Top Ten Animated Films Not Made by Disney or Pixar

pixar watching movies

Many animation companies have risen and fallen over the years, but if there is one that has stood tall as the standard, it would be Disney.  Disney has continuously put out animated features for nearly 80 years now, and will continue long into the future, and through all that time, it has grown stronger despite facing respectable competition at times.  One of the reasons it has remained at the top is because Disney has been the one that has more or less charted the direction of the industry.  Whenever Disney touches upon a big hit, it will have ripple effects across the industry as all the other studios try to follow their lead.  For instance, when Disney animated musicals based on fairy tales started becoming popular again in the 90’s with films like Beauty and the Beast (1991), it spawned a bunch of similar movies from rival studios trying to capitalize on the same success, like The Swan Princess (1994) and Anastasia (1997).  That’s not to say that Disney has always remained ahead all the time.  Sometimes a string of failures would catch up to them, or a change in the market leading to tougher competition.  Pixar Animation, more than any other, has had the same kind of effect on the industry, being the trend-setter and innovator, and it was very smart of Disney to partner up with them when they did; otherwise Disney’s days at the top would’ve ended.  But, even with these two dominant brands leading much of the animation market, it doesn’t mean that none of the other animation studios have put out an inferior product.  In fact, some of their movies are just as good as anything by Disney and Pixar.  In this article, I will list what I think are the 10 best animated movies not made by Disney or Pixar, because honestly if I had to make a list of the greatest animated movies of all time, those two would dominate.  The reason I want to highlight the other studios here is to show the incredible diversity that you’ll find in animation, both today and from the past.  So, let’s begin.



RANGO (2011)

Directed by Gore Verbinski

Not many people knew what to make of this film when they first saw it advertised.  The visual designs were bizarre, as were the characters, and the main protagonist was a squeaky voiced lizard wearing a Hawaiian shirt.  But, when the movie was released in the spring of 2011, audiences and critics were surprised to find that this Nickelodeon made film was actually a lot of fun to watch.  The voice cast, led by Johnny Depp as the titular lizard, was top notch.  The visuals were imaginative and well-executed.  But, more importantly, it was also hilariously written.  What I took away most from this film was the brilliant way that it parodied the Western genre, right down to the smallest details.  The design of the western village, made from scrap pieces of junk found by the critters that inhabit the town, is clever, as is a hilarious Apocalypse Now reference when the townspeople try to escape from a mole colony.  It’s all hilarious, beautifully animated and it even functions as a true Western.  In fact this works better as a Gore Verbinski directed Western starring Johnny Depp than The Lone Ranger (2013) did.  Verbinski spent years in visual effects before becoming a director, so this movie really shows him in a creative comfort zone; free to make whatever he wanted.  What this movie does perfectly is to not waste it’s premise (basically a spaghetti Western with critters) and bring it to it’s full potential.  The best I can say about it is that it doesn’t resemble any other animated film that I know of, and still feels familiar enough to understand.  It’s refreshingly original and shows that not every animated film needs to stick close to a standardized formula.


triplets of belleville


Directed by Sylvain Chomet

Europe has a long history of crafting beautiful animated features themselves.  Whether it be English made films like Watership Down (1978) or Yellow Submarine (1968) or the French made sci-fi classic Fantastic Planet (1973), animation is a proud art-form found all across the continent.  The finest example of European animation in my opinion would be this fairly recent film from French animator Sylvain Chomet.  His style is unlike anything else I’ve seen in animation and it gives the world of this movie a unique identity.  The movie follows an elderly old woman with a club foot as she crosses the ocean in search of her kidnapped grandson, who’s also a Tour de France cyclist.  On her journey, she reaches the city of Belleville where she befriends the titular triplets (a long retired night club act) who agree to help her out.  The movie is told with minimal dialogue and it’s amazing how well Chomet is able to tell his story purely with visuals.  And those visuals are amazing.  Every frame of this hand drawn masterpiece is stunning and finely detailed.  Not only that, but the characters are wonderfully realized (visually and narratively) and the humor is charmingly twisted as well.  Keep an eye out for a small little mechanic character who bears a close resemblance to another famed animator.  Suffice to say, this is a very French movie, complete with characters dining on frog legs.  But, that’s also part of the joke too.  Chomet’s designs really stand out as being stylistically unique; and very non Disney.  If you haven’t checked this one out before, please do so.  It may not be what you’re used to, but then again, it’s very much worth taking in some international flavor when watching some quality animation.




Directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell

Stop motion animation has been a popular medium for many decades, but it wasn’t until 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas that a full length feature was made utilizing the technique.  Since then, plenty of other stop motion animated films have been released.  I could have easily included something from Aardman Animation on this list, like Chicken Run (2000) given the UK-based studio’s high regard in the industry.  But, for what I consider to be the best film to come from the medium, I would have to say it’s this film from the Portland, Oregon-based Laika Studios.  Laika made a splash right away in it’s still young history with the critically acclaimed Coraline (2009).  But, it was with their follow-up ParaNorman that they really showed off what their capable of.  ParaNorman is a spectacular animated film, featuring a surprisingly mature story about social acceptance and over-coming prejudice.  It’s also got plenty of self-aware humor to it as well, poking fun at horror movie cliches. The animation is also astounding.  The 3-D printed models used for the characters are a far cry from the clay-molded ones of yesteryear, with incredible life-like detail to them.  It’s hard to believe sometimes that you are watching something crafted and animated by hand rather than with computers.  Like Disney and Pixar, Laika is taking it’s art-form to the next level and leading the medium forward, and it’s doing so on it’s own terms.  With a well-rounded story and stunning animation, ParaNorman showcases what stop motion is capable of more than any other feature in it’s class to date.


south park


Directed by Trey Parker and Matt Stone

South Park isn’t the only animated TV series to spawn it’s own film.  The Simpsons finally got their own movie in 2007, and there have also been films based on Spongebob Squarepants (2004), Powerpuff Girls (2002), and even with classics like The Flintstones (1994) and The Jetsons (1990).  But, what is interesting about the South Park movie is that it made it’s way to theaters very early in the show’s run.  This was released in the middle of the show’s third season and today the series is still on the air getting ready for season number 20 this fall.  During all that time, the show has evolved and matured, and yet, the movie still holds up well.  The fact that it’s uncensored as opposed to the show makes this an especially fun movie to watch, because it shows the duo of Parker and Stone at their most irreverent.  Like all the best satires, the movie takes aim at everybody; whether it be Canadians, overly-sensitive parents, political leaders, religion; even Gandhi isn’t spared.  And it’s all laugh out loud funny.  What also makes this movie memorable is it’s musical score; mocking the Disney musical cliches while at the same time standing on it’s own lyrically.  The movie was even nominated for an Oscar for the song “Blame Canada,” although the musical highlight for me is still the hilariously obscene “Uncle F***a.”  I also get a kick out of the show’s depiction of Saddam Hussein, who it turns out is in a homosexual relationship with Satan here.  The way the character is animated, with a Photoshop cut-out of the real-life dictator’s head, and the high-pitched voice that they chose to give him are both silly to perfection.  All the show’s characters transition well to the big screen, especially the foul-mouthed Cartman, who gets much more free reign here to say whatever he wants.  It’s a perfect translation of a still legendary series that took full advantage of the creative freedom of the cinematic experience.



AKIRA (1988)

Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo

Of course, you can’t look at the whole of animation history without taking note of the world of Anime, imported over from Japan.  Japanese animation is unlike anything else that we see in the genre; using limited character animation in conjunction with highly artistic and sometimes stylized background art.  There are many different types of anime out there, from really cartoonish to hyper-naturalistic, but despite all this diversity, Anime still has a distinctive look that characterizes it.  One of the first Anime films to really grab a hold of Western audiences was this punk-infused dystopian masterpiece, Akira.  At a time when Disney was getting back into the groove of making colorful fairy tales once again, Akira was wowing audiences with it’s dark atmosphere, it’s sometimes shocking use of violence, and it’s jaw-droppingly beautiful animation.  It was also grand in scale, at a time when few other animated features were allowed to be, even at Disney.  Akira follows a group of biker gang members who get caught up in a conspiracy involving genetic mutation and children with extraordinary psychic powers.  When one of these children named Tetsuo begins to run amok, it’s up to his friend Kaneda to try to stop him, before he loses control and destroys the city.  The near-distant future-scape is stunningly realized, but not overdone.  It appears that director Otomo draws just as much inspiration from action movies from that time period as he does from other animated films, and it’s a combination that works really well.  Akira is considered one of the most important and influential Anime films of all time, and it’s a distinction that’s well deserved.



Directed by Christopher Miller and Phil Lord

One of the most unexpected animated classics to come out in the last few years, period.  I’m sure that none of us ever expected The Lego Movie to be as good as it ended up being.  When originally announced, I’m sure that most of us thought that this was just going to be a crass commercial exercise in order to sell the public into buying more LEGO sets.  But what we ended up getting was much more than that.  It was a brilliantly crafted comedy full of so many sight gags and in-jokes that it’s hard to count.  It really is a movie that has everything we could want in a feature.  The duo of Miller and Lord have also been responsible for the 21 Jump Street (2012) movies, which also ended up being much smarter and funnier than people had expected.  All the pop culture references are hilariously executed, but the jokes also work because effort is put into the central story.  The film’s main protagonist, Emmett, really helps to ground the film and make it work, and he’s portrayed with a lot of heart by actor Chris Pratt.  Other new characters like Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), and Good Cop/ Bad Cop (a hilarious Liam Neeson) are also great in the film.  But, what also makes this movie stand out is the amazing animation.  The film is CGI, but it’s animated to look almost like stop motion, making the whole LEGO world appear as if it was hand-crafted.  It’s visually amazing to watch, especially when the finished result looks like real LEGOS, right down to the smallest detail.  By being both stunningly animated and laugh-out-loud hilarious, The Lego Movie has become an instant masterpiece.  And, it also gives Batman his own song, which is just awesome.


secret of nimh


Directed by Don Bluth

During the years following the sudden passing of Walt Disney, the Disney company found itself stuck in a mire of self-doubt and lack of direction.  No one in the animation department knew what to do without Mr. Disney at the helm, so for several years they just resorted to coasting on formula rather than making breakthroughs in their medium.  This naturally led some of the animators working for Disney to become frustrated with the direction of the company, and one of those animators was Don Bluth.  Bluth famously parted ways from Disney and set out to create his own, independent animation studio to directly challenge the stranglehold that Disney had over the industry.  His goal was to make riskier and more mature animated features that would help elevate the animated medium over the “kid-friendly” stuff that Disney was making.  And over the next decade, Bluth indeed created a stellar body of work, including An American Tail (1986), The Land Before Time (1988), and All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989).  Though all his movies for the most part took risks and refrained from falling into formula (at least at first), no movie better illustrated his mission statement than his first feature, The Secret of NIMH (1982).  NIMH is a remarkably assured and gripping animated feature, different from Disney in every way, and yet animated to a level on par with Disney at it’s best.  Following the trials of farm mouse Mrs. Brisby, the movie is harrowing and unforgettable; and even not afraid to be a little violent at times, without sensationalizing it.  Bluth’s latter films like Rock a Doodle (1993), Thumbelina (1995), and Anastasia (1997) would fall into a formulaic hole later on, but The Secret of NIMH was at least a much needed shot in the arm for animation in it’s time, and gave an animator who had something to say his due respect.



Directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois

For the last decade or so, the animation industry has been defined by one primary rivalry, and that’s been Disney vs. Dreamworks.  Dreamworks made a splash in the industry with their enormously successful Shrek franchise, and for many years they were also the box office champions in the animation world.  The only thing that eluded them though was critical praise, as most of their animated films were viewed more as crowd pleasures that were just okay, rather than all-time masterpieces.  Pixar, under the roof of the Disney Company, was instead soaking up all the accolades and awards during this same time.  This was until a movie called How to Train Your Dragon was released in 2010.  Created by two Disney ex-pats, Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, Dragon is just as strong as anything from Disney and Pixar, both visually and with it’s story-telling.  The movie is exceptionally well written, relying more heavily on character development than pop culture references and slapstick gags, something that unfortunately characterized a lot of Dreamworks’ earlier films.  The animation is also high-caliber, giving Dragons a sense of scale few other animated films ever try for.  The central relationship between the protagonist Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) and his dragon companion Toothless is also the heart and soul that drives the movie; reminiscent of movies like E.T. (1982) or even Lilo & Stitch (2002), which these same directors are also responsible for.  This was also the first ever time where I ever felt  that Dreamworks actually bested Pixar, with the similarly themed Brave (2012) feeling  un-compelling by comparison.  Dreamworks’ Dragons deservedly garnered universal praise, and it showed that they were capable of creating more than just commercial entertainment; they could create popular art as well.


spirited away


Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Like I highlighted before with Akira, Japanese anime was and is a medium that’s unafraid to push a few buttons in the world of animation; even going to extremes in terms of depicting violence and sex on screen.  But, not all of anime is defined by this.  There are other animation studios from Japan that also have made a name for themselves by portraying a more colorful and lighthearted view of the world.  This has been the defining characteristic of the acclaimed Studio Ghibli, and also the style of it’s creator, Hayao Miyazaki.  Miyazaki is often considered by many to be the Walt Disney of Anime, and it’s not hard to see why.  His animation style is very grounded, but also highly imaginative, setting a high standard that the rest of the industry tries hard to emulate, even outside of Japan.  Though Miyazaki has created violent films from time to time (Princess Mononoke for example), his films often are more characterized by more innocent, fairy-tale-like stories; not all that dissimilar from Disney.  Some of his movies like My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), and Ponyo (2008) are beloved family classics, but what many consider to be the director’s finest work is the Oscar-winning Spirited Away (2002).  Spirited Away is without a doubt one of the finest anime films ever made, if not the best.  Following the story of a lost girl named Chihiro in a world inhabited by spirits and monsters, every frame of this film is a work of art.  The best moment in the film though is the train ride sequence.  It’s a quiet, reflective moment that you rarely see done in an animated feature and it shows the confidence that Miyazaki has in the art-form, showing that even animation can have a contemplative side to it.  It’s moments like this that make Spirited Away a masterpiece and Miyazaki one of the industry’s greatest artists.



Directed by Brad Bird

If I had to choose any animated film that would stand on the same level as anything from Disney and Pixar, it would be this Brad Bird directed masterpiece.  Made by the short-lived Warner Brothers feature animation studio, The Iron Giant is a movie that gets everything right; from the high-quality animation, to the voice casting, to the unforgettable coming-of-age storyline about the bond between a young boy named Hogarth and his 100 foot tall robot friend.  Though it was a flop when it first premiered, the movie has steadily been rediscovered and is now universally beloved.  Not only does it represent the best that animation can do today, but I would dare say that this film is exactly what Walt Disney would’ve made in his time, or at least would’ve approved of.  And that’s probably the kind of result that Brad Bird was aiming for.  He was trained in art school by some of Walt Disney’s own top artists, so really The Iron Giant is a manifestation of the lessons he took to heart during his education.  Of all the films on this list, this movie shows the greatest representation of a Disney style film made outside of the influence of the Disney company.  The characters are especially what makes this a standout; never once falling into archetypal caricatures and instead feeling like fully fleshed-out individuals.  The depictions of Hogarth and the Giant are especially effective, and whoever could’ve predicted that Vin Diesel of all people could touch so many hearts as the voice of the Iron Giant.  If you don’t feel anything the moment when the Giant says “Superman” as he saves the day, then you my friend are made of stone.  Brad Bird eventually became part of Disney company later, making hits like The Incredibles (2004) and Ratatouille (2007), but his only feature outside of the House of Mouse is still what I think is his best work, and absolutely one of the greatest animated features ever made.

I’m sure that after reading this that some of you will probably complain over some omissions, and I certainly understand that.  There are so many good animated features made outside of the long reach of Disney, and more are created every day.  These are what I believe to be the best of that crowd, and it’s based not just on how good they are, but also by what they represent.  For the most part, these movies represent different animators or animation studios finding an identity that’s all their own that can stand the test of time.  One of the big problems in the world of animation is a lack of identity, instead choosing to just look at what Disney is doing right at the time and just copying their formula.  Copycat movies are an unfortunate result in the animation industry, but the good thing is that audiences have discerning tastes in the market as well, and they resoundingly reject animated films that choose to be unoriginal and lazy.  Overall, we need a big studio like Disney to set the standard for the industry, because their success pushes all competitors to up their game in order to compete.  And if there is anything to understand from a list like this is that the best animated features are the ones that rise to the challenge.  In some cases, like with How to Train Your Dragon and The Iron Giant, we’ve seen strong cases for animated films that may have actually bested the powerhouses of Disney and Pixar at their own game.  Animation is a great art-form, and made better still when everyone involved works toward making a better product overall.

Finding Dory – Review

finding dory

One thing that you’ll learn about the making of an animated film is that it takes a very long time.  On average, an animated film takes about 4-5 years to make, depending on the time put into development.  It’s not a medium where you can merely just grab a camera and start shooting.  Everything, and I do mean everything, you see in an animated film is built from scratch, all to create the illusion of life.  It’s painstaking whether you’re working with drawings on paper or pixels in a computer, or even with puppetry.  That’s why you rarely see sequels that are actually as good or better than the original in the genre.  Animated sequels are common, but too often you’ll see studios rush too fast capitalize on an animated hit, and the end result will not be worth it.  That long development cycle is necessary, because it allows the filmmakers to discover whether or not there is more story to tell and if there is more creative ideas left to explore.  But, sadly in the animation market, too many animators get anxious and just fall back onto formula and create sub-par efforts that pale in comparison to their predecessor.  We’ve seen this happen with Dreamworks Animation and their sequels to Shrek and Madagascar, as well as with the mundane Ice Age series.  Disney even managed to disgrace it’s legacy with an era of terrible Direct to Video sequels to their classic library.  Pixar on the other hand takes their time between movies (sometimes over a decade) and the results have worked out very well for them.

You would think that with the remarkable success that Pixar has experienced over the years that they would’ve produced more sequels over the years.  Sure, they have done a few, but Pixar’s history is one of incredible self-restraint.  They don’t just rush a sequel out into the market just because audiences demand it.  They assess whether or not a sequel is warranted and then they devote many years to getting the film done just right.  They have only once failed to live up to this, and that was the rushed-into-production Cars 2 (2011).  The movie became Pixar’s first ever critical failure and it’s a lesson that I’m sure that they’ve taken note of.  A lot of people were also not happy with the Monsters Inc. (2001) prequel Monsters University (2013), though I actually didn’t mind that one so much.  It was a little superfluous (like most bad animated sequels), but the clever visuals and strong characterizations helped to lift it up.  And, for a sequel made 12 years after the original, I felt that it was a more than welcome return for the characters.  And that’s something that Pixar has become especially great at; making such a long wait worth it.  There was an 11 year gap between Toy Story 2 (1999) and (2010), and yet the series built onto itself like no time had passed at all.  Now, Pixar is releasing another sequel after the longest time gap in their history; 13 years.  It is the sequel to one of the studios biggest hits, the underwater adventure Finding Nemo (2003), only this time, the focus is on the original film’s lovable sidekick Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres), appropriately titling it Finding Dory (2016).  The question now is whether or not the 13 years was worth the wait.  Did Pixar manage to live up to the legacy of the original movie, or did Finding Dory just wash away with the tide like it was nothing worthwhile?

The film brings us full circle with Dory as a character.  We see her in childhood with her Mom (voiced by Diane Keaton) and Dad (Eugene Levy), who both adore her as their sweet, innocent child but also fear for her, due to Dory’s debilitating short term memory.  After some time, we see that Dory has lost her family, due to a reason that she can’t even remember and she spends her entire adolescence searching for the answer.  We cut to years later and Dory has found a new home living with Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolance).  Despite living a happy life with the clownfish duo, Dory soon has flashbacks to memories of her lost parents, with a clue as to where they may be.  She resolves to go look for them, even though they may be on the other end of the ocean.  Marlin and Nemo tag along and the trio eventually reach Morro Bay, California, where they find a Marine Wildlife Aquarium and Rehabilitation Center.  Unfortunately, Dory is separated from her companions and brought to a quarantine room at the facility.  There she meets a stealthy octopus named Hank (Ed O’Neill) who agrees to help her only if she gives up her classification tag to him, which will get him on a truck destined for an aquarium in Cleveland.  Though they have conflicting interests, the two work together and eventually swim their way across the aquarium meeting other creatures, including a near-sighted whale shark named Destiny (Kaitlin Olson) and a temperamental beluga whale named Bailey (Ty Burrell).  Meanwhile Marlin and Nemo try to find a way to reunite with their friend, helped out by two lazy sea lions named Fluke and Rudder (Idris Elba and Dominic West).  The only question that remains is whether or not Dory is too late to reunite with her parents and whether or not her short term memory will stand in her way of solving the riddle.

The good news for fans of the original is that Finding Dory is a very worthy follow-up to the original film.  One thing that this sequel benefits from is that it was crafted by the original director, Andrew Stanton.  In the intervening years between movies, Stanton created another animated masterpiece with Wall-E (2008), but he also had a disastrous foray into live action film-making with John Carter (2012).  Finding Dory finds Mr. Stanton in his comfort zone once again and you can tell that he put a lot of love and care into the movie.  It’s still the smart, funny, and heart-touching experience that you remember it being, and the best thing is that it’s all done without retreading too much familiar ground.  There are nods to the original movie, but they are used sparingly, and the movie makes a concerted effort to try new things out rather than rest on it’s laurels.  So, does all this make it as good as the original, if not better?  Unfortunately, I can’t say that it is.  It’s a very solid film to be sure, but there are some nagging issues that prevent it from being a near masterpiece like Finding Nemo and many other of Pixar’s best.  The first issue is the fact that the novelty has worn off from the original.  Finding Nemo was a hit because it triumphed as a great story and a groundbreaking visual wonder, creating an unforgettable world to explore that we’ve never seen.  Finding Dory doesn’t really add much to the world it’s created, unlike say how Toy Story  managed to find new avenues to explore within it’s environment; taking the toy heroes out into the open world.  Visually, it’s a continuation and not a reinvention, which is nice, but it doesn’t push the envelope in the same visceral way.  The other problem with the movie, sadly, is the inclusion of Marlin and Nemo in the story.  I still love these characters, but their arcs completed in the last movie.  They have nothing to do here but to just tag along and offer support.  I understand why they’re still here (why wouldn’t they be) but their moments in the film count among it’s weakest points.

Thankfully, there’s still much to praise about the movie beyond it’s shortcomings, and chief among them is the expanded role of Dory.  This isn’t the first time that Pixar has elevated a supporting character from the original film into the central role, and the last time they did, it proved disastrous (making the obnoxious Mater the Tow Truck the central character of Cars 2).  This time it works because the movie thankfully devotes enough time to establishing the stakes in Dory’s quest for answers.  The film also does the very honorable step of taking her disability seriously this time around.  Dory’s short-term memory was portrayed mostly for laughs in the original movie, but not in a mean spirited way.  Here, it’s given more weight and we see the awful effects it can actually have at times.  It’s a very mature examination into how people live with disabilities in their life and the way that things we take for granted become more of a challenge for them.  Sure, the movie still plays up Dory’s forgetfulness for a few laughs, but I did admire the fact that it took the time to address the seriousness of it as well.   Ellen DeGeneres also delivers some of her best work ever here.  The character of Dory has been dear and close to her heart over the years and she campaigned a long time for this sequel to happen.  You can tell that she adored returning to play this character and the movie once again plays to her strengths as both a comedian and an actress.  I especially love the way that the optimism of the character defines ever move she makes, whether she’s in peril or not, and it’s that indomitable spirit that helps to make her expanded role all the more sensible.  She earns the spotlight and it helps to make this a worthier sequel.

Much of the other positives found in the film belong to the exceptional new cast of characters.  If there’s anything that defines the difference between good and bad sequels, it’s the strength of newly introduced characters into the story, and thankfully, each one is a worthwhile addition here.  Thankfully, the movie actually uses very few of the original film’s cast of characters, choosing instead to focus on Dory, Marlin and Nemo.  The rest of the movie gives us a good amount of time to establish the new cast, and they are just as funny and interesting as anyone we’ve seen before.  The best of the new characters would be Hank, the seven-armed octopus, whose character arc is the strongest of all the characters in the movie.  We see him first as a self-interested curmudgeon (something actor Ed O’Neill has plenty of experience playing) and through his interaction with the eternally optimistic Dory, he opens up more and more, becoming perhaps the movie’s most complex character.  It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia alum Kaitlin Olson also makes a great addition to the cast as the clumsy but lovable Destiny, as does Modern Family’s Ty Burrell as the irritated Bailey.  Albert Brooks also makes a welcome return as the voice of Marlin, maintaining the dry witty humor of the character from the first movie, despite losing the central focus on his story.  The movie also makes non-verbal characters just as memorable, including a bizarre helper bird named Becky, who’s one of the film’s funniest additions.  Also, Sigourney Weaver has a great cameo as herself in one of the film’s best running gags.  Overall, this well rounded cast helps to make this a very enjoyable experience.

It should also be noted that this movie is absolutely beautiful to look at.  Of course, that is to be expected at this point from Pixar.  But, keep in mind, Finding Dory has to live up to the groundbreaking visuals of it’s predecessor, and it does so here in a magnificent way.  The first part of the film will feel very familiar to fans of the original, taking viewers back to the coral reef home base of Marlin, Dory and Nemo.  But, even here the filmmakers include sights we haven’t seen in this world before, including a really spectacular sequence depicting a manta ray migration.  The Aquarium scenes are also beautifully represented, with all the translucent lighting and deep color spectrum that you would usually find in a place like that.  The animation is also beautifully handled with all the characters.  Of course Dory, Marlin and Nemo still act the way you’d expect them to, but you can definitely see that Pixar is benefiting from updated digital models that are far more expressive than the ones used in Finding Nemo, showing just how much the art-form has advanced in the last 13 years.  The animation of Hank the octopus in particular is especially astounding.  He has the ability to camouflage himself to appear like any texture and this plays out in the movie in a lot of creative and hilarious ways.  I was especially amazed to see the variety of things that Hank could turn himself into and each reveal is wonderfully realized.  Also, because you can’t see Hank’s mouth for much of the movie, a lot of acting had to be done through the character’s eyes, and the animation team did a spectacular job of capturing a wide range of emotions through the character in this manner.  It may be an entirely different generation removed from it’s predecessor given the technology of today, but this film compliments the original perfectly and they both work together as a unified whole in terms of visuals.

So, despite some minor story issues, Finding Dory is a very welcome follow-up to a beloved classic.  It may not reach the same dramatic heights, but it doesn’t let the viewer down either.  I did love the fact that they gave a lot more weight to the character of Dory, making her much more than just a comic relief sidekick.  The movie also manages to maintain the same sense of fun from the original; never going too heavy into the dramatic parts while at the same time keeping the humor on point and not too distracting.  Pixar has always managed to find that right balance between pathos and comedy, and Finding Dory continues to show their command over these two sides.  There will indeed be moments that will pull at your heartstrings (have those Kleenexes ready) which by now is a Pixar trademark.  The laugh out loud moments are there too, and you won’t be disappointed by them either.  So, it may not have the sublimeness of Pixar at it’s absolute finest, but there’s still plenty of solid moments to like here overall.  As far as sequels to Pixar films go, this one is still a notch below the Toy Story ones, but better than Monsters University; and also infinitely better than the off-road wreckage that is Cars 2.  Even if the movie is a B+ effort from Pixar, it still makes it way better than 90% of the other animated movies released this year (Zootopia being the year’s only other great animated film).  Pixar’s track record remains strong with this sequel, and it shows that little is lost even after 13 years of waiting.  Here’s hoping this proves the be the truth when Finding Dory’s staggeringly long wait record is broken by the 14-15 year gap between Incredibles movies.  In the meantime, there should be nothing to stop you from just keeping swimming over to the local theater to see the delightful animated sequel.

Rating: 8.5/10

The Case for Critics – A Defense of Film Criticism in an Extra Sensitive Culture


I won’t pretend that I have the fullest insight into what the film critic profession is all about.  I write this blog mostly for my own expression and I’m grateful to the handful of you who take time out of your day to read my opinions.  But, I also run this by myself and fund my own way; meaning I still buy my own tickets and attend events along with the rest of the general public.  Professional film critics have the privileges of private screenings and press passes that give them special access and that is just part of how the business works.  Those who have a wider base of readers have the special access, and that’s how it should be.  But, in the end, what matters most is that a person is allowed to express their opinion about a movie whether they write for a major publication, publish their own private blog (like me), or are just giving a rating on their Flixster app or Cinemascore after leaving the theater.  And that’s the sign of a healthy interaction between the consumer and the people making the movies; the fact that public reactions matter.  But, for as long as there has been film-making, there has also been the presence of film critics, and the relationship has not always been a comfy one.  In fact, the interaction between Hollywood and the film criticism world can be a schizophrenic one where at times the studios go out of their way to highlight critical praise for their films (critical quotes often being used on trade ads for example) and then there are other times when the studios try to circumvent the opinions of the critics when they are seen as negative.  For the most part, audiences can take or leave a critics opinion depending on what they’re interested in seeing, but an unfiltered critical expression is still important to have in today’s society.  But, that’s a right that’s also abused and attacked in some dangerous ways as well.

Recently there has been controversy surrounding the reception given to the new Ghostbusters remake.  Because of the change in casting, making the titular team all female instead of male, there has been a complaint by the filmmakers who made it saying that criticism of their movie is due to sexism.  In particular, Paul Feig, the director, revealed hateful backlash that he’s received on social media, as he stated in a recent report.  And while it’s true, the internet and especially social media can be terribly sexist towards women, it shouldn’t also be lumped together with legit complaints about the movie.  I for one am not happy with the upcoming film, as I’ve made clear before, but my complaint has more to do with the fact that I think that this is a shameless cash-grab by a studio and not a earnest comedy project like past Ghostbusters were.  And yet, the specter of accusation over a supposed misogynistic bias against the movie has totally clouded the discussion of the film and it seems that anyone who now has to review it must also watch what they say.  Feig may be genuine about his concerns, but I feel that some of this controversy has been drummed up by Sony Pictures (the studio behind the movie) as a way to safe guard themselves against negative reviews.  It makes it much easier for them to wade their way through critical reception if they can simply say that all the naysayers against their film are speaking from a sexist point of view.  This is a dangerous misuse of legitimate issues purely for a self-serving purpose and it tells me right away, without having seen the movie, that it will indeed be bad.  The studio has become defensive and they’re willing to marginalize their critics.

Of course, the misuse of critical opinion has also factored into this story as well.  The sad reality of media today is that it’s so heavily intertwined with social media and that now anybody can have their opinion heard; even the dumbest among us.  For someone to have such a narrow minded reaction to the gender swapping of characters in Ghostbusters is really hitting a low bar for film criticism.  This and the fact that many of these same trolls are so rabid with their opinions and will harass the filmmakers regardless of the end result is also a sickening aspect in our culture.  But, we are a society that can’t censor someone for just having an opinion.  Unfortunately, these idiots cast a bad light on the rest of us film critics, and it is what Hollywood is increasingly trying to spotlight as the state of film criticism in today’s media.   The broad span of opinions on the internet has created this load mess of things in the critical world and the thing that gets lost in the shuffle is the sense of trust from those on the outside just looking for some guidance.   Audiences look to critics for helpful opinions, but when a few bad apples give out thoughts that are so off-putting, it makes the whole critical world look foolish and less trustworthy.  And that’s when the studios can trick the public into thinking that critical opinion doesn’t matter and that they are the ones worth listening to.  Now, I don’t honestly think that every studio is trying to eliminate criticism altogether; they certainly need critical praise for marketing purposes.  But when a studio is pointing a finger at the critical community saying that it is poisonous as a way to avoid negative reaction for itself, there becomes a dangerous tilt toward suppressing dissent in our culture.

Sadly, the horrible opinions found on social media are all too common, and they are really not a good indicator of what film criticism can be.  Film criticism is much more than just a simple star rating or a twist of the thumb up or down.  In fact, some of the greatest examples of film criticism that we’ve ever seen have not been on any webpage or newspaper column, but in film essays written over the years by scholars and students alike.  That’s what I learned from my years in film studies, and this blog where I give editorials in addition to reviews is a manifestation of this philosophy.  Film critics don’t just react to a movie; they deconstruct them as well.  A great film analysis often looks at movies beyond whether it is good or bad and makes you think of the larger issues inherent within the content itself.  There are so many different ways you can read a movie, and these criticisms all have their own classifications; structuralist, post-structuralist, deconstructionist, humanist reading, feminist reading, queer reading, class reading, auteurism, the list goes on.  This is film criticism as an art-form and it can be accomplished by anyone who takes a strong critical stance on something and is able to back up their opinions.  When film criticism is intellectually stimulating, that’s when it’s able to broaden an appreciation of the art-form itself.  Film journals like Sights and Sounds as well as trade magazines like Empire and Entertainment Weekly all understand that opinion pieces are a valuable part of their business and they include them as part of their publications.  It’s an important aspect of the film industry to inspire a thoughtful look into the world of cinema, because entertainment without purpose has no long lasting impact in our society.

So, how do you discern the good criticism from the bad.  Well, first of all it should be obvious that everyone is entitled to their opinion.  But, when it comes to expressing that opinion, a person should take into account their ability to back it up with facts.  This is especially important for those of us who write our reviews for public digestion.  You can’t just simply say you hated or loved a movie and just stop at that.  People want to know the reason why.  Think deeply about exactly what drove you towards your opinion.  And it can’t be stressed enough; have some knowledge about what you are talking about.  I know I’ve been guilty of prejudging things before I see them (I was especially wrong about Edge of Tomorrow), but when I set out to critique something, I try to give it a fair examination before I tear it apart.  It helps to look at some of the positives first before going into the negatives, and this is a good way to gauge how your ultimate reading of a film will turn out.  Every bad movie has a silver lining and every great film has some nagging nitpick that prevents it from reaching perfection, and it’s finding those interesting distinctions found in each that helps to craft an interesting film analysis.  It at least helps to make the reader feel more informed as they take your critique in.  Distilling a film criticism down to a simple good or bad is not worthwhile criticism because no movie is ever that simple.  So anyone who looks at the opinions given on social media and sees that as legitimate film criticism clearly doesn’t understand the medium.  And yet, social media is carrying more weight in the critical world now than it really should be.

Much like in the realms of politics and sciences, it’s better to listen to people who actually sound like they know what they are talking about rather than just the random person talking nonsense on the internet.  I know that I am just another random person to some people, but I try my best to sound informed.  Not that you have to be a scholar in all things in order to be able to speak you mind online, but just know that when you opinion matters, you better not abuse that authority by spreading nonsense out there.  What I often recommend is that people should read up on all sorts of film criticism from multiple points of view in order to gain a different appreciation for the medium as a whole.  If there is a film you love, read what a negative review had to say and discern from it why you disagree.   Your defense may actually teach you something new you never realized about a movie.  I especially like looking at how a historical context informed the creation of a movie and how the reception of a film changes over time.  Looking at film criticisms from years ago is also interesting.  Some of the most interesting essays written about the subject of film culture have come from legendary film critics like Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert, and their writing often gives cultural perspective on a movie’s significance as well as judging it based on it’s quality.  Constructive film criticism even finds it’s way into film-making too .  Cahiers du Cinema, a French film journal, included contributions from critics like Jean Luc-Godard and Francois Truffaut, who were so driven by their opinions on cinema that they began to make movies themselves.  And the movies they tuned out were self reflexive and movie reference heavy such as Breathless (1960) and The Last Metro (1980), which helped to create what we now know as the French New Wave.  Other self-knowing cinematic films like Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) or the Coen Brother’s recent Hail Caesar (2016) also play with this idea of dissecting and critiquing the art of film within the medium itself and it shows the positive effect that criticism can have on movies as an art-form overall.

But, criticism can be a movie’s worst nightmare and that’s why there’s the often tumultuous relationship that Hollywood has with it.  Film criticism is a powerful tool in the industry, and it’s one that they fear when it turns against them.  Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert hit a cultural touchstone when they patented their thumbs up or down meter for grading a movie.  The thumbs rating proved to be so effective that it became a part of the culture.  Soon, it became common to see a movie promote in their advertisements that they received “two thumbs up.”  Though not uncommon in Hollywood’s past, this use of critical praise within a movie’s promotion became much more prevalent, especially with the rise of home entertainment, where critical reviews became just as common on the box art.  At the same time, Hollywood tried other ways to work this to their advantage.  Siskel and Ebert were too independent in their profession, and their votes were hard to sway, but there were many other attempts to coax better critical reception for a movie made within the industry.  Sometimes this would include highlighting the most obscure critic out there just because they were the lone positive voice in a sea of negativity, or sometimes a critical statement would be taken out of context and re-purposed to make it sound like a positive review.   And then there was the scandal of David Manning, a film critic completely fabricated by a major studio just for the purpose of positive reviews, and was later exposed as fraudulent.  All of this shows us why an informed and independent critical forum matters in our society, because without it, an audience can be easily manipulated into believing the wrong thing.

That is why I believe it to be dangerously self-serving on Sony’s part to be dismissive of the critical reaction to their Ghostbusters remake.  Yes there are some idiots complaining about gender on social media, but there are just as many if not more genuine arguments to be made about the movie as well.  Now there’s nothing that can be done to stop the movie now; it’s in the can and ready to premiere, and at after that point all the complaints beforehand will be moot when we finally see what the end result will be, good or bad.  But, what I believe is that things aren’t looking good for your movie when you choose to brush away complaints by labeling them all as a misogynist conspiracy against your film.  Marginalizing a critical community and making them feel afraid to give a honest opinion for fear of being labeled sexist is a bad precedent to make.  My hope is that the critical community doesn’t lose focus and judges the movie fairly, but given the threat they face, I don’t know if the final verdicts given to the Ghostbusters remake will be as genuine as they should be.  If the studio succeeded at deflecting criticism with this as it’s tactic, it would be a disgustingly petty way to do it and a clear violation of the critical community’s freedom of speech.  Film critics need their independence to tackle a film without interference, and it would be a disservice to the medium as a whole to paint all of them into such a bad company as misogynists, even if a small minority of them are.  I value film criticism as a valuable tool in the appreciation of film art as a whole and anything that would taint that as a means to avoid negative press would be a terrible mistake to make.  Film critics can be wrong, they can even go too far sometimes, but they should also never be afraid to say whether or not they loved or hated, hated, hated a movie.

Off the Page – Heart of Darkness

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When Hollywood looks to adapt a popular book or series of books into a film, they often do so in three separate ways; they either translate it directly from page to screen, or they keep the story but change parts to make it more cinematic, or they just disregard the book entirely and use the title and premise only.  Most adaptations stay pretty faithful to the original source, but you’ll find quite a few that fall into the middle category.  And this is merely due to the fact that there are some books that are just un-filmable as they are on the page.  What works in prose doesn’t always work on screen, so it takes a few inspired filmmakers out there to figure out how to make the translations work in the visual medium.  Some of the most interesting examples of adaptations that take liberties with their source materials are the ones that transplant the characters and setting of the original story into a different time and place altogether, and still maintain the essence of the original story.  Writer and Director Amy Heckerling managed to successfully transplant the classy high society of Victorian England from the novel Emma into the modern excess of Beverly Hills in the movie Clueless (1995).  West Side Story took Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet and brought it into streets of New York City.  But perhaps the most striking re-appropriation of a classic novel into a new setting  was the adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness into the Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now (1979), directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

Heart of Darkness is one of the most highly influential novels of the early 20th century, becoming one of the earliest examples of modernist literature.  Joseph Conrad’s book is a relatively short read (just a little under 100 pages), but it is heavy in theme and introspection.  The story is told from the point of view of Captain Marlow, as he recounts his experiences sailing up the Congo River into the heart of the African continent in search of a renegade Ivory trader named Kurtz.  As Marlow heads deeper into the jungle, he encounters more and more strange sights and perilous dangers, and all the while he learns more and more second hand accounts of this man Kurtz who has become something of a demigod to the natives out there in the wilderness.  When he finally finds Kurtz, the mythical man is deathly ill and a shell of his former self.  Marlow no longer fears the man, but instead pities him and seeks to bring him back to civilization.  Kurtz however dies before the journey can begin, his final words being, “The Horror. The Horror.”  Marlow doesn’t know what he means until he begins to go through Kurtz’s papers and uncovers the true insanity that the isolation in the jungle brought to him.  Heart of Darkness works as both a fascinating psychological character study as well as a commentary on colonialism.  The story is so much more than a journey into the wild frontier; it’s also a study of man’s effect on the world, the limits to which one is pushed to in extreme circumstances, as well as the disconnect between how things are viewed by the civilized and the uncivilized.  The complexity of it’s themes and the vividness of it’s imagery has inspired many artists since, such as poets like T.S. Eliot, who quoted Heart of Darkness in his poem “The Hollow Men.”  And of course, filmmakers found inspiration in Conrad’s writing as well, though in less direct ways.

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“Who’s in charge here?” “Ain’t you?”

You can see some of the ingredients of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in the films of John Huston’s The African Queen (1951), Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953), and even to some extant in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993).  But, a fully faithful adaptation by Hollywood had always been elusive.  Many filmmakers tried, including Orson Welles, but nobody could ever make it work out.  It’s perhaps because of the bleakness of Conrad’s novel, which wouldn’t work so well in an industry that demands happy resolutions to their stories.  It wasn’t until a young film student from USC named John Milius took up the challenge of adapting Heart of Darkness.  According to the making of documentary on the Apocalypse Now home video release, Milius was inspired to tackle the story after his professor proclaimed that the book was un-filmable, stating, ” If Welles couldn’t do it, than nobody can.”  Fortunately for Milius, there was a real world event going on that echoed the themes and visuals of Conrad’s novel and that was the Vietnam War.  Milius saw the mayhem and carnage of that conflict broadcast nearly daily on the news and the political upheaval that resulted from it and found that moral ambiquity of Conrad’s story had the same resonance with what was happening in Vietnam.  So, even before graduating from college, Milius began the first draft of what would become Apocalypse Now.  He initially wanted his fellow USC classmate George Lucas to direct, but eventually the script found it’s way to Francis Ford Coppola, who helped Milius with the final drafting of the script.  The conflict ended before cameras started rolling, but the experience was still fresh in people’s minds, and as we would soon learn, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness would become more relevant to the modern world than anyone would’ve imagined.

It should be noted that Apocalypse Now is not a direct translation of the novel to the screen, apart from the obvious change in setting.  Milius and Coppola’s adaptation actually doesn’t start to resemble Conrad’s novel until the very final act.  For the first 2/3 of the movie, the movie is more of a series of vignettes of wartime experiences that believably would’ve happened during the Vietnam conflict, and in some cases were directly inspired by real accounts.  Neither Coppola nor Milius served in Vietnam (Coppola due to his conscientious objection and Milius due to his health), but they determined to create a sense of what the actual war must of been like to the soldiers who fought it.  And the reality was that with such a divisive, unclear reason as to why American soldiers were fighting in the war in the first place, being shipped out to Vietnam really did in fact feel like a journey into the “Heart of Darkness.” The experience took a psychological toll on those who served, seeing the futility of their missions and oftentimes inhumane acts they would have to perform, all for something that few ever believed in.  The book Heart of Darkness dealt with some of the same themes, but did so with a critical eye towards the dehumanizing policies of colonization in uncivilized parts of the world such as Africa.  Like Marlow’s brushes with the wilds of Africa, the journey for the soldiers in  Apocalypse Now is no less a surreal clash between the known and unknown worlds, and the dehumanizing effects of that conflict.  Overall, the themes remain in tact throughout the film’s adaptation and the use of Vietnam as the setting couldn’t have been more perfect for the translation.

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“I love the smell of Napalm in the morning.”

One of the criticisms that has followed the novel over the years is the viewed racist tone of Conrad’s depiction of the African natives.   The natives are largely depersonalized savages in Conrad’s novel, and many critics have argued that this is representative of a colonialist’s view of different cultures, where because they are not civilized in the European fashion must mean that they are less than human.  While I do agree that Conrad’s depiction of the African natives is racially insensitive, at the same the novel points to their exploitation as the greater evil.  The book is strongly anti-colonial in it’s message, with Marlow making the argument whether it was the exposure to the the wilds of Africa that drove Kurtz mad, or was it the pressure of the colonial system being forced into a place it didn’t belong responsible for making the change in him.  Which asks the question, where is the true “Heart of Darkness;” in the civilized or uncivilized world.  Coppola and Milius wisely try their best not to dehumanize the Vietnamese people in their story by not shying away from the human toll that the conflict had on them.  The Sampan massacre scene in particular shows the brutality that the War brought upon those left helpless in the crossfire.  Another way that the movie addresses the racial undertones of the story is through the side-plot involving Colonel Kilgore (played brilliantly by Robert Duvall).  The character was entirely crafted for the film and perfectly represents the encroaching imperialism of military might in a land unable to fight against it.  Kilgore represents pure, disaffected exploitative greed in the form of someone who has the power to take what he wants, just because he can.  The entire ivory trade that Marlow interacts with in the books represents this too, but here in the movie, we see the system personified in someone maniacal enough to invade a village just because it has the best surfing beaches in the vicinity.  It’s a departure that really serves the film adaptation well in the end.

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“You’re neither.  You’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect the bill.”

Coppola and Milius departed from the book to help reinforce the anti-colonization subtext of the novel, but what they faithfully translated directly from the book was also brilliantly handled.  The ultimate destination of Kurtz’s compound is practically lifted off of the page, and the enigmatic Kurtz is also faithfully brought to life, thanks in no small part to Marlon Brando’s iconic performance.  This wasn’t without issue, however.  Coppola had to deal with Brando arriving on set overweight and having not memorized any of his lines.  He hadn’t even read the novel itself, to which Coppola had to read it aloud to him before they started filming, in order for him to have context for the character.  Even still, Brando’s eccentricity translates perfectly into the character of Colonel Kurtz.  Like the Kurtz of Heart of Darkness, he is a man both feared and worshiped by those around him, and the journey to see him is like a journey delving into the madness that has made him what he is.  This is also represented perfectly in the film through the narration, provided by Martin Sheen in the role of Captain Willard (the film’s stand-in for Captain Marlow).  Like in the book, we dissect the conditions that created Kurtz through Willard’s own journey deeper into the jungle and see the continuing, un-explainable horrors that would’ve driven him mad.  As Willard arrives at the compound, he sees that Kurtz’s philosophies have turned all who come to him into his disciples, including a photojournalist who worships him like a God (played in a zany performance by Dennis Hopper).  In this, Willard doesn’t just see the manifestation of evil in his encounter with Colonel Kurtz, but also a scary reminder of the kind of dark figure he might become if he falls too deep into this world.  That in essence is what Joseph Conrad’s book was meant to explore, which is the internal conflict of man’s struggle with his own baser instincts.  But, the question he posed in the book was whether it was the wilderness that brought it out of Kurtz or did it just naturally come through on it’s own.

The dichotomy between Kurtz and Marlow in the book translates quite well into the film, but is actually dealt with in a different way.  In many ways, the philosophies of both men are complete opposites and yet they find themselves agreeing on most things.  Kurtz is of a hard-line, militaristic mind while Marlow is of a more civilized, pacifist one.  It seems only natural that these two character types would translate so well into a wartime setting.  In the movie, Willard seems to admire Kurtz for his bucking of the system that he recognizes is broken and getting worse, and yet he can’t bring himself to join his crusade knowing the atrocities that Kurtz and his militia have committed.  In the movie, he states, “Part of me was afraid of what I would find and what I would do when I got there.  I knew the risks, or imagined I knew.  But, the thing I felt the most, much stronger than fear, was the desire to confront him.”  There is an understanding between both Kurtz and Willard about what the War has turned them into, and that neither is ever going to change the other’s mind.  It should be noted that a difference in the translation was that in the novel, Marlow is sent to save Kurtz, but in the movie, Willard is charged with killing him.  Kurtz’s fate is the same in both movies, but the conditions of his death changes the outcome somewhat.  In the novel, you get the sense that Marlow’s encounter with Kurtz will lead him down a different outlook on the whole practice of colonization, with maybe an eye towards fighting against the system in response.  The movie is a little more ambiguous.  Willard savagely murders Kurtz and leaves the compound and all of Kurtz’s followers behind.  We don’t know what happens to him after he’s completed his mission.  Is he changed for good or bad?  Will he become another Kurtz himself?  It’s a morally ambiguous finale that perfectly understates the insanity of Vietnam, and how no one left the conflict a better person than when they entered it.  It’s an interesting spin on the character dynamics found in the original book to give it an extra meaning.

apocalypse now 5

“‘ Never get out of the boat.’ Absolutely goddamn right!  Unless you were goin’ all the way… Kurtz got off the boat.  He split from the whole f***ing program.”

You have to give a lot of credit to Francis Ford Coppola and John Milius for adapting the un-adaptable into a film.  The result has become one of the most beloved war movies ever made.  It wasn’t an easy task either.  The experience for both men often resembled the novel’s journey itself.  The film’s many production woes nearly caused it to be shut down, and Coppola was famously pulled off the set at one time by Paramount execs who were worried that he had lost control of the production.  Coppola and Milius’ own philosophical differences also led to story conflicts during the film’s development about which direction that the film should take, Coppola being more of a left-wing pacifist, and Milius more of a right-wing militarist (sound familiar?).  This would ultimately lead to a six year production cycle, three of which were spent just editing the film itself (which was constructed from a staggering million feet of film).  But, despite all this, Apocalypse Now exists and it is a masterpiece of film-making.  And amazingly, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is still recognizably ingrained in the entire movie.  Apocalypse Now is a perfect example of taking a novel, changing it original setting, and actually improving upon it’s overall theme.  Heart of Darkness truly was ahead of it’s time with it’s morally ambiguous characters and deep philosophical introspection.  It just makes more sense having those themes explored in the insane and surreal experience of the Vietnam War.  The movie is easily recommended, but I would also say that you should read the book too, despite the obviously outdated racial stereotypes.  Comparing the two is an interesting look into how different examinations on the same themes can work, and how finding the “Heart of Darkness” may be scarily closer and more common than one might think.

apocalypse now 3

“The Horror. The Horror.”