Onward: Another Feather in Pixar’s Cap

When you think of Pixar, you imagine a crowd pleasing formula: likable heroes, relatable plights and accessible humor for the whole family. You also imagine success. Years and years of success.

And to be fair, most of that is well-deserved. Pixar is the standard bearer of quality animation in film and every time you think they can’t possibly top themselves again, they set the bar just a little bit higher. But with that success also comes the added benefit of a box office safety net. The lesser Pixar entries often perform far better than they should and are typically bulletproof from too much criticism.

Which brings us to Onward. Two elf brothers, Ian and Barley Lightfoot, embark on a magical quest with their deceased father’s legs to complete a spell that will bring his whole body back for one day. If that was weird to read, trust me that it felt weird to type and it all makes for a zany tale of medieval creatures living their lives in the modern world. Tom Holland and Chris Pratt are likable actors who fit their characters like a glove and there lies a certain sort of charm about embracing magic and the fantastical over our convenient technology.

All of this is to say that I rather enjoyed Onward. I’d definitely watch it again and will probably buy it at some point, despite the fact that it is sure to be available on Disney+ the second it ends its run in theaters. I just don’t know that it lives up to the Pixar standard so much as it benefits from being made by Pixar. Maybe I’m not making much sense here, so lets try a comparison.

Kubo and the Two Strings was one of the more groundbreaking animated films I’ve seen in the past five years. It featured a stellar voice cast, LAIKA’s unique style and some neat twists that I didn’t see coming. Yet in two weeks, Onward has already surpassed Kubo’s total earnings at the box office and has a higher audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Is there another reason why that’s the case beyond the simple fact that Pixar made one but not the other?

To be fair, this is more of a commentary on how people are more likely to trust their hard earned cash to an established brand than take a risk on something unfamiliar. We recently ran a piece here about going to the movies and why audiences are more inclined to stay at home and catch something on Netflix. Pixar, and really Disney as a whole, is one of the few studios immune to the convenience of streaming. The irony of it all is that I’m the one who wrote this, but yet I didn’t think twice about paying to see Onward in the theater.

I have no idea how well my point came across here. I’m a fan of this movie. I guess I just wish that every film that deserved it received guaranteed success.

(For the record, Onward‘s $45 million opening weekend is considered low for the studio. That’s still almost as much as Kubo earned in total in North America).

Let’s Talk About The Rise of Skywalker

Let’s Talk About is more or less a transcript of a conversation that Kevin and I have about particular movies. While it is not an actual transcript, since we have long since moved past talking on the phone, think of it as a giant text message thread between two friends. Also, these posts often contain SPOILERS, so don’t continue unless you’ve seen the movie in question or just don’t care about having things ruined for you. You’ve been warned.

Jesse: So Kevin, let me set the scene for you: we were both fans of The Last Jedi, wanted to see how Disney built off of the plot threads in that movie and in our own ways were each anticipating the release of The Rise of Skywalker. We saw it at different times (because life is like that) and were not able to discuss our thoughts with each other until very recently. Finally, we shared our opinions and I believe the consensus was… disappointment. Crushing disappointment.

Am I off the mark there or does that sum it up pretty well?

Kevin: That sums it up pretty well and for all the disappointment I felt I can’t imagine how bad it was for you. Personally I’m a guy who likes Star Warsas in, I have watched every movie at least once but could never do a complete rewatch, I’ve dabbled in Star Wars video games a couple of times, and I also beat you and your fiancée at a Star Wars board game one time.

But for you, you’re a BIG Star Wars guy. So big you know all the intricacies of the convoluted Clone Wars TV show that I will never understand even with you breaking it down to me over and over (somehow Samurai Jack is involved? I don’t know).

My crushing disappointment stems from story telling and how poorly J.J. Abrams executed the end of the saga from a character point-of-view. But for you this is another crushing disappointment in a fandom that you’ve been a part of since before you could pronounce ‘midi-chlorian’.

So please walk me through your initial reaction to The Rise of the Skywalker, were you incensed? Did you let the hate flow through you? Did you choke someone with the force?!

Jesse: I attempted a force choke but ultimately just wound up choking on my Sour Patch Kids. Instant karma for trying to use the dark side.

After we saw the movie, I was walking back to the parking lot with my fiance and her friend, and we were discussing all of the ways that the story and script could have been improved. It was disheartening to me how easily we were coming up with ideas that sounded a lot better than what we wound up getting. And you know what, that happens with Star Wars sometimes. For all of the joy and awe that it brings to our lives, every once in awhile we get a big old steaming turd. That’s just the way it is.

But that doesn’t change the fact that I remain perplexed how poorly Disney planned out this trilogy from start to finish. Can you give me any insight as to what the hell they were thinking?

Kevin: I’ve worked on a myriad of group projects in college and now in my career and they all have one thing in common: they end in disaster. At this point I’m shocked any group of people can come together to create something as simple as a 30 second commercial, let alone an entire space opera.

However, the biggest difference between my work projects and this little Star Wars thing? Billion of dollars. Disney invested heavily in the Star Wars franchise. It’s literally a pillar of their new streaming service, a key attraction to their amusement parks and integral in keeping the attention of the next generation of kids.

That’s the most perplexing part. It reminds me of the disappointment of the Game of Thrones finale (which I never saw). I don’t understand how something so important could be completely mishandled when you have creative geniuses, all of the money in the world and a huge library of source material at your disposal! Maybe there was too much of it all. Too much money, too many hands in the cookie jar, too much pressure.

I imagine it’s like landing the Millennium Falcon: it looks easy but if there’s too many people yelling at Han or he’s trying to land on a ledge on Mustafar (had to look that up, the volcanic planet that Obi-Wan and Anakin fought on), then it becomes a lot harder!

I can’t explain it but to me the biggest error was not locking in the same creative mind to oversee this new trilogy. Maybe over the years we will get some insight into why the directors changed from Abrams to Rian Johnson and back to Abrahms. Or why there isn’t a Kevin Feige-MCU role that ensures the universe is consistent and of high quality.

Until then, please divulge your main points of contention with the ending of the Skywalker saga. You alluded to issues with the story and the script but what specifically ruined the movie for you?

Jesse: The funny part is that despite all of my disagreements with where the narrative was heading, I was willing to see it through to the endAs someone who loved The Last Jedi, I recognize that there are a lot of Star Wars fans who felt let down by that movie (to put it mildly). Maybe the shoe was on the other foot this time and I was one of the detractors of something that a lot of other people really enjoyed. Just because my opinion is different doesn’t mean the film was without merit.

But then we got to that ending and everything completely unraveled. Palpetine was strong enough to disable an ENTIRE FLEET of capital ships, but couldn’t stop Rey from killing him after she got a “pep talk” from a bunch of dead Jedi. Ben Solo apparently lost the ability to speak when he turned back to the light side of the Force, leaving Adam Driver very little to work with when trying to convey that arc (which I thought he did admirably given the circumstances). And then after Palpetine was defeated (again, rather easily), The Rise of Skywalker decided to try its hand at a Romeo & Juliet type ending in the most cringeworthy way possible.

Here’s the thing: if you’re going to have Ben save Rey so they can finally be happy together and that’s where you wanted to go all along, then you need to own how cheesy that is and just freaking go for it. But when they had Ben die seconds later (because I guess the strain of reviving a fellow force user was too much?), I rolled my eyes at how stupid that was. My fiance busted out laughing. We couldn’t believe how sharply the film veered away from its desired course just because it wanted to throw a curveball, or show that there were consequences for everything that had happened up until that point. The same movie that made it perfectly clear it was disregarding the majority of the repercussions set up by The Last Jedi.

J.J. Abrams is a good director, Kevin. He’s been the mastermind behind a lot of quality material. I just can’t figure out why he was willing to sign off on any of this. Should we even cover the last couple scenes of the movie? Or shall we spare ourselves the pain?

Kevin: We can’t not cover the last couple of scenes. But we also can’t fully cover them because, frankly, a LOT of it doesn’t make any damn sense. Just trying to dissect the plot holes and decisions is a fool’s errand.

Alas we are fools so let’s try anyway. You broke down a lot of the questions around Emperor Palpatine, that he dispensed the fleet with ease but couldn’t stop Rey. But you didn’t even address the fact that, ya know, Palpatine was supposed to be dead and is suddenly back. The movie addresses that he is back from the dead in the opening scrawl but fails to mention how exactly and that he is, in fact, a clone (?!). We had to find out that vital information months afterwards in a novel.

In addition, Palpatine’s plan doesn’t make a lick of sense. He needs Rey to kill him in anger so he can transfer his spirit to her since his body is failing, but she refuses because, you know, he’s evil and she doesn’t want to be used for evil. She continues to refuse until he threatens to kill her friends. So now she has to choose between saving her friends by killing the evil dude, but won’t that only prove that she is evil and allow him to take control of her? How rigid is this clause of “kill your grandpa and his spirit will be passed on to you?” Does it have to be “murder out of anger only”? Does it not count because she is doing it for the love of her friends? Even if that is true there would definitely be anger involved because that’s how emotions work! She loves her friends AND is angry that her grandpa clone is trying to kill them. There isn’t one primary emotion that drives all choices, people are far more complex. So if she murders him to save her friends and his spirit does transfer then won’t his spirit in her body kill her friends anyway? And it would be all her fault because…she killed the bad dude? What in the fuck?

And then that plan fails (obviously) but now, suddenly, Palpatine CAN kill Rey and Ben and use his own withering body to become all powerful? And then Rey ends up killing Palpatine but sacrificing herself only to be saved by Ben. So…where does the Emperor’s evil spirit go? Did it dissolve into sand? Is that why Anakin hates sand?

Man this Sith inheritance thing is confusing as fuck. I’d need the galaxy’s greatest law firm to figure out his last will and testament.

Okay I’m sorry, I got a little lost in my ramblings there, but you see my point. They wanted to bring back the biggest bad guy in the galaxy but didn’t tell you how and didn’t make his plan succinct enough to understand. And on top of that they decide to completely disregard The Last Jedi and all of the character development for the strongest character of this trilogy in Rey.

As you know, in the prior film, Rey discovered that her ancestry wasn’t important. She came from nobody and it didn’t matter. Now all of a sudden we are thrown for a loop when Rey finds out not only is her bloodline “royal” but the clone of her grandfather is demanding she sacrifice her life for it. How in the world can you throw in such a dramatic twist and expect the audience to fear that Rey might give in to her dark side?

And that’s still not the worst part. The worst part, and absolutely the worst thing Star Wars has ever done (that includes Jar Jar Binks!) was the very last word of the last scene.

You know what I’m talking about Jesse and I feel like I’ve droned on and on. Why don’t you take over and describe the “Skywalker” scene and let me know if I’m crazy for loathing it more than Anakin hates evil emperor spirit sand.

Jesse: The most befuddling part about Palpatine’s return is that he announces it to the entire galaxy, via some sort of holographic voicemail. Why would you reveal that you’re not dead if your goal is absolute power and you could quickly seize it from an unsuspecting Resistance? I swear that man is his own worst enemy.

In short, you’re not crazy, Kevin. You can loathe that “Skywalker” scene all you want and I may even join you for a minute. First off, like most other plotlines in this movie, it doesn’t even make sense. Even if you consider that Rey considers the Skywalkers to be her family or that she was in love with Ben (which feels kind of like a stretch), she never married Ben. His last name isn’t even Skywalker, it’s Solo for heavens sake! She just took that name for herself and received approving looks from Luke and Leia’s force ghosts, so it must be all good. But what really bothers me about her taking that name is that it tells the audience that you don’t matter in the Star Wars universe unless you are a Skywalker, and it’s the only way that Rey could find meaning in her life. That’s right, forget making a name for yourself (and staying, “Just Rey”) and definitely don’t even think about trying to redeem the Palpatine legacy (you know, her ACTUAL family).

You know this movie didn’t sit well with us when we both go on rants about it. Overall, the problem with the last scene, and really the main issue with this entire movie, is that it didn’t really feel like a culmination of any of the arcs or story threads that had been set up in this trilogy. Instead, it came off as one giant apology from Disney to all of the fans who hated the first two films. Pissed that Snoke turned out to be a red herring? Hey, here’s Palpatine, who basically was Snoke all along! Didn’t like Luke Skywalker taking a unique stance on the Jedi’s place in the galaxy? Don’t worry, he was just kidding around and wants to apologize for offending your idea of who you think he should be. Not getting your Ewok fix from this new trilogy? Fear not, they’re making cameos before the credits roll in this one. The heroes will even celebrate in a forest at the end!

So instead of just rolling with the punches and trying to let this story follow its own natural trajectory, Abrams and Disney gave us a very mediocre and watered down version of Return of the Jedi. Mark Hamill did an interview when this movie came out and they asked him if this was going to be his last Star Wars movie. He bluntly replied, “I hope so.” To be honest Kevin, I agree with him. I don’t want to see another movie about these damn Skywalkers.

Am I being too harsh? Am I calling it like it is? And how likely am I to change my tune if they were to announce a new Skywalker trilogy tomorrow?

Kevin: I can’t speak for you but I know I would roll my eyes if they announced a new Skywalker trilogy. At this point I’m completely sour on the franchise as a whole. I still haven’t watched The Mandalorian, despite all accounts that it is great, because I’m so apathetic towards the universe now. I have no desire to go back and do a rewatch. I don’t even want to beat you in that board game again.

Of course I have said similar statements about the MCU recently so maybe I’m just looking for something fresh. Or for something that respects it’s characters and isn’t just a mindless cash grab. Lately I’ve focused my attention towards smaller or forgotten films and have found some gems like BuffaloedThe Master, and Midsommar. And maybe that is better than vocalizing my complaints about a 40 year old franchise. Maybe I should be lifting up other films that will only get a fraction of the attention but deserve it all.

What say you Jesse? What does your Star Wars fan future look like?

Jesse: I will always love Star Wars. Like a junkie who always goes back to what hooks him even after he’s cleaned himself up, eventually I make my way back to a galaxy far, far away. But I agree with you 100 percent that it is in desperate need of something fresh. It possesses such a rich and vast anthology of worlds, characters and stories that it seems criminal, if not outright lazy, to just keep going back to the well of what’s worked before. One reason I enjoyed The Mandalorian so much is that it tapped into that depth and showed us how much potential Star Wars has to continue capturing our imaginations.

And I truly hope Disney learns its lesson and doesn’t repeat past mistakes. I just wouldn’t put it past them to wait 20 years or so and then do ANOTHER trilogy about the Skywalker legacy. Will I watch it? Probably, but at a certain point you have to wonder how much Disney truly cares about Star Wars beyond the spectacle that it provides. It is a license to print money and always will be, and I just don’t know how hard they’ll actually try in the future when they already have those box office dollars in the bag.

As a fan, I guess the best you can do is vote with your wallet. Don’t automatically shell out cash for anything with the Star Wars brand on it. Maybe follow Kevin’s lead and focus on smaller films that badly need your money. Films like Sorry to Bother You (which, holy crap, is going to get some more coverage from me here in the near future).

Just remember, Kevin, the Force will be with you… always. Because I’m getting a rematch with you in that darn board game.

Star Wars: The Good, the Bad and the Kevin

Happy New Year everyone! My apologies for not producing more content recently. I don’t want to call it a New Years Resolution, but let’s see if I can’t crank out some more stuff for you guys this month, alright? Let’s begin by ranking the movies in a franchise that I’m sure all fans would agree with and that will cause no divided opinions whatsoever: Star Wars!

I recently rewatched every tale from a galaxy far, far away in order to prepare for The Rise of Skywalker. Most of it was fun, parts of it were excruciating and it was an important reminder that sometimes when it comes to the things you love, you have to take the good with the bad. With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to do a post where I rank each film, talk about what I both liked and didn’t like for each one and then have Kevin chime in with some of his thoughts. I’m still sorting out how I feel about the conclusion to the Skywalker Saga, so we won’t get into that here. Maybe a future Let’s Talk About post, eh Kevin?

Without further adieu, here are my rankings. Should probably mention we’ll be getting into spoilers, but some of these movies are near or over 20 years old. What are you waiting for?

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Frozen II: Rinse, Repeat, Refreeze

“That’s just your fear. Fear is what can’t be trusted.” -Elsa, Frozen II

*Spoiler-ish review*

It was about halfway through my rant about the importance of explicit representation to my wife that I realized I was ripping apart a Disney animated movie made for children. But let’s back up.

“Cowards!” I believe was my first word uttered walking out of a date night screening of Frozen II. 

“I liked it and I had fun” was my wife’s response.

“Of course it was fun! And gorgeous! And funny! And charming! But…” I couldn’t hide my disappointment and I also couldn’t verbalize it.

Frozen II picks up a few years after the events of the original, ground-breaking (ice-shattering?) Frozen. Anna, Elsa, Kristoff, Olaf, and Sven live in the Arendelle castle singing songs about how great life is and how they never want things to change.

But Elsa can’t quite shake a restless feeling. After all, what is life without change? She is being called, somewhat literally but also figuratively, to a new adventure. She is grateful for what she has, her family, and her kingdom but there is something out there that she needs to discover.

And when she is finally forced to take action the movie follows our lovable group as they set off on a new adventure. Elsa is following a mysterious voice, Anna is following Elsa so she doesn’t get into trouble, Kristoff is following Anna so…he can propose marriage at the worst possible time, and Sven and Olaf are just happy to be there.

Yes, in this sequel, much like the original, the center of the story revolves around Elsa running into the wild to discover something about herself while her sister and a dude with confusing intentions follows behind. It’s a rinse and repeat of the prior arc except this time the movie feels foreboding.

The sing-song call that Elsa follows blindly is haunting, there are hints of a terrible truth about the sister’s ancestors and it bubbles around the surface, hell even the talking snowman is having an on-again, off-again existential crisis about his friends growing old.

The creators of this movie really seemed to be diving into something darker or deeper and un-Disney like for an animated movie. At some point I considered the possibility of a traumatic death, or a big reveal about a character’s sexual preference, or a statement on the long-term impacts of colonialism, or questioning of our society’s obsession with marriage. This journey felt different and more important and like they were gearing up to say something meaningful.

By the end, however, the big reveal was no reveal. Or at least no new reveal. Elsa learns to embrace her powers and that she can rely on her sister. It was a carbon copy ending of the original but without the epic rendition of “Let It Go”. It was a poor man’s retelling of Frozen but less entertaining that Olaf’s literal retelling of Frozen that occurs in the middle.

Which brings me to my cowards remark. Is it fair of me to demand the creators to take a huge risk with their beloved characters? Was I looking too hard at minor details as clues of an epic ending that did not exist? Do I have the right to be upset that they took an easy, unoriginal route in a movie that positively celebrates strong, independent women? Isn’t that aspect alone enough to satisfy my socially conscious mindset? What, exactly, did I want to happen? How did I want it to end?

I don’t have the answers. All I know is that the true beauty of the original Frozen was how different it was compared to a typical Disney princess movie. The original’s “twist” ending of the day being saved because of a sister’s love and not a man’s secured it’s spot as an all-time great film. That ending sounds trivial at this point in 2019 but in 2013 it was groundbreaking and important. And maybe that’s why I expected something bigger in this animated princess movie, because the original taught me it’s not only possible to push boundaries but it is important and necessary, no matter the genre.

So how did I want it to end? Without fear, I suppose, because even Elsa knows that fear is what can’t be trusted.

The Necessity and Justification of Toy Story 4

My feelings about Disney and Pixar going back to the toy chest for a fourth time around were not dissimilar to Jesse’s. I recall the first time I read that Toy Story 4 was in production. I, too, was filled with disbelief. I, too, believed Toy Story 3 concluded the trilogy with perfection and grace. I, too, didn’t want to cry at another movie about animated inanimate objects.

Eventually I came around. I started to rally behind the idea because I realized that, while any sequel is really just a cash grab, I trust the team behind Toy Story. They earned the trust with the exquisite Toy Story 3. However when I tried sharing this opinion with my many friends that were NOT behind the sequel, I continually got shot down. People really didn’t want this movie to exist.

Which means, I couldn’t help but go into Toy Story 4 with the need of it justifying it’s existence. I needed the film to prove everyone wrong. I needed the film to come through for me like Woody came through for Andy time and time again. Like a kid I needed my toys. And like any good toy, they pulled through and made me feel like a kid again.

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Anna and the Apocalypse

Life begins at the end of your comfort zone, do one thing that scares you every day, live for today cause you might be dead come tomorrow. These are the #lifequotes that drive me to live my life to the fullest every day. Which is why I enjoy engaging in risky behavior such as, seeing a movie in a theater without watching a single trailer or reading a review. I know, insert shocked emoji here, am I right?

Sometimes this risk pays off in a big way, like A Quiet Place. Other times it leads to me sitting through an entire musical-zombie-Christmas movie (Yes, apparently that’s a thing), somehow too mortified to stay and yet too embarrassed to leave. And to think, I was shocked when I walked into a completely empty movie theater. That should have been my first sign.

It’s clear what Anna and the Apocalypse wants to be: “What would happen if we took the main character from Lady Bird put her in Scotland to sing and dance like La La Land? Except there’s zombies! Not like, 28 Days Later zombies, but like, Shaun of the Dead zombies! Oh and make it Christmas-y!”. In reality it ends up being a Christmas special of High School Musical with zombies. It feels like a movie studio playing Dr. Frankenstein and ends up echoing Jurassic Park, “just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.” The movie, much like the zombies it depicts, is not natural and should have been mercy killed from the beginning.

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Zootopia: You Can Be Anything You Want

Life’s a little bit messy. We all make mistakes. No matter what type of animal you are, change starts with you. 

My mistake was waiting so long to post this one. Sorry about that, but hey, change starts with me!

I normally find it to be in bad taste when I don’t come up with my own title for a movie review. The whole reason I started doing that was to force myself to try and think of something catchy and original (even if they wind up being dull and played out). So why did I renege on that pledge for a film featuring a plethora of furry animals? To put it simply, I think that Zootopia summed itself up better than I ever could. And what is it, you may ask?

It’s another astonishingly thoughtful and finely crafted animated movie from Disney, with characters that adults will connect with more than their kids.

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