- THE BOSS BABY
And so we begin with one of the weaker films in this category.
Tim Templeton (voiced by Miles Bakshi) enjoyed being an only child, what with the constant attention from his parents (Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow). When bedtime consists of seven stories and a rendition of “Blackbird” by the Beatles, you can’t blame him. But Tim finds his perfect life upended when a suit clad baby comes strutting up to his front door and takes over his parent’s attention.
If that wasn’t enough, Tim finds out this baby talk with the voice of Alec Baldwin. Turns out, he is an executive for BabyCorp, a literal baby maker who’s concerned about losing the world’s love to puppies. Now Boss Baby is here to take down PuppyCo before CEO Francis Francis (Steve Buscemi) releases the ultimate puppy. Since they hate each other, Tim decides to help the Boss Baby in his scheme so he can get rid of him and the Baby can get his executive office.
This film manages to be both predictable and weird at the same time. On one hand, you know exactly where the plot is going to go. These two will start off hating each other but, will end up loving each other. They will also start off wanting something but, will end up giving it up for each other.
Despite its predictability, the plot manages to get super weird. In this universe, babies come from a factory which is also run by babies. And yet women still get pregnant. But Boss Baby arrives on a Taxi. And Boss Baby is given a special formula that keeps him a baby forever. And he can teleport back to the BabyCorp using a pacifier. That’s not even getting into the Elvis impersonators, Baby clean up crew and a cross-dressing Nanny. I would have enjoyed the weirdness if it wasn’t so inconsistent.
But this film didn’t think seem to think it plot through. It doesn’t help that this movie can’t make up its mind whether or not this plot is real or a part of Tim’s imagination. The film’s narrated by a grown up Tim (Tobey Maguire), establishing this film as a memory. The narration establishes he had a wild imagination, which we see from his wild fantasies. So this could just be imaginary. But this is contradicted by the fact the parents also notice the baby wears a business suit. But then Tim and the Baby have a fight, it looks like an epic action scene to them but looks like innocent playtime to the parents. The film flip flops to the point that it gets distracting.
Despite the many flaws, there are still some high points in the film. The fantasy scenes catch your eye with neon colours and 2D style animation. When not relying on butt jokes and Alec Baldwin referencing Glengarry Glen Ross, there can be some funny sight gags. But that’s nothing compared to the glorious cartoon violence. The action scenes are so over the top, they’re hilarious. After all, this is the only time you don’t feel bad laughing at a baby being thrown through a window.
But as a whole, this feels like a major step backwards for DreamWorks. They seemed to have found their voice with Kung Fu Panda and gained more consistent success by avoiding pop culture references in favour of character-based humour, heartfelt storylines and immersive world. But since Trolls, their films seemed to have gone downhill. They aren’t bad, but they’re subpar compared to How to Train Your Dragon or Legends of the Guardians. If they want to continue to compete with Pixar, they need to set their standards a lot higher if they still want to be compared to Disney and Pixar. 
- THE BREADWINNER
Based on the novel by Deborah Ellis (who co-wrote the script), this animated sleeper has captured the hearts of audience with a heartfelt tale of a young girl’s struggle for survival in Afghanistan under Taliban rule.
Unable to keep his job as a teacher, Parvana’s (Saara Chaudry) wise father Nurullah (Ali Badshah) is forced to sell the family’s goods to feed his family. During their sales, Nurullah shares stories with Parvana to guide her life to wisdom. Then Nurullah gets arrested after confronting a volatile young Taliban (Noorin Gulamgus). Since women aren’t allowed to work and there are no adult male figures, Parvana’s mother is left with no means to support her daughters and infant son. In desperation, Parvana disguises herself as a boy in order go find work and provide for her family. With her friend Shauzia (Soma Bhatia) at her side also disguised as a boy, Parvana manages to pull off her disguise. But as war begins to brew, Parvana risks everything to find her father.
Throughout the film, Parvana also tells her little brother Zaki a story of a boy who travels up a hill to take back a village’s seeds after they are stolen by the evil Elephant King. Animated in stop motion, this film parallels Parvana’s struggles.
Parvana doesn’t have to fight supernatural tigers and an elephant, but she still has to deal with something just as terrifying; the Taliban. Through this film, we see the environment of terror where wisdom is punished and women are much marginalized. Through the faces of civilians, we see good people who feel helpless in a land of terror. You’re hoping Parvana never slips up because you know she could be killed if she’s exposed.
Through the terror, we see a lot of heart. As a teacher, Nurullah nurtures Parvana’s storytelling skills with wisdom forbidden in this world. Parvana shares an equally close relationship with her family, especially with her little brother. But the most heartfelt moment is when Parvana (while disguised as a boy) is paid to read a letter to an illiterate old man.
Most of all, we see the little moments of defiance in the face of fear. To see people retain their humanity in a world with none leaves you with some hope.
Once upon a time in a little village in Mexico, there was a little shoeshine boy named Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez). Miguel loved music and dreams of being a musician like his late idol Ernesto Del La Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). There’s just one problem; his family has banned music from their lives in favour of making shoes. So he keeps his passion a secret. But on the night of Dia De Muertos (aka the Day of the Dead), Miguel discovers that Del La Cruz might be his great great grandfather. Determined to follow Del La Cruz’s mantra and seize his moment, Miguel decides to use his great great grandfather’s famous guitar for the talent show.
There’s just one problem. On Dia De Muertos you’re supposed to give to the dead, not take from them. Since Miguel technically stole the guitar, he cursed into entering the spiritual world. To get back, he will need the blessing from a late family member. With the help of acrobatic trickster Hector (Gael Barcia Bernal), Miguel decides to get Del La Cruz’s blessing. But if he can’t get that blessing, he will be stuck in the spirit world forever.
Going into the film, you’d expect this film to follow the classic story about following your dreams. But Lee Unkrich turns that trope on its ear to portray a more complex side to the issue. The music ban was banned because Miguel’s great great grandfather had abandoned his family for a music career and they don’t want the family making the same mistake. The enforcement of the ban is done out of love. As he journeys through the spirit world, Miguel comes to see how lonely and empty the pursuit the music career. I won’t give too much away, but Miguel comes to see the dark side of “seizing your moment.”
Not to say the film is against music. Quite the contrary, it celebrates Mexico’s music with catchy songs written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, Germaine Franco and Adrian Molina. In this world, music is important if used to bring people together. Soon, Miguel comes to use music to keep people together.
This film brings together a collection of memorable characters, including hardass yet loving great, great grandmother Mama Imelda (Alanna Ubach) to grouchy loner Chicharron (Edward James Olmos). But none compare to Hector, the lovable trickster who steals every scene with the snap of his finger. With joyous performance by Barcia Bernal, Hector seems like the kind of guy you’d love to invite to a party. You’d expect him to be as irresponsible as he seems. But it turns out, he’s a lot more sensible than he seems as he tries to get Miguel to accept Imelda’s blessing even if it means giving up a music career. In time he reveals his longing to see his daughter again.
Another great character is Miguel’s world. Both the living world and the spirit world come to life with Mexican culture. In the living world, the film details the rituals of Dia De Muertos from the spreading of pedals to laying out items the deceased loved in life. You can feel the strong connection of family seeing the long line of photos on the Ofrendas. The animation really shines when we enter the spirit realm. Ulrich and his crew apply a lot of creative ideas to incorporate Mexican culture into the spirit world, including entering the living worlds via a bridge of pedals to the entrance being Aztec pyramids. On top of that, the animation is beautiful with its neon colours and detailed buildings. They also deserve a lot of credit for making walking skeletons look visually appealing. We also get cameos from late Mexican celebrities, including Mexican legend El Santo and a hilarious parody of artist Frida Kahlo.
Albeit, the spirit world raises a lot of interesting questions. Do the rules of the spirit world apply around the world, or only Mexico? Do other cultures in this universe have different afterlives? That’s not even getting into the fact that when someone in the afterlife is forgotten, they disappear. The idea of your spirit ceasing to exist sound horrifying. Maybe I’m putting too much thought into this.
Lately, Pixar hasn’t been living up to the quality of earlier works. Their recent films aren’t bad, but they rely too much on sequels. Then again, it only makes it more special when we see them live up to their reputation with original, heartfelt movies like this film and Inside Out. I wish there were more films like this, but I’m still glad to see this still exist.
Some of you know Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson’s classic story of the Bull who loved to smell flowers. Well, most of you know the story from the classic Disney short. Now Blue Sky Studios have taken a break from making another Ice Age Sequel to bring us a full length retelling of this story.
Every bull in Casa del Toro dreams of going one on one against a matador. Every bull, except sensitive calf Ferdinand (voiced by Colin H Murphy), who would rather grow flowers. Of course, it leads to him being picked on by the other calfs, especially Valiente (Jack Gore). When his father is picked for a bull fight and never returns, Ferdinand runs away. He finds a kindred spirit in Nina (Julia Scarpa Saldanha in early scenes, Lily Day in later scenes), a little country girl who brings her a paradise where he can smell flowers all day.
He grows up to be a buff, yet gentle Bull (now voiced by John Cena). After accidently sitting on a bee, Ferdinand accidently causes destruction and he is taken away from Nina. He ends up back in Casa del Toro, where he’s forced to confront Valiente (now voiced by Bobby Cannavale) and the other now grown up bulls. With the help of incompetent calming goat Lupe (Kate McKinnon) and thieving hedgehogs Uno (Gina Rodriguez), Dos (Daveed Diggs) and Cuatro (Gabriel Iglesias), Ferdinand makes a plan to break out again before he’s forced to face pompous matador El Primero (Miguel Angel Silverstre).
To me, nearly everything wrong with Blue Sky Studios can be summed up by this film. Many of these flaws stem from one problem; Blue Sky films are too eager to please. This is pretty evident when the film gives Ferdinand too many sidekicks. On top of Lupe and the three hedgehogs, you also have skinny bull Bones (Anthony Anderson), Cynical sarcastic dog Paco (Jerrod Carmichael) and three narcissistic European horses. There are some funny characters, including cloned robotic bull Maguina and blind Scottish Highland bull Angus (David Tennant), but there are too many characters fighting for screen time. The result is underdeveloped characters.
This leads to another problems; the Studio relies way too much on celebrities to voice characters. I understand casting them for the leads, but there are short roles that could have been more easily filled in by professional voice actors. Nowhere is this notable than with Carmichael’s performance. He’s a great comedian and proves a good comic actor in his underrated sitcom The Carmichael Show, but his performance feels so off. I don’t know if he was miscast or that maybe he’s just not meant for voice acting, but his feels so wrong for the sheepdog. I can’t help but think that Kevin Michael Richardson or John DiMaggio would have been more fitting. Say what you will with Illumination Studios, but for the most part, they know how to play to their actors’ strength.
On top of that, the film plays it too safe. You know exactly the direction this story is going to go because it never it follow every cliché in the underdog storybook. It has neither the fun nor mythology of Kung Fu Panda and never puts any spin on the tropes the way Coco did with the Follow your Dream. It doesn’t help that it’s trying to fit a ten minute story into an hour and a half film. It does try to flesh out the character, but that undermined when the film stops the story for jokes or an unnecessary dance battle between the bulls and the horses.
But it does have one saving grace that set it apart from the others. You could see this film as a commentary on toxic masculinity. In the film, Bulls are expected to be big and tough so they can beat a matador. As a result, Valiente perceives Ferdinand as week for preferring to grow flowers. But when Ferdinand shows inner strength by showing his willingness to take blows to defend a flower, Valiente has no idea how to respond to this contradiction. In these moments, we see the absurdity of the preconceived notion of “manliness.” You could see Bull Fighting as a symbol of hardcore sports like Football, reinforced by bulls head slamming each other. It even addresses the harmful effects of these sports when Ferdinand finds out what actually happens to bulls after a bull fight. I don’t know this was intended by Carlos Saldanha or writers John Davis, Lisa Marie Stetler, Lori Forte and Bruce Anderson. I don’t care. I see that and I stand by it.
- LOVING VINCENT
The making of this animated biopic is as fascinating as Vincent Van Gogh himself. Directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman hired over 100 professional artists to paint over 65,000 frames of film to match Van Gogh’s trademark style. The result is a beautiful biopic about a troubled man.
A year after Vincent van Gogh’s (Robert Gulaczyk) suicide, the reluctant Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) his sent by his postman father (Chris D’owd) to send Van Gogh’s letter to his brother Theo Van Gogh (Cezary Lukaszewicz). While visiting the last town Van Gogh lived the last moments of his life, he comes to meet many people who inspired the man’s work. With each person he speaks to, Roulin develops a deeper understanding of a troubled man tortured and marginalized because of his mental illness.
The film follows a similar story structure of Citizen Kane. Both films follow a stranger as he learns more about a famous man. Throughout the film, we get many great actors delivering excellent monologues from Chris D’owd to Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird). Through flashbacks, we see the man tormented by ignorant townsfolks. There is one strange element where a guy claims Van Gogh was murdered by pointing out that people don’t usually commit suicide by shooting themselves in the stomach. He makes some good points, but as another character points out, Van Gogh wasn’t the most rational man.
What truly stands out is the animation. As the first film animated entirely with oil paint, the visuals truly feel like a Van Gogh painting brought to life. What I find interesting is the contrast of styles between the present day and flashbacks. The present day is animated to resemble artworks like The Starry Night and Café Terrace at Night. In contrast, the flashbacks are animated in black and white using a more realistic style.
This film catches the eye with its visuals and keeps you in through its engaging storyline.
Who Will Win?
No contest: Coco. It has everything we love about Pixar; perfect animation, unforgettable characters and original takes on classic tropes.
But I have to say, I’m disappointed with this year’s nominations. There are three great movies, but you have two mediocre movies that can’t hold a candle to the others. I look at The Boss Baby and Ferdinand and I can’t help but think of superior Japanese films like a Silent Voice and Your Name being left out. It especially irritates me when the Academy had previously nominated unknown international films like A Boy and the World and Secrets of the Kells. The academy needs to set their standards higher.
 And while we’re at it, could we please stop using that stock baby sound? They use the same sound effect for like 30 times. Use original baby sounds!
 Kudos to Pixar for making us sympathizes with this character despite only appearing in one scene.
 Here’s a little advice; four or more screenwriters credited to the same movie is usually a bad sign. Once in a while, it results in a great movie like Birdman or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. For the most part, you are seeing contrasting styles and visions clashing with each other, resulting in a mixed up tone. It makes when the director has his/her own vision.