Onward

The strength of Pixar films has always been the way they manage to take an original idea and flesh it out into something the audience can relate to. Some of the concepts have been straightforward; a family of superheros, the secret life of toys, cars as people. Other concepts have been downright strange; a rat who cooks, a lonely robot, a princess who turns her mother into a bear. Regardless of the oddity of the conceit, the Pixar crew has managed to make these movies work to a large degree. Our current example is one of the weird ones. In a fantasy world that has forgotten magic, two elves must finish a spell to bring their dead father back for just one day.

I think the reason that the films of Pixar succeed for the most part is the way the creators wholeheartedly embrace their idea and run with it. Director Dan Scanlon and his collaborators Jason Headley and Keith Bunin have grabbed their idea and run with it. They commit to the universe they are creating and try to play with it as much as possible. There may be occasional inconsistencies, but they hardly matter as we plunge quickly into the story and become familiar with the characters.  The plot is a basic mash up of a high school coming of age story and a fantasy quest. The fact that these ideas are familiar to us may explain why we don’t worry too much about the characters we encounter. We will just go with the flow if we can have some characters to relate to.

“Onward” gives us two characters that we will understand immediately but also come to care for by the end of the film. Tom Holland is not really stretching much by playing an awkward teen with unforeseen powers.  We’ve seen the Spider-Man movies. Here the character is animated but it continues to be Holland’s slightly nasally voice and young sounding pitch that sells the character to us. Ian Lightfoot is turning sixteen and it makes him nervous. In fact everything makes him nervous, partially because he missed ever meeting his father who died before he was born. Lack of confidence is not the weakness of his older brother “Barley” however,  he dives in head first with enthusiasm to most things. The bravado of the character is also perfectly realized by the voice talents of Holland;s Avengers co-star Chris Pratt. The two of them together are a mismatched pair of brothers out on a road trip. The scenario creates plenty of opportunities for humor but you know that a Pixar film is not going to forgo the sentiment. There is an interesting switch in the purpose of their quest, which manages to make the movie more poignant at the end. It is another example of the writers taking a concept and finding ways to work it that are not obvious from the start. Maybe the quest is predictable, but the emotions are not.

As always with these computer generated dreams (or nightmares if you remember Cars 2), there is a fantastic look to the production. The characters are realized in ways that give us shorthand on their archetypes,  but they still look original. The two brothers are Elfish but in very distinctive ways. Their Mom’s boyfriend is the nice guy cop, who maybe is a little bit of a nebbish despite being a centaur. The path that the kids take is fraught with adventure, but the biggest fright is simply being a new driver trying to merge onto the freeway. I loved the way they played with unicorns in the story, they are essentially the scavengers of this world, and like our own scavengers, they can look benign like a raccoon, but they can be pretty nasty as well. Spites turn into bikers and dragons are made of rubble, and it works because the creatives found ways for us to relate to those images.

The secondary characters fill in some space and provide a little more opportunity to play with the fantasy world, but the focus is correctly placed on the two brothers. As usual, the music cues us in on emotional moments, but like many contemporary films, it relies on our knowledge to find the right feeling. You will hear some passages that sound like they are out of a spaghetti western, and some motifs that belong in a fantasy film. There are clear action beats as the Indiana Jones moments are playing out as well. I don’t know how well the Disney team has marketed the film. I did not have a high degree of anticipation for it, but having seen it, I now know they have a solid film. I hope it lands with audiences the way it did with me.

 

Spider Man: Far From Home

In the post Avengers, “Infinity War” world, the superheros are going to be faced with threats that will have to be inventive, compelling and for the moment, short term. I don’t really know how you build a long term storyline without the universal destruction suggested by Thanos and that story is now history. The approach that the caretakers of the Marvel Universe are taking, seems to be the right one. They are taking time building stories around the remaining heroes and allowing them to be at the center of their own tales. Here and there will be connections to the large universe of super heroes, but for the moment they will bask in the spotlight alone. “Spider Man: Far From Home” does exactly this. Peter Parker and his complicated relationships are the main thrust of the story.

The after effects of the “snap” are briefly discussed as the plot unfolds, but there is virtually no impact of the five year gap between the Earth’s non blipped residents and those who blipped back. Two or three visual jokes that also make no sense but are fun anyway, help set a more light hearted tone for the film. Moving the action to Europe helps the movie feel fresher than had it remained in the States and there are some more opportunities for cross cultural humor as well. Even with the shadow of the Infinity War hanging over the planet, life seems to go on. With just a few tips of the hat to Iron Man, Spider Man takes the lead and reluctantly seems to be the lynch pin character for future interwoven multi-universe situations.

The enigmatic “Mysterio”, shows up to battle elemental monsters that have supposedly destroyed the Earth of his dimension and now threaten our own home world. Nick Fury wants Spider Man to step up and lead when it comes to handling new threats and Tony Stark has left a mini version of Ultron, with the acronym E.D.I.T.H., to help out. Once again, Stark’s ingenious is the source of  conflict in the MCU. Peter has to choose what kind of life or leadership role he is going to follow, and of course it will not be an easy choice or one without complications. “Mysterio” is portrayed by the always enjoyable Jake Gyllenhaal, himself a one-time candidate for the Spider Man role. Frankly, you will be aware that a twist is coming from the start of the story, how could you not expect it after so many previous experiences. When it arrives, there is a three minute or so narrative sequence that tries to make sense of it all. There are a dozen dangling strings from other MCU films that are tied together to create the new threat. I think the retcon that happened in “Spider Man: Homecoming” was a lot clearer and made more sense. If you look at this one too closely, it may not hold up as well. Especially since the villain acknowledges that Nick Fury is the most paranoid man on the planet.

The narrative here reminds me of the Happy Potter film “The Half Blood Prince”. So much of the background is taken up by the romantic lives of our protagonists that it may sometimes feel like a different movie. There are however a sufficient number of tie ins to the technology and plot to make those “romance” points still relevant to the main story. MJ and Ned are both at risk down the line and it works to make the threat to them more meaningful when the ominous agenda of the villain reveals itself. I do think that the bifurcated nature of the antagonist is a bit problematic, and the self awareness of his own delusional role in the Stark legacy means that he needs to be a pretty good actor. The film is a little meta when it is disclosed how we are all being fooled. maybe all the technicians who create these movies need to have a bit of glory but this was a weird way of showing us behind the curtain.

That curtain however is still pretty dazzling as the action sequences and special effects continue to show that people are working at the top levels to make these movies as believable as they can.  I also loved the attempt to divert attention from Spider Man by inventing a pseudonym for the character and then referring back to it in several spots, hilarious. The idea of Happy and May makes me giggle a bit and hope for the best for both of them. Happy gets more to do in this film than any of the previous MCU films his character has appeared in, and May, re-imagined as a younger but still mature woman, finally pays off. Good for Jon Favreau and Marissa Tomei. If you stick around for the credit sequences that have become a hallmark of these movies, you will get a long awaited cameo that is a great surprise. There is also a reveal that makes the meta theme of illusion even more meta. I’m not sure it was necessary, but it does tie in to some other MCU plotlines and its is a lot of fun. More than half the audience at out screening had already left when these two bits came up, and I don’t understand how people can do that, knowing that there are some punch lines or gut punches coming.

Saying that “Spider Man: Far From Home ” is not top self MCU in no way is meant to diminish the entertainment value of the film. You should enjoy yourself immensely. It is simply a fact that with so many variations of these characters and the number of movies they have appeared in, we inevitably will make comparisons. Tom Holland continues to work as a youthful Peter Parker even as he grows older playing the character, maybe he was in a real blip event. The other high school kids provide some humorous diversions, and I thought the teachers were quite funny but I can see some slap stick that may put others off. The first half of the film feels like it is exactly what it turns out to be, but the second half makes that pay off.

Spider-Man Homecoming

Everybody knows that Sony Pictures botched their re-boot of the Spider-man movies with the last two outings. “The Amazing Spider-man” in 2012 was a satisfactory start to a new series but seemed to be covering a lot of familiar territory. The sequel, “The Amazing Spider-man 2” was a complete mess which screwed up the storyline, wiped out an important character prematurely, and basically repeated every mistake made in the third film in the original Spider-Man trilogy. When Marvel and Sony worked out a deal to get Spider-Man into the MCU, they took a huge step in fixing the things that were wrong with the films. The arrival on the scene of Spider-Man in the terrific “Captain America: Civil War” showed the promise of a young new actor in the part. The story can be about a teenager.

I think that Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield were well cast but played the role much more maturely than the character was originally supposed to be. Since Peter/Spidey show up in Civil War without having another version of the origin story, we get to skip that as well and get right to the fun stuff. Here, young Tom Holland (21) can pass for a fifteen year old. He has a baby face and a voice that certainly will not intimidate anyone, so it works. What also works is his desire to be an Avenger. Even though he has incredible powers and a history with the Avenger team, he still feels like a wannabee and that motivates him to act in a manner contrary to the advise of his “mentor” Tony Stark. Holland is completely believable as a nearly ADHD genius who wants to rush home from school and do some good. His desire to be one of the big guys reminds you of a puppy, anxious to please it’s owner but so clumsy in doing so that it upturns the furniture and cocks up the works. The first trilogy and the reboot, all focus on romance, but this film focuses on Spider-Man himself and his struggle to find a place in an era of super-heroes. There is a romance with a surprising turn, but it is not the main point of Peter Parker’s life in this film.

The side characters in this story all add to the freshness of the film. They are not merely cutouts to be plugged in for narrative purpose but real flesh and blood  people who matter to the story. Jacob Batalon plays Peter’s friend Ned, another nerdy kid who accidentally discovers that his friend is the neighborhood hero that he has seen on YouTube. Ned is nearly irrepressible in his enthusiasm for sharing in Peter’s secret. He wants to share it but even more than that, he wants to be a part of it. He offers advice, asks annoying questions and genereally plays Jiminy Cricket to Holland’s Pinocchio. Since they both attend a school for gifted students, Ned is certainly as bright as Peter, but he and Peter are still young and they make social mistakes and act on impulse sometimes. Marisa Tomei, plays the youngest version of Aunt May yet. She is just in her late forties or early fifties and even the committed Tony Stark has sexist things to say about her. Tomei has been an excellent actress in films for almost three decades. Anyone who thinks her Academy award for “My Cousin Vinnie” was a fluke, did not see that movie. Her May is not to far a stretch from Mona Lisa Vito. She is more streetwise, flirty and sharp than any of the actresses who have played this character before. I won’t spoil the quote but I will say she has the final line of the story and it will bring a big laugh. Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan has appeared in three of the “Iron Man” films but has barely registered because there was not much to his part [even though he directed the first two]. Happy is a happy addition to the Spider-Man story. As the contact for Peter Parker to the Avengers, he is the perfect balance between exasperated and impatient. He gets a laugh on screen every time from simple facial expressions.

As with most action stories, whether they are set in a comic book universe, the spy world, or everyday dramas, the villain is a tipping point for the direction of the story.  Since Iron Man is the template they are following somewhat with this approach, let’s use those films as examples. The Iron Monger in the original film had a great actor and a well developed part, the film is stronger as a result. Whiplash is a cipher in Iron Man 2 and The Mandarin is a red herring in 3, both films are less successful from a narrative position. “Spider-Man Homecoming” does not have those weaknesses, instead it has the strength of the first Iron Man, a great actor in a well developed part.  Michael Keaton plays a third winged character, after two turns as Batman and a self referential role as Birdman in the recent Academy Award winner. Adrian Toomes is a character that we can feel empathy for early on. He is pushed in the direction of crime by circumstances that are outlined at the start of the film, but his actions are not driven by revenge but rather the need for financial security for himself and his crew. While it is not clear how he expects to keep a low key presence, given the nature of his new enterprise,  the so called “Vulture” is not really malevolent. His threats to Spider-Man are dire, but in the context in which they are issued they are really negotiation points. There is no spite or lust for revenge, this is a character who is taking advantage of the skills he has and the opportunities that are presented to him. The main caper at the climax of the film is something he enters into very reluctantly. He is not a monster, and Keaton is a great choice to play this working class villain who aspires for so much but also chooses to fly under the radar. Frankly there is a twist in the film that I did not see coming, but looking back it might make sense to those who have closely followed the Spider-Man Franchise. That twist gives Keaton a chance to strut some of his best stuff. He has those great facial ticks and a range in his voice that can go from jocular to threatening in an instant. I thought he added immeasurably to the success of this film.

The screenplay balances the intimate story of Peter Parker and his family and friends, with the two parallel plotlines of the Vulture and The Avengers. Peter is an effective hero occasionally but he also makes the kinds of brash mistakes that any headstrong kid might make. Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, knows all to well the trouble he can be getting himself into by aiding in Peter’s development as a hero, but he lacks the requisite supervisory capacity to guide Parker correctly. Happy and Tony together are the indifferent parents that need to put their foot down but also need to listen empathetically. Stark is too narcissistic to realize this and happy is too busy. There is great humor throughout the story and it comes naturally in the incidents that crop up and the characters that have been developed. There are the usual story patches that allow Spider-Man to be around when it is necessary, but they do not show too much and with all stories in a comic book universe, they need to be forgiven a little.

I have heard talk of a potential backlash on comic based films. There is a danger of burnout in the audience. That will certainly be true if every film in the genre has to invent or resurrect an alien threat, a maniacal genius bent on revenge, or a scientific accident that creates some kind of chaos. When you have a film like this or the recent “Wonder Woman” where the settings are fresh and the characters compelling, you don’t have to have burnout. The creators of the MCU have found compelling stories about half the time. The hope for the immediate future is that “Thor Raganok” will be closer to “Ant-Man”, “Guardians of the Galaxy” and this film rather than Iron Man 2 and 3 or “The Age of Ultron”. WW holds out the hope that DC is on the brink of making the same discovery. What entertains us is not empty spectacle but stories that are involving with characters we can like or identify with. If you get some well deserved humor in there without shoehorning it in, all the better. “Spider-Man Homecoming” was not a film that I was particularly desperate to see or hopeful for. It turns out to be a wonderful re-invigoration of not just that character, but of our whole desire for comic book films. There are little details in the movie that add to the experience and I don’t want to spoil them for you, but from the moment the Marvel Logo streams on to the screen, if you listen, you will know that the film makers want you to be entertained, and they find some good ways to do that.