“My last chance to give you your first chance.” Cars 3

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Let’s be honest. The only reason Cars 3 exists (other than inspiring mountains of Mattel-manufactured die cast miniatures that will mint oodles of green) is to cleanse our collective palates of the tire fire that was Cars 2, a misguided attempt to reposition NASCAR-racing protagonist Lightning McQueen (voiced with languid charm by Owen Wilson) and grating sidekick Mater (voiced with overeager anti-charm by Larry the Cable Guy) as international men of mystery. In one fell swoop, Pixar not only managed to erase our fond memories of the genial, warm, albeit predictable first film but also created outright contempt for the franchise – or at minimum a ferocious desire to never see (or hear) Mater again. (Granted, that’s all in a day’s work for Larry the Cable Guy.)

Fortunately, Cars 3 is just the course correction Lightning McQueen and pals deserved, with a welcome pit stop for Mater’s character and more emphasis on the adorable Guido and Luigi as Lightning’s sidekicks-in-waiting. The film is a competent enterprise, never quite achieving the dizzying artistry of great Pixar flicks (Wall*E, Inside Out, Up), but pulling sweetly on that tried-and-true Pixar narrative thread of legacy, mortality, and the wistful ephemera of dreams deferred. We even gets some tear-jerking posthumous appearances by the late Paul Newman’s “Fabulous” Doc Hudson, a flinty/folksy voice from beyond reminding McQueen that winning isn’t everything but the family-we-make-in-life is.

Not unlike the pains of a certain obsolescence that haunt Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Jessie, and gang throughout the Toy Story series, McQueen also endures an existential crisis in Cars 3. Don’t worry, kids, this is not Ingmar Bergman territory, more Everybody Loves Raymond-lite manopause. Race after race, McQueen finds himself at the tailpipe end of a young upstart Jackson Storm (voiced with consummate smarm by Armie Hammer) and sees all of his longtime pals leave the circuit one by one. “How do you know when to retire? The kids will tell you,” Cal Weathers observes ruefully to McQueen.

After a nearly career-ending crash, McQueen goes into rebuilding mode, working with Sterling, a new sponsor played with oily glee by Nathan Fillion, and training with a too-too exuberant coach Cruz Ramirez (a sunny Christela Alonzo). It’s all pretty dear with one safe-silly training montage after another and maybe three too many jokes about McQueen being too ancient to understand new technology, lingo, fashion, etc.

But then Cars 3 does something interesting. Arguably even subversive. In a franchise that clearly gets its bread-and-butter by appealing to audiences for whom NASCAR races are high holy days and for whom Larry the Cable Guy may be the height of wit (yes, I know this sentence makes me sound like an elitist twerp … stick with me), the filmmakers treat us to a welcome dollop (or two) of “and she persisted” feminism.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Ramirez and McQueen set off on a road trip to reclaim his racing mojo. Along the way, they encounter a force-of-nature school bus Ms. Fritter (voiced with fire and heart by queer feminist icon Lea DeLaria), who reigns supreme at a demolition derby.

It is here that McQueen experiences his first abject lesson that male pride ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

At the derby, Cruz Ramirez drives off with a trophy McQueen believes he rightfully deserves, and the two go their separate ways when Ramirez argues she has never been offered a chance to show what she is worth.

Is it still “white male privilege” when it’s in the guise of an anthropomorphized red race car?

Eventually, the pair reconcile when McQueen gets “woke” (that’s where the voice of Paul Newman comes in), and McQueen realizes the best legacy he can leave is by getting the h*ll out of Ramirez’ way in this new world. “This is my last chance to give you your first chance,” McQueen tells her, taking on the coaching mantle Doc Hudson once proudly held for McQueen. As you might expect (spoiler alert), Ramirez runs the film’s climactic race and kicks Jackson Storm’s … er … bumper.

Yes, I still have a teensy issue with the female character only getting her big break when it is offered to her by a male colleague. However, if that’s the narrative price to pay to gain an essential message that gender is irrelevant to talent and that everyone deserves their day in the sun (in the midst of a silly kids’ movie that seems chiefly designed to sell toys and backpacks), I’ll take it.

P.S. By the way, there is a lovely short preceding Cars 3. It is called LOU, and, as surreal as it sounds, the piece details how a haunted “lost and found” box breaks an ugly cycle of bullying on an elementary school playground. A welcome message for today’s America as well. Happy Fourth, y’all!

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

 

“As Sigourney Weaver says, ‘Rescue, rehabilitation, release.'” Finding Dory

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Pixar’s films are always a little heartbreaking; some might argue a little sadistic. You go in, hypnotized by the color and the light and the humor and the humaneness of the enterprise, and the brilliant Pixar storytellers sneak an emotional gut punch into the first 20 minutes or the last 20 minutes or some 20 minute interlude in the middle (Up, Toy Story 3, WALL*E, Inside Out, and, yes, Finding Nemo). It’s no surprise, then, that the opening sequence of Finding Dory pushes every button of heartbreaking familial angst imaginable.

Finding Nemo was such a perfectly self-contained modern American fable that a sequel not only seemed unnecessary but unimaginable. Yet, with Finding Dory, Pixar completes a cinematic thought that we never realized (13 years after the fact) remained unfinished: how did Dory (voiced brilliantly by Ellen DeGeneres) survive for years before meeting Nemo and his papa Marlin (Albert Brooks plumbing every depth of twitchy neurosis), afflicted as she was with no short-term memory, no “street sense” (“sea sense”), and no direction (literally)? Who was her family and how did she “just keep swimming” with no discernible life skills?

Finding Dory is about as existential as Pixar gets – it’s a bit like an Ingmar Bergman flick encrusted in cotton candy and Happy Meal Toys. And that’s a good thing. We open with a baby Dory, utterly beloved by two parents who want nothing but the best for their child but who palpably fret over her ability to function. If you don’t get a bit verklempt as Dory struggles to understand her parents’ earnest teachings, apologizing profusely for her intrinsic challenges (challenges that deserve no apology), then you have the emotional IQ of a piece of coral. In those opening moments, Finding Dory devastatingly captures the pathos of child hoping to please parents and of parents loving unconditionally but fearing for their child’s safety in a world designed for callous cruelty. (A dynamic that becomes even more devastating in light of recent tragic events in America.)

Baby Dory and her doting parents become separated (not Bambi tragic, but darn close), and the rest of the film maps the now adult Dory’s hero’s quest (with the well-intentioned, if occasionally condescending, aid of pals Marlin and Nemo) to find her long-lost folks, following the events of Finding Nemo. The film veers toward the formulaic, borrowing a bit too heavily from its predecessor, as Dory meets cute with a number of sea creatures that suffer their own particular ailments and disabilities. Eventually, our merry band finds itself at a sea-life rehabilitation facility/zoo where Dory believes her parents reside. In typical Pixar fashion, there are a series of Rube Goldberg-esque harrowing caper and chase sequences as Dory and new buddy Hank (a misanthropic, crafty octopus, voiced with wry subtlety by Ed O’Neill) make their way through the park to locate her family and solve the mystery of her upbringing.

To Pixar’s credit, just as in Finding Nemo, this film takes its shots at human interference (noble and otherwise) in the natural order. The ingenuity and pluck demonstrated by the sea creatures in Finding Dory runs in stark contrast to human impulse to capture and display said creatures, whether for the animals’ own preservation or for people’s entertainment. There is a funny running bit where Sigourney Weaver (likely a nod to her role in the similarly themed Avatar) serves as the marine park’s announcer, repeating as the “voice of God” that the park’s mission is “rescue, rehabilitation, and release.” It’s a not-so-subtle jab at DisneyWorld competitor SeaWorld, made even more pointed when Dory observes, “As Sigourney Weaver tells us, we need to rescue, rehabilitate, and release,” shortly before setting every resident loose in the nearby cove. (This action also involves Hank the Octopus driving a semi-truck into the ocean … but it is a Pixar movie.)

Further, Finding Dory carries a powerful message about diversity. Our differences – and what some may view as our respective deficiencies, physical or mental or otherwise – can (and should) be our greatest strengths. And while the world may tell us, in overt and subtle ways, that we should “know our limitations,” we are our own worst enemies if we accept this fallacious direction as fact.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“We may be evolved, but down deep we’re still animals.” Disney’s Zootopia

Zootopia

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

This political season is arguably the most distressingly fascinating one I can ever recall. Whether #ImWithHer or #FeelingTheBern or #MakingAmericaGreatAgain or #DumpingTrump, the vitriol and shenanigans, the dramatic tension and circus-world comedy, and the reality-television-fueled debasement of what it even means to be “presidential” are as titillating and train-wreck exhilarating as they are shocking and horrifyingly confounding.

Into this topsy-turvy world, where GOP elephants compare “hand”-sizes and Dem donkeys trade an endless stream of cocktail napkin memes, comes a funny little kids’ movie from Disney, an animated fable with mobster rodents and badge-wearing rabbits, hustling foxes and pencil-pushing sheep (who may or may not be political wolves). Disney’s latest effort Zootopia may very well be the allegory for our times, a medicinally incisive piece of camp that pierces the heart of our political juvenilia, not as a heavy-handed polemic but as a frothy noir merringue that still manages to offer timely (and timeless) critique of our national propensity toward ugliness, be it in the form of sexism, racial profiling, class distinctions, ageism, xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, crass marketing, leveraging abject fear to erode any and all civil liberties, or, yes, speciesism.

If George Orwell’s Animal Farm had been reimagined by Bugs Bunny‘s Chuck Jones, you’d have Zootopia, as close to classic Looney Tunes‘ satirical irreverence as middle-class-family-friendly Disney may ever get. 

“Zootopia” (the place) is an urbane promised land where anthropomorphic animals of all species coexist amicably – think Richard Scarry’s Busytown on steroids or Watership Down, Jr., with predator and prey working and playing side-by-side and setting a far better example than humans can ever seem to manage. Zootopia is a Manhattan-esque place, brimming with hustle and bustle, composed of boroughs distinguished by their unique climates (e.g. polar, rainforest, desert, etc.)

Judy Hopps (effervescently voiced by Once Upon a Time‘s Ginnifer Goodwin) is a brave bunny who defies her expected station (as a carrot farmer) to become a cop (a role typically taken by larger, more aggressive male creatures, like cheetahs and buffalo). As in human life, Hopps is quickly marginalized (for her gender and her size) by her co-workers, assigned the menial task of traffic duty.

Yet, something dire is afoot in this magical land, and the balance of animalia power is challenged as traditional “predator” animals revert to more violent ways of the past. (This is still a Disney movie, so that basically means angry eyes and lots and lots of snarling.) Lt. Hopps seizes the moment, and, with the aid of a con man fox named Nick Wilde (Bad Words‘ Jason Bateman, finding his animated doppelganger), cracks the case.

Or do they? That‘s really where the cheeky fun begins as the third act of the film inverts all of our notions of Zootopia, landing a stinging indictment of how society offers a phony face of inclusion and acceptance as long as things run smoothly with safety, security, and prosperity ostensibly guaranteed for all.  The minute the “natural order” (which we mindlessly take for granted) is revealed as the wobbly house of cards it actually can be, all bets are off, and life starts to resemble a Trump rally or a Promise Keepers meeting or Hitler’s Nuremberg, with fiery, fearful rhetoric of us-versus-them, boundary walls, torture, and police states. Zootopia – accidentally or intentionally or both – holds a mirror to this truth and presents its audience, young and old, a cautionary hopefulness that we can still pull ourselves from the mire.

Yet, the magic of this film (not unlike similarly smart animated fare like The Lego Movie, Inside Out, or Wall*E) is that the message never comes at the expense of entertainment  (maximizing impact and influence). This picture is just so. much. fun. In addition to Goodwin and Bates, there is sparkling voice work from Thor‘s Idris Elba (Police Chief Bogo, a blustering water buffalo), Whiplash‘s J.K. Simmons (Mayor Lionheart, a scheming king of the jungle), Jenny Slate (Bellwether, the mayor’s browbeaten lamb assistant … lion and the lamb, get it?), Nate Torrence (Officer Clawhauser, a dispatch policeman cheetah for whom food is quite literally love), and Alan Tudyk (Duke Weaselton, a shifty little informant weasel). Uni-named pop star Shakira rounds out the cast playing uni-named pop star Gazelle, nailing some witty moments as a well-intentioned if misguided celebrity trying to bring cross-cultural unity through superficial lip-service. (Sounds like some recent Oscar speeches, eh?)

Zootopia is a visually stunning film throughout, and one viewing will unlikely do justice to the rich detail (and hidden references) of this animal planet. Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph) have realized a sumptuously immersive world here that is simultaneously transporting and sobering. Mayor Lionheart exclaims, “We may be evolved, but deep down we’re still animals.” These words (other than the disparaging implication of “animal”) are as true (if not truer) of we humans, struggling through as fractious an historical moment as many of us may see in our lifetimes. Zootopia may just be the tonic we all have needed. Lt. Hopps notes repeatedly through the film – as much warning as mantra: “Zootopia … where anyone can be anything!” Maybe we Americans should give that idea a shot again? What do you think?

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img_0083Enjoy this recent radio show, featuring The Penny Seats (and yours truly!) … “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris: Feelings that Connect Us All” – https://t.co/E9YMfoZN0C

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.  My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“Oh, facts and opinions, who can tell them apart?” Pixar’s Inside Out

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

When it comes to Pixar, I’m a sucker for their more esoteric/existential offerings: Up, WALL-E, Ratatouille, and The Incredibles. If you had told me twenty years ago that there would be an animation super-company that synthesizes the works of Sartre, Camus, Beckett, Chaplin … and Abbott & Costello for mass-market, blockbuster consumption, well, I would have simply replied, “Why are we here?” (Cue existentialist rim shot.)

No film in the Pixar canon, though, can compare for sheer WTF meaning-of-life audacity to their latest Inside Out. I loved this movie for its gentle heart, its minimalist humor, and its sly message that all emotions are valid and essential, not just that most-favored nation: technicolor, buoyant, “have a blessed day” joy.

The film details the awkward transition of a sweet, beloved only child (Riley, charmingly voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) as she and her parents relocate from their small-town home in Minnesota to the big city life of San Francisco. The transition isn’t an easy one, as the family’s belongings are lost mid-transit, Riley finds herself missing friends and activities from her previous life, and her new school offers little reprieve. Complicating (or causing?) these challenges are a series of misadventures from the voices living in Riley’s head.

When I saw the first preview several months ago, I admit I was dubious about the central conceit: that our emotional inner life can be distilled into five warring character traits: Joy (Amy Poehler), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader), and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). From the looks of things, I feared that Pixar had swiped the concept of that odd 70s construct Mr. Men and Little Miss, whereby we Me-Era kindergartners learned about our thorniest of emotions and the need to share and play well with others via a series of easy-to-read, infinitely merchandised board-books. And lest we not forget the acid trip “Free To Be You and Me” musings of holiday specials from Rankin/Bass and Sid and Marty Krofft where the fight for one’s psychological well-being could be enacted through feuding Claymation characters representing weather fronts or trippy sea monsters and Phyllis Diller witches. How we Gen X’ers survived, I’ll never know.

(We also had the short-lived, early 90s sitcom Herman’s Head, likely crafted by someone weaned on the animated output of the Children’s Television Workshop but with a naughtier spin, in which a young writer had every decision dictated by a group of wise-cracking Jiminy Crickets cohabiting in his cranium. Interestingly, that show, like Pixar’s Inside Out, was executive produced by Disney.)

How wrong I was! (And apologies for the digression into artifacts of my childhood – Inside Out is so good, you can’t help but plumb the depths of your youth upon exiting the theater.)

The film does share its DNA with earlier cinematic/television efforts to explain psychology to kids and adults alike, but it is also very much its own unique creation. Director Peter Docter (who helmed Up as well as Monsters, Inc.) is in his element constructing richly detailed mythology for us all to understand and appreciate the colors (quite literally) of our emotional responses. With Inside out, the primal depth of Up (I dare you not to watch the opening sequence of that film and find yourself in poignant Ingmar Bergman puddle) finds a new home in the Rube Goldberg whimsy of Monsters, Inc. as Docter and his team give us an Oz-like travelogue through the various geographies in one’s brain.

After a mix-up involving some precious long-term memories, sending Riley on a prepubescent spiral of self-doubt, Joy and Sadness find themselves on the unlikeliest of road-trips, navigating Riley’s id, ego, and superego in order to right a sinking ship.

There are many clever asides and surprises along the way, and I dare not spoil a one. I will note, however, that I guffawed loudest at a bit where Joy stumbles over what appears to be a large box of placards, jumbling them all. She comments, “Oh, facts and opinions, who can tell them apart?” In these contentious times, truer words may have never been spoken in an animated film.

At the halfway point, the heartbreaking soul of the film makes his shaggy, sad-sack appearance. Richard Kind is exceptionally voice-cast as Riley’s elephant-nosed, cotton candy-bodied, cat-tailed imaginary friend Bing Bong. As Riley’s life has evolved, Bing Bong has become a stranger in a strange land, a Didi/Gogo whose tears take the form of cellophane-wrapped candy pieces. As he assists and occasionally misleads Joy and Sadness from the dark recesses of Riley’s brain, he insinuates his way into the audience’s heart, and his ultimate sacrifice (not saying what) is as devastating a moment as you’ll see in cinemas this year. (At least it was for this weirdo who still personifies all of his childhood toys and can’t bring himself to part with a one.)

The film’s final message for us all? (One I find so very important.) Every feeling is valid and shapes who we are. Sadness is as crucial as joy, anger as essential as fear or disgust. To force happiness when it isn’t immediately evident is to cause even greater sadness and disruption. Embrace who you are and how you feel in the moment, and embrace that honesty in others as well. We will all be that much happier as a result.

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital) In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.