universal language.” This movie has several super catchy songs, the best of which is literally called “Catchy Song.” And if there is any one thing that does indeed make this one worth seeing, it’s the songs.

Okay everybody get in formation . . . for more of this.

Okay everybody get in formation . . . for more of this.

Overall: B

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE

Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: A-
Editing: A-
Animation: A
Special Effects: A-

Now, here comes something truly unexpected: the second superhero movie within the space of a year to qualify as truly exceptional and worth seeing — more than once, even. It’s no secret that as a general rule I avoid going to theatres to see superhero movies. This “Marvel Cinematic Universe” crap overstayed its welcome and over-saturated the market ages ago, ten years and twenty movies in having long since adopted the same story arc over and over, and over and over. Maybe their blockbuster special effects extravaganza aesthetic still wows the kids, but for bona fide grownups, it’s frankly boring as hell.

How many times do we need to sit through the same plot where the entire world — or hell, the entire universe — is threatened by less and less memorable villains, then “saved” by increasingly bland heroes in which we have no emotional investment because we know they are generally immortal? Okay, I hear — spoiler alert! — half the heroes in the latest Avengers movie perish, so one might argue that raises the stakes. I would continue arguing the opposite, in a cinematic world now characterized by remakes, reboots, and sequels that find creative ways to resurrect characters. I stopped caring because these stories stopped giving me reason to.

—Except! As with anything, I still make exceptions for the exceptional. And when one of these movies comes along that branches out from the primary goal of turning every multiplex into mere housing for superhero movies made to break box office records, and has something vital to say or represent, I will give it a look. I did for last year’s Wonder Woman, a solid-B movie with its heart in the right place but still marred by a forgettable villain who, as usual, just destroys everything in his wake in a battle meant to be climactic but in its roteness was rendered anything but. I did for this year’s Black Panther, a film so nearly perfect that it is rightfully expected to become the first superhero movie nominated for Best Picture.

And now, I do it for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, a film that surprises at nearly every level: storytelling, themes, truly gorgeous animation, special effects, cinematography. How could a movie be this good coming after not one, but two franchise reboots in the past decade alone, or after the character has appeared in eight films in the past sixteen years? Well, it does it by changing the rules.

Here’s a novel approach: what if a comic book movie literally felt like you were inside the pages of a comic book? Characters read comic books about Spider-Man; the screen splits into panels; occasionally comic-book style text boxes appear in the midst of the beautifully rendered action. Mind you, this occurs relatively sparingly, which keeps the technique fresh.

3-D is another thing I generally avoid as a rule, finding it to be a racket to raise ticket prices for visuals not at all enhanced by the process. Again, there are exceptions, usually thanks to visionary directors deliberately doing something new with the medium. Actually being shot in 3D instead of having the effect grafted on retroactively is by and large a prerequisite. I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse in 3D but found it to be my only option at the showtime I needed to see it. With an AMC Stubbs “A-List” monthly membership it comes at no extra cost, so I thought, what the hell. Now this is one of the rare films I would recommend be seen in 3-D. There is little doubt it works fine in standard 2-D, but the 3-D enhances the effect of being inside comic book panels, and does it quite well.

And then of course, does anyone remember the racist uproar over the idea of Marvel Comics introducing a black Spider-Man several years ago? As it happens, that was specifically about the character we are introduced to in film here, Miles Morales (charmingly voiced by Shameik Moore). He’s got a Black dad (Brian Tyree Henry) and a Puerto Rican mom (Luna Lauren Velez) and they live in Brooklyn. This is a story about a young Black/Latino Spider-Man and it’s wonderful.

It’s also effectively self-aware, with narration saying things like “Okay, let’s go through this one more time,” and quickly recapping how our hero was bitten by a radioactive spider. There being such a thing in the underground New York tunnels where Miles is doing spray art with his Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) doesn’t make much sense, but who cares? The spider logo eventually seen on the “Black Spider-Man” suit being rendered as though spray painted is an especially nice touch.

And I haven’t even gotten into the whole multiverse idea, have I? Here is where Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse mercifully ignores the typical MCU idea that all Marvel superheroes exist in the same world (thereby overwhelming virtually all stories about them) — here, there is only Spider-Man. Well, in this dimension, anyway. This film’s primary villain, The Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), has built a particle accelerator meant to retrieve his dead wife and son from another dimension, but when this world’s current Spider-Man (voiced by Chris Pine) is fatally mixed up in its use, it brings several versions of Spider-Man from other dimensions into this one: “Peter B. Parker” (Jake Johnson); Gwen Stacey’s Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld); the anime-style Japanese girl from the future, Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), with a robot friend powered by her radioactive spider from fourth-millennium New York; the black and white “Spider-Man Noir” (Nicholas Cage) from 1930s New York; and even the cartoon “Peter Porker / Spider-Ham” (John Mulaney).

This is a whole lot of detail to cram into a two-hour movie, what with its opportunities for humor as well as endless references to characters and stories that all previously existed in actual comic books (most of which I probably missed; this movie will be a comic book nerd’s dream). Amazingly, even with two writers (Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman) and three directors (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman), all these references and comic touches are seamlessly woven into a tightly packed and tightly polished narrative. From beginning to end, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a swiftly paced, gorgeously rendered animated film authentically honoring comic book storytelling in a way other films about superheroes never do.

This is a film with nothing cynical at its heart, even as it recognizes how overplayed some of its tropes are. This is one movie that builds on those tropes rather than rehashing them, and it’s a consistent delight throughout.

Diversity in action: the Spider-Verse gang.

Diversity in action: the Spider-Verse gang.

Overall: A-

RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET

Directing: B+
Acting: B
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+
Animation: B+

There’s an almost defiantly earnest sweetness to Ralph Breaks the Internet that snuck up on me. I was actually moved by it, which I did not expect — 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph, after all, trafficked in nostalgia for old video game characters that meant little to nothing to me. It was to that film’s credit that I still rather enjoyed it; I was never a gamer of any kind, but it featured a story that transcended anything that might have been foreign to me.

Ralph Breaks the Internet, as the title implies, broadens its horizons, at least in terms of its world — the story smartly focuses on the friendship between Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), a truly simple idea with the backdrop of the complexity of the Internet.

And the Internet, of course, is a language I much more readily speak — as does everyone who might possibly see this movie, of course. There’s honestly nothing especially innovative or memorable about the visual rendering of the Internet landscape as Ralph and Vanellope traverse it, but it’s fine. What sets this movie apart is its thematic sophistication in storytelling, and how it contextualizes real-world concepts for its young viewers.

There is a scene in which Ralph stumbles upon comments being posted online about him — many of them negative and hurtful. We see how it affects Ralph, and the importance of showing such consequences to a character kids love and care about cannot be overstated. The scene is brief but memorable: it makes its point with a lasting impression.

Furthermore, we all know that, depending on where you go, the Internet is — or can be — a true cesspool of awfulness. Ralph Breaks the Internet never quite references those depths, but it does frame some of its world with a sort of amusing darkness. It’s an impressively delicate balance held steady as, for instance, Ralph and Vanellope make their way into a violent videogame called Slaughter Race.

The great thing about this movie, though, is how it depicts characters both inside and outside such a game as essentially good and without judging them. It even takes traditionally unwholesome ideas (violence, for instance) and flips them on their head in myriad ways, perhaps the best of them being that the characters native to Slaughter Race — led by a badass woman named Shank and voiced by Gal Gadot — are all best friends essentially concerned with each other’s emotional support.

There’s a unique sort of dark humor to this movie, in a way that quickly detours into touching sweetness. Ralph Breaks the Internet is at its heart about friendship, how friends can hurt each other, and most importantly, how friendship can survive such mistakes. The many gags, most of them pretty great, about Internet ideas and concepts and trends and, yes, brands — they are mercifully not overbearing, and never come close to overshadowing that core element of the story. There is plenty of richness in the visual details, but you really have to concentrate to see it all, and in all likelihood you’ll be far more concerned with how Ralph and Vanellope will remain friends.

And just to be clear, it will be a while before I stop loving movies with strong willed, badass girls and women who have agency — something this one addresses with finesse: Vanellope visits a Disney fansite and meets several past Disney princesses — all but one of them voiced by the original voice actors from their respective Disney animated feature films. They collectively play a key role in the plot, and one of them even gets to say, “A big strong man needs our help!”

The thing is, whatever Ralph Breaks the Internet sends up, it does with clear affection — and the movie is all the better for it. It’s not retroactively declaring any of those old films to be bad, per se; it’s simply acknowledging how the world has changed, and for the better, particularly for girls. The is a story that champions those underserved in the past without finding anyone to demonize in the process.

In fact, the villain here is . . . Ralph himself. Or, to clarify, a manifestation of his own selfishness — manifested as a sort of “king rat” version of internet virus copies of himself, which climbs a digital tower in a clear visual reference to King Kong. And to be fair, Vanellope makes her own mistakes, and they both learn from them. As a result, Ralph Breaks the Internet is the rare animated feature that seems on the surface to be made mostly for children, but adults can appreciate the depth and layers of what’s being presented to young minds. It’s subtle yet effective in its themes, yet so entertaining you almost don’t notice.

And even with this film’s clear acknowledgment of the dark forces in the world, and particularly on the Internet, the characters across the board are sweet, giving and endearing. Any character supposedly “rough” (such as the slug-like creature with a second face in his neck voiced by Alfred Molina) is somewhere on the spectrum between funny and cute. So it goes with everything in Ralph’s world, where bad things can happen but good people step up when you’ve made great friends.

Ralph surveys what he’s about to break.

Ralph surveys what he’s about to break.

Overall: B+

INCREDIBLES 2

Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: A-
Editing: B+
Animation
: A-

It's been a long time since we last saw The Incredibles -- fourteen years, a record gap for Pixar films, breaking the 13-year record between Finding Nemo and Finding Dory. When The Incredibles was released in 2004, in fact, that was the year I first starting these reviews -- but I missed that film by one month, with my first reviews posted in December 2004, after The Incredibles was released in November.

Although the voice actors have all aged the same fourteen years, their voices for the most part sound the same: once again we get Holly Hunter as Elastigirl; Craig T. Nelson as Mr. Incredible; Sarah Vowell as their daughter; Samuel L. Jackson as their super-best friend Frozone. The one notable change is the voice of young Dash, now Huck Milner because Spencer Fox from the original is too old to play a young boy anymore. I just watched both films in one day though, and their voices sound remarkably similar.

Notable additions this time around include Bob Odenkirk and Catherine Keener as siblings Winston and Evelyn Deavor, who together run a tech company they want to use for advocating renewed acceptance for superheroes. If you think there may be some suspicious motives in there, you'd be right; that's all I'll say about that. Well, except that Catherine Keener is a great choice for any kind of animation voice work, and Winston's likeness is remarkably suggestive of Bob Odenkirk's.

Anyway, fourteen years have passed for us, but for the Incredible family, the story picks up at literally the moment The Incredibles ended. This narrative choice is somewhat of a mixed bag, honestly, and the first fifteen minutes or so of Incredibles 2 sag a bit under the weight of tedious exposition.

But, then things pick up, and the wit and cleverly complex plotting that made the first film so great return. The scene stealer is, once again, superhero suit designer Edna Mode (voiced this time, same as last time, amazingly, by director Brad Bird). The star of this movie, surprisingly, is baby Jack Jack -- who never even has any lines beyond the incoherent babbling of an infant. This underscores the talent on hand over at Pixar Animation Studios, because it's how Jack Jack is animated that makes him so delightful and adorable, from the way he shows off his many superpowers to the way he first puts on his little black superhero mask. These two characters, Edna Mode and Jack Jack, are alone worth the price of admission.

And, although The Incredibles still has the edge for its originality, Incredibles 2 has a much better villain. Syndrome, from the first film, was an annoying pipsqueak you just wanted to slap. Now we get "The Screenslaver," who is at first mysterious and then given a reveal of identity that gives this story a commendable complexity. This villain hypnotizes people via ubiquitous screens everyone is looking at, from TVs to mobile devices, offering a sly commentary on contemporary tech culture. (There's also more than a little irony in showing the trailer for Wreck-It Ralph 2 before this movie, as it apparently moves into the Internet and is clearly packed with endless product placement of the very brands we all look at every day.)

It's also great fun, of course, to see Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl switch roles for a while: Helen is asked to be the face of a campaign to make "supers" favorable to the public again, and in the meantime Bob becomes a stay-at-home dad. It's Mr. Mom for the Pixar Age, and it plays well, illustrating the constraints of gendered expectations without ever getting preachy about it. It's always just fun or funny, especially when Bob struggles to deal with Jack Jack's newly discovered powers. (You may recall they manifested themselves at the very end of The Incredibles, but neither Bob nor Helen were witness to them, so at the beginning of this movie, the family still thinks he's just a normal baby.)

The CG animation is top-notch, as is typically expected of Pixar Films; I particularly enjoyed the many sequences in which the heroes are weaving through and around dense cityscapes. This being Pixar's 20th animated feature, we've long since past the point of being in awe of their technical achievements, but they still remain impressive. Overall, The Incredibles 2 can't exceed the quality of its predecessor, but it comes close enough that nothing about it disappoints. It's every bit the great time you want it to be.

The family that works together stays together: The Incredibles continue living up to their name.

The family that works together stays together: The Incredibles continue living up to their name.

Overall: B+

ISLE OF DOGS

Directing: B+
Acting: B
Writing: A-
Cinematography: A-
Editing: B+
Animation: A-
Production Design
: A-

Isle of Dogs is only Wes Anderson's second foray into stop-motion animation, but he turns out to be uniquely suited to the form. Plenty of his live-action films seem like they might as well be animated, with their static shots of stunningly detailed, colorful tableaus. This gives a strangely static tone to many of his films, as though the characters live in a world just off from the real one.

That's not so much of an issue with animation, as was the case with Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). What makes Isle of Dogs the superior of the two films is a sentimentality that's missing from many of Anderson's other films. Rather than being witty and clever just for its own sake, this film gets to the heart of the bond between people and their pets. And rather than being multiple species who all wear clothes, these are dogs who actually act more like dogs than people -- sure, they talk, but it's still more realistic and thus more relatable.

The plot is surprisingly complex, set in Japan twenty years in the future, a corrupt mayor declaring all the dogs in the city of Megasaki infected by a canine virus a public menace and exiling them on the island of the title. The first of these dogs is one named Spots, his master being the mayor's distant nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin), whose parents died in a terrible bullet train accident. Months after all the dogs have been exiled, Atari flies a small plane to the island in search of Spots, and a group of dirty alpha dogs helps him search for him.

To be honest, fun as it looked, the trailer for Isle of Dogs gave me slight pause. The voice cast features a couple dozen famous talents, most of them American. How was Wes Anderson going to handle this, having the story set in Japan? This seemed potentially problematic. In the end, he comes up with some clever devices, while retaining several Japanese actors actually delivering lines in their own native language -- in fact, Atari has many lines, and Koyu Rankin delivers nearly all of them in Japanese.

Many of the Japanese lines are delivered neither with subtitles or translations; no such efforts are made when it makes no difference to understanding the story. That said, very occasionally, subtitles are used. Most of the many television news reports featured are handled by a character who is herself an interpreter, played by Frances McDormand. So what of audiences who actually speak Japanese, then? This film is clearly made for American audiences first and foremost, which alone makes the use of Japan as basically a complex prop itself problematic, but as someone fluent only in English, I cannot speak for such people. You might do well to read this Vulture piece featuring the perspectives of several Japanese speakers, a fascinating read indeed, on the whole pretty positive in response to the movie but also offering many totally fair criticisms.

Really, Isle of Dogs could just have easily been set in any American city in the future, without using Japanese language and styles as a gimmick -- or perhaps it even still could, if set largely in a given city's International District, using, say, the bilingual child of Japanese immigrants. I mean, I quite enjoyed it all, to be honest. But it must be acknowledged that I speak from the perspective of a white guy with limited understanding of Japanese culture.

Now, dogs -- that's a different story, even though -- confession time! -- I am much more of a cat person, and would be delighted by a film of this sort featuring cats as the main characters. As it happens, cats do feature in this story, just none of them being given any lines. They don't talk. They are just grumpy looking props for all the villainous city leaders attempting to eradicate all dogs. To be fair, even as props the cats are put to good use and are nearly always amusing in their own right.

But the essence of Isle of Dogs gets down to my favorite exchange of dialogue in the movie: Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson) asks Chief (Bryan Cranston), "Will you help him then, the little pilot?" When Chief responds, "Why should I?", Nutmeg replies, "Because he's a twelve-year-old boy. Dogs love those." All the dogs speak English, by the way; the opening titles offer the explanation that "all barks" are translated. In any case, it's this kind of sentiment that informs the story, and makes it likely that any dog-loving twelve-year-old would likely love this movie. Ironically, the film is rated PG-13 due mostly to some surprisingly graphic elements, such as the somewhat striking scene depicting a complete human liver transplant. (It makes sense when you watch the movie.)

Honestly, if there's any element of Isle of Dogs not deserving of praise, it's the persistently stoic delivery of the voice acting, typical of all Wes Anderson movies. Actor performances are never his strong suit, even with such an incredible roster of voice talent, here including Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum as the rest of the alpha dogs; Liev Schreiber as Spots; Harvey Keitel as Gondo, the leader of dogs from the island's pre-existing animal testing facility knocked out by natural disasters; F. Murray Abraham as Jupiter, the island's most-respected elder statesman dog; Tilda Swinton as Oracle, Jupiter's prophetic sidekick (the subject of a great running gag); Yoko Ono as one of the city's assistant scientists; Ken Watanabe as the Head Surgeon; and Greta Gerwig as the arguably unnecessary foreign exchange student who is American and therefore provides a lot of context via her lines delivered in English. It's fun to recognize all these people's voices, for sure (and especially the "Y" and the "O" tied around the assistant scientist's braids), but to a person, the delivery is the same: nearly always soft-spoken; almost monotone; just short of wooden. Possibly the one exception is Jeff Goldblum, who is incapable of speaking in anything but his specific Goldblum voice.

It's the animation that gives them all personality, and this movie's incredible animation must be acknowledged. This part is indeed on the same level as Fantastic Mr. Fox, with an attention to detail that is truly a sight to behold, itself reason alone to see the film, particularly on the big screen. Combined with cinematography made all the more impressive when it's stop-motion, production design on the level of excellence all Wes Anderson films are known for, and the nearly universal relatability of kids who love their dogs unconditionally, Ilse of Dogs (say that out loud) transcends all the reasons it gives to nitpick. Most people watching aren't going to bother with the nitpicking, and will easily surrender to its ample charms.

Atari and the alpha dogs in search of Spots.

Atari and the alpha dogs in search of Spots.

Overall: B+

EARLY MAN

Directing: B
Acting: B-
Writing: C+
Cinematography: B
Editing: B
Animation
: B-

I'm not into sports. I don't follow soccer -- or "football" everywhere in the world outside the U.S. -- and thus don't even quite understand it. I thought Early Man was going to be a cute and silly movie about cavemen (and cavewomen) of the Stone Age fighting against people of the Bronze Age to preserve their dying way of life. Turns out it's a movie about how people of the Stone Age invented soccer, and then used a match against Bronze Age players in a wager to keep their valley.

Okay, what?

I'm trying to be fair here. But Early Man is wonky from the start even from outside its massive focus on soccer. It can't even get its history right in broad strokes, its opening scene depicting humans and dinosaurs co-existing. What is this, produced by the curators of the Creationist Museum? At least Jesus never pops up.

Yeah yeah, it's just a cartoon -- or more accurately, stop-motion by Aardman Animation, which previously brought us delightful feature films like Flushed Away (2006) and Shaun the Sheep (2015). Its full history is admittedly slightly spotty, but they are capable of very fun and clever storytelling. They make quite an effort at it with Early Man, but honestly, this movie just didn't speak to me.

There are occasional giggles with moderately effective gags here and there, but the story focuses far too heavily on this soccer game. The Bronze Age people have come to mine for ore in the small, lush valley where the Stone Age people, who are sweet but a little boneheaded, make their home. Young Dug (Eddie Redmayne) finds himself accidentally scooped up and taken to the Bronze Age land, where he happens upon a soccer pitch (it is called a pitch, right? -- you see how much this movie is not made for me?). He befriends a young woman named Goona (Maisie Williams) who has dreams of playing the game in front of all the fans, and she trains the Stone Age team and winds up joining them.

The story features the requisite lessons of teamwork being more effective than self-advancement, nothing especially new or inventive there. Early Man is relatively fun overall, I'll concede, but neither its animation nor its script features even half the inventiveness that we can typically expect from Aardman. In fact, the animation designs are goofy as hell, even by Aardman standards. Honestly I found myself disinterested, close to bored, relatively early on. The least they could do is give it a less misleading title than Early Man -- like, I don't know, Early Football Players -- and make the story clearer in promotional materials.

But, I can imagine this movie working a lot better for other people, to be fair -- specially people with more than a passing familiarity, or an eager interest, in the sport of soccer. I do not. Thus, I would need the movie to offer something more substantial than this one does to sustain my attention. But, that's just me.

Hognob here is the most watchable part of the movie.

Hognob here is the most watchable part of the movie.

Overall: B-

COCO

Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: A
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A-
Animation: A

Oh, Pixar -- how great it is when you are great! And you are great more often than most, if less often than you used to be: Pixar films were reliably worth the time and money, without exception, with every film released between 1995 and 2004. I'll never really understand the enduring appeal of Cars (2006), their first movie that was really good rather than great, yet is the second of their franchises to spawn not just one, but two sub-par sequels (in 2011 and 2017; Cars 3 was the first-ever Pixar film I never even bothered to see, from sheer disinterest). For the past decade or so, they've been churning out about two adequate movies for every great one.

Case in point: after 2015's truly spectacular Inside Out was followed by the undeniably entertaining mixed bag that was The Good Dinosaur later that same year; the delightful yet by-definition unoriginal Finding Dory  last year; and then Cars 3 earlier this year -- two sequels in a row, in fact. And if there's any company that benefits most from not recycling material, it's Pixar -- who steps up to the plate yet again with Coco, a movie lacking in the thrills of the Toy Story series or The Incredibles or WALL-E or the sophisticated wit aimed at the adults in the audience found in most of Pixar's output, but containing all the visual dazzle now long expected of the Pixar brand, and a refreshingly straightforward amount of depth and heart.

I didn't laugh as much at Coco as I have tended to at most Pixar films in the past. I may have cried more than I have at any other Pixar film -- and that includes the opening sequence of Up (2009). This is a genuinely moving film, with pretty universal messages of the importance of familial love, and a very specific context in which to give it: during the Mexican tradition of honoring ancestors on The Day of the Dead.

Should I mention the ways in which Coco is unwittingly politicized? Talk about uncanny timing: animated features of Pixar's type are many years in the making, and when work on this began, no one had any idea it would be released to an America with Donald Trump as president, a man who has whipped up hatred toward immigrants and Mexicans in particular. And here comes along a film about a Mexican family, starring a clearly deliberate all-Latino voice cast -- you won't find any white people speaking with fake Mexican accents here.

And the script, by Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich (with additional original story credit by Jason Katz and co-director Lee Unkrich), is pretty close to perfect. There is a semi-provocative sequence regarding skeletal ancestor characters passing through check points to visit family on the Day of the Dead that's pretty evocative of immigration, but it stops short of being any direct commentary on immigration issues. This would have been an interesting choice for Mexican characters regardless of the era of the film's release, though.

As it happens, the film's original title was Dia de los Muertos, but when Disney made the clearly misguided attempt at trademarking the phrase and it understandably caused a backlash among Mexican-Americans (who all was in the room when everyone present thought that was a good idea?), the title was changed to Coco. This is the name of a minor but key character, the oldest living relative -- great-grandmother -- of a little boy named Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez). He is the central character, and he loves music, but is forbidden to play it because his great grandmother forbade it after her musician husband abandoned the family in favor of his musical passions. The family went on to become shoemakers who for generations refuse to have music in their homes. Sounds pretty depressing, no?

There's something a little flimsy about that premise -- only in an uber-manufactured world like a cartoon would such a scenario fly -- but, oh well. When Miguel attempts to steal the mounted guitar at the grave of his musical idol, the strum of the guitar on the night of the Day of the Dead passes him through to the world of the Dead.

It is here that he meets all the deceased ancestral characters, each with the same basic design as the skeletons typically decorating the scene at Dia de Muertos celebrations -- stark skeletal features on which are imposed stenciled patterns. Miguel finds himself in a spectacularly rendered "Land of the Dead," where the animation is on the level of all the best Pixar films that came before it -- painstakingly colored, awe inspiring in its detail, dazzling in its scope. This can even be said of scenes in cemeteries where people have brought offerings and candles to honor their dearly departed.

It's tempting to ask if Coco is like Corpse Bride, just because both feature skeleton characters. The key difference is that Coco places them in a very specific cultural context, and expands the imagination and the world they inhabit. Coco also has far greater depth in its themes, storytelling, and even its visual palate. Miguel meets his ancestors who began this moratorium on playing music in the family, and they must find a way to help him return to the land of the living. The aforementioned singer (voiced by Benjamin Bratt), and Hector (Gael García Bernal), a man denied entry to the land of the living to visit for the Day of the Dead because he no longer has living family to remember him, also feature prominently.

I suppose it should be noted that not only does Coco deal pretty directly with the concept of death and dealing with the loss of family members, actual murder does fit into the plot. I'm not sure how appropriate it would be for the smallest of children, who could be frightened by some of it. That said, children of at least Miguel's age (about ten, I suppose?) are certainly perfect audiences for Coco's themes of family and honoring elders lost.

Rarely is an animated film as textured in its storytelling as it is in its visual scope, and Coco delivers in spades on all fronts. The final fifteen minutes or so are particularly moving, and tie it all together in ways not easily predicted from the beginning of the story. This is a movie that is beautiful both on sight and in feeling, an accomplishment that belies its surface simplicity. It's family entertainment done right.

Visiting the Land of the Dead is more fun than you might expect  .

Visiting the Land of the Dead is more fun than you might expect.

Overall: A-

LOVING VINCENT

Directing: B-
Acting: B
Writing: C+
Cinematography: B-
Editing: B
Animation: B+

At first glance, the concept for Loving Vincent is intriguing indeed: as we are told in the first frame of the film, every frame (and thus including the one we are looking at) was hand painted, by a team of over 100 artists. The subsequent story they tell, such as it is, is entirely told in the visual style of Vincent van Gogh -- who is also the subject of the story. That makes this movie truly unlike any other, so there's that.

Van Gogh is seen a fair amount, but talked about much more. Co-directors and co-writers Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman use Citizen Cane as a vague inspiration in story structure, with the character Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth, getting the most screen time) talking to many citizens of the town where van Gogh died, a year after his somewhat mysterious death. Armand's dad, a postal carrier, was good friends with van Gogh, and has tasked Armand with delivering one of his final letters to a man in the town.

Each of these town characters are inspired by one or another famous figure from a van Gogh painting, brought to life. The way this was shot seems largely similar to the rotoscoping style of Richard Linklater's 2001 masterpiece Waking Life. Except here, instead of tracing over the actual footage, this time the actors shot their scenes, which were then projected onto canvases, over which literal oil paintings were painted.

The end result could have been spectacular in the vein of Waking Life, but the way the story was structured just didn't work for me. I'll fully concede that this is largely a matter of taste, and possibly even of education. Clearly anyone with a deep knowledge of van Gogh's work and life will find a far greater richness and reward to Loving Vincent (the phrasing of which, by the way, refers not to the act of loving him or his work, but to the way he signed his letters). I am not one of those people.

Furthermore, the animated brush strokes, so painstakingly rendered to mimic those of van Gogh himself, are often a distraction. Often a single frame of this movie is truly beautiful, but the way it moves when animated is often jarringly unnatural, with seemingly odd choices of colors, particularly when it comes to human skin tones. Perhaps that's just another element of typical van Gogh art?

But then there are the flashback scenes, which come with literally every conversation Armand has with the people in this town, and are always in black and white. This counter-productively mutes, if not outright nullifies, the effect of creating actual oil paintings for every frame of this movie. Who wants to look at van Gogh-style paintings in black and white? And it felt like nearly half the film's run time is dedicated to these flashback scenes.

It's a little fun, at least, to recognize the actors being depicted. Chris O'Dowd, Helen McCrory, Aidan Turner, Saoirse Ronan and more were literally costumed for the scenes they shot, and the artists render paintings of them rather than more directly mimicking the van Gogh paintings on which they are based. More fun, perhaps, than sensible: I also found this a bit of a distraction.

Aside from the visual inventiveness onscreen, the focus in the story is pretty much exclusively on conversations, and contemplation of the circumstances of van Gogh's death -- did he really commit suicide or was he shot? Unfortunately, I never found these conversations all that interesting. Again, it may be completely different for audiences with intimate knowledge of Vincent van Gogh. I can't imagine those audiences are very great in number though.

Armand wonders how to make this movie more exciting.

Armand wonders how to make this movie more exciting.

Overall: B-