Nomadland – Review

The pandemic of 2020 left a major impact on the film industry as a whole, but one of the least consequential effects is it’s impact on Hollywood’s desire to still honor the films of the past year.  Awards season, despite being mostly done remotely, has been going off without a hitch.  The one big difference of course is the much more sparse slate of choices from the last year, as most of the major studios pushed back their biggest contenders to later this year, with the hope that cinemas can return to normal business soon.  The Oscars and the Golden Globes did grant an extended period of eligibility for movies this year, with the cutoff date being the end of this month, which means that the public is just now getting the most likely contenders for the big prize nearly two months into the new year.  It’s a concession that we are unlikely to see happen again, as it’s likely that Oscar Season will tighten up again next winter, but it is interesting to see how the Academy adjusted it’s rules so quickly to adapt to these extraordinary times.  Strangely enough, last year’s Oscars happened just before the pandemic moved into full swing, and was one of the last mass gathering events to happen before the lockdowns began.  Though the Academy made the moves in the hopes that they could continue to hold a traditional in-person ceremony, that seems very unlikely as the pandemic is still raging in some parts of the country, including Hollywood itself, and holding a big mass gathering ceremony at this time would be irresponsible.  But, what we are still likely to see at this year’s Oscars is a lot of historic firsts thanks to the lack of competition from the major studios opening the door for independent movies coming from a diverse set of new and exciting voices.

One of the neatest things to have come out of the Awards circuit of 2020 so far has been the dominance of movies coming from groups otherwise overlooked by the Academy.  People of color are likely to see representation among the nominees at this year’s Oscars more than any year past, and that will be quite a gamechanger for Hollywood.  One of the historical milestones that we might see occur this year is the first time every acting category will have at least one POC in the running in the same year, with even an outside chance of sweeping as well.  And that kind of diversity even extends in other categories as well.  We may see a record number of women nominated for directing this year.  Keep in mind, there has never been a year where there has been more than one woman director nominated at a time, and in the 93 year history of the awards, only one woman has won the Directing Oscar; Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker (2009), and that was well over a decade ago.  It’s too bad that history at the Oscars seems to only be possible if Hollywood stays out of the way, but even still, the Awards are long overdue in giving out these kinds of honors.  And the reason I spotlight this is because emerging out of the Awards season so far has been the unlikeliest of front-runners.  Chinese born filmmaker Chloe Zhao has thus far become the most honored Director of the year with her new film Nomadland.  If she were to carry her momentum all the way to Oscar night, her win could really mark a turning point for a lot of other rising filmmakers from other underrepresented backgrounds.  The question is, now that Nomadland is finally making it’s debut to the public audience, is it a movie worthy of all the hype it had received thus far.

The movie Nomadland takes place in the aftermath of the Great Recession, where many small communities faced the harsh reality of economic hardship when the industries that once kept them afloat suddenly went bankrupt.  That is the situation that a middle aged woman named Fern (Frances McDormand) has found herself in.  The town that she lived in suddenly became unincorporated by the state of Nevada after the closure of the Gypsum mine dried up all the jobs that kept the community afloat, and this came after Fern lost her husband to a long battle with Cancer.  Instead of moving back in with family or finding a new home somewhere else, Fern instead converts an old delivery van into a mini-mobile home, taking all her worldly possessions with her on the road.  She soon joins a community of modern day nomads, all of whom help each other adjust to living on the road, finding odd jobs along the way, and exchanging goods through swap meets.  Fern develops a friendships along the way, but a part of her always keeps people at an arms length, preferring solitude over long term attachments.  This aspect of her personality is challenged once she meets another fellow nomad named Dave (David Strathairn), who has been flirting around with her for some time.  She does develop a special bond with Dave, especially when they work for a time in the same kitchen of a restaurant.  But, once Dave is called back to be with his family during an important time, it forces Fern and Dave’s budding relationship to be tested.  In this experience, Fern confronts what kind of life she believes she is destined to live, and how she can square that with the necessities of life constantly being a daily challenge.  Through it all, she tests her resiliency for independence, despite the promising invites to settle down and live quietly once again.  Thus is the life of a nomad, and Fern discovers through heartache and triumph if it’s the true life for her.

For Nomadland to emerge as an Awards season frontrunner is kind of a strange thing to witness.  The movie is a very quiet, low key tone poem of an experience that doesn’t exactly scream out for recognition.  It’s quite a change from your typical Oscar bait movie, which usually wants to notice how important it is.  Nomadland is, by contrast, a very unassuming movie.  It’s the kind of film that you would stumble across in an art cinema or late night or scroll past on a streaming platform without much thought, and yet still find it an absorbing experience.  That’s why it’s so weird that it is not only doing well in the run up to the Oscars, it’s dominating.  The movie took home two major honors already that are bell weathers of the Oscars, which are the Golden Lion from the Venice Film Festival and the Audience Award from the Toronto Film Festival.  Considering other Oscar juggernauts like Green Book (2018), Roma (2018), and Parasite (2019) have rode the festival honors to eventual big wins, it stands to reason that Nomadland is going in this year as the film to beat.  So, it becomes a little unfortunate that I was ultimately underwhelmed by the movie itself.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not bad by any means, but it just didn’t grab a hold of me in the same way that other movies up for the major awards have in the past.  In a way I feel like the hype behind the movie did it a disservice and raised the bar too high to live up to.  I came into this movie expecting to be blown away by a modern masterpiece, and instead I found it to be a charming if a bit too languid of a movie to go on raving about.  Perhaps it’s just a first impression thing, and I may need multiple viewings to fully appreciate the movie as a whole.  But, going off of my first impressions, I’d say temper your expectations, because a game-changer that will shape cinema for years to come this ain’t.

Some of the response to the movie may be determined by the overall feelings one gets from the story itself.  Based on a novel from Jessica Bruder, and adapted for the screen by Chloe Zhao herself, The movie is overall a very intimate portrait of these people and the life that they lead.  One of the most interesting aspects of film is that it does break down exactly what modern nomad life is actually like, and it doesn’t pass judgment on these people either.  It removes the stigma of these people being transients or homeless.  The nomads in this movie have chosen this life purposely, and are content living on the road.  They work, earn money when they can, support each other, give back whenever someone has handed something out to them.  As Fern states within the movie, she isn’t homeless, she’s house-less, and there is a big difference.  And I liked the scenes where it breaks down how this community functions, as there is a support system in place for all these people as they communicate with each other even when they are miles apart.  Zhao does an excellent job of just letting the moments play out casually on screen; like we have just ease dropped into the lives of these characters.  I especially like how so much detail is put into the living spaces of these make-shift mobile homes, as they reveal so much of the personalities of these people.  Where I feel the movie falls short is that while the subject of the movie is fascinating, it’s also very surface level.  There is no greater purpose to the story; no theme that drives the narrative.  One missed opportunity that I feel the movie glossed over is the way that many of these people have been driven to this kind of lifestyle through an unfair economic structure.  There’s just the slightest hint of it in the way that job opportunities left to people like Fern, who has been displaced by the failure of outdated industries of the past, are now limited to places that devalue the individuality of the worker like an Amazon fulfillment center where Fern works over the holidays.  It’s a theme of displaced people trying to live outside of a society that has left us behind that I feel could have been explored better in the movie, and sadly is uncommented upon for the rest of the film.

What does hold the movie together though is Frances McDormand’s performance.  It is remarkable how well she does disappear into a role movie after movie, and Nomadland is no exception.  This is also one of her more subtle performances too, especially compared to her more showy performances that have won her two Academy Awards already; for Fargo (1996) and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017).  She manages to make Fern a believable everywoman who like all those around her is just trying to live day by day with no greater purpose other than to maintain her independence.  In the hands of a different filmmaker and a different actress, Fern may have been portrayed with a lot less subtlety, to the point where she may have been injected with some kind of mental problems that would have been exploitative for Oscar bait.  Instead, Fern is portrayed as a normal, every day person who has just chosen this way of life as her ideal situation, and that there is no shame in that.  There is an excellent scene where Fern defends her lifestyle to her more grounded, home-owning family who are concerned about her well being, and the movie expertly avoids turning it into an explosive moment that could have made the movie feel false and sermonizing.  Instead, it is a natural back and forth disagreement that defines who Fern is, but also doesn’t portray her family as ignorant either.  It’s honest and that is refreshing to see in a movie like this.  One other incredible aspect of the movie is that Frances is for the most part acting opposite people who are not trained actors, and are in fact real life nomads themselves.   Veteran actor David Strathairn is the obvious exception, and he is quite good too, but all of the non-actors do come across as genuine in front of the camera, and it really shows the incredible skill Chloe Zhao has in bringing out that naturalistic feel in her characters, no matter what level of acting experience they have.  Even with the movie’s lack of larger themes, it does pull you in with the genuineness of the lives it’s bringing to you through the lens of the camera.

And speaking of the camera itself, another area where the movie really soars is the fantastic cinematography on display.  Shot by cinematographer Joshua James Richards, who also worked with Zhao on her previous film The Rider (2017), does a magnificent job of capturing the wide open spaces of the American west.  For a movie that’s all about untethering oneself in order to see the country one road at a time, it does a masterful job of putting you on that road with these modern day nomads.  From the in the middle of nowhere campgrounds to the intimacy of small town life, it’s a wonderful kaleidoscope of the rarely seen parts of America; the areas that can still be called a frontier.  And quite expertly, Zhao also refrains from any sort of social commentary here, which Hollywood often will do with what is known as flyover country.  Zhao’s eye is directed to showing the little lives of these people living in this larger than life world.  There are some incredible shot of mountain ranges and coastlines throughout the movie, as well as a very character driven encounter in the Badlands National Park of South Dakota.  One of the most beautiful shots however comes close to the end, when Fern does return to the home that she left behind.  There you see this vast desert valley stretch out to the mountains in the distance, and the mountain peaks are shrouded by the cloud cover of an overcast sky.  It contrasts so perfectly with the emptiness of her old home, as we see the floor, wall, and ceiling of nature itself welcoming her into her new home.  If there was ever a movie this year that demands a big screen presentation, it is this one.  Thankfully, I got to watch this in a Drive-In, which is appropriate in itself as it’s a theater experience out in the open skies and in the moonlight.  And more importantly, it was on a big screen that really sold the majesty of the big wide open spaces that were so important to the character of Fern at the center of the film.

So, even with my misgivings about the tone and narrative of the story, I can understand why so many people are singing the praises of Nomadland.  It is an expertly crafted and beautifully acted movie that will no doubt transport many people that fall under it’s spell.  It just didn’t grab me as hard as I would’ve liked.  Perhaps if I didn’t go into this movie with the knowledge of it’s frontrunner status of this awards season, I may have been less judgmental of it’s shortcomings.  As of now, I expect it to a least do pretty well at this year’s Oscars, if not outright win the entire thing, but it probably won’t be my own personal pick.  At the same time, if it does win, I won’t be too upset either.  I felt the same way about last year’s winner Parasite; not what I would’ve chosen, but I was happy to see it win (no Green Book inspired outrage here).  Of course I’m saying this even before the nominations have even been announced, so it’s still up in the air.  At the end of the day, I’d say that Nomadland is a fine cinematic experience worth checking out.  It’s a fascinating look into a world that I wasn’t aware of before, and it is constructed with love by a filmmaker who is really starting to emerge as an impressive new voice in Hollywood.  Remarkably her very next film will be the mega-budget blockbuster The Eternals (2021) for Marvel Studios, a wild departure from what she has made in the past.  Hopefully, she doesn’t compromise her unique voice too much to work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and hopefully she actually molds the Marvel formula more to her tastes, thereby adding a whole different kind of vision into that world.  If she ends up becoming the second ever female director to take home an Academy Award for her work, it will definitely add some clout to her name in Hollywood, and could allow her to make even more ambitious projects down the line.  With Oscar and Marvel on her resume, we may be seeing the emergence of one the true leaders of Hollywood for the next generation, and that’s something that’s been long overdue for a woman director.  Nomadland is a casual, visually stunning and charmingly performed film that while not groundbreaking is nevertheless an expertly crafted passion project for a filmmaker that is likely going to be going on to some very big things in the future.

Rating: 8/10

The Hippogriff in the Room – Separating Art from an Artist and What to Do With Cancel Culture

It is perhaps one of the most unexpected success stories of the last half century.  A down on her luck author manages to publish a novel that becomes a world wide phenomenon and turns her into the figurehead of a billion dollar franchise that continues to reap in the riches every year.  J. K. Rowling discovered that dream come true when she brought the adventures of Harry Potter to the world, making her not only a success within the literary world, but the world’s first ever billionaire writer.  Fueled by an equally successful film franchise based on her books, she entered the new millennium as the head of the biggest new intellectual property since Star Wars, and with the residuals continuing to come in, she has embarked on developing more and more projects based on her writing, both tied to the Harry Potter wizarding world and to her own separate side narratives.  But, in addition to being the mind behind a popular franchise, her fame has also turned her into a public figure; a figure whose voice suddenly carries much more weight in society.  And unfortunately for many, she has chosen to use her voice to put down a marginalized group in society.  In the last couple of years, Ms. Rowling has expressed some controversial opinions about the trans and non-binary communities, stating that she felt their growing status in the culture was a threat to the rights of women.  Her critical words suddenly were met with a backlash from the LGBTQ community, who shot back at her statements, labeling her dismissively as a TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist).  And while Rowling remains defiant in her beliefs, she has had to face the reality over the last couple of years that her words matter, and that what she says may not be in the best interest of the empire that she has built for herself.

What we’ve seen play out with J.K. Rowling and her conflict with the trans community is indicative of a larger struggle with the limitations of free speech that we are trying to figure out in a society that is more media driven and also more polarized than ever before.  Rowling’s hardline stance on feminism to the exclusion of non-biological woman is indicative of how people have been driven to take stances on subjects these days that are increasingly partisan and closed minded.  Regardless of the merits of her position, it shows that politics and culture has turned far more tribal in recent years and that anyone who doesn’t pick a side in the fight is treated as problem instead of as someone with an open mind.  The problem, however, is that once a person like J.K. Rowling takes a clear stance on a subject, as controversial as that is, it suddenly reflects back on all the other things that she is associated with.  This is the dilemma that everyone associated with the Harry Potter franchise suddenly found themselves in after Rowling made her controversial statements.  To no ones surprise, most of the cast did not share Rowling’s opinions.  Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, even publicly went out of his way to repudiate her statements and declare his own support for the trans community.  What’s more, all this friction suddenly makes things more problematic for Rowling’s relationship with Warner Brothers, the current rights holders to Wizarding World franchise that is the creative head of.  They have many future plans for the Potter WW brand, including a continuation of the Fantastic Beasts spinoff and a possible HBO Max series.  And with Ms. Rowling antagonizing a sector of the LGBTQ community, a sector of the audience that has been a loyal part of the fanbase and that Warner would like to continue to tap into, then it creates a conflict that puts the future of the franchise in an awkward place.  The problem is, where do we as a society draw the line at limiting what a person is allowed to say, no matter how powerful they are.

That is an issue that we face in a world where social media has made it possible for anyone to have a public platform in order to share their opinions.  Rowling is one of many public figures that has had to face the wrath of backlash for opinions they have made on their social media pages.   Some celebrities have experienced some benign pushback for making ill-informed statements or a poorly timed joke, but there are others that have also seen their careers and reputations abruptly terminated because of something they shared on social media.  Deserving or not, we are seeing high profile figures face consequences for their own statements or actions, and it has significantly increased the polarization of the discourse of ideas in our society, because people become more pushed into different teams for or against a person based on the fandom surrounding them.  In particular, what happens to celebrities who are “canceled” has been taking on a more politicized connotations, as one side sees it as a sign of persecution and the other sees it as justice being served.  This has developed into what people refer to now as Cancel Culture, where it’s become something of a sport to find anything a person has done that is deemed objectionable and use it as a means of de-platforming them or stripping away their livelihood as punishment.   The extant of Cancel Culture as a greater societal problem is debatable; in some cases it seems a little extreme, like trying to ban movies and books that are deemed objectionable based on modern sensibilities, while other times it feels like Cancel Culture is being touted by individuals who want to feed into their own persecution complexes and want to have a boogeyman to crusade against that actually doesn’t exist.

J.K. Rowling is just one of the cases of people that have become the face of the growing aura of Cancel Culture as a part of our societal dialogue. However, to say that she is being cancelled is a gross exaggeration.  She is a billionaire with a firm grip on control of the empire that she was instrumental in creating.  She is in no danger of seeing her livelihood come apart.  But other public figures lower on the pecking order can suddenly see their fortunes reversed with unexpected speed.   It’s emblematic of the way that we treat celebrities in the first place.  Regardless of the severity of their transgressions, we often give the celebrity with the higher public profile more of a benefit of the doubt.  Some of that firewall protection was thankfully dismantled when the MeToo movement gained speed and brought many abusive players within the entertainment industry to justice.   But what MeToo also started was this feeling of satisfaction in bringing down powerful people, and it did fuel the drive behind Cancel Culture to find the next big power player to take down.  In a way, Cancel Culture became trophy hunting, and it began to drift away from the actual purpose of holding people accountable for their actions and instead became about seeing the mighty fall.  As a result, Cancel Culture became a new flashpoint in the ongoing culture wars between left wing and right wing values.  The right believes that Cancel Culture is being used to silence conservative voices in the media, and that it is part of a new blacklist, reminiscent of McCarthyism.  Though Cancel Culture has led to some questionable actions, it is ludicrous to believe that it’s impact is the same as the censorship of the Blacklist era in Hollywood.

A little historical refresher.  When Senator Joseph McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin, started his crusade against what he believed to be an infiltration of Communist influence into all fabrics of society, it began a scary time in America known as the Red Scare.  McCarthy sparked the House Un-American Activities Committee to weed out suspected communist sympathizers from every sphere of influence in society, including Hollywood.  It led to what became known as the Blacklist, as those to be known or even suspected of Communist sympathies were barred from receiving work within the film industry.  This included anyone who supported anything deemed radical left, like support for the Civil Rights Movement or strong support for Union workers; basically anything deemed left of center.  People were also encouraged to name names, which also disgraced many people within Hollywood who were desperate to just hold onto their jobs.  It was a dark moment in American history, but to compare it to the Cancel Culture of today misses one crucial thing.  McCarthyism and the Blacklist were invasive measures to curtail freedom of speech enacted by the federal government itself, with the assistance of corporations and major studios.  Eventually, the Blacklist was broken by saner minds in the years after and McCarthy’s own paranoia eventually got the best of him, alienating himself from even his Republican colleagues.  Modern day Cancel Culture, as pervasive as it is, is entirely mechanism of the culture itself, and is not an overreach of government.  So to say that what we are seeing now is the same thing is really misreading the lessons of history.

I certainly don’t want to think that we are only one tweet away from facing censorship, and that the best course of action is to watch what we say and conform to a single way of thinking.  But those decrying Cancel Culture should also keep in mind that freedom of speech is also not freedom from consequence.  Just because we have the freedom to say what we want doesn’t mean that others can’t hold you accountable for what you say either.  The nature of the free market is that separate entities are able to operate the way that they see fit, and that includes setting their own standards of what kind of speech is acceptable.  While corporations can set their own expectations of conduct and speech within their organizations, it is constitutionally important that the Federal Government are not the ones setting those standards.  Do media companies have too much power over an individuals freedom of speech, which has made things like Cancel Culture so problematic; certainly, but as it stands, they have the constitutional right to cancel or de-platform anyone they deem a problem to their bottom line.  I find it a little ironic that the political figures that are currently decrying the power that big tech and media conglomerates have over the limitations of speech are also the same figures that granted these corporations those powers in the first place, with the defanging of regulation and ending of net neutrality.  It’s just unfortunate for them that media companies want to cast their nets wide and appeal to groups of all kinds, including the ones that people on both sides want to keep silent.  The power that media companies wield is problematic, but the fact that they are in the business of diversity makes the complaints of Cancel Culture being one sided politically a little moot.  What matters to these corporations is that their profiles remain free of controversy, and that is why they cancel some people the way they do; not because of their nature of their politics, but because of the hostile direction that some people take their speech.

There are plenty of celebrities that span the political spectrum who remain perfectly free of controversy, and that is mainly because they know to deal with their differences in a civil way.  For some people, their cancellation is more of a self-inflicted wound.  Take the example from this week with Mandalorian star Gina Carano, whose transphobic and anti-Semitic tweets finally became too much for Disney to handle and they decided to fire her from her high profile role on the hit show.  Naturally, she played the victim, and tried to get the American right on her side with the complaints of Cancel Culture, but the fact that she was able to immediately line up another project only a day after shows that her complaints of being blacklisted are a little nonsensical.  The truth is she was fired because her words and actions became increasingly threatening and hostile, especially after her co-star Pedro Pascal publicly supported his trans sister’s decision to come out, and also because of Carano’s unapologetic support of violent extremists who stormed the nation’s Capitol.  At that point, it became more than just talking politics; it became openly encouraging hostility, and Disney was not having it anymore.  It’s a dilemma that we face with the limits that we deem acceptable for free speech.  Where Cancel Culture seems to cross the line is when it becomes blurry when a person is joking or speaking with sincerity.  Comedians in particular walk the fine line, and often them falling victim to cancel culture is where the movement takes things too far.  We saw director James Gunn lose his job momentarily because of such a backlash, with 10 year old offensive jokes on Twitter coming back to bite him, and it was this example that did make people reconsider how militant they should be taking the Cancel Culture as a whole.  But as we’ve seen, accountability for what a person says, and more importantly what they do, reflects back on the public persona that try to procure for themselves and in the end, you get the fanbase that you deserve and what you do will determine what kinds of fans those will be.

We also have to take in the notion that everyone is flawed in their own way.  The best among us are the ones that can carry their flaws well enough and rise above them.  It’s a little unfair to expect that every celebrity has to be perfect in every way.  In some cases, underneath the exterior, a celebrity may in fact be a rotten person to their core, and it becomes more incumbent on the fan to decide whether or not they want to continue to support that person when they find what they do to be problematic.  Cancel Culture may just be a culmination of so many years of people getting away with abhorrent behavior because we’ve allowed them to, and now with social media, it’s become so much easier to hold the powerful accountable.  The unfortunate thing is, art has become more centrally tied to the people responsible for creating it.  If you are a fan of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter but also either a trans person or someone close to a trans individual, you’re having a hard time maintaining that fandom.  By supporting this franchise, you are financially supporting J.K. Rowling, and her financial stability is giving her the confidence to say whatever she wants publicly without consequence.  One can boycott as much as they like, but there comes a point that some individuals become so insulated that they will never face any backlash, and will continue to spread their controversial opinions, and that can be dangerous to society.  It ultimately comes down to the power of money, and the better way to hold people accountable for their hurtful actions is to hold the power structures that prop them up responsible.  Cancel Culture’s big mistake is probably believing that the individual needs to be uniquely made an example of, while the corporations and power structures that propped them up are taken off the hook.  In the end, we have to look at what the actions of the artist means for us.  If what they say overwhelms the good art that they make, then it’s within your right to refuse to support them.  The ultimate level of consequences that a person face should reflect the harm that they have inflicted on others, but freedom of speech is a two way street that we must respect.  People can say anything they want, but people who object to that speech are also within their rights to withhold support for that person, and the greater the numbers in that pushback, the more it may cause the other person to reconsider the power of their own words.

Focus on a Franchise – Toy Story

There’s no doubt about it.  The moment Computer Generated Imagery was adopted as a tool for filmmaking, cinema was forever changed.  Though visual effects had been around since the advent of celluloid, the digital age opened up so many more possibilities for filmmakers to make the impossible appear possible.  Of course looking back on early computer imagery compared to what is possible today, you can certainly see where even in the beginning there were limitations.  And yet, the technology took the industry by storm and is now an integral part of the filmmaking process, no matter how big or small the movie may be.  But, perhaps the most profound area in which CGI left it’s mark the most was in the field of animation.  What was once a tool to enhance traditional animation to make it more dimensional (such as with the ballroom sequence from Beauty and the Beast) evolved into the very thing that would drive the hand drawn medium to near extinction in less than a decade.  In the 21st century, practically every animated movie now is produced with computers; a far cry from the pencil and paper method of the previous century.  Luckily for the industry leader in animation, Disney, they saw the writing on the wall early, and made sure that they had partnered with the studio that was at the forefront of this new frontier.  Pixar, founded by software engineer Ed Catmull and former Disney Animator John Lasseter, with financial backing by Apple CEO Steve Jobs, quickly rose to prominence in the 80’s and 90’s as the leaders of the burgeoning computer animation industry.  Having picked up a couple Academy Awards along the way for their acclaimed shorts, they were approached by Disney to take the next step forward and partner up on what would be the first ever feature length animated movie.

But what would work as the subject for the first ever computer animated film.  The traditional Disney fairy tale would not have worked, as it was too complicated to animate given the limitations of the technology at the time.  And Pixar was looking to define it’s own identity outside of what Disney was famous for making.  The inspiration for what they would ultimately make would come from their 1988 Oscar-winning short subject, Tin Toy.  In that short, the main character is a little tin drummer toy that comes to life, something that CGI could give stunning, life like reality to.  From that, Pixar devised the idea of a story centered around what toys do when people aren’t around, and imagined if they come to life and play around on their own.  Thus, we get what would ultimately become the first ever computer animated film, Toy Story.  But even after devising that concept, making it a reality would prove even harder to pull off.  Pixar was about to push the medium of computer animation further than it had ever been before; both in environmental design and in constructing character.  New rendering programs would need to be invented on the fly, just to make the characters feel like they were actually alive.  And it had to work as a story as well.  A near disastrous first pass at the story almost got the movie canceled by Disney, as the movie was deemed too slow and it’s main character was viewed as too mean.  Ultimately, Pixar managed to figure it all out, and Toy Story not only managed to become a success, it also began a revolution in animation that continues to this day.  What’s even more remarkable is that even a quarter of a century later, Toy Story is still just as powerful today as when it first came out, and even managed to a continue on as a franchise where each new film is equally as celebrated as the first.  Looking at each movie in the franchise, let’s see how exactly each movie managed to build on the one before, and also display the incredible advances that computer animation went through over the same amount of time.

TOY STORY (1995)

The one that started it all.  You’d probably have to go all the way back to Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) to find another movie that left as much of an impact on animation as this one did.  With Pixar founder John Lasseter at the director’s helm, and future Pixar titans like Andrew Stanton and Pete Doctor involved in crafting the story, Toy Story would become the standard bearer that would define every movie that would come after it.  It’s deceptively simple story, about a cowboy doll named Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) being replaced by a space based action figure named Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tim Allen) as the new favorite toy of a young boy named Andy, reveals surprising layers of emotion and complexity as it goes along; something that would be a Pixar trademark.  What is striking about Toy Story is just how well it all comes together.  Even with the primitive capabilities of computer animation at the time it is amazing how the movie still holds up all these years later.  I think it’s because that plastic-y look of early CGI just works for characters that are made of plastic, so even after over 20 years, the characters still feel authentic.  But as mind blowing as the animation was for it’s time, what really makes the movie work as well as it does is the dynamic between it’s two leads.  Woody and Buzz are a film duo for the ages, and their growth from adversaries to friends over the course of the movie is what carries the heart of the movie.  Hanks and Allen are also perfectly matched voices for these two as well, and their casting couldn’t have been more fortuitous for Pixar as by the time Toy Story hit theaters, Hanks had won back to back Oscars and Allen had the #1 sitcom on TV.  A well rounded supporting cast that included comedy legends like Wallace Shawn, Don Rickles, and Jim Varney also helped.

There is a universal story at the center of the movie that no doubt played a part in making it appeal to all audiences.  But it is surprising that it took a while for Pixar to find that heart at the center of the movie.  Initially, Woody was portrayed as a bit of a bully in the original pass of the story, as the filmmakers believed that they needed a protagonist with a little bit of an edge to him.  Unfortunately for them, it made the character too unlikable.  Apparently, Disney CEO Michael Eisner hated the original script of the story and threatened to shut the project down because of this hard cynical take on the character.  And thankfully, Lasseter and Company were in agreement.  They recognized that there was no place for a mean spirited character at the center of their movie.  They needed to soften the character in order to make it work, and that’s just what they did.  One thing that helped is that they centralized the movie more around both Woody and Buzz, with Woody’s fear of replacement driving him down a bad road and Buzz slowly realizing that he is indeed a toy and not a real space ranger.  As the movie goes along, that character dynamic drives the heart of the film, and we as the audience grow to love both of them, both for their faults and their strengths.  They are perhaps two of the most well-rounded characters that you’ll find anywhere in the medium of animation, and that’s saying something for characters that are essentially play things for children.   The thing that made the movie soar most of all was that the team at Pixar just followed their guts and made the movie that they would enjoy watching, which really gave it it’s universal appeal to audiences of all ages.  It’s funny and charming, and remarkably timeless in a way you wouldn’t expect from a groundbreaking experiment in new technology.

TOY STORY 2 (1999)

Naturally when one movie becomes a smash hit, talk of a sequel is inevitably going to follow.  Unfortunately for Pixar, the beginnings of sequel talk came at a time when Disney was deep into it’s Direct to Video sequel phase.  The studio was resoundingly criticized for it’s heavy reliance on cheap sequels to it’s beloved classics during the late 90’s and early 2000’s, and shockingly it was moving in that direction with Toy Story as well.  A follow-up to the box office hit was quickly put into production with the same team, but as development went along, it became clear that a movie like this shouldn’t go straight to video; it belonged on a big screen.  So, Toy Story 2 was spared the indignities of Direct to Video hell and was given the full blown sequel treatment.  And it’s a good thing too, because Toy Story 2 not only matches it’s predecessor, it surpasses it in every way.  The idea behind the sequel is a brilliant one; delving deeper into Woody’s character as he learns that he’s a highly prized collectors’ item with a long history.  Through learning more about his place in the world, Woody is confronted more with the fact that Andy will one day be too old to play with him, and that would be the end for him.  It’s strange to think that a movie about talking toys would involve a deep existential questions about loss and finding one’s purpose, but that’s what Toy Story 2 manages to include in it’s narrative.  It also expanded the story in a profound way, with the addition of a key new character in the yodeling cowgirl Jessie.  Jessie (voiced by Joan Cusack) is a vibrant, funny new addition to the cast, but she has a tragic backstory of abandonment that also defines her.  The highlight of the movie comes in the form of a song written by Pixar stalwart Randy Newman and performed by Sarah McLaughlin that shows how Jessie lost her favorite child owner.  In that singular song, Pixar would establish the one other trait that would define them as a studio; it’s ability to bring an audience to tears.  Quite a place for Pixar to be at with only their third ever feature (after the original and A Bug’s Life).  They were called upon to make a cheap, throw away sequel by Disney, and instead they made on of the best sequels of all time.

TOY STORY 3 (2010)

For the decade that followed, Pixar would spend it’s time building it’s reputation further with a flurry of brilliant original new features before they even entertained the idea of trying another sequel.  It would be a full 11 years after Toy Story 2 that a third movie became a reality.  By this time, the other two movies had become beloved and untouchable classics, so a third Toy Story seemed to some to be a little superfluous.  But, under the new guidance of director Lee Unkrich, Toy Story 3 would again prove that this franchise still had more surprises left up it’s sleeve.  One of the things that surprisingly worked in the movie’s favor is the lengthy passage of time.  Here, we find Woody’s worst fears finally coming to a head, as Andy is now all grown up and ready to give up all his toys.  Thanks to his growth since the last movie, Woody is more or less prepared for this inevitable day, but it’s the fate of the other toys that are his family that drives his concern throughout the movie.  The film theorizes the different kinds of fate that the toys might face when they no longer have a home.  There’s a preschool where the toys are treated more like inmates at a prison, and there’s a fateful near annihilation that they also almost face in an incinerator.  The toys are given a loving new home once Andy passes them along to a sweet little girl named Bonnie in the end, and the movie ultimately shows how to let go of a loved one in a way that ultimately feels fulfilling and hopeful.  The final note that the movie leaves on, with Woody and Andy saying their goodbyes is a perfect coda to the arch that they’ve been on for the past three movies.  That’s ultimately what makes Toy Story 3 so worthwhile in the end.  It also gives us the best villain in the series as well, with the subtle brutality of Lotso Huggins Bear (voiced brilliantly by Ned Beatty).  Toy Story had a passable heavy in the demented boy next door Sid, and 2 even gave us a trio of villains (Zurg, Al, and Stinky Pete), but Lotso comes with the most compelling backstory and most dominant presence within the series, and he is likewise the best new addition to the series.  Also of note is the hilarious performance of Michael Keaton as the Ken doll.  Even with all that, it’s Pixar’s unshakable ability to do right by their beloved toys that ultimately makes this third film a worthy addition to this franchise.

TOY STORY 4 (2019)

You would think that it would be crazy to go beyond the absolutely perfect final note that Toy Story 3 left us on, with the completion of Woody and Andy’s story.  But, for Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton, it’s not where he envisioned Woody’s story would end.  After another 9 years since the last installment in the series, we were given a follow-up to the adventures of the toy gang in Toy Story 4.  With director Josh Cooley this time at the helm, the story written by Stanton and newcomer Stephany Folsom brings a surprising new angle to the forefront, and that’s the underlying love story between Woody and Bo Peep (voiced by Annie Potts).  Bo Peep had been there for emotional support in previous movies, but here, she is given the full spotlight alongside Woody, and their relationship is focused on with more importance than ever before.  Her life outside of the world of Andy’s Room opened her up to more possibilities and she ends up sharing those with Woody, further showing him a different outlook on what he could be doing with his life.  As we see, despite trying to put the most positive spin on it, Woody is not being played with by Bonnie in the same way that he was by Andy, and Bo Peep ultimately shows him that life outside the play room is where he should be.  Remarkably, it manages to breath new life into a series that most of us long thought had exhausted all of it’s best tricks.  We thought that saying goodbye to Andy was where it should have ended, but the real true ending is Woody saying goodbye to the other toys.  I dare any of you to not tear up the moment Woody and Buzz have their final hug together.  It really honors the lengthy history that these two character have had together and shows that, yeah, this is a fitting ending to this story.  Toy Story 4 also shows just how far animation has come since the first film, as this is probably the most gorgeous looking film in the series.  The nighttime scenes lit up by carnival lights in particular stand out.  And even still, these characters still feel just the same as when we first met them.  Fun new addition include a hilarious daredevil action figure named Duke Caboom (with the inspired casting of Keanu Reeves as the voice) as well as Forky (voiced by Tony Hale), probably the strangest character in the entire series overall.  We all believed that a movie like this was impossible, but Andrew Stanton indeed showed there was more story worth telling, and we’re all rewarded for having it come true in the end.

A movie like Toy Story really is one of those once in a generation kinds of phenomena that changes cinema forever, so it’s even more remarkable that they’ve managed to make four of these movies of equal quality.  They not only managed to make a sequel that surpassed the original, but they made another one a full eleven years later, and even a fourth nearly as long after as that and in defiance of a near perfect ending.  There is no doubt that just like the original Toy Story stands as a pinnacle in the history of animation that the franchise as a whole is without equal amongst all other animated franchises.  Each one adds something overall to the franchise that is indispensable, and it largely has to do with the different emotional turns that it takes the characters.  I don’t think any of us would have cared this much about the lives of toys like this movie makes us do.  And that’s largely because through the eyes of Woody, Buzz, Jessie and the like, we see our own anxieties and passions reflected.  How many parents out there have connected with the journey that Woody and Andy go through in this series.  So many parents know that their time with their children is fleeting, and that ultimately there will come a time when a child grows old enough to live their own life separately, and Toy Story is ultimately about accepting that inevitable step in life with a positive outlook for the future.  It’s also a series about finding one’s family, even when it’s not the one you expected.  As it stands, Toy Story has concluded it’s tale on just the right amount of story, and anything after 4 would indeed be overkill.  There is, however, room for alternative takes on these characters, which is indeed what Pixar is working on now with the spinoff Lightyear, which is an in universe exploration of Buzz’s journey to become a space ranger, played in his early years by actor Chris Evans.  For what it is, the four films of the Toy Story franchise are as near perfect of a story arc as anyone could ask for with a story based on toys.  While Disney and Pixar set out to put computer animation on the map, the team behind the movie went to infinity and beyond and delivered more than one classic for the ages, all of which will stand the test of time and continue to hold the bar high for this legendary animation studio.

Boom and Bust – AMC Theaters’ Wild Ride and the Long Road to Recovery for Cinema

The year of 2020 was not kind to a large portion of the economy, but it proved especially apocalyptic for the movie theater industry.  With the out of control spread of the COVID-19 pandemic across the world, the theater industry had no choice but to shut it’s doors in order to mitigate any further spread.  Likewise, Hollywood had to reshuffle it’s entire calendar an either push back all their big releases, or go straight to streaming, which further put pressure on the theatrical market that was left with few options for it’s survival.  Nearly a year after the shutdowns began, the theatrical market has yet to settle and begin the long road to recovery.  Some areas of the world are returning to business as normal, but in the largest theatrical market in the world (North America), the pandemic still is causing mayhem, and potentially could even lead to a collapse of the theatrical industry itself.  There has been a lifeline handed out by the government to assist smaller, independent theaters through the stimulus, and it will indeed help ensure that they can survive this storm.  But, the ones left out of the stimulus package were the big theater chains that are publicly traded, and their survival is crucial to the actual survival of the theatrical market, because they are the ones that account for the most box office grosses that Hollywood banks their investments on.  The fact that they are on their own in search for a way to survive the pandemic gives very little doubt in the likelihood of a full recovery for the pandemic ravaged theater industry, and this is very much reflected in the economic woes of it’s largest player in the market; AMC Theaters.  Starting off this new year, no matter what they’ve managed to do thus far, it looked like AMC was almost certainly going to face bankruptcy.  But like many of the movies that they’ve screened for audiences over the years, their story suddenly found itself in a late hour plot twist.

The sudden reversal of fortune came with this week’s chaotic stock trading upheaval.  Fueled by the Reddit community WallStreetBets, several nearly bankrupt stock listings saw their value skyrocket, with a sudden influx of share buying from the Reddit users.  Done mostly as a means of gaming the system to force a significant loss of revenue for hedge funds that have been aggressively short selling stocks in order to ensure that they fail so they could profit over their collapse, the WallStreetBets community disrupted the power dynamic of Wall Street while at the same time giving a temporary boost to stocks that were being pressured to fail by these vulture-like hedge funds.  And one of those stocks just so happened to be AMC Entertainment.  Up until this week, AMC’s stock value had dipped down to nearly $3 a share, which is as close to rock bottom as you could get for a company once valued much higher during the peak of the theater business.  Prior to this week’s unexpected turns in the stock market, AMC was facing almost certain bankruptcy, as their capital was almost going to run out by the end of the month.  In a last ditch effort to save the company, CEO Adam Aron pushed for a large sale of stock to the private equity firm Silver Lake Partners, whose much larger investment in the company gives them further leverage over the future prospects of the company.  It’s a risky effort, but Aron was left with little other options left.  And then, suddenly, thanks to Reddit, the stock saw a giant spike in value within a single day of trading, rising to nearly $20 a share.  After buying all that stock so cheap earlier, Silver Lake Partners now suddenly saw a 300% increase on their investment, and began to sell back their shares at a massive profit.  Of course, none of this Reddit fueled investment is going to last long, but it was enough to give AMC a short term boost that helps to settle some of it’s massive debt and remain solvent for a few more months, and possibly even the rest of the year.

So, the good news for AMC is that because of this sudden and unexpected turn of events, they are no longer in immediate danger of bankruptcy.  However, they are not out of the woods yet, because their long term fortunes are still going to be determined by the recovery of the theatrical industry in general.  The fact remains, normal is still a long ways off, with Hollywood still unsure about the prospects of box office totals ever returning to it’s record breaking highs of the past.  A lot has changed in the past year, with so many compromises having to be made just to keep theaters from going under in the wake of the pandemic.  There was the controversial shortened window deal made between AMC and Universal Pictures last year, which allowed for the studio to start streaming their movies after a short 3 week theatrical run.  It was an unfortunate shift in the power dynamic favoring the studios, but it was also essential for the survival of the theaters that were open, since Universal’s movies were often the only ones driving any significant box office grosses over the last year, like with Dreamworks’ The Croods: A New Age (2020).  And then came the highly controversial decision by Warner Brothers that they were going to do same day releases of their movies in both theaters and on their streaming service HBO Max; a move they decided on without consulting the theaters themselves first.  It’s been moves like these that the theater industry always feared as streaming became a stronger competitor over the last couple years.  And that’s a genie that can’t be put back into a bottle.  The sad reality of 2020 for the theatrical market is that they’ve lost ground to a competitor that they are likely never going to get back.  The only way to move forward now for the theaters is to convince both audiences and the studios that the best option to watch a new movie is on a big screen with a large gathering of people.  And in a pandemic driven shift away from social gatherings in general and more towards getting people to stay home, that proposition is going to be a hard sell.

Indeed, AMC theaters was in hot water long before the pandemic took hold, and it was largely due to their unsustainable desire to become the industry leader.  The company oddly enough started small over a century ago.  The Dubinsky brothers of Kansas City, Missouri began their company with the purchase of the Regent Theater in the downtown district in 1920, where they would stage melodramas for the community.  As the newly emerging artform of motion pictures began to take the world by storm, the Dubinskys, now called Durwoods, shifted to showing movies at the Regent to great success.  Over the years, the Durwood family began to buy more theaters in the greater Kansas City area, and with the Paramount Decision in the 1950’s, the Durwood chain began to grow further with the competition from Hollywood studios being taken out of theater ownership.  By the sixties, the Durwood family chain had spread across all of Missouri, Kansas, and several other Midwestern states.  By this time they rebranded to American Multi-Cinema (AMC) and began their next big contribution to the theatrical industry, which was the mulit-plex model.  Opening the first multiple screen venue in North America, AMC sparked a revolution in the way people went out to the movies.  The multiplex brought movies out of downtown and into the suburbs, with malls and mini malls becoming the new homes for cinema.  And with that steady growth over time, AMC withstood the ups and downs of the industry, as different chains came and went, but could never top AMC’s dominance.  By the turn of the millennium, the theatrical market was defined mostly by the big three: AMC, Tennessee-based Regal, and Texas-based Cinemark.  Nearly 80% of all movie screens in America are run by these three competitors alone.  A boon for the theaters on top, but a negative aspect for diversity within the business as a whole.

And when there is little competition at the top of the market, it creates a lot more havoc once that market becomes destabilized, like what we’ve witnessed over the last year through the pandemic.  A large reason why AMC was in such a dire situation is because a large part of their finances became tied up in mounting debt.  As the company began to go international, thanks to backing from China based mega-corporation Wanda Group, they had to amass a lot of capital in order to expand, remodel or build entirely new theaters in order to grow their market reach.  Now, it’s not unusual for companies to function while holding onto a great amount of debt; Netflix for instance has operated entirely while carrying billions of dollars in debt for almost it’s entire period of existence.  The only thing is, in order to operate while in debt, you’ve got to prove to yur creditors that you remain profitable in the long run.  It’s a good thing when your company sees sustained growth over time, but it can be disastrous when the market suddenly changes, and there is no hope of recovery.  That is the position that AMC suddenly found itself in last year, and it could not have come at a worse time for them.  In addition to their expansion, the company was also investing heavily in a video rental service of it’s own, as well as a membership plan similar to MoviePass.  Both could prove beneficial to the company, but required a large upfront investment in order to lay the groundwork.  Once the pandemic cut off their box office and concessions sales, AMC was left with no other revenue stream to pay for these expensive new services that they were hoping to sustain with the profits from their theaters.  So, even before the pandemic hit, AMC had already put themselves in a rocky position that left them perilously close to collapse.  And it was all driven by a desire to grow their business at a time when the cracks were already starting to show in the dam.  All it took was a sudden pandemic to make the deluge happen.

And AMC’s woes are not just exclusive to their own company; it is industry wide to varying degrees.  Regal, the number two theater chain, made the unprecedented move of just closing their entire chain for the time being in order to save on finances for the rest of 2020.  Cinemark, is also financially struggling, but not at the same level as they hold much lower debt than their competitors.  And the smaller chains and independent theaters were also on the brink of closing before the pandemic stimulus package was passed to provide relief.  And there are many theaters that were sadly too far gone, and closed for good in the last year.  There is no doubt that the theatrical industry is going to look far different in the months and years ahead; diminished and likely to be contracted even more.  They’ve even given up much of their leverage in the business just so that they could survive another day.  Even with the lifelines extended (miraculously in the case of AMC), we’re likely going to see the closure of many theaters still in the coming year.  I don’t really see AMC holding onto as many of their locations that they held pre-pandemic.  In my local area in the San Fernando Valley, AMC has no less than 4 locations within a five mile radius of my apartment, and that’s even with competition from Regal and Cinemark.  Downtown Burbank alone is home to 3 AMC theater properties, with 30 total screens.  Now, Burbank is a busy enough market that they can sustain 3 separate theaters, but in other communities, that would be overkill.  In order to raise further capital, AMC and other big chains may have to look at either selling off their properties, closing them, or maybe even breaking their company up altogether into smaller blocks.

The hard truth is that the long term survival of AMC and other movie theaters is dependent on the confidence that Hollywood is going to have to have with them.  And that is all dependent on whether or not audiences do return back to the numbers that were seen pre-pandemic.  I highly doubt that we are going to get back to normal any time in 2021.  The state of the industry may still have to depend on these special measures and hybrid releases in order to generate any box office this year.  There are some pleasing signs of commitment from big studios like Disney, Paramount, and Sony towards still premiering their movies on the big screen.  But, those same studios are still hedging their bets and that has resulted in them further delaying the releases of their movies towards the back end of the year.  Disney for one seems to be favoring the hybrid model for now, as their latest animated feature Raya and the Last Dragon (2021) is still marked for a March release on both Disney+ and in theaters, though the premium access pay wall does at least give theaters a competitive break.  It remains to be seen if this is only temporary or just ends up becoming the new normal.  We’ll know more when Disney decides what to do with their big Marvel tentpole Black Widow (2021), which was originally slated for last summer.  The hard truth is that with a lot of people staying home during this pandemic, they became a lot more comfortable consuming media from the comforts of their own living room.  Movie theaters need to convince the public that they are the ideal place to watch movies again, and that is going to be hard as a lot of people have turned away from theaters for a long time.  A lot of people’s pet peeves about going out to the movies (high ticket prices, disruptive patrons, lack of sanitation) just make the stay at home option all that much more appealing.  But, there is a case for the communal experience being a part of the entertainment, like the experience of watching a audience pleasing Marvel movie that makes the crowd cheer and applause, or the fact that some movies are just too big to be fully appreciated even on the largest of TV screens.  It’s that case that needs to be made by the theatrical industry, and hopefully by seeing the near collapse of the industry over the last year, movie theaters are going to be far more focused on showing why we need the movies now more than ever.

So, what we saw this week on Wall Street was much less a new lease on life for the ailing AMC and more of a stay of execution.  Reddit users’ crusade of taking down predatory hedge fund short sellers by investing in AMC gives the theater chain some much needed breathing room, but what it does now is going to be crucial for it’s long term survival.  They need to convince audiences to come back and believe that the theaters are the best home for the movies once again.  The unfortunate thing is that the pandemic entrenched so many of us with only one option to watch our movies in the last year, and that’s a foothold for streaming that they are likely going to hold onto for quite a long time.  And that’s a dire prospect for movie theaters across the board.  Just in order to survive the year, movie theaters had to cut compromises that they otherwise would never have done before, and while it did keep some of them afloat for a while, it also ceded more ground to streaming in the process.  At the same time, particularly in the case of the big three chains, it is a case of turnaround.  They turned their nose up at Netflix for years, refusing to screen their movies in theaters because of Netflix’s desire for a short theatrical window before premiering on their service.  But, as the pandemic raged, AMC relented and granted such a deal with Universal just so they could survive the year.  One thing that could be a plus is that now Netflix can indeed screen their movies in the big chains, and Netflix has indicated that they still want to.  Like I said before, we have only begun to see the change within the industry happen, and it’s going to change the way we view what it means to be box office hit under this new dynamic.  For AMC, I’m sure that this last year is not at all how they wanted to celebrate their centennial anniversary, but it’s something that was well out of their control.  The crazy thing we learned this week is that even their good fortune was completely out of their control as well.  I hope that AMC’s benefit from these Wall Street shenanigans, as short-lived as they may be, does spur on a renewed commitment to revitalizing the theatrical industry and making it better and more sustainable.  It’s a crazy plot twist, but hopefully it’s one that does open a new, and better chapter for the story of AMC theaters and the cinematic experience in general.

Tinseltown Throwdown – Shrek vs. Monsters Inc.

You would be hard pressed to find a career within the movie industry that has experienced the kinds of highs and lows of those that happened to Jeffrey Katzenberg.  Once a rising star executive at two major studios, Katzenberg had a notorious falling out with one that led to his eventual and lucrative collaboration with some of Hollywood’s biggest players, creating a new landmark studio which he then left behind to pursue a new game-changing venture that ultimately became one of the biggest blunders in media history.  The story of Katzenberg’s rises and falls are no doubt going to become the stuff of Hollywood legend, but there is no doubt that such tumultuous career could only belong to a creative executive who throughout his whole life has done nothing but bold steps.  He first began his meteoric rise through the ranks at Paramount Pictures, where he managed to successfully revive the Star Trek franchise for the big screen.  After that, he followed the then President of Paramount, Michael Eisner, to a new assignment at the Walt Disney Studios, where the latter was taking the reigns as the new CEO.  Under Eisner’s watchful eye, Katzenberg was put in charge of the dwindling animation department; a field that Katzenberg knew nothing about.  But, despite the lack of experience, Katzenberg oversaw a revival of animation at the studio with what is now known as the Disney Renaissance.  However, his relationship with Eisner soured despite all the success, and he parted ways with Disney in a highly publicized feud that in many ways scared Katzenberg’s reputation in Hollywood.  But, in a few months time, Katzenberg teamed up with two of the biggest names in showbiz, Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, to co-create what ultimately would be his most lasting legacy; Dreamworks Animation.

For Katzenberg, starting his own animation unit at Dreamworks was more than just a creative endeavor; it was also about besting Disney at their own game.  This was readily apparent from the get go, as it became suspiciously convenient that both Disney and Dreamworks had computer animated movies with insects as characters being developed at the same time (1998’s Antz and A Bug’s Life).  The same would apply for a number of other simultaneous releases within the same year, like two movies with a Latin American setting (Dreamworks’ The Road to El Dorado and Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove) or two movies about aquatic wildlife (Dreamworks’ Shark Tale and Disney’s Finding Nemo).  Because the movies were so close together, you couldn’t say one was copying the other due to the lengthy production periods that animated movies need to be completed, and there were enough different elements in each one to dispel any complaints of plagiarism.  But, even still, there was a definite strategy behind Dreamworks’ direct challenges to the powerhouse that was Disney.  And the reason why it worried Disney was because Dreamworks was successful at it.  Katzenberg not only was redefining the animated movie over at Dreamworks, with it’s more edgy style, he was also getting the mainstream audiences to jump on board as well.  The PG-rated The Prince of Egypt (1998) became the first non-Disney animated film to cross the $100 million mark at the box office, and Antz‘s more adult humor became much more of a hit with the critical community than the “safe” family friendly A Bug’s Life.   But one of the most crucial head to head battles occurred twenty years ago, in the year 2001, when Dreamworks delivered it’s first true mega hit, Shrek,  into theaters, with Disney and their animation partner Pixar delivering another film centered around a monster protagonist called Monsters Inc. only a few months after.   The head to head battle at the time certainly favored Dreamworks, and it also sparked a rivalry with the two studios that would come to dominate the following decade.  But in the years since, does Shrek still come out on top of Monsters, or did the long game work in the latter’s favor.  More than anything, this rivalry certainly reveals an interesting window into what drove the future of animation into the new millennium.

“Monsters Incorporated.  We scare, because we care.”

Animation was in a state of flux at the time that Shrek and Monsters Inc. made their way into theaters.  The hand drawn style that Jeffrey Katzenberg had helped bring back from the dead and dominated the decade prior, was again falling behind, thanks in no small part to the rise of computer animation.  The double blow of these two movies in the same year no doubt was one of final death blows to traditional animation, especially after Disney’s own Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) crashed and burned that same Summer.  Dreamworks’ rise came at an opportune time, as Disney was itself struggling once again, and were relying upon Pixar to keep their reputation afloat.  Though Dreamworks’ rivalry was geared to target Disney directly, Pixar would end up being the most effective weapon for the studio for a time, and that in itself was a tenuous alliance.  Pixar was looking to break free once their contract was up after the movie Cars (2006), which would’ve put Disney in a precarious position if they had to face off against two rivals instead of one.  More than anything, the inability to deal with the competition from Dreamworks and the rocky relationship with Pixar is what led to an abrupt end to Michael Eisner’s reign at the head of Disney, and ultimately to Bob Iger who’s first order of business was to finally buy out Pixar completely and make it an official part of the company.  All the while, Pixar continued to build on every movie they made, and push animation further.  Monsters Inc. was an especially important moment for the studio, as it was the first film to be directed by someone other than Pixar founder John Lasseter.  In the director’s chair this time was Pete Doctor, who would go on to direct classics like Up (2009), Inside Out (2015) and the recent Soul (2020), while also ascending to the Creative Director of Pixar role after Lasseter’s departure.  While continuing the studio’s high standard of animation, Monsters Inc. would also help to define the thing that would help Pixar to differentiate itself from competitors like Dreamworks the most; it’s heartfelt devotion to story.

“We can stay up late, swapping manly stories, and in the morning, I’m making waffles!”

Comparing the two movies, there is one thing that is clearly apparent between the two, and that is it’s sense of humor.  They are both very funny movies, but there is a clear distinction behind the target of the comedy.  Shrek is first and foremost a satire; specifically with an intent to mock the Walt Disney Company.  Though based on a children’s book by William Steig, Shrek becomes over the course of the film a deconstruction of fairy tale tropes and characters, with the titular ogre often being the one dolling out the sarcastic commentary that drives home the absurdity of the world he lives in.  By contrast, Monsters Inc.‘s comedy is more situational and character driven.  Sure, there are satirical elements thrown about with the way that the world of the monsters is constructed to reflect our own, but it’s largely in the background, with the humor being derived more from character interactions.  Shrek also has that, but it’s very apparent that Katzenberg wants to bring more attention to the satirical bits that particularly take shots at his old employer.  This is evident in the scene when Shrek and his companion Donkey enter the kingdom of Dulac, home of the villainous Lord Farquad.  Dulac is clearly based on the faux fairy tale aesthetic of a Disney theme park, where everything is clean and orderly.  A bit of this scene does get a little mean-spirited, especially with the “It’s a Small World” parody song, though I will admit the scene where a frightened Dulac citizen runs away from Shrek while still staying within the roped queue line is still pretty hilarious and on point.  There are no sharply satiric gags in Monsters Inc., as it takes it’s jabs at the soullessness of corporate culture a bit more seriously, but at the same time, I would say it is still a very funny movie.  The big difference between the comedy of the two movies could easily be summed up as Monsters is more Laurel and Hardy while Shrek is more Marx Brothers, considering where each individual movie targets it’s funniest moments.

The characters themselves are also an interesting dichotomy of where the movies differ.  The protagonists themselves are presented in interestingly different ways.  Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) begins his story as an outsider, content on his solitude and deeply cynical towards the idea of fairy tale endings.  James P. Sullivan, or Sully for short (voiced by John Goodman) is a monster on top of his game and a strong believer in the status quo system.  But, over the course of the story, Shrek begins to let go of his cynical edge and opens up to allow more people into his life, namely the wisecracking Donkey (voiced by Eddie Murphy) and the enchanting Princess Fiona (voiced by Cameron Diaz).  The growth of Shrek’s character finds a nice parable within movie itself through the metaphor of onions and their layers.  Sully’s journey comes less from a growth and more of a sacrifice, and he finds his notion of content life shaken once he encounters a little human girl he names Boo.  In the monster world, human children are considered toxic and radioactive, so Sully has been taught to avoid contact, except when he’s harvesting screams for energy production.  Once he meets Boo, he learns that all the precautions he was taught to uphold were made off of false information, it shakes his belief in the system that has defined his whole life.  Both Shrek and Sully make fundamental changes, but they both start and end in different places.  Shrek is softened while Sully is hardened.  At the same time, it doesn’t change their characters entirely; Shrek remains a grouchy ogre through it all, but now he is able to let others into his world, while Sully remains a kind monster at heart, but less gullible and more determined to set things right even at his own expense.  What both movies get right is in showing how their adventures shape the person that they are destined to be, or in a more metaphoric sense, peeling away the layers of the onion.  Part of the reason why both movies resonated so well with audiences is that both Shrek and Sully work as engaging and lovable heroes that we the audience immediately grow attached to.

“Twenty-three nineteen.  We have a Twenty-three nineteen!!”

One thing that is also comparable about the two movies is that much of the stories center on the protagonist’s relationship with their comedic foil.  Shrek and Sully are largely the straightmen to their zanier counterparts, Donkey and Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal).  The chemistry between the characters in their selective films are similar but the resulting level of laughs can differ.  Don’t get me wrong, Billy Crystal is very funny in the role of Mike Wazowski, but it’s something that doesn’t feel too out of character for him either, even as he’s playing a one-eyeballed creature.  Eddie Murphy on the other hand delivers a stand-out comedic performance as Donkey, and humor resonates a little more because it does feel more out of place in the grand scheme of the movie.  It’s Eddie Murphy, delivering his usual high energy zaniness, but done through the body of a talking donkey, which makes the character even more hilariously unpredictable.  In a way, I feel that Eddie Murphy is having to pull a lot more weight with his role and making it his own, while Billy Crystal is doing his part but not in a particularly ground-breaking way.  Mike Wazowski is a sidekick character that we are largely already familiar with, while Donkey is not, and that helps to give Shrek a little bit of an edge.  Where Monsters manages to counter that edge is in the role of the antagonist.  In the movie Shrek, Lord Farquad is as stock of a villain as you could’ve expected (though still voiced well by John Lithgow).  In many ways, he exists more as another pointed jab at Katzenberg’s former boss Michael Eisner, as they share similar jawlines; though Farquad’s short stature is a closer resemblance to Katzenberg’s own height, so I guess it’s him taking a bit of his own medicine too.  In contrast, Monsters Inc.‘s Randall Boggs (voiced by Steve Buscemi) is a far more menacing rival, with a motivation that’s far more sinister.  Given the childish motivations of Farquad’s plans (marrying Princess Fiona against her wishes) and the insidiousness of Randall’s plans (kidnapping children for cheap energy extraction), the stakes just feel a bit higher in Monsters Inc. as a whole, and as a result the story resonates a bit stronger.

There is a lot to say about the character, humor, and plotting to separate the effectiveness of the two films, but what about the level of animation.  In a way, I think that Shrek actually succeeds a little better at world building, as it broke a lot of new ground at the time with regards to environmental animation.  There is a lot of variety in the locations found throughout Shrek; from the ogre’s swamp, to the sanitized (and phallic) Dulac, to the lushness of the Enchanted Woods, to the imaginative Castle on top of a volcano.  By contrast, Monsters Inc. doesn’t quite take advantage of it’s locals.  We only get the smallest sampling of the larger world of the monsters, and how their society is modified to accommodate creatures of all shapes and sizes.  The majority of the movie is set solely within the confines of the Monsters Inc. facility itself, which kind of minimizes our view of the world at large itself.  It’s like the movie holds back from an even grander tale by just limiting everything to a single location.  The movie does expand out towards the end, once Sulley, Mike and Boo travel into the expansive and mind-blowing Door Vault at Monsters Inc.  But where they saved the big showpiece for the end, Shrek delivers through the whole movie, and delivers a rich bit of variety throughout.  But, as good as the environments are in Shrek, the character animation leaves much to be desired.  For some reason, Dreamworks believed in recreating as much photo-realism with the human characters as they could, which sadly dips into the uncanny valley region, especially with Princess Fiona.  With Shrek being the most caricatured character, he fares a bit better, but let’s just say the years haven’t been kind to all the other character models in ShrekMonsters Inc. on the other hand features incredible character animation that stays true to the cartoonish look that Pixar has always strived for.  The fur on Sully was especially ground-breaking for it’s time, and set the standard for rendering realistic looking hair and fur for computer animation in the years after.  Shrek proved through it’s own mistake that animation should adhere to stylized character models, and thankfully Dreamworks has moved more in that direction over the years, especially with their human characters.  Both movies certainly broke new ground in computer animation in their own way, but I feel that Monsters Inc. is the one that holds up better over time given all the advances that have been made since.

“Oh, you were expecting Prince Charming?”

There’s no doubt that after all is said and done, the the most lasting thing that Jeffrey Katzenberg will leave behind in Hollywood is the legacy of Shrek and it’s influence in turning Dreamworks into a powerhouse in animation.  It’s probably even enough to overcome the embarrassing failure of Katzenberg’s most recent creative endeavor, Quibi, which turned into a $2 billion catastrophe that couldn’t even take off in the middle of a streaming boom.  Though Katzenberg has long moved on from the animation giant that he helped to build, his influence can still be felt there, and that’s largely due to the standard that was set by Shrek.  Dreamworks Animation is defined by it’s hard edges, and willingness to be a little irreverent towards old Hollywood tropes.  Shrek no doubt is the best version of this mission statement, but I can’t help but feel that the edge has been dulled over time.  One thing that hasn’t helped out Shrek much is the over-abundance of sequels and spin-offs that have stemmed from it.  In a way, Shrek being as highly marketable as it was, became the very thing that the original film was mocking in the first place; a soulless corporate cash cow.  In the meantime, Monsters Inc. grew in stature and still is fondly remembered to this day.  It didn’t even entertain the idea of a sequel until after Shrek had made three already, releasing Monsters University (2013), a full 12 year later.  Monsters’ other long legacy, no doubt helped by director Pete Doctor, was in continuing the importance of emotional story-telling.  The film’s closing moment, where Sully reunites with Boo, is a moment that will warm anyone’s heart, and its something that Pixar continues to strive for with every new film thereafter.  I think that’s the ultimate result of the contentious rivalry between Dreamworks and Disney/Pixar; while Dreamworks can launch movies off like a rocket, Disney and Pixar make movies that burn long into the night.  Shrek is a ground-breaking movie, and one that still has entertainment value, but I think is most potent element is sadly tied up in the past, when it was more in vogue to knock Disney down a few pegs.  In the years since, it has proven much more effective to be a timeless, evergreen story rather than a sharp-tongued satire forever anchored to a specific moment in time.  And that is why Monsters Inc.  continues to remain a perennial classic, while Shrek is looking more and more like a relic.

“Kitty!!!”

Film School in a Box – Movie Special Editions and Why They Matter to Film Collectors and Fans

I’ve often written on this blog about the first couple phase of a film’s life, namely the creation phase of a movie and also the presentation phase.  But there’s one other phase of a movie’s life that I haven’t explored as much and that the final phase; home entertainment.  Sure, streaming has been discussed much lately and that falls under the umbrella of home entertainment, but what I want to talk about here is the unique culture that has arisen around the market of physical media, and how that has evolved over the years.  Movie aficionados like myself have our preferred ways of consuming entertainment, and it often is reflected in the ways that we also collect movies once they are available to purchase.  Home video started off as a niche market to begin with, but over time grew into one of the largest segments of film distribution within the industry.  Now with the rise of streaming, the home entertainment market has changed once again and it has in many ways diminished physical media as an essential part of the life cycle of movies.  But, that doesn’t mean that physical media has disappeared all together.  Instead, the home video market has shifted more into a specialty mode, with physical media carrying more of a prestige than it once did, and as a result, a higher value as well.  But what makes physical media stand out when compared to what someone might find on Netflix or Amazon for instance?  What makes buying a movie take on more of a value than either renting or streaming it?  In many cases, it not the movie itself that matters, but the way that it is packaged and presented that gives it more value in the physical media market.  Movie collections often become just as beloved a part of someone’s personal belongings than anything else.  In many ways, it’s something that connects us closer to the movies than any other form of media consumption that is offered up by Hollywood.

For me personally, my journey as a film buff has been largely tied to the way that I collect movies.  It goes all the way back to my childhood even.  Instead of asking for video games or sports equipment as gifts from my parents like my siblings would on birthdays and Christmas, I always wanted movies on video tape to add to my growing collection.  I grew up in the 80’s, when VHS cassettes were coming into their own as the primary form of physical media for home entertainment.  And the company that took advantage the most out of this growing market in the 1980’s was Walt Disney Pictures, which naturally I was the target audience for.  I remember receiving Lady and the Tramp (1955) as my first movie on video tape when I was 5 years old, and it left an immediate impact on me.  In the years after, Disney began releasing their back catalog of titles, and even began using their new Home Video label to bring their brand new classic films, like The Little Mermaid (1989), to a home audience.  As I collected more movies, I began to self teach myself about the history of the Disney company, and how every movie had a canonical place within the timeline of the studio.   This was largely due to the fact that every box labeled the movies in the chronological order that they fit within the Disney canon.  By the time I had reached high school, I had every Disney movie on VHS cassette, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) all the way up to Hercules (1997), which marked 35 movies in total.  But, what started as a childhood collection for me extended beyond just wanting to have each one of those movies as a part of my collection.  In retrospect, I see those movies as the key to helping me deep dive into the history of film itself, through the lens of one studio.  By knowing everything there is to know about the body of work of a single studio, it allowed me to see the incredible mark that cinema leaves in general, and it sparked my interest to explore beyond just what Disney ended up making and look at the history of film as a whole.

Apart from the entertainment value that I would get from the movies I owned, I also have realized over the years how much the aesthetic of physical media matters as well.  In many cases, a well packaged movie plays just as important a role in selling a movie as anything else.  One of the things that I liked best about the Disney movie collection on VHS was the way that they were packaged.  For the most part throughout the history of VHS cassettes, the majority of movies that were released by the major studios packaged their films in flimsy, cardboard sleeves with artwork printed on the front, back and spines.  Disney, however, opted to package their films inside insulated, plastic clam shells, which to a young collector like me made them feel a little bit more special than the other movies for sale.  And when I had them all on my shelf at home, they often looked to me like books in a library, with each title specially designed to stand out.  Aesthetics mean a lot to collectors no matter what the item may be, and the best producers of home video packages were well aware of how each of their title would look in the consumer’s home.  By the end of the VHS era, box sets had become a niche market that had come into it’s own, with movie fans willing to pay the extra little bit to have a movie on their shelf that not only was important to them, but could even stand out as a work of art on it’s own.  One other thing that I always found interesting in that era, which in turn also helped me to expand my interest in film, was the aura of the double cassette boxes.  These were usually made for movies that were so long, that they had to be split up into two cassettes, which to me made them feel even more special.  In that time, it was movies like The Ten Commmandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), Dances With Wolves (1990), Braveheart (1995) and Titanic (1997) that were given this treatment, and the fascination that I had with movies that were too big for one tape became a big part of what pushed me into exploring beyond just what I knew about films from Disney.  If movies weren’t packaged the way they were like they had been in the VHS era, I wonder if I would’ve still gone down the road of film fandom that I ultimately did.

Things did change in the turn of the millennium, when VHS gave way to a new form of home entertainment; DVD.  Instead of cassette film, DVD’s encoded movies onto compact discs, thereby opening the world of cinema up to the digital age.  The same technology had been used for years prior on the laser discs, but DVDs were more economical to make and own and fit much easier on a bookshelf.  The picture quality also put VHS to shame, which of course led to a significant downturn for VHS production.  But what may have been the most significant contribution of the DVD era was the implementation of bonus features as part of the package.  Another carryover of the laser disc format, bonus features reached a new level of popularity with the rise of DVD.  Ranging from making of material to alternate audio tracks and even alternate cuts of the movie, DVD bonus features really raised the overall value of the movie that a person was purchasing.  And often the success level of a movie on DVD could be determined by the amount of bonus features that it offered as a part of the set.  This also led to the first instances of people buying a movie in a new format that they already owned in another.  I certainly am guilty of that many times over now.  I have probably purchased the movie The Lion King (1994) five times now across four different formats; VHS, DVD, Blu-ray (twice), and now 4K.  And why is that?  For me, whenever a new special edition of a movie is released on home video, I weigh my choice of purchasing on whether it offers anything more that the other editions did not have.  A lot of films don’t do this, and usually I’ll find that I make one lifetime purchase with said films when they become available.  But there are certain offers on new re-issues that I can’t pass up and I’ll pay that money again, even though I have owned the movie before.  Disney, the clever marketers that they are, have their so-called “Disney Vault” release plan, where their movies stay in circulation for a short time, then go back into the “vault” and out of distribution, thereby driving more demand for the film, which they’ll then re-release again in a big new, specialty package.  Sure it’s market manipulation, but it works, and it’s gotten me every time.

But there is one thing that I as a consumer really found myself valuing with the introduction of bonus features on the DVD format, and that was the in depth making of material that were found on certain special editions.  Not only did they spark my interest as a film history buff, but they even inspired me to want to work in the world of filmmaking itself.  Perhaps no other film release on the DVD format left a bigger impact on me as an aspiring filmmaker than the Extended Editions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Filmmaker Peter Jackson did the extraordinary thing of having cameras roll behind the scenes the entire time while he was putting together his epic film trilogy.  He invited behind the scenes documentarian Michael Pellerin to document every level of production, from the script phase to the final picture lock, and the whole complete wealth of material ends up eclipsing the movies themselves in length.  In keeping with the Tolkein theme, the collection of documentaries that Pellerin and his team compiled together are known as the Appendices on the special edition, and many film collectors will tell you that the entire package feels like having a film school master class in a box.  Peter Jackson would continue to pull back the curtain and reveal all the tricks of the trade in his follow up movies King Kong (2005) and The Hobbit trilogy in what he described as Production Diaries, and it could be said that an entire generation of filmmakers were inspired solely because of the documentaries on these DVD sets.  Even aesthetically they were pleasing to the eye, emulating volumes of books much like the ones the movies were based on.  Peter Jackson and Michael Pellerin certainly didn’t invent the DVD bonus feature, but they raised the bar high for the decade that followed, and as a result, the DVD era saw a flourishing of in depth making of material as a necessary element in home entertainment.

But, for many home video collectors, quality can sometimes be valued over quantity when it comes to all the bells and whistles.  One label in particular has made it their mission statement to deliver movies as a prestige product above everything else, and it’s one that I’ve talked about so much on this site that I devote an entire series to them; the Criterion Collection.  Criterion not only puts a great amount of work into presenting the movie itself in the highest possible quality, but it makes the package you buy it in just as much of a prize in itself.  The Criterion Collection caters to the film collector specifically, with the aesthetic of the box art given it’s own special consideration, knowing full well that the person who is buying a title in their collection likely owns a few more of their titles as well, so they’ve got to make it feel worthy of the label.  Each Criterion title maintains that aesthetic integrity from the box art all the way to the disc menu, and that’s part of the appeal of the Collection to most film aficionados.  There is a prestige to their presentation that you don’t find from most other publishers.  This includes a booklet found beside the discs that includes scholarly essays that gives the consumer a richer view of the movie that they have just purchased.  The bonus features from Criterion, many of them made in house, also illustrate the “quality over quantity” idea behind prestige entertainment.  Special Editions straight from the studio often package as many EPK materials as they can onto the disc and believe that it fulfills the criteria of a “special edition.”  But Criterion opts to in depth analysis into a film’s making and it’s themes on a larger sense.  Often, the total number of features may be less than the studio label, but the quality will be much more enriching.  When a movie receives the Criterion treatment, it’s seen as a badge of honor, and that is what has helped to make Criterion a valuable brand in the home distribution market.  And that special level of prestige is likewise what makes it less embarrassing for film nerds like me having to rebuy a movie that we already own.

But, like a lot of other aspects about the film industry, home video collecting is changing in the wake of the rise of streaming.  Indeed, home video sales have plummeted over the last decade since the heydays in the 2000’s.  And that’s in large part due to streaming taking over so much of what was the backbone of the home entertainment business.  Home video rental houses, like Blockbuster, are pretty much extinct now, and movies are readily accessible to buy, rent, and stream digitally from the comfort of home.  In the aftermath of the end of the rental market, and the declining sales of disc based media, we are starting to see how little of a market movie collecting really is.  When people were buying up movies by the dozens from their local video store, it was because there was no other option available for movie ownership.  Now that streaming has made it easier to access movies from the safety of home, more and more people are drifting to the option that is far more convenient and adds less clutter to their book shelves.  What’s left are the die hard movie collectors that want to have that physical movie to hold in their hands, and it’s a market that is likely going to grow smaller in the years to come.  As a result, the physical media market is changing to appeal to the niche market once again.  Movie studios are keeping their inventories lower on new releases due to the smaller demand, and in the process, the movies themselves are becoming a more elusive commodity.  Labels like Criterion are still thriving, because they’ve always operated this way, but the major studio labels are having to rethink what they should invest in when it comes to physical media.  Extra special editions, like those that include not just the movies , but special collectibles as well are becoming more prevalent, but also at the same time, more rare and expensive.  The Lord of the Rings trilogy even put out an $800 special edition set that included the Hobbit movies, all packaged in special leather bound boxes and stacked on a special, hand carved wooden shelf.  It’s a high price for a movie set that most people already have, but for what it is offering, it becomes less about the movies themselves and more about the exclusiveness of the package itself.  It may seem outlandish, but it could also mean the future of physical media in the long run.

It’s hard to know at this moment what physical media in home entertainment will look like a decade from now, but there is no doubt that the market is changing.  We may not see the likes of the incredible Lord of the Rings Extended Editions box sets again, but I also believe that very few people are ever going to through their original copies away either.  There’s just something to be said about a complete, aesthetically pleasing special edition package of a beloved movie that holds a special place in the hearts of film lovers.  It may be the end of a movie’s life cycle, but it’s also the phase that connects a movie to it’s fan more than any other.  When you hold the movie in your hands, it means a whole lot more to you; it’s yours to watch forever.  The Criterion Collection understands this, and they cater to what their audience wants by making each film feel special.  They have even remarkably convinced streamers of this as well, as Criterion has become the physical media home for films from Netflix, like Roma (2018), Marriage Story (2019) and The Irishman (2019).  If Netflix can be convinced to put their high profile, exclusive movies on physical media, then there is still hope.  I for one am an undeterred film collector, still buying some of the same movies over and over again.  I’m particularly a completionist with Disney movies, having own each canonical film on VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray, with 4K well on the way next.  And yes, they are all organized in chronological order, just like I did with my VHS tapes back when I was a child, because that’s who I am.  Even still, if a movie catches my eye in the sadly shrinking video sections at Target and Best Buy, I will make it a part of my collection that is now numbering in the hundreds.  I consume digital media as well without complaint, but a part of me will always desire a hard copy above all else.  It may be long past it’s glory days of filled to the brim special editions, but physical media has found a devoted fanbase that continues to support it, and it’s one that I hope continues to hold these movies up to a high standard, with quality standing above all else.

Top Ten Movies of 2020

How do we sum up what will undoubtedly be the most chaotic year of our generation.  Apart from all the chaos, one thing that will mark the year that was 2020 was the impact that it had on cinema.  Movie theaters faced near extinction as their doors remained shut and streaming took an even stronger foothold.  And with all that upheaval, the platter of releases that were supposed to mark the previous year all of a sudden were un-moored and moved to the next year, leaving the movie landscape of 2020 pretty barren.  So, when contemplating what would make up a top ten list of the movies of 2020, a critic like me is finding the end result to be a little different than I would have expected from the outset of last year.  For one thing, I had to rely upon streaming a lot more to be able to watch enough movies this year to compile a strong enough list of the year’s best films.  And even with streaming access, I still didn’t watch a number of films that are being touted as Awards season favorites, like Nomadland (2020), Minari (2020), and One Night in Miami (2020), before the end of the year.  So, my top ten list for the year would have probably looked a lot different under other circumstances, especially if there was no pandemic that uprooted so many movies out of their place on the calendar.  Even still, I’m holding to my guideline that only movies that I saw within the year 2020 will be on this list, so the latecomers that will likely big big awards winners will have to wait until my 2021 list to be recognized.  And, one other thing you’ll notice is that streaming movies mostly dominate this years list, though there are a couple that I did also catch in theaters when I was able to.  If there is anything this year taught me is that even when presented with a more convenient streaming at home option, I will still venture out and watch movies on a big screen first, because it’s just my preferred way of first experiencing a new film, even when that option is more difficult.

Before I dive into the list itself, I do want to spotlight the movies that I did enjoy over the year that just missed my top ten.  In no particular order: Emma, Onward, First Cow, Greyhound, Hamilton, Bill & Ted Face the Music, The Personal History of David Copperfield, David Byrne’s American Utopia, Ammonite, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Soul, and Wonder Woman 1984. So, with that out of the way, let me now count down my choices for the top 10 best movies of 2020.

10.

PALM SPRINGS

Directed by Max Barbakow

It’s strange to see the Groundhog Day (1993) scenario become it’s own subgenre over the years, but that’s something that has surprisingly emerged over the last three decades.  Whether it’s used in an action film like Edge of Tomorrow (2014) or a horror comedy like Happy Death Day (2017), the premise of living the same day over and over again in an endless loop has proven to be surprisingly malleable.  It’s also a hard plot to get right too, because it requires a lot of plot mechanics to make it work and a lot of faith in the audience to keep up with it all.  Many writers have tried to do this and have failed.  Believe me, I’ve tried to write this kind of script myself.  Palm Springs is another example of the formula done right, and it’s mainly because it puts all the focus on the characters themselves.  The actual reason why the time loop is happening is just a formality, but the movie also surprisingly gives us a clear explanation of how it works too, and it’s not even far fetched.  But what I especially like is that unlike other films of it’s kind, it doesn’t focus on one individual’s struggle to break the loop, but rather it shows multiple perspectives.   One character, played by Andy Samberg (who I’m just as surprised made my best list this year as I was that Adam Sandler made last year’s) has been in the loop a long time and has resigned himself to it, while the other character, played by Cristin Milioti has only just arrived.  Through their shared circumstance, they form a bond and also allow their interactions to shape how they’re going to deal with their predicament, and it makes for a really endearing story.  It’s also very funny, and uses it’s time loop device to great comedic effect, much in the same way that Groundhog Day did too.  In a bleak year such as 2020, Palm Springs was a refreshing bit of sunshine brought to us courtesy of Hulu.

9.

SOUND OF METAL

Directed by Darius Marder

Moving over to Amazon now, we have this fascinating indie drama that brings the audience into the headspace of a man suddenly confronted with a disorder that will forever shape the rest of his life.  Riz Ahmed (Rogue One, Venom) plays a heavy metal drummer named Ruben who suddenly loses his hearing while in the middle of a multi-city tour with his rock singer girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke).  With his sudden deafness, he has to enter rehabilitation that will enable him to adjust to a new way of living, but his own self-destructive tendencies make it much harder for him to cope.  It’s a really fascinating character study which Riz Ahmed does a spectacular job of portraying.  His role may run into criticism because he’s another able bodied performer playing someone with a disability, but there is nothing that feels false about his portrayal here, and he is after all playing someone who is newly disabled and trying to readjust.  The rest of the movie’s cast does include real life deaf actors, and its a great bit of exposure for these performers who are often not allowed the opportunity.  But what’s especially brilliant about this movie is the incredible sound mixing, which does simulate exactly what a deaf, or near deaf person’s sense of hearing would be like, and just the emptiness it creates, especially for someone whose life is constantly in the world of sound.  If you listen to this movie through headphones, as I did, you would almost feel the alarming sensation that you’ve lost your hearing as well, and it is illuminating.  Like the best movies that tackle the overcoming of disabilities, this movie treats the condition with the utmost serious and removes the stigma that has often unfairly marginalized people with this condition.  And best of all, it makes us the audience care more about those with the condition itself by putting us in the headspace of one who’s living through his disability and what the world indeed sounds like when all the noise is gone.

8.

TENET

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Truth be told, this movie is a lesser film from one of our current greatest filmmakers, and in another year, this probably might not have made my list at all.  But given this was 2020, and there was a significant lack of blockbuster sized entertainment this year, I do want to recognize Tenet for being the most impressively crafted movie of the year.  Christopher Nolan’s narrative for this film may have been on the convoluted side, but his ability to craft spectacular set pieces are still second to none.  In particular, the way he uses the Inversion gimmick  within the movie, where objects and even people move forwards and backwards through time in the same space, is done to incredible effect.  And like every other movie he’s made, Nolan takes pretty out there concepts and works them into a familiar genre.  Just like how Inception was essentially a heist movie that took place within people’s dreams, Tenet is a spy thriller with a time travel element thrown into the mix. It’s essentially Christopher Nolan’s take on a James Bond movie.  A lot of it may go a little too far over people’s heads, but for me I just enjoyed the ride and in a year like 2020, which took away so many blockbuster thrills that we normally get to enjoy on the big screen, I was just so happy to at least have this one.  It also proved to me the lengths that I would go to so that I could watch a movie like this.  I drove down to San Diego, California (120 miles from where I live) just because it was the closest location that had the movie playing in IMAX.  It may have been a bit too obsessive, but I’m still happy I made the trip because I feel like I would’ve missed out on the ideal experience if I hadn’t.  Watching this on a small TV screen just doesn’t cut it, and Tenet makes a strong case for there to be a return to big screen entertainment again once this pandemic is all over.  Some movies ae just made for the big screen, and though it was a risky gamble this year, I’m glad we were still given the chance to watch Tenet the way it was meant to be seen.

7.

THE INVISIBLE MAN

Directed by Leigh Whannell

This surprisingly effective reimaging of a horror icon had the briefest of theatrical runs early in the year before the pandemic shut down all theaters, and it’s a testament to how good it is that it stuck in my top ten for the year all the way to the end.  This chilling retelling of the H.G. Wells horror classic brings the concept into the 21st century with a clever reversal of perspective.  Instead of focusing on the titular monster himself, the movie actually tells the story through the perspective of one of his victims; in this case, his abused wife.  It’s a reimaging that puts the story firmly in the #MeToo era, and shows a frightening scenario where an abusive husband continues to torment his tortured wife through invisibility and she has a hard time proving that he’s really there and is not losing her mind.  The movie works spectacularly well because of Elizabeth Moss’ unnerving performance.  She perfectly captures a woman on the edge, burned by all the emotional scars of an abusive relationship and the terrified belief that she knows her husband is still stalking her despite not being able to see him.  The movie does a good job of building up that sense of dread around Moss’ character, and it feels exhilarating once she does manage to overcome the monster and gain the upper hand.  It’s a brilliant way to frame the struggle that many people go through when trying to overcome spousal abuse, where the victim is often too afraid to come out with the truth, or is seen as too crazy to be believed.  It’s also a brilliant deconstruction of the old Invisible Man narrative, taking the perspective away from identifying with the monster himself, and instead looking at how terrifying it would be to have a really psychotic individual using that kind of power.  Without question the year’s best and most chilling horror movie, and a brilliantly subtle new interpretation on an age old story from the revolutionary horror movie makers at Blumhouse.

6.

BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM

Directed by Jason Woliner

I definitely need to explain something about why I placed this movie here.  Initially in my review of the movie back in October, I gave this Borat sequel a mixed review, knocking a few points for not having the novelty of the original.  But, in retrospect, and after some subsequent re-watches, I may have indeed been a little too harsh on the film.  One thing that really has come into focus for me about the film is that out of all the movies that I have seen this year, if I were to pick one that captured the year that was 2020 in bottle completely, it would be this one.  Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is the definitive 2020 movie.  No other film captured the madness of this year better; whether it was the political turmoil, the widespread effects of the pandemic, or just the absolute lunacy of just the culture at large, it was all captured in this absolutely insane movie.  It is quite remarkable that 14 years after Sasha Baron Cohen turned his goofy little sketch character into a box office smash that he could even attempt to do it again, and deliver something just as hilariously wild.  While some of the stunts don’t quite land as hard as in the original, the movie more than makes up for it with a surprisingly touching narrative of Borat forming a stronger bond with his daughter Tutar, played by newcomer Maria Bakalova in a spectacular breakout role.  It’s their budding relationship that I really think elevates this movie above what it could have been, and makes it really one of the most uplifting movies of the year too, which itself is mind-boggling.  Sure this movie will be remembered for Cohen’s death-defying trolling of a far-right wing rally, or for that now infamous run-in with Rudy Giuliani, but I think the father/daughter storyline is what ultimately will help it soar far beyond it’s place within the madness of 2020.  Even still, it’s a hilarious dissection of the year that was, and miraculous and unexpected comeback for a comedy icon that we honestly didn’t know we needed at this time.

5.

THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7

Directed by Aaron Sorkin

Speaking of politically relevant movies starring Sasha Baron Cohen, we had this exceptional dramatization of one of the most consequential political trials of the Vietnam Era.  Cohen plays the notoriously outspoken activist Abbie Hoffman, who along with 6 other co-defendants, was put on trial for inciting the destructive riots outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.  The movie features an exceptional ensemble cast including Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Carroll Lynch, Frank Langella, and Yahya Abdul Mateen II alongside Cohen.  But, the real star of the movie is the exceptionally well written script from Aaron Sorkin.  His screenplay for Chicago 7 is right up there with his best work, and it was a long in the making project for him as well.  Written over the course of 13 years, with directors like Steven Spielberg at various points attached to it, it is probably the most polished and well-constructed of Sorkin’s screenplays.  And even with all those years he had to work on them, the fact that it finally made the light of day this year could not have been more fortuitous.  Sadly, The Trial of the Chicago 7 was a timely movie in this tumultuous year, and it reaffirmed the importance of free speech and the right to protest that are key to our survival as a republic, in addition to our faith in a fair justice system.  The movie also marks a strong step forward for Aaron Sorkin as a filmmaker, taking the role behind the camera for only the second time showing much more skill and confidence as a director as a result.  Sure, it’s fairly conventional as trial movies go, and it doesn’t break any new ground cinematically, but man does that screenplay sing beautifully and the cast delivers their performances with an astounding amount of authenticity.   And in a year where we are all trying to collectively understand the right path for our nation, this movie offers a very engaging and sobering history lesson.

4.

WOLFWALKERS

Directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart

In a year that saw Pixar release not one but two movies, even with the turmoil of the pandemic, I too find it shocking that the acclaimed animation giant didn’t land on my top ten for the year, nor did they deliver my favorite animated movie of 2020 either.  Both Onward  and Soul are exceptionally well made and fun movies, don’t get me wrong, but both also felt a notch below what I believe are Pixar at their best, and thus they both missed my list.  What did make it here, however, was an animated movie that took me completely by surprise and left me thoroughly enchanted.  Wolfwalkers is the fourth film from Ireland based Cartoon Saloon (The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea) and it is their most ambitious and artistically rich movie to date.  Whenever you hear someone describe every frame as a painting, this is one of those movies that comes to mind.  Taking inspiration from both medieval Celtic design and English wood carvings, this movie is from beginning to end a painting come to life.  It has been a constant in-house defining style for Cartoon Saloon in past films, but here they take it to another level, almost competing with the likes of Disney Animation at the height of their hand drawn dominance.  The highly stylized animation of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959) comes instantly to mind, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the filmmakers took a bit of inspiration from it when making this.  In an era dominated by computer animation, it’s refreshing to see hand drawn animation still at work somewhere in the world, and done with some sense of ambition.  While Pixar spent the year playing par for the course, Cartoon Saloon swung for the stars, and delivered the most visually and narratively alive animated film of the year.

3.

MANK

Directed by David Fincher

This movie seems like it was made solely to appeal to deep rooted cinephiles like me.  An ode to old Hollywood, dramatizing the creative process that went into the making of what is largely considered to be the greatest movie ever made; Orson Welles Citizen Kane (1941).  And sure enough, it worked.  David Fincher’s movie is so heavily detailed in it’s reconstruction of the era that it takes place in, that even the way it’s presented evokes how movies looked back in the 1940’s.  The sound mix makes the movie feel like it’s being played in a large, cathedral like movie house complete with an omnipresent echo (ironic given that it’s a Netflix original).  And though it was shot digitally, it’s been given a grainy texture that evokes old black and white film from the era, complete with reel change markers on the corners of the screen.  If it weren’t for the use of four letter word profanity and contemporary movie stars in the cast, you would swear you were watching a long lost classic from Hollywood’s Golden Age.  But apart from Fincher’s technical wizardry behind the camera, he still manages to tell this richly layered character study of an unsung legend within the history of the industry; screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (played with gusto by Gary Oldman).  While showing this incredible whirlwind life journey of Mankiewicz (or Mank as he was often called) as he interacts with legendary power players like William Randolph Hearst, Irving Thalberg, and Louis B. Meyer, the movie also brilliantly captures the process a writer goes through in crafting a story that come from a personal place, even in exorcising his own demons as a result.  Through this we see what went into the crafting of the great American story and show that indeed Herman Mankiewicz was more of it’s author than anyone realized, with his own life being just as cinematic as anything else he could have written.

2.

DA 5 BLOODS

Directed by Spike Lee

Spike Lee is ever the troublemaker when it comes to bringing politics to the big screen, but he’s also someone with an unparalled command of the cinematic language as well, making his movies resonate regardless of it’s message and target audience.  With Da 5 Bloods, he finds a universal story about racial identity and the crippling effects of warfare in this incredible story about four Vietnam vets turned treasure hunters.  And it is perhaps his most compelling film since Malcolm X (1992).  With very subtle to overt homages to movies like Apocalypse Now (1979) and Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Lee has crafted one of the most compelling character studies of his career, as each of his central characters carry with them some burden put on them from their experience in the Vietnam War, with one in particular never really have been able to shake off the emotional wounds, even decades after the war ended.  Delroy Lindo delivers without a doubt my favorite performance of the year as a deeply unnerved Nam vet named Paul, a MAGA hat wearing hot head who grinds against the other members of his team like flint over a pile of wood.  While some other movies might judge a character like him harshly, Lee surprisingly gives him a great deal of depth, perfectly encapsulating how some people never leave the battlefield and how it often clouds the rest of their life.  The movie also features a touching supporting performance from the late Chadwick Boseman as a fallen soldier that brought the titular 5 Bloods together.  The beloved actors untimely passing shortly after this film’s release now brings a whole new resonance to his performance here, and along with the acclaimed Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, it was a great swan song year for Chadwick as he sadly left us too soon.  And just on a technical level, this is Spike Lee in his prime, making the most of his already definable style, but done so with ambition that had been missing in a lot of his more recent work.  Along with 2018’s Blackkklansman, it’s nice to see Spike Lee getting back to making ambitious, but still revolutionary movies again, and Da 5 Bloods is absolutely him at his very best.

And finally, the best movie of 2020 is…

1.

KAJILLIONAIRE

Directed by Miranda July

Yeah, I know this is a strange choice to make, but, for me this was the most satisfying cinematic experience that I had all year, and I’ll tell you why.  One thing is that I managed to watch this on a big screen during a brief window when movie theaters were open in the LA metro area, which was definitely a bonus.  But more importantly, in a year that was such a sour pill to swallow for so many people this year, Miranda July’s sweet story of adversity was like a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.  Truthfully, there is a bit of buried relevance to what this year was like within the narrative of Kajillionaire that I was not expecting, and I’m sure that Miranda July probably never intended it that way either, but it was still hard to miss.  It’s about a socially stunted young woman named Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) who is dragged around by her scam artist parents (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger) to basically scab off of other people in order to make a living, until an outsider named Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) comes into her life and shows her a different way.  A narrative about freeing oneself from the influence of grifters and con artists and finding renewed purpose in life; gee, I wonder why this resonated in 2020.  Regardless of what meaning I projected onto it, it’s still a beautifully crafted movie with a lot of heart and it just was so refreshing to see something positive for once in this very dark year.  Evan Rachel Wood does a great job of balancing the character of Old Dolio, doing a good job of making her feel real and not a cartoonish creation.  And Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger do a magnificent job of portraying two of the worst parents in cinema history.  Miranda July can sometimes be too aloof as a storyteller, but Kajillionaire is without a doubt her most assured and universally appealing movie to date, and it’s twist and turns are some of the most clever plotting that I’ve seen from a movie this year.  We definitely needed a movie like this in 2020, and hopefully it gets discovered by a wider audience in the years to come.  For this critic, it was the sweet, soothing treat that I sorely was needing in this foul, disgusting year, and I’m grateful that I even got to experience it on a big screen as well.

Of course, there was a lot of bad to go along with the good in 2020, and that’s a bit of an understatement.  Even watching mostly from home I was not immune to being exposed to some bad movies this year.  So, in addition to my best of the year, I also have my Bottom 5 worst movies of the year.

5.   THE TAX COLLECTOR – When disgraced, self-destructive actor Shia LaBeouf is the only good thing in your movie, that’s not a good sign.  This convoluted, Scarface (1983) wannabe is full of tired drug cartel movie clichés and features one of the least charismatic protagonists I’ve ever seen in one of these kinds of movies.  Another low point for the once promising director David Ayer.

4.  DOLITTLE – Robert Downey Jr.’s first foray outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe sadly landed with a thud.  I could sense that Downey meant well from the outset in getting this movie made, but somewhere down the line, whether it was questionable creative choices or studio interference, something went horribly wrong.  The animal animation is horrible, the celebrity voices just don’t fit the animal characters they play, the story is dumb, Downey’s Welsh accent makes him hard to understand, and it all just makes the movie too dumb even for toddlers that it’s aiming for as it’s audience.  C’mon Iron Man, you can do a lot better.

3.  ARTEMIS FOWL – First in what I’ll be calling the Good Directors Gone Bad of 2020 part of this list.  Kenneth Branagh is usually a brilliant film director who can work in genres as varied as Comic Book (Thor) or Mystery Thriller (Murder on the Orient Express).  Here however he struggled to launch a franchise based on a popular set of young adult fantasy adventure novels, and what resulted is an undercooked Harry Potter wannabe.  This is probably the laziest film to ever come from the acclaimed filmmaker, who sadly didn’t have Death on the Nile to help cleanse the palette at the end of this year, with that movie moving to 2021.  Thankfully, the movie was quickly buried on it’s subdued release on Disney+, where it was likely spared from a disaster at the box office.  Hopefully Branagh can put this embarrassment behind him and get back to making movies that are better suited for his talent.

2. HILLBILLY ELEGY – Another disastrous turn for an otherwise celebrated filmmaker, Hillbilly Elegy is a new low point for the usually reliable Ron Howard.  Based on the best selling memoir by author J.D. Vance, the movie feels creepily exploitive in the way it portrays it’s lower class characters, in what some critics have called “Poverty Porn.”  It’s the kind of movie that looks attractive as potential Oscar Bait, with actors in a sense uglifying themselves in an attempt to get Awards recognition.  This movie doesn’t have a compelling enough story to pull that off, and instead feels cheap and manipulative.  It’s especially disappointing that it wastes great actors like Amy Adams and Glenn Close in roles that are far beneath their talents.  Movies can be made about the struggles of poor, on the fringe Americans that society has largely forgotten, but this movie definitely adds nothing of worth, and instead just feels like a thirsty plea for Awards season recognition.

And the worst movie of 2020 is…

1. ROALD DAHL’S THE WITCHES – This updated version of author Roald Dahl’s beloved classic novel is not only bad, it is bafflingly bad.  Considering that this is from Robert Zemekis, the man behind Back to the Future (1985), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) and Forrest Gump (1994) is shocking, because it is such an amateurish and disturbingly ill-conceived film.  The original 1990 film based on the book featured some incredible puppetry and visual effects from Jim Henson Studios, but this movie not only entirely relies upon an over abundance of CGI, but some of that CGI is used to create some really disturbing imagery.  You thought the cat skin transformation in last year’s Cats (2019) was bad, just wait until you see Anne Hathaway’s transformation into the Grand High Witch in this movie.  It really is the most nightmarish thing I’ve seen in any movie in a long time.  And this is supposed to be a movie geared towards kids.  Without a doubt the most disastrous movie of all of 2020, and that’s saying a lot.  Not even worth watch for free on HBO Max.

So, there you have all my choices for the best and worst of 2020.  Overall, given the limitations that I faced in accessing any amount of movies this year, I still managed to see enough good films to fill out the list.  Again, had the year gone differently, my list would have likely been a lot different, but that’s out of my control.  I do wish that some of those other highly touted end of the year movies had been more widely available; especially Nomadland, as that one is cleaning up with the year end awards so far.  But, despite how the year as a whole went, I’m surprised how little it actually affected my viewing habits.  I still chose to see movies first on the big screen wherever I was available to, and though it has been inconvenient, I still am happy that I managed to be able to do it at all.  Drive-In’s have been a lifesaver for me as a fan of cinema, and for someone who up until this year had never been to a Drive-In movie before, I have since turned into a Drive-In veteran, watching more than a dozen films that way over the last year.  Even some of the exclusive movies from major streamers like Netflix, Amazon and Apple TV were given the Drive-In treatment here in the LA metro area, and yes I paid extra money for what I could’ve seen for no extra charge on my streaming accounts.  I am still a dedicated fan of the cinematic experience and probably always will be.  My hope is that we begin to see the theatrical industry start to get back on it’s feet in 2021.  It may be years before it gets back to normal, but once the theater doors begin to open up once again, I’ll happily be one of the first to venture back and show my support.  With the vaccine starting to circulate, and the pandemic’s worst days hopefully behind us, my hope is that we as a society once again see the value in the communal experience of watching a movie together.  It’s the thing that I’m most looking forward to in the new year, and my hope is that everyone else feels the same way too.  We’ve had to compromise a lot in the last year, but my hope is that we come out of it resilient and are able to embrace the things that we love and have missed the most, and hopefully movies the way they are meant to be seen is one of those cherished things that we will fight to preserve in the years ahead.

The Movies of Early 2021 (Hopefully)

Well, we did it everyone.  We made it to the year 2021.  After suffering through what will no doubt be described for a long time as one of the worst years in history, we are hopeful that the following year will be significantly better.  Of course, the changing of the calendar alone doesn’t mean much overall.  The dark cloud of 2020 is going to be hanging around us for some time still, and we are likely going to be seeing a lot more problems extend into the first couple of months of this year.  But, a light at the end of the tunnel is before us, with a new administration set to take office in the coming weeks and a vaccine starting to disperse out to the population.  It will take time, but we are beginning to take steps in the right direction.  One area that is still stuck in limbo however is the future of movie theaters in the United States.  Only a year after hitting all time highs in 2019, the theatrical industry spent most of 2020 on life support, with it’s future uncertain given the rising competition from streaming, which had a landmark year.  The recently signed into law stimulus bill will indeed provide help to independent movie theaters across the country, but the big chains which make up the dominant number of screens are still going to face a grim outlook in 2021.  AMC, the largest chain, has stated that their reserves of cash are going to run out sometime this month, making bankruptcy almost imminent.  And if AMC can’t pull itself out, it could cause a ripple effect across the entire theatrical industry as a result.  We may be seeing the after effects of 2020 play out for many years when it comes to Hollywood and it’s relationship with the theatrical market.  As of right now, it’s still uncertain if any of it will return back to normal.  And this is reflected in the wait and see position that the industry is taking with their planned releases over the next year.

As I’ve done for most of this year, I will be foregoing my usual breakdown of the upcoming movies in any given season, based on the “must sees” and the “ones to skip”, and instead just spotlight the important movies that have the best shot of getting released this year.  Unlike my last couple seasonal previews, which sadly never panned out like they were supposed to, I am going to instead focus on the movies that I believe are going to have the best shot of being released over the next few months, mostly through Winter and Spring.  A lot of these are still tentative dates that could shift once again like everything else from 2020, but there are a couple that are indeed set in stone thanks to convenient and still controversial hybrid releases in both theaters and streaming.  It remains to be seen if any of that will work, and it may also all depend on the state of the theatrical industry moving ahead through the rest of the year.  In any case, let’s take a look at the hopefully and finally set in stone movie releases of early 2021.

RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON (MARCH 5)

Let’s begin with one movie that will for certain meet it’s intended release date.  Disney’s latest animated feature was originally intended for a November 2020 premiere, but the decision was made early enough in the reshuffling of movies to give Raya and the Last Dragon a safe haven in Spring of 2021.  The move wasn’t that far off from where it had been, and it is coming out in the month of March, which has been beneficial to Disney films in the past (2016’s Zootopia for example).  Not only that, but it also allowed time for Disney’s new experimental release plans to play out, and help them learn what works and what doesn’t.  What we’re going to see from Raya is the first wide release from Walt Disney Pictures in movie theaters since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.  But, it will be part of a hybrid release similar to what Warner Brothers announced for all their 2021 films in a now notorious decision.  While Warner Brothers received pushback from it’s wide ranging decision, the announcement of Raya’s release was largely accepted, mainly because it’s the only one that Disney planned this for (so far).  It will be premiering on Disney+ the same day as theaters, in what looks like the same Premiere Access feature that they used for Mulan (2020).  It’s unclear if it’s an extra premium cost in addition to the subscription price, but the beneficial thing is that it does give more options to Disney to get their movie seen just in case the pandemic still hasn’t subsided.  And hopefully it works out not just in Disney’s favor, but also for the movie theaters playing it as well.  This looks like a nice big animated epic that would ideally play on a large screen, and the Southeast Asian setting looks unique and colorful.  I like that the Asian influence behind this movie is also reflected in it’s creative team, with a script from the writer of the hit Crazy Rich Asians (2018) and a cast that includes Star Wars’ Kelly Marie Tran and comedian Awkwafina.  Given Disney’s track record, it will hopefully be an early boost that the theatrical industry needs.

NO TIME TO DIE (APRIL 2)

Poor old 007.  One of the first inclinations of the severity of the year we were about to face happened when MGM and Sony suddenly pulled their hotly anticipated new Bond sequel off of the calendar.  It was the first domino to fall and set the standard for the 2020 theatrical year, where no major blockbuster managed to land it’s intended release.  No Time to Die, the 25th film in the long running James Bond franchise, is a significant film for the series in that it’s the first to be directed by an American (True Detective’s Cary Joji Fukunaga) and also the final franchise film starring Daniel Craig as 007 (his fifth overall).  The fact that we’ve seen been left to wait longer for the chance to see this turning point movie in this beloved franchise has only increased the anticipation of fans tenfold.  Unfortunately for MGM, they don’t have the financial stability to launch their own streaming service the same way that Warner Brothers and Disney has, so they’ve been left with the unfortunate position of having to wait for theaters to return back to normal in order to maximize box office returns that will offset the $200 million-plus budget they spent on this movie, or try to sell it off to another streamer at an astronomical price.  Since the former is not looking like a sure thing any time soon, MGM  did attempt to sell off their movie to Netflix for half a billion late last year.  Netflix of course scoffed and it’s unlikely that anyone else is going to match the same price.  Tentatively, we’re looking at an April release in theaters, which could again shift given the state of the market a few months from now.  MGM may even put their entire studio on the market again, with the hopes of another studio conglomerate with a foothold in streaming taking them in.  In all likelihood, I’d say we may be looking at another long wait for this next adventure for James Bond, which is a shame because it’s the kind of high adventure entertainment that we sorely need right now.

THE KING’S MAN (MARCH 12)

Another 2020 orphan, this film saw just as many delays as James Bond did las year.  The big difference is, being a 20th Century Pictures property, it has the benefit of being part of the Disney Company’s slate of releases, and has the benefit of a fall back plan with streaming, in case things don’t go well over these next couple months.  That being said, Disney and the former house of “Fox” are still committing to that early March release.  Perhaps it’s because that even though this is a franchise that has seen success in the past, it’s also one that has lowered expectations due to a lackluster performance in it’s last entry.  This new film seems to be something of a soft reboot of the franchise, still taking the spy thriller tropes and dressing it up in a high class gentlemen-ly  world, only this time it’s set in the distant past (World War I from the looks of it) with a completely new set of characters.  Director Matthew Vaughn is still behind the camera, but stars Colin Firth and Taron Edgerton are out, and it remains uncertain if the franchise can survive following this new tract.  Hopefully, a reboot is just what this franchise needs, after the bloated sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017) left many disappointed.  This one acts as an origin story of some kind, but it may also just be the launching point of where the series may go from here out.  It is nice to see actor Ralph Fiennes in a more heroic role after usually finding himself playing the heavy in most films.  And it will be neat to see this group of well-dressed super agents going up against historical figures such as Kaiser Wilhelm, Mata Hari, and Rasputin to name a few.  Whether or not Disney and 20th Century can stick to the March release date is uncertain, because as of now there are only plans for this to be in theaters.  If that option remains unavailable, they at least have more of a softer landing than James Bond does in finally getting released, whether it is later in the year, or on any of Disney’s streaming platforms.

JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH (FEBRUARY 12)

Though Wonder Woman 1984 was the first movie put out by Warner Brothers under their year long plan to release all their movies under the hybrid model, Judas and the Black Messiah may be the movie that tests the long term effects of this plan the most.  Originally set for an end of the year Awards season release, this likely Oscars bait film was moved off the calendar before being given this hybrid release in February, still making it eligible due to this year’s extended Awards deadline.  We knew that Wonder Woman would do very well in both formats, but it will be interesting to see what audiences choose with this movie.  Oscar films usually never light up the box office in their opening weekends, but instead they build success over time with word of mouth.  With this movie premiering on both HBO Max and in theaters the same day, it may indicate a shift in the release patterns for movies like this in the future.  Will movies get more buzz from playing on the small screen, or is it the big screen that will ultimately measure it’s success.  There’s no doubt that regardless of how the movie performs, it will still get Oscars attention.  If it wins any awards, it may even bring more eyes to the movie in general.  But, given the way it’s released, it might change the way these kinds of movies find an audience forever.  Gone will be those long tail success stories of those “little movies that could” which become a success over a protracted period of time.  In any case, it’s an exciting looking movie that definitely speaks to our time right now, and will certainly feature some monumental performances from actors Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield.  And the story of a mole planted by the FBI to spy on the activities of the Black Panther Party will no doubt spur some much needed conversation about the politics of race in America.  My hope is that the hybrid release of this movie doesn’t diminish the theatrical market that movies like this have thrived in before.  Movies like this especially are ones that should be experienced communally in a theater and not just alone in your living room watching the TV.

TOM AND JERRY (FEBRUARY 26)

Here we have another movie releasing under the hybrid plan from Warner Brothers.  But unlike Wonder Woman or Judas and the Black Messiah, this is movie where I don’t think the audience will be as evenly split over the different options.  My guess is that this movie is going to only succeed through one way or the other.  It may fail completely at the theatrical box office, but could do well on HBO Max instead, relieving audiences of the embarrassment of paying for a ticket.  On the other hand, it may be the kind of movie that justifies parents taking their children out of the home and to the theater, as the family options have been pretty scarce theatrically over the last year.  In either case, this movie is going to be yet another test for the hybrid model, but more in the case of seeing if a movie can sink or swim in this new world.  As a childless adult, I can tell you that my inclination is that this will be one to pass on, and it can be easy for me to just ignore it, or catch it on streaming if I’m ghoulishly curious.  But, for families that want something new to show their kids, this movie is certainly the kind of thing that will appeal to them, and maybe even convince them to go out to the theaters again.  It will be interesting to see how well it performs on both ends of it’s premiere.  I highly doubt this movie will be the one that saves cinemas in the end, but hey, I also underestimated Sonic the Hedgehog (2020) and that proved to be one of the year’s few box office hits.  The movie in general looks pretty bad, though I do appreciate that the animators of the titular duo are trying to emulate the style of the original cartoons.  It just feels wrong that they have to coexist with a live action world ala Roger Rabbit style.  I could be wrong about this movie, but I’m pretty certain that this will appeal solely to little children and almost nobody else.

A QUIET PLACE PART II (APRIL 23)

Another one of the early victims of the pandemic’s swift decimation of the theatrical industry, A Quiet Place II finds itself in a much different position to assert itself than it did a year ago.  This sequel to the surprise hit original finds actor John Krasinski returning to the director’s chair but not into his lead role from the first film, which given what happened in the movie makes sense (spoiler).  His real life spouse Emily Blunt returns with a more central lead role this time, continuing on in this horror narrative of survivors trying to live in a world inhabited by hearing sensitive monsters.  It will be interesting to see if the movie can repeat the success that the original enjoyed.  It is far more likely to do so in a critical sense, but, A Quiet Place Part II may also surprise at the box office as well.  As we’ve observed during these pandemic months, while the overall box office has remained very minimal due to the social distancing restrictions, one of the bright spots in the market has been movies from the horror genre.  Horror movies like Universal and Blumhouse’s Freaky (2020) were generally the top grossers at the box office, and they generated small but not terrible returns, which is pretty incredible given what movie theaters have been going through.  Given it’s late Spring release, which could be after a long down turn in virus infections due to the vaccine rollout, and a continued loosening of restrictions in the process, A Quiet Place Part II could be primely positioned to be the first box office hit of the year, and maybe even strong enough to save theaters in general.  It’s hard to say if this may happen, but horror movies have a great theatrical track record, and it just might be enough to make the movie a success.  Though the wait has been long, it might actually be fortuitous for A Quiet Place Part II in the end.

So, there you have my outlook on the movies that are going to roll out, hopefully, in this early part of 2021.  Some are certainly going to be released no matter what, like Raya and the Last Dragon as well as the handful of Warner Brothers titles, but others like No Time to Die and The King’s Man may unfortunately find themselves uprooted again.  The one good thing is that the pandemic that caused all the mayhem throughout 2020 is thankfully going to subside the further we head into 2021.  Hopefully, the movie theaters can bounce back too, but it will no doubt take time.  The last pandemic of this scale that we faced as a culture happened when movies were still in their infancy, and movie theaters were as big of an industry as they were back  then.  This was as close to an apocalyptic scenario for the movie theater industry as anything they have ever faced.  Not even the advent of television brought movie theaters to the brink like this, because even through all the competition before, movie theaters have never had to close their doors on this kind of scale.  The pandemic relief bill will certainly help the small chains and independent movie houses survive (which is great), but the large chains are still going to struggle for a while, and it may be the case that we’re going to see a much more diminished theatrical market for the next several years and maybe even forever.  It will certainly cause us to reconsider what a blockbuster hit will be in the future, as we may never hit the heights of say an Avengers: Endgame (2019) ever again.  None of the movies I mentioned are likely to be the movie that saves theaters, but some could do well enough to at least prove once again their value.  The year has only begun, and we still have a lot to learn about what the future holds, but hopefully the start of 2021 will at least give us a few things to be excited about and hopeful for as we begin to inch back to normal once again.

Wonder Woman 1984 – Review

I get the feeling that we’re going to be giving movies that came out in the year of 2020 a special distinction in the years to come.  Given the upheaval that happened in the industry this year due to the pandemic, the fact that any movie got released this year (especially those on the big screen) is kind of miraculous in itself.  We saw an unprecedented number of movies move off of their release dates this year due to the sudden closure of movie theaters across the country, and for the big multi-million dollar franchise films, it became increasingly difficult to find a safe place to land.  Given the current landscape of the theatrical industry, we are unlikely to have a blockbuster sized hit on the same level that we saw over the last decade.  The lackluster box office performance of Tenet (2020) proved that back in September.  And given that studios have been spending so much on the budgets for these movies, expecting billions in box office returns to justify their investment, it’s leading to a reckoning within the industry that I think many of them were not expecting to confront so soon.  We saw some of that play out this past few weeks with Warner Brothers controversial choice to release their entire 2021 slate of movies on streaming at the same time as theaters.  This angered many within both the production and theatrical side of the business, seeing it as a clear threat to the long term future of the big screen experience.  No doubt, the ramifications of the move are going to effect the way that Hollywood does business for the next decade, with streaming taking on a heavier role in distribution, and if the end of the year is any indication, we may see the first real sign of what the future will look like.  This weekend, two of the major studios have used this Christmas weekend to try out the different modes of streaming distribution that have come about because of the pandemic.  One is Disney releasing their brand new and highly anticipated Pixar film, Soul (2020), on Disney+ with no extra surcharge to subscribers, while the other is DC’s new super hero blockbuster Wonder Woman 1984 (2020), releasing in a hybrid premiere in theaters and on WarnerMedia’s HBO Max streaming platform.

Wonder Woman 1984 was perhaps one of the most difficult movies to find a new home for in this pandemic year.  Originally slated for a June release, the movie moved twice into October and then finally to it’s Christmas Day premiere.  Many were even speculating if it could even meet that mark, given the fact that the pandemic is reaching an all time high during the Holidays.  In the end, Warner Brothers still made Christmas the final landing spot for their eagerly awaited sequel, which was probably very much needed, as their 2021 calendar was already crowded and pushing Wonder Woman back any further would have complicated things even more.  The unfortunate reality of the pandemic lasting far longer than anyone hoped is that even putting the movie out on the usually reliable Christmas season didn’t guarantee box office big enough to offset the cost of the movie’s production.  So, the decision was made to give the film the hybrid release on both streaming and in theaters, with parent company AT&T hoping that the increase in subscribers on HBO Max could help make up for the expected lower theatrical returns.  Director Patty Jenkins, returning from her celebrated helming of the original Wonder Woman (2017), had long held out that she preferred a theatrical run for her movie, but given that such a move is impossible on a large scale right now, she reluctantly approved the hybrid release for the movie in the end.  However, she did so as a promise from Warner Brothers that it was a temporary measure given the climate of the market at the moment.  She didn’t know that Warner Brothers would take Wonder Woman 1984’s release model and apply it to all future film premieres moving forward.  Naturally, this did not sit well with Patty and she added her voice to all the other aggrieved filmmakers affected by Warner’s rash decision.  Regardless, depending on what’s available to customers across the country, we now are able to watch Wonder Woman 1984.  The question remains, does it retain the wonder of the original or did it lose it’s spark too quickly.

Taking place in between the World War I setting of the original Wonder Woman, and the events in which we see her take part in the Justice League (2017), Wonder Woman 1984 finds Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) aka Wonder Woman, living comfortably at home in the mortal world after leaving her Amazonian homeland behind.  She works at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. as a curator of antiquities, but in her spare time, she discreetly helps save citizens as the friendly neighborhood super hero.  One day, a mysterious artifact ends up in her office from Latin America, which immediately garners interest from Diana and her newest colleague, Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig).  The two soon find out that the stone, when held in their hand, has the power to grant wishes.  Barbara ends us using the wishing stone to make her more like Diana, both in beauty and in power.  Diana on the other hand sees her wish granted without every knowing how she made it in the first place.  She wished to see the boyfriend she lost in World War I, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) once again, and suddenly she bumps into a stranger who miraculously has all of Steve Trevor’s memories.  Though he is living in another man’s body, Steve appears to Diana as the man she remembered, and she realizes he dream wish has come true.  But, over time she learns that every wish granted has a price, and the more wishes made, the higher the cost.  That’s the dilemma that soon rises once a wannabe oil tycoon named Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) takes possession of the stone.  Soon he gains the power to grant wishes to millions of people across the world, which only makes him more powerful, and a serious threat to the stability of civilization.  Once Wonder Woman discovers the truth behind the stone’s magic, and the true cost of having wishes granted to everyone, she has to make the difficult choice of either keeping Steve Trevor in her life again, or sacrificing her happiness in order to save the world.  All the while, she has to contend with an even more dire threat as Barbara Minerva grows more powerful, ultimately becoming a foe by the name Cheetah, that stands between Diana and stopping Maxwell Lord.

When Patty Jenkins undertook the role of director for the big screen debut of Wonder Woman, it was marked with a lot of obstacles in her path.  Never before had a major studio given a project of this size to a female director before, let alone a Super Hero movie.  At the same time, Warner Brothers and DC were being widely criticized for making Super Hero films that were too dark and depressing, and were generally considered to be out of character for the comic book nature of their source material.  But thankfully, Patty Jenkins, who up until that point had only had one other theatrical film on her resume (2003’s Monster), not only excelled at delivering a big hit with Wonder Woman, she also broke new ground for female filmmakers everywhere.  She proved that yes, a woman can direct an action adventure, super hero movie just as well as a man, and her incredible work even made a sea change in tone and character for all the DC movies that followed.  The same exceeded expectations were also reflected in the performance of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman.  Once an unknown actor/model in Hollywood, Gal took the opportunity given to her with the part and has become a full blown movie star as a result.  To many people, especially among younger fans, she has embodied the character of Wonder Woman completely and in many ways, she has put to shame many naysayers who thought casting her initially was a mistake.  Because the original Wonder Woman was such groundbreaking hit, a lot of pressure was put on both Jenkins and Gadot to do it all again.  There were two ways that they could have chosen to have gone; either delve into darker territory, reminiscent of the more dramatic moments of the first movie, or go more towards the sillier side of the character that is reminiscent of her comic book origins.  In my opinion, I’m quite glad that they chose the latter.  One of my worries for a sequel to Wonder Woman was that it would just repeat what we already saw before.  The first film was not without it’s lite moments, but it generally took a very serious approach to the character, putting her in a war time setting.  Wonder Woman 1984 thankfully is a departure that embraces a far more different tone that helps to set it apart.  And in that respect, I think it makes this the best possible sequel that we could have asked for.

I think for many, the change in tone might be off-putting to those used to the seriousness of the first Wonder Woman.  But I really don’t think that tone would have carried over from one film to another.  For one thing, the time period is very different, and I think that director Patty Jenkins wanted the movie to reflect that change.  Where the original was a gritty war film in the vein of Saving Private Ryan (1998) or 1917 (2019), Wonder Woman 1984 is very much grounded in the quirkiness of the 1980’s cultural zeitgeist.  In particular, I believe Jenkins is channeling inspiration from 80’s rom coms that had a supernatural twist like Mannequin (1987) or Weird Science (1986).  That tone would feel out of place for any other super hero story, but not Wonder Woman.  The character has always reflected a colorful flamboyance that ran alongside the harrowing action adventure within the comic books, and I think that this is what Jenkins wanted to bring in this second outing.  And, for the most part, I found myself enjoying some of that 80’s cheese sprinkled throughout the movie, because it really is something unique that I haven’t seen embraced in many other super hero films of this type.  The differences between the movies felt very reminiscent of the differences between the first Thor (2011) and Thor; Ragnarok (2017), where the series transitioned from serious to silly, without losing the core essence of the character.  Not that WW84 removes every super hero trope either.  There are still some incredible action set pieces throughout the movie too, including an incredible chase through the desert where it seemed like Patty Jenkins was drawing even more inspiration from other iconic 80’s movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and The Road Warrior (1982).  I think the fact that the movie clued it’s audience in to what kind of movie it would be very early on helped me to buy into the conceit of it’s tone right away and allowed me to enjoy the ride from then on.

I think another thing that helps the movie find it’s footing is the fact that Gal Gadot remains consistent from movie to movie.  We can still buy that this is the same heroine that walked into No Man’s Land and almost took down the opposing force single handedly, but it’s also believable that she has changed over the years as well.  Her Amazonian heritage prevents her from aging like the rest of humanity, but that same power also leaves her isolated.  She can’t reveal her true power to anyone, so she can’t make any long term friends.  That’s why her dilemma feels so conflicting in the film, because we want her to finally be happy and fulfilled, but we also know that in doing so it would prevent her from being the hero she must be.  Gal Gadot embodies every aspect of the character perfectly, from the shining heroic battles to the more personable, vulnerable moments.  There is an especially pleasing early sequence in a mall where Wonder Woman takes down a group of thieves, and Gal makes Wonder Woman look like she jumped right off the comic page in a glorious way.  It also helps that she has incredible chemistry with Chris Pine, whose return here is very welcome.  Some might find the way that he makes it back into the film to be a bit of a stretch, but given how on board I was for the cheesiness of this movie, I accepted it, and he brings a lot of extra charm to the movie.  One big surprise to me was Kristen Wiig in the role of Cheetah.  When I initially heard about her casting, I was worried, because all I could think about was the many oddball characters that she has played on Saturday Night Live and several other movies.  But, to my surprise, she actually holds her own in the movie, and brings a surprising amount of depth to the character and even a little menace at times, especially towards the end.  Pedro Pascal’s Maxwell Lord is a bit of mixed bag.  There are times when his performance is especially strong, particularly when the toll of granting wishes begins to physically affect him, but there are also moments when he goes a little too overboard.  He’s clearly a representation of Reagan era hucksters that dominated the media at that time, with elements of Gordon Gecko and Donald Trump sprinkled throughout.  But, other times, I was hoping for a little more of the subtlety that I’ve seen Pedro give in other roles like in The Mandalorian.

Honestly, if I were to find a flaw in the movie that holds it back from being among the best Super Hero movies of all time, it would be the fact that it’s trying to tell too much story all at once.  In particular, it does the same mistake that a lot of other movies like Batman Forever (1995) and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) have made, in that it gives us one too many villains in a single movie.  Both Maxwell Lord and Cheetah are iconic adversaries of Wonder Woman from the comic books, and both could carry a movie on their own.  The fact that they have to share time within the same story in a way robs the impact of one from the other, especially in Cheetah’s case.  Now, Wonder Woman 1984 is a way better movie than the other examples that I just gave, but it still succumbs to the same fault when it comes to building up the villainous threat for the hero to face.  I would have much better preferred to have an entire movie devoted to Wonder Woman vs. Cheetah instead of a late third act showdown that we ultimately receive.  The film is also very long too, running almost 2 1/2 hours, and unlike the first movie, a lot of the movie is padded by filler.  A lot of it is still good character building moments, like a sweet montage of Diana showing Steve all the wonders of 1980’s America, but ultimately there could have been a good twenty minutes or so of the movie that could have been trimmed and nothing would’ve felt lost.  At the same time, I do feel that the movie ultimately holds together by the time it reaches it’s end, and it leads to a surprisingly uplifting finale that remains true to the character.  The biggest problem with the first Wonder Woman is that it lead up to a convoluted final act that felt out of character with the rest of the movie, especially falling short of that now iconic No Man’s Land sequence earlier in the movie.  WW84 thankfully doesn’t fall into that same lackluster ending, and overall it remains consistent.  Like the original, it has it’s pitfalls (maybe a little more than the first) but it still maintains a thoroughly enjoyable experience throughout.

One thing that really helped me enjoy the movie a bit more than I probably would’ve otherwise is that I managed to see it on a big screen.  Four walled theaters are still closed here in Southern California where I live, but the few Drive-Ins working in the area did have the movie screening, and I gladly drove myself well outside of town to take that opportunity.  I could’ve watched it at home on HBO Max, but for a movie like this, nothing less than a big screen experience would’ve sufficed for me, and it was well worth the effort.  Wonder Woman 1984 is a big screen movie, no doubt about it, and it’s unfortunate that it’s premiere comes at a time when going out to the movies is not so easy for everyone, and even dangerous for others.  I really wish I could’ve seen this on a big IMAX screen, but the Drive In I went to, the Mission Tiki in Montclair, CA, had a big enough screen to make me feel satisfied with what I was watching.  Wonder Woman 1984 succeeds more than anything else at being a fun romp with an epic sized budget behind it, and honestly after a year like the one that we had, it was just nice to experience a quirky popcorn film like this again.  My hope is that theatrical market will come back in some fashion, and that movies like this can be able to thrive once again.  Sadly, we are looking at a future where the hybrid release model is going to be more relied upon by the studios, and it may even be here to stay depending on how well Wonder Woman 1984 does.  We’ll see how that drama plays out into next year, but in the meantime, I applaud Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot for holding true with the entertainment potential of the Wonder Woman movies.  Wonder Woman 1984 certainly is no where near the greatest movie of this genre, and it may lack the initial legacy impact of the original, but it still is great entertainment that we desperately need in a time like this.  If you are able to, with all the safety protocols in place, I recommend seeing it on a big screen, but if you choose to stream it, that’s fine too.  We need a prosperous future for fun, audience pleasing movies, and if we give Wonder Woman 1984 a successful run on both ends, things could really indeed turn out to be wonderful at the movies again.

Rating: 8.5/10

The Concert Feature – The Story of Walt Disney’s Fantasia and it’s 80 Year Legacy

It is abundantly clear that Walt Disney had a strong interest in music.  Once he was able to bring synchronized sound to his Mickey Mouse shorts, he would continue to make music an integral part of every project he put together thereafter.  In addition to the popular Mickey Mouse shorts, Disney also created a separate series of cartoons centered completely around musical arrangements called the Silly Symphonies.  With a combination of established and original tunes, the Silly Symphony series not only became a popular collection of cartoons in their own right, but also a good testing ground for experimentation.  Walt Disney could do in the Silly Symphony shorts what he otherwise was unable to do with Mickey Mouse and Friends.  The experimental animation done throughout the Silly Symphony brand of the 1930’s paved the way for the kinds of advancements that would make it possible for Walt Disney and his crew to undertake the even more bold adventure of feature length animation.  In 1937, Disney released the fulfillment of all that hard work and ambition with his first ever feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and it became a box office phenomenon.  With the profits off of Snow White, Disney expanded his base of operations, moved his company to a bigger lot in Burbank, and quickly moved towards completing his second feature, Pinocchio (1940).  However, Walt still wanted to give due recognition to the mouse that started it all, as well as give the waning Silly Symphony series a refreshed new direction.  So, Walt and his team of animators decided to create one of the most ambitious Mickey Mouse shorts ever, set to a popular piece of classical music.  The story of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was chosen because of the wildly popular orchestral piece by French composer Paul Dukas.  But, over time, the project proved to be too ambitious, as the short was going wildly over-budget and couldn’t continue being just a simple stand alone short anymore.  As a result, Walt Disney would head down the path of creating what would ultimately be the most experimental and unique film of his entire career.

The road to Fantasia (1940) becoming a reality would begin upon the crucial meeting between Walt Disney and famed orchestra conductor, Leopold Stokowski.  Stokowski was at that time one of the most highly respected figures in the world of music.  The English born conductor was famous for his striking presence in music halls around the world, orchestrating with his hands instead of a baton.  His rise in popularity led him to becoming not just the director of the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, but the founder of many more across America and Europe.  He was especially popular in Hollywood because of his involvement in the creation of the iconic Hollywood Bowl, and it led to him even appearing as himself in multiple musical films.  Of course Walt Disney wanted Stokowski’s involvement in the orchestration of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and Stokowski was likewise interested in collaborating with Disney too.  Stokowski agreed to arrange a recording of his orchestra for Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but as meetings between the two artistic giants continued, it would become apparent that there was going to be a lot more to this arrangement.  Walt and Leopold began discussing other ideas for shorts based on classical music, and it eventually led to Stokowski coming up with the idea for what he dubbed a “Concert Feature.”  The movie would be like visiting one of Stokowski’s concerts at the Philadelphia Performing Arts Center, only the musical pieces would come alive on screen with the artistry of Disney’s team of animators.  It was a way of bringing the Symphony Orchestra concert experience to a mass audience through cinema, and the idea pleased both Disney and Stokowski equally.  It was decided that The Sorcerer’s Apprentice would now become a part of a larger program that would include multiple animated sequences set to classical music from some of the greatest composers in history.

Stokowski would work extensively on the project as the musical director, making the necessary edits needed to condense the lengthy pieces of music.  He also, alongside Disney, chose what would ultimately be the musical pieces that would make up the program.  In addition to Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the feature would also include the Toccata Fugue in D Minor from Johann Sabastian Bach, the Nutcracker Suite from Peter Tchaikovsky, The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky, The Pastoral (6th) Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven, the Dance of the Hours by Amilcare Ponchielli, the Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky, and finally the Ave Maria by Franz Schubert.  Though all the pieces were well known in classical music circles, some may have been unfamiliar to a broader audience, and there needed to be context given to why they were bundled together in this feature.  So, Walt Disney and Leopold Stokowski turned to another collaborator; popular music critic Deems Taylor.  Taylor was a contributing writer to publications like New York World and Musical America, and sometimes a composer in his own right, and he built a reputation both in print and on the radio for explaining the artistry and impact of classical music in a way that the “average joe” could comprehend.  His direct and personable communication style was ideal for shaping the program for Disney’s “Concert Feature,” and Disney granted Deems Taylor the opportunity to both write the introductions to each segment as well as appear as the on screen host.  Through Taylor’s guidance, the movie found it’s connective thread, thanks to him laying out the different blocks of music that each of the chosen pieces fell into.  In his intro, he plainly explains that music falls into three types; one that tells a definite story, another that isn’t specific but still paints a picture in one’s mind, and a third kind that is music that exists simply for it’s own sake.  And with those concepts in place, Disney’s team of artists and animators were able to flex their creative wings.

It’s interesting that the “Concert Feature” does not begin with the short that launched the project from the start, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.   Instead, it begins with a piece based on the third kind of music; the one of pure abstraction.  It makes sense that Bach’s Toccata Fugue opens the film, given that it’s music simply for it’s own sake.  Famous for it’s ominous opening segment, often used in silent horror films, Toccata Fugue introduces us to the orchestra itself, filmed in a daring surrealist way by soon to be legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe.  Soon the orchestra gives way to abstract, formless animation of shapes and colors set to the music that was unlike anything seen on film before.  Combined with that iconic silhouette of Stokowski conducting commandingly with his arms and his back to the camera, it is a bold start to the feature that follows.  What is even more surprising is that the second segment takes a piece of music that does tell a familiar story, The Nutcracker, but removes the narrative entirely.  Instead, the Nutcracker Suite uses the familiar melodies to showcase a symphony of nature, complete with dancing mushrooms, flowers, goldfish, and fairy sprites.  Disney could’ve easily have retold the famous Nutcracker story, but what they did instead was make this segment fall into the category of music that suggests something entirely different.  The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a very definite story told through music follows, and it very much is as masterful as Disney intended it to be.  Mickey’s Sorcerer outfit is almost as universally recognized as his normal get-up, and the segment is without a doubt the most popular of the film all these years later.  The fourth segment is probably the most controversial inclusion of the film.  When Igor Stravinsky premiered his Rite of Spring ballet in Paris in 1914, it was so scandalous that it caused a riot.  Interesting enough, Stravinsky was the only composer still living during the making of this film.  Living in exile away from his native Russia post-Revolution, Stravinsky was now living in Beverly Hills, and Walt Disney did indeed welcome him to visit the studio.  Perhaps Stravinsky never anticipated that Disney would take his orchestrations to tribal dance and shape them into a chronicle of the evolution of life on Earth, all the way to the age of the Dinosaurs.  Stravinsky soured on the film over the years, though it’s been said that he was more upset by Stokowski’s edits than the artistry of Disney’s artists.  Even still, the inclusion of The Rite of Spring in the film is a bold choice, and one that is particularly heavy dramatically for animation, not shying away from gruesome onscreen death and violence.

After an intermission, the only one in any Disney movie, the orchestra returns to the screen and Deems Taylor introduces the audience to a “special member” of the crew; the Soundtrack.  The Soundtrack is personified as a simple line across the screen that comes to animated life synchronized to the accompanied music of different instruments.  It’s quite an achievement on the animators part that they manage to put personality in something as simple as a soundtrack line, but it does present the audience with an identifiable representation of an instrument used by studio orchestras that help them stay synchronized when recording for a film.  From there, the movie continues with two segments that suggest stories that the animation team freely adapted.  First off, they take Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, which was inspired by the splendor of Bavarian countryside, and instead expand it into a portrayal of Greek mythological creatures frolicking in the shadow of Mount Olympus.  After that, the animators take the Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours ballet from the opera La Giaconda, and supplant the dancers with wild animals such as hippos, ostriches, elephants, and alligators.  These two segments are the ones closest to the traditional Disney formula, and as a result, the most overtly comical, especially Dance of the Hours.  If you ever wanted to see a hippo in a tutu, the animators certainly deliver on that promise.  These more light-hearted segments help to comfort the audience before the film reaches it’s very profound finale.  The closing of the film combines two pieces of music that are the antithesis of each other, representing what Deems Taylor states is a clash between the profane and the sacred.  It begins with Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, another favorite of silent horror, and we are introduced to one of Disney’s most iconic evil characters in their entire library; the demon god Chernabog.  Animated by legendary artist Vladimir “Bill” Tytla, Chernabog is a tour de force creation, representing some of the most profound character animation ever.  The segment also features some of the most disturbing and macabre artwork ever in a animated feature, let alone a Disney one.  How Walt Disney was able to get away with something this unapologetically dark and foreboding in that time is a mystery, and the segment continues to be popular to this day, especially around Halloween.  After the madness of Bald Mountain, the movie concludes with a soulful rendition of Ave Maria, with an incredible showcase of Disney’s most valued device, the multiplane camera, giving stunning depth to the artwork in the segment.

To say that Walt Disney’s plans for Fantasia were ambitious would be an understatement.  Not only was he pushing the studio on an artistic level, but he was also experimenting on the music front as well.  Walt wanted to recreate the music hall experience as much as he could for the big screen, and that called for inventing an entirely new kind of soundtrack.  The Disney Studio technicians invented what they called Fantasound, which was a forerunner to stereo surround sound that we all know today.  It is amazing to think that long before 5.1 surround sound would become the norm in sound mixing for every film made by Hollywood, the Disney studio had already invented it just for this one film alone.  The only problem was that Fantasound was expensive, and required movie theaters to install new equipment just to run the film to it’s full potential.  As a result, Walt Disney opted to premiere Fantasia as a Roadshow, premiering the movie in select markets that could support his Fantasound experience before he could present a monoaural version in smaller markets later.  But, even with a finished film, Walt was no where near done.  His plan was to have Fantasia be continuously renewed every year, swapping one segment out for a new one in a continuous chain.  Fantasia would be a movie without end that would continuously refresh itself year after year.  And indeed, he wasted no time, putting new segments quickly into production.  These included segments based on Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries for instance.  Walt even began collaborating with artist Salvador Dali on a segment called Destino, which would have centered around Dali’s surrealist style.  However, real life put the breaks on Walt’s ambitious plans.  The outbreak of World War II cut off the crucial European market, and Walt’s expensive Roadshow presentation was not able to recover it’s cost.  With only an adaptation of Claude Debussy’s Claire de Lune complete, Disney had to permanently shelve his Fantasia plans in order to salvage the studio after the double whammy hit of disappointing box office returns for both Pinocchio and Fantasia.  A year later, America would enter the war and Walt Disney would open his studio up to produce propaganda pictures for the war effort; a drastic move that Walt might have avoided had he been on stronger financial footing.

After the War, Walt Disney decided to give Fantasia another chance, however with much less fanfare than he had previously planned.   A 1946 re-release removed the surround sound track in favor of a standard mono recording.  It also shredded most of Deems Taylor’s introductions down to the bare minimum. It was certainly a shell of it’s former self, but thankfully for Walt Disney, the re-release was a success, and helped to keep the movie in the public eye.  Walt never again tried to attempt another film like Fantasia again, and refrained from re-booting his plans for more segments through the rest of his life.  Subsequent re-releases over the years helped to build Fantasia’s reputation and it developed a strong following.  A 50th anniversary re-release in 1990 proved to be a pivotal one, because it restore the five channel surround sound of the audio tracks, as well as helped to clean up the image that was definitely showing it’s age at this point.  There was also the controversial removal of centaurs from the Pastoral Symphony sequence that were deemed offensive black stereotypes.  This 50th anniversary was both popular in theaters and on a special home video release.  But, it was a restoration of the 1946 version.  One of the most ardent champions for Fantasia at the Disney studio at the time was Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney, who was now the head of Animation.  Roy took it upon himself to fulfill Walt’s dream by creating a fresh continuation of Fantasia in a new sequel called Fantasia Continued.  But, at the same time, Roy desperately wanted to find the original 1940 version of the film and see if it could be restored.  Thankfully, the Disney Archives were able to find and restore the original film elements of the 1940 version.  Unfortunately, the 5 track audio was not in a complete form, as only the musical tracks survived.  So, the restoration team made the tough decision to dub over Deems Taylor’s complete narration with a soundalike (in this case, veteran voice actor Corey Burton).  Even still, Roy was able to have a complete version of Walt’s original Fantasia ready to premiere to the public alongside his brand new Fantasia sequel.

Fantasia 2000, as it would later be called, launched off as the first movie of the new millennium, premiering on January 1, 2000.  And like Walt’s original, the movie’s premiere plan was perhaps a little too ambitious for it’s time.  Instead of a wide theatrical release, Fantasia 2000 would instead play exclusively on IMAX screens across the world for six months; a first for a major studio release.  Keep in mind, this was years before The Dark Knight would popularize IMAX as a filmmaking tool for Hollywood releases, so IMAX screens were few and far between, and were often used more for nature documentaries.  So, Fantasia 2000, like it’s predecessor, would also be hailed as an artistic achievement that unnecessarily was hampered by a limited theatrical release.  But, also like Fantasia, it would continue to build a strong reputation over time and now on it’s own 20th anniversary, it is recognized as a classic in it’s own right.  But, it is the original that still stands tall as a icon in film history.  There is honestly no other movie like it, other than it’s long in the making sequel.  It’s a perfect blending of two great artforms, elevating the potential of each other.  The classic music pieces chosen for the film underscore some of the most imaginative imagery ever captured in animation, and the movie likewise helped to keep these particular classical pieces popular in the public consciousness, even through the changing musical landscape of the 20th century.  Fantasia even changed the way that we experience music in a visual medium.  You can see it’s influence in the way that music videos try to match the tempo of the music to the visuals, or in the way that some movies will sometimes edit to music cues.  The short that started it all, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, is also today an integral part of the Disney Company’s iconography, with the Sorcerer’s hat found in even the architectural framework of key Disney properties like the Animation building on the Burbank Lot, and at the Disneyland Hotel.  After two groundbreaking but still narratively familiar feature films to start off his legacy in Hollywood, it is quite remarkable that Walt Disney would undertake something as experimental and unique with his third feature.  Thanks to a pivotal meeting with the likes of Stokowski, Walt Disney not only changed the concept of what could be considered a film with his “Concert Feature,” but he also changed the way we experience music as well.  Fantasia truly is a monumental film in the history of cinema, and though it faced an uphill climb beyond it’s original release, with technology finally catching up to it’s ambitious vision, we now see it today 80 years later as the game-changing experience that Walt Disney had always wanted it to be.

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