Monday, July 13, 2015

Animation Filmography: Illumination of Family or, Not Just Minion Mayhem

July 13, 2015 

Bob, Kevin and Stuart in Minions
This past weekend’s release of Illumination Entertainment’s Minions chronicles the origins of the Twinkie-shaped henchman of the Despicable Me universe, as three main characters (Kevin, Stuart and Bob) venture out into the world to find the most diabolical villain to serve. As the ads mention, this story takes place in 1968, 42 years before they meet and team up with main baddie Gru. 

To be honest, Minions lacks depth in its “story,” but certainly offers plenty of side-splitting absurdity and down-right silliness that echoes back to comic slapstick mayhem of Three Stooges films and Looney Tunes cartoons. On the other hand, for all these little guys’ often naughty faults—they can be rude as little kids sometimes, mind you—there’s an inherent charm, sweetness, camaraderie and sense of family, that makes them caring, in addition to universally-appealing icons in today’s pop culture. In fact, it’s this notion of family and finding somebody to serve that sets the pace for the 2010 original that launched the now ever-growing, Universal Studios-owned animation company. 

(Clockwise from center) Gru, Margo, Agnes, and Edith
Despicable Me emphasizes and plays with the roles of supervillains, particularly that of a schemer who plots to steal the moon to become the "world's greatest villain,” and by adopting three orphaned girls to help him in the process. There are no heroes per se in this story. (At least, there aren’t any at first.)  You could say Gru is rather a wanna-be villain, considering his lackluster preceding plots. Still, he is somebody who loves making peoples' lives miserable.

Gru is obviously not what the three girls (Margo, Edith, and Agnes) expect at first. Yet there's understanding when he's vulnerable. Slowly but surely, they begin to impact him better than expected, much to the dismay of his scientist sidekick Dr. Nefario, who tries to keep him focused on Gru’s lifelong dream to be "somebody".

Gru's transition from "superbad" to "superdad" became the focus of the first film. In the 2013 sequel, Despicable Me 2, he goes from "superdad" to "super" (or secret) agent, as the Anti-Villain League organization hires him to track down a current villain at large.

Gru (Steve Carell) and Agent Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig)
Gru shares some exciting news with the girls.
Even though the minions are the true scene stealers in both films, it is clear that Gru's relationship with his adopted daughters matures, but not without its flaws. Margo experiences first-love instincts. Edith's tomboyish attitude is a bit trouble-making. Agnes longs to have a mother figure in her family, while Gru is sometimes pressured to get out of his single-man status by a nosy neighbor lady who tries to set him up on dates. On the other hand, his girls believe he should be more out-going, while the villainous El Macho tries to get Gru back into a life of crime. ("Men like you, men like me, we should be ruling the world"). Even Dr. Nefario misses his own villainy, yet comes back to stand by his colleague in a time of need. 

The minions have a more prominent role in this sequel, which may have been one reason for its success, as well as the recent spinoff/prequel. Nevertheless, they and the other main characters illustrate the importance of family, growing and working together, and having fun together.


Sunday, July 5, 2015

Films of 2014: Discovery and Adventure in "Interstellar" and "Big Hero 6"

July 5, 2015


The weekend of November 7-9, 2014, was arguably one of the best weekends for movies in quite a long while. Both major films released that weekend were anticipated science-fiction/action-adventures--one, a live-action ambitious epic from director Christopher Nolan; the other, a CGI ride from Disney Animation.

A friend of mine insisted on not reading or watching anything about the former (well, mostly anything) before seeing it. And Nolan has been notorious for keeping his film projects under wraps--at least until they're finished and/or are close to their release dates. At the same time, it allows audiences to anticipate the kind of story and adventure they’ll discover on the big screen.

"To Boldly Go . . ."
There are arguably four kinds of people represented in Interstellar: farmers, pilots, engineers, and explorers. While the former is represented during scenes on earth, the latter three represent an evocative sense of exploration and the aforementioned discovery. The film’s teaser trailer, as follows, conveys this very well.



It certainly is a different kind of film than anything the director has done. Memento was a detective story in reverse, while the Dark Knight trilogy gave a DC Comics character new life, grounded in reality; and Inception took place in the labyrinth minds of its deceptive characters. But while all of these films often contain cerebral, cold, and bleak elements, Interstellar tackles science-fiction and physics, as well as space-travel for the sake of a dying earth. This concept of discovering new worlds via a wormhole in the cosmos and searching for a hope for mankind is secular and humanistic as far as the film’s worldview is concerned. On the other hand, it does leave audiences with much to discuss and debate in terms of not only scientific perspectives, but spiritual as well. In fact, the slogan on the film's teaser poster states, "Mankind was born on earth. It was never meant to die here."

In addition, it’s suggested that it’s not technology that's the enemy (like HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey), but time itself. In other words, what may seem like an hour on one planet is twenty years on another.
At it's heart, Interstellar is a father-daughter story.
Furthermore, time itself becomes a key element in the central relationship between Cooper (Matthew McConaghey) and his daughter Murph (played at different ages by McKenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain, and Ellen Burstyn, respectfully). This father-daughter aspect illustrates love across generations, including science and all living things. "When you're a parent, you're the ghost of your children's future,” Cooper tells us. Adds astronaut Brand (Anne Hathaway), "Love is the one thing we are capable of preserving beyond dimensions of time and space.”

Perhaps McConaghey's Cooper not only echoes the everyman we can identify with, but also Nolan's role as a filmmaker, discovering new things, new places, and new possibilities for audiences to explore, to experience, to discuss, and to debate.

Indeed, Nolan breaks new ground with an out-of-this-world story. And the technology and tools he uses (from IMAX cameras to real locations and practical effects, and a mesmerizing score by Hans Zimmer) give us a whole new experience.

"Suiting (and Plushing) Up for Action and Emotion"
Disney Animation, on the other hand, explores a different kind of territory with an obscure Marvel comic book series about a group of science kids (and an inflatable robot) who inadvertently become superheroes. And while these kids aren’t out to leave earth and find new planets through wormholes, they do become heroes for each other and for their world.

Set in the fictional San Fransokyo (a creative mending of San Franciscan and Japanese architecture), Hiro Hamada is a high-school kid and robotics prodigy who sees nothing better in life than battle-bot competitions and hustling. His older brother Tadashi challenges and encourages him to put his scientific and creative skills to good use by applying to the local tech college. The characters we meet there include the cautious though slightly neurotic Wasabi, tough-as-nails Gogo, chemistry enthusiast Honey Lemon, the mascot-dressed Fred, and the endearing plush robot Baymax.
Clockwise from top: Tadashi, Wasabi,
Honey Lemon, Hiro, GoGo, and Fred
There is plenty of action and humor in Big Hero 6, as well as an amazing level of artistry, creativity, and ingenuity that further displays the animation studio’s growing and reviving reputation in recent years (thanks to films like Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph and, yes, Frozen). But story and characters are still central, and Hiro's journey in life and what he discovers about himself and those around him (Baymax, in particular) showcase the importance of accountability and family, even in the face of tragedy. And they don’t even use superpowers, but rather their unique skills, knowledge, and team effort, to get the job done.