It seems Hollywood’s summer silly season kicks off earlier every year. We’ve already had a parade of monster-sized movies from the Age of Ultron to Jurassic World. Today’s Canada Day holiday sees the return of “Governator” Arnold Schwarzenegger to the big screen in Terminator: Genisys and a second helping of comedy raunch in Magic Mike XXL. Groan. Coming soon are more “tentpole” flics opening wide: the animated CGI productions Minions and Pixels, comic-book creation Ant-Man, horrorfest The Gallows, comedies Trainwreck (Judd Apatow vulgarity) and Vacation (Chevy Chase remake). At the end of the month comes Mission Impossible — Rogue Nation. There’s even a thriller called The Vatican Tapes. I don’t look forward to any of these. More promising at least are the sci-fi mystery Self/Less, coming-of-age story Paper Towns, and boxing drama Southpaw starring Jake Gyllenhaal. The last especially has been drawing favourable advance notice.
Fortunately there are a few family-friendly alternatives. I can recommend three top-notch animated features, one of which is in theatres nationwide and two that are available on DVD or Blu-ray.
Ever since wowing critics at Cannes in May, the latest offering from Disney-Pixar has been adding well-deserved superlatives. Disney had already scored this year with Cinderella and Monkey Kingdom. Inside Out (http://movies.disney.com/inside-out/) hits it out of the park.
While in Saskatoon June 16 I attended a special advance “insider access” screening with Randy Cyrenne who writes for the website animatedviews (http://animatedviews.com/). Co-director/screenwriter Pete Docter and producer Jonas Rivera upped our anticipation with a fascinating pre-show tour around the creative hub of Pixar Animation Studios, meeting key behind-the-scenes personnel, including in a sneak peek at digital dailies for the upcoming fall release The Good Dinosaur. After that warmup act, the finished film made us appreciate Inside Out’s five-year production process even more, a viewing experience enriched by the post-screening question-and-answer session with Docter and lead voice-actor Amy Poehler. Randy and I emerged from the theatre equally enthusiastic.
Inside Out begins with the question: “Do you ever look at someone and wonder what is going on inside their head?” The brain in question belongs to 11-year-old Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) who lives with her parents (voiced by Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) in Minnesota where she enjoys her friends and loves playing hockey with a team called the “prairie dogs.” From the moment of birth and early childhood we are introduced to five primary Emotions who operate in a “headquarters” command centre inside Riley’s brain: glowing star-like Joy (Amy Poehler), blue apologetic Sadness (Phyllis Smith), frazzled jittery Fear (Bill Hader), greenish valley-girl Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and fire-red Anger (Lewis Black). Joy takes the lead overall in trying to ensure Riley’s happiness, navigating a wondrously complex mental universe of core memories (captured in colour-coded orbs), “islands of personality” (such as goofball, friendship, family, honesty), serpentine long-term memory mazes and much more, with a “train of thought” that only runs when Riley is awake.
The family’s move to San Francisco provokes a series of upsets as a homesick Riley struggles to cope with less-than-ideal new surroundings and a new school. The brilliantly ingenious storyline involves a parallel inside/out journey of matching mood swings: as Riley becomes increasingly unhappy to the point of wanting to run away, Joy and Sadness get stranded from headquarters in a perilously unstable psychic landscape (including the intricacies of abstract thought, the subconscious, and the dark terrain of forgetting). That leaves Fear, Disgust and Anger in trouble at the controls. Somehow Joy and Sadness have to get back, which involves meeting Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind), who sheds candy tears, then using his makeshift “rocket” sled. There’s also a role for an imaginary boyfriend, from Canada no less. At a crucial moment Sadness too gets to make a pivotal contribution. And isn’t that often the way in the ups and downs of real family life?
I won’t say more so as not to spoil discovering the myriad pleasures of this fantastic voyage that works on so many levels. The superb animation and voice-tracks perfectly serve a story that will appeal to kids of all ages while being sophisticated and multi-layered enough to be not out of place on a university psychology course. (Indeed in their research the filmmakers drew inspiration from the pioneering work of psychologist Paul Ekman in the study of emotions and facial expressions.)
Executive producer and studio head John Lasseter has said: “We wanted to create a movie that everyone in the audience knows about but had never seen before.” Mission accomplished because the result is a remarkable achievement, a triumph of the imagination that lifts Inside Out — blessed by terrific writing and inventive scenarios throughout — well beyond the realm of a movie “just for kids” into one that speaks to every generation and will bear future repeat viewings. Randy is right to call it “an instant classic that will undoubtedly stand the test of time.”
The Jurassic juggernaut accounts for Inside Out being the only Pixar movie not to rule the box office on opening weekend, though it did set a record for an original work. More importantly, what it has is the substance of staying power — not only as the best animated feature since 2008’s Oscar-winning WALL-E, which Docter also worked on, but as one of the best movies of 2015. See it and be amazed.
The hand-drawn grace and exquisite artistry of traditional Japanese anime are on wondrous display in this adaptation of a classic 10th-century Japanese folktale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. Produced by the renowned Studio Ghibli, with some input from Disney Japan, it’s veteran director Isao Takahata’s first feature in 15 years and was included in the directors fortnight sidebar of the 2014 Cannes film festival, going on to earn an Oscar nomination in the animation category. An English-language voiced version is available on video.
The story begins in a mountainous bamboo forest when the humble elderly bamboo cutter Okina (James Caan) discovers a tiny baby girl in a glowing bamboo shoot and takes her home as a “blessing from heaven” to his wife Ouna (Mary Steenburgen, who also serves as narrator). Doted on as a little princess, the remarkable rapidly-growing infant certainly seems to be a magical child (voiced by Chloë Grace Moretz). Teased by the local children as “little bamboo,” one older boy in particular, Sutemaru, takes a special interest in her.
When Okina finds a treasure of gold and then rich cloaks in the shimmering bamboo stalk he is convinced of the girl’s grander destiny, moving the family to the capital and having her royally named Princess Kaguya (meaning “shining light”). The more he tries to have her moulded into a formal princess the more she rebels. Still, as word of her hidden beauty spreads, noble suitors come calling. To no avail as Kaguya finds ways to fend off both highborn education and unwanted advances, even refusing the emperor whose romantic attentions she attracts. While playing the sweetest music on a stringed “koto,” she dreams only of escape, telling her worried parents, “All the happiness that you wished for me is very hard to bear.”
There’s a larger lunar reason for her fateful sadness having to do with the celestial ides of August from which no one, including a grownup Sutemaru, can rescue her. So on a mournful note ends The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (http://www.gkidsfilms.com/kaguya/). At over two hours it may be, as Leslie Felperin suggests in The Hollywood Reporter, somewhat of a “tough watch” for a North American family market conditioned to expect “happy endings and bedtime-friendly proportions.” But the rewards are many if one embraces its richly expressive flow.
Also Oscar-nominated and available on video is director/co-writer Tomm Moore’s follow up to The Secret of the Kells, another marvel of Celtic folklore magic well-served by its fluid hand-drawn style.
The story centres on an unusual family: widower lighthouse keeper Conor (Brendan Gleeson), 10-year-old Ben (David Rawle), and mute little sister Saoirse (Lucy O’Connell) who turns out to be the last of the “selkies” — female creatures who can transform seals in the sea into humans on land. Removed to Dublin by an interfering grandmother, the siblings embark on a risky spirited journey through mythical realms to find their way home, aided by the special powers of a seashell given them by their mother.
Song of the Sea shows the influence of the traditional anime of Japan’s Studio Ghibli. It’s a light-filled visual delight that doesn’t depend on computer-generated hyperactivity or 3D effects. The enchanting watercolour backgrounds and storytelling charms of childlike imagination are more than enough.