Review: Days Is an Unsentimental Meditation on the Need for Reciprocity – slantmagazine

Posted: March 6, 2020 at 3:45 am


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Pixar specializes in tales of people, animals, and artificial intelligence coping with loss: of a spouse (Up), of human contact (the Toy Story films), of love (WALL-E). But like a lot of Hollywood dream-workers, Pixars storytellers also believe in believing. And faith in something, anything, is essential to the studios latest feature, Onward, as the heroes of this comic fantasy are two teenage elves who go searching for the magical gemand the self-assuranceneeded to briefly resurrect their departed and sorely missed father. On the occasion of the films release, join us in revisiting the Pixar canon, ranked from worst to best. Mark Jenkins

Editors Note: This entry was originally published on June 21, 2013.

The effect of the Toy Story films is practically primal. They appeal to anyone whos ever cared about a toyone they outgrew, gave away, or painfully left behind somewhere. These films, with scant manipulation and much visual and comic invention, thrive on giving toys a conscience and imagining what adventures they have when we turn our backs to them. Conversely, the effect of Cars and its infinitely worse sequel, toons about dudes-as-cars not quite coping with their enormous egos and their contentious bromances, is entirely craven in the way it humorlessly, unimaginatively, and uncritically enshrines the sort of capitalist-driven desires Pixars youngest target audience is unable to relate to. Unless, that is, they had a douchebag older brother in the family who spent most of his childhood speaking in funny accents and hoarding his piggy-bank money to buy his first hot rod. Ed Gonzalez

Maybe its my general aversion to Nascar, or anything chiefly targeted at below-the-line states. Maybe its that Larry the Cable Guys Mater is the Jar Jar Binks of animated film. Or maybe its just that a routinely plotted movie about talking cars is miles beneath Pixars proven level of ingenuity, not to mention artistry (okay, well give those handsome heartland vistas a pass). Whatever the coffin nail, Cars, if not its utterly needless sequel, is thus far the tepid, petroleum-burning nadir of the Pixar brand, the first of the studios films to feel like its not just catering, but kowtowing, to a specific demographic. Having undeservedly spawned more merchandising than a movie thats literally about toys, Carss cold commercialism can still be felt today, with a just-launched theme park at Disneyland. And while CG people are hardly needed to give a Pixar film humanity, its perhaps telling that this, one of the animation houses few fully anthropomorphic efforts, is also its least humane. R. Kurt Osenlund

The Good Dinosaur has poignant moments, particularly when a human boy teaches Arlo, the titular protagonist, how to swim in a river, and there are funny allusions to how pitiless animals in the wild can be. But the film abounds in routine, featherweight episodes that allow the hero to predictably prove his salt to his family, resembling a cross between City Slickers and Finding Nemo. Theres barely a villain, little ambiguity, and essentially no stakes. There isnt much of a hero either. Arlo is a collection of insecurities that have been calculatedly assembled so as to teach children the usual lessons about bravery, loyalty, and self-sufficiency. The Good Dinosaur is the sort of bland holiday time-killer that exhausted parents might describe as cute as a way of evading their indifference to it. Children might not settle for it either, and one shouldnt encourage them to. Chuck Bowen

Its perfectly fair to walk into Monsters University with a wince, wondering what Toy Story 3 hath wrought, and lamenting the fact that even Pixar has fallen into Hollywoods post-recession safe zone of sequel mania and brand identification. Whats ostensibly worse, Monsters University jumps on the prequel, origin-story bandwagon, suggesting our sacred CGI dream machine has even been touched bygulpthe superhero phenomenon. But, while admittedly low on the Pixar totem pole, Monsters University proves a vibrant and compassionate precursor to Monsters, Inc., the kid-friendly film that, to boot, helped to quell bedroom fears. Tracing Mike and Sulleys paths from ill-matched peers to super scarers, Monsters University boasts Pixars trademark attention to detail (right down to abstract modern sculptures on the quad), and it manages to bring freshness to the underdog tale, which is next to impossible these days. Osenlund

Cars 3 is content to explore the end of Lightning McQueens (Owen Wilson) career with a series of pre-packaged sports-film clichsan old dog trying to learn new tricks, struggling with a sport that seems to have passed him by, and facing, for the first time in his career, a sense of vulnerability. The template turns out to be a natural fit for the Cars universe, organically integrating racing into the fabric of the film and rendering it with a visceral sense of speed, excitement, and struggle. Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) is a welcome addition, a plucky foil to McQueen whos also a three-dimensional presence in her own right, much more richly developed than one-joke characters like Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and Luigi (Tony Shalhoub). Cruzs presence also allows the filmmakers to bring some social conscience to this sometimes backward-looking franchise, exploring the discouraging pressures placed on young female athletes while also nodding toward the historical exclusion of women and racial minorities from racing. Watson

For those who waited patiently for the first Pixar film to be led by a female protagonist, its understandable that Brave might have been a disappointment, arriving after the studio hit its artistic peak, and suffering from a handful of authorship woes. But the feminist fable remains the most underrated of this revered brands lot, not least because of Princess Meridas eye-popping head full of aptly unruly hair. The movie may enchant with its focus on Scottish lore (an element arguably explored better in How to Train Your Dragon), and it may deserve a hand for its girl-power, who-needs-a-husband trajectory, but the distincitve bit that puts the lump in your throat is the mother-daughter story. From Aladdin to The Little Mermaid, Cinderella to Tangled, princess tales almost always deal with the heroines link to a father or an evil mother surrogate, never an actual mom who imposes relatable, resonant rules. This far more interesting dichotomy gives Brave an especially fresh and expressly female perspective. And while Meridas mothers transformation into a bear may seem gonzo and random, its actually perfectly appropriate: Together, mother and daughter must fight to undo a beast of a burden, one thats historically, symbolically masculine in nature. Osenlund

Onward doesnt have a distinctive visual style, but it does showcase Pixars trademark mastery of depth, light, and shadow. As in Dan Scanlons Monsters University, the fanciful and the everyday are well harmonized. Thats still a neat trick, but its no more novel than Ian (Tom Holland) and Barleys (Chris Pratt) experiences. Animated features often borrow from other films, in part to keep the grown-ups in the crowd interested, but the way Onward recalls at various points The Lord of the Rings, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Ghostbusters feels perfunctory and uninspired. And it all leads to a moral thats at least as hoary as that of The Wizard of Oz or Peter Pan. While Onward begins as a story of bereavement, it soon turns to celebrating the payoffs of positive thinking. That you can accomplish whatever you believe you can is a routine movie message, but it can feel magical when presented with more imagination than Onward ever musters. Jenkins

The gentle counterpart to Dreamworks Animations Antz, A Bugs Life deals in a wealth of familiar themes and narratives, peddling the importance of community inherent to ant populations, positioning unlikely hero Flik as a fish out of water when he seeks help for the colony, and reinforcing the tyke-targeted notion that being small isnt so bad (a maxim preached to young ant Dot, voiced by a very young Hayden Panettiere). But when Flik, a country bug, goes searching for warriors to combat the ants oppressive grasshopper nemeses, and instead returns with a ragtag troupe of circus insects (think the gang from James and the Giant Peach performing amid the carnival debris of Charlottes Web), a more intriguing theme emerges. As the actors and acrobats help the ants to craft a massive bird (a salvation-bringing idol that will hopefully scare off the enemy), they also introduce art as an alternative to fear and violence, and the film presents entertainment as something not just diverting, but heroic. Osenlund

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Review: Days Is an Unsentimental Meditation on the Need for Reciprocity - slantmagazine

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