Toy Story 3

Posted in Film Reviews on August 22, 2010 by stuartharrison

I was eight years old when Toy Story was first released and I remember distinctly the connection I felt to my own toys that was so beautifully and innocently recreated in that film. In this final instalment Andy, the child whose toys the films are about, is finally leaving home for college and the inevitable progression from childhood to adulthood has begun and so he must decide what he will do with his toys. As before the film follows the exploits of Woody and Buzz (Tom Hanks and Tim Allen respectively). Both Hanks and Allen lend their voices with the comedic touch and sentimentality that is so familiar and so very welcome. Neither Hanks or Allen have their talents particularly tested but with such well established roles it isn’t necessary, their established story means that any events in the film tug at the heartstrings and tug they do. As always it is Buzz’s role to temper Woody’s idealistic tendencies with Buzz more willing to accept change whereas Woody shows a steadfast loyalty to his owner. One of the greatest elements of this film is how it deals with change with the toy world acting as a microcosm of our own.

As well as Woody and Buzz there are the usual fellow toys (Mr and Mrs Potato Head, Slinky Dog, Hamm and Rex) providing plenty of laughs including a particularly brilliant scene in which Mr Potato Head briefly becomes Mr Tortilla Head. Just like all Pixar films it is often the case that the best jokes come from incidental and minor characters, the green soldiers stating they’re “first in the trash” come clean-out time reminds us all of those lesser toys we just throw in the bottom of the box after having played with them once.

Like all sequels there must be an array of new characters, this film is no different, with the risk being that they are hollow or two-dimensional but just like all other Pixar films they are incredibly well thought out with the new ‘enemy’, for lack of a better word, Lotso (played marvellously by Ned Beaty) possessing a great back story. As the purveyor of the toys new found home, Lotso controls their destinies determining them fodder for the younger children of the nursery whilst the older toys remain with the slightly older children who treat them, and playtime, with a somewhat more relaxed attitude.

In addition to Lotso we are also given the timeless romance of Ken and Barbie as well as a troupe of toys who perform a large amount of ‘improv’ (a better description of a child’s imagination I’m yet to hear). With wonderful cameos from Kristen Schaal (Flight of the Conchords) and Jeff Garlin (Wall-E, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Arrested Development) the new additions are just as loveable and entertaining as the characters we all know so well.

The story moves along at a heady pace leaving little time for thought or distraction and moves swiftly between scenes and characters whilst also balancing those poignant moments with slick satirical and slapstick comedy. It is exactly what you have come to expect from a Pixar film and though perhaps not the best film of the trilogy it is a fitting end to what has been a landmark series of films. Each one has accurately portrayed a stage of childhood and this film is no different. What is perhaps most impressive is that in spite of being a collection of children’s films this one has been able to show the inherent darker side to loss and change without flinching from what is an important moment in everyone’s life. I was surprised as well to find myself more emotionally connected to Andy than I had in the previous two films even though he has no more screen time than he has before his presence was touching and added greatly to the overall tone of the film.

As a trilogy the story resonates with every living generation, we can each recall the progression from imagination to reality that we all must experience. The fact that these films allow us to relive the freedom that playing with toys allows is quite a wondrous achievement. My only hope is that with the increasing availability to children of technologies such as mobile phones and computer games they have not lost the ability to produce their own worlds and stories, a stage which as an adult it is impossible to regain.

Is Avatar worth the hype?

Posted in Film Reviews on January 25, 2010 by stuartharrison

Last week I was afforded the opportunity to see Avatar not only in 3D but also in IMAX format. I would first like to say that it is a truly astounding feat made with some quite spectacular technology but has this come at the cost of narrative and characterisation?

On the surface we are provided with a perfect example of the classical hollywood narrative in which we are given a protagonist with a principle aim which is later abandonned through emotional conflict so that he can fulfil what is revealed to be his true destiny. This is neither original nor particularly exciting, it certainly entertains on the most basic of levels but it at no point attempts to engage with any deeper meaning. I am certain some would argue that the film serves to highlight the plight of nature and the necessity of co-existing with our surroundings but this isn’t a new concept and we aren’t offered anything original in Avatar that advances this overly used plot device.

Throughout this film a prevailing thought I had was of its similarities to the film Fern Gully in which we find a human who has been brought to the forrest with the intention of cutting it down only to find himself shrunk down and living with fairies who have struck up a balance with the forrest. He then spends the film learning the ways of the fairies and eventually coming to appreciate the importance of preserving nature.

Though Fern Gully is a film intended for children, and Avatar is aimed for teenagers and older, this gives Fern Gully the license to be simplistic but in doing so provides a heartfelt and sincere portrayal of ecological balance. As Avatar has set its sights on an older audience it finds itself forced to present a more overly complicated and ‘deeper’ story but fails because of this. You are given far too many characters and in spite of the runtime (two hours and forty minutes) you only every come to understand the two main characters, even though they don’t feel truly fleshed out, with everyone else presented as nothing more than two-dimensional filler. The worst of these being the leader of the marines who barks out clichés throughout and even though we find him chomping on a cigar he never quite compares to Sgt. Apone from Aliens and doesn’t produce lines as quotable as “Alright, sweethearts, you heard the man and you know the drill! Assholes and elbows!”. The dialogue is often unexciting and trite, at one point Jake Sully actually shouts “For your children and for your children’s children…” and though inspiring in other films feels like dust in your ears in this instance.

Perhaps one of the most infuriating elements of the film is how Cameron seems to have dragged every minority he can find and cast them all as the Pandorans. Their main influence is obviously that of Native American but there are glimpses of various cultures with their being no hint of any original rituals created from their rather magnificent homeworld. The most intriguing element of their culture comes from their ability to connect to fellow animals by using feelers located in a tail that extends from their heads and attachs to similar apendages on other animals. This enables them to become telpathically linked to the animal they are riding. This is easily the most beautiful element of their culture and yet it feels glossed over and unexplored.

The story isn’t so awful that film is rendered unwatchable it is simply a shame that having been presented with the opportunity to produce a marvellous spectacle Cameron has opted to rehash better films such as Fern Gully and Princess Mononoke, to name two examples.

However, the major appeal of this film is not its story but the new technology that has been implemented to render a visual feast and all in glorious 3D. When you consider the film in this sense it is an achievement; the feel for depth you are given in this film is stunning and this adds, literally, a whole new dimension of appreciation to the mise-en-scene. Even in the most simplest of moments, take for example when Jake is recording a video diary, the fact that the date for the log entry appears to be floating in the bottom left of the screen is surprisingly beautiful to look at. You are constantly given the sense that you are not looking at a screen but through a window. There appears to be no true boundary between yourself and what you are seeing. On sweeping shots of the forrest and terrifying moments where the camera peers over the the edge of a cliff you are given a thrill beyond words. Even after having seen Coraline in 3D and believed that to be amazing I was completely absorbed by the luscious greenery and the symphony of neon lights displayed in the forest during the bewitching night scenes.

There is one major drawback to the use of 3D though; as a piece of technology it still has a long way to come before it can compare to the crisp definitions of standard 2D. During fast-paced sequences I often found the picture would become blurred resulting in my eyes being unable to focus. When the camera was stationary or slow-moving it looked magnificent but during the final battle it was nearly impossible to understand what was happening at times as half of the screen was blurred.

Though a huge step forward in cinematic technology it still needs to be refined before it becomes a truly viable means of filmmaking. As for Avatar, as much as the film may be an achievement in terms of visuals it still lacks an engrossing or exciting narrative and although I would recommend the experience of seeing it in 3D and on the big screen I would recommend it for no other reasons.