Dark Ages imposter syndrome takes center stage in David Lowery’s The Green Knight. This viewer has long thought Lowery was an imposter himself, scratching my head at the overheated praise for works like his flimsy adaptation of Pete’s Dragon and his ponderous A Ghost Story. With his adaptation of an ancient Arthurian story, Lowery finds a setting to match his mythic impulses and finally gets over the hump with something close to a masterpiece. The Green Knight wraps its mossy arms around the ambition and the hypocrisy of medieval feudalism as its lead character tries and fails to fulfill expectations that are on his back from birth. This epic film does that with a foot in the cold steel armor of the Christian world and another in the mysterious natural world of whatever came before. Both feet are planted firmly in a cinematic fantasia of rasping foxes and loping giants, making The Green Knight into a package that generates awe in the moment and contemplation long after.
Sixteenth-century Italian monk and cosmologist Giordano Bruno famously and apocryphally pointed his finger at the people who would judge him as a heretic and yelled, “Your god is too small!” Bruno surmised that the universe contained life beyond what was found on earth, preaching a humility that a religion which says the supreme being created humans in its image cannot handle. Rigidity runs headlong into wonder in different Italian setting some five centuries later with Luca, Pixar’s latest and the first from longtime in-house animator Enrico Casarosa. A familiar story infused with palpable love and detail from Casarosa’s own life, Luca creates a world filled with joy and endless possibility, if one can only stick their head above the water.
Cartoon Saloon took a brief and productive detour into Afghanistan with The Breadwinner, but they return to their roots of Irish mythology in Wolfwalkers, the small studio’s best entry yet. Where The Secret of Kells found fairies in the forest and Song of the Sea found selkies in the ocean, Wolfwalkers goes back to the forest for its titular creatures. The usual template of a child finding a hidden magical world is recreated with the wrinkle of said child becoming the creature instead of just investigating it, and the result is a fantastical brew of discovery and adventure that also has something to say about fear and loss and submission to unjust authority. This is a stunning work that allows Cartoon Saloon to measure its best against that of competitors like Pixar and Laika.
Huck Finn gets transplanted to the Outer Banks in the endearing Peanut Butter Falcon. Shia LaBeouf, popping up for his semi-annual reminder that he’s far more than an annoying public presence, and newcomer Zach Gottsagen play this version’s raft dwellers, lighting out for the colonies i.e. the Florida swamps. A debut feature from Tyler Nilsen and Michael Schwartz, the Peanut Butter Falcon is notable for multiple reasons, perhaps none moreso than the presence of Downs Syndrome-afflicted Gottsagen in the lead role. He’s no generic, semi-offensive source of uplift, he’s giving a real performance that relies on considered body language and comic timing. Nilsen and Schwartz leave some necessary facets out of their charming film, but the inclusion of Gottsagen is an unimpeachable choice.
Beasts of the Southern Wild, Behn Zeitlin’s magical realist environmental allegory set in the Mississippi Delta, brought the director critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination before his 28th birthday, but not unlike his mythical aurochs locked in ice, Zeitlin seems to have spent the proceeding eight years frozen in place. His only release since then, the Peter Pan adaptation Wendy, looks identical to his breakout hit and underperformed critically and commercially. For those who originally dismissed Beasts as a maudlin and exploitative piece of poverty porn, vindication is had, but for those who can see those arguments and still enjoy the film’s many pleasures, there’s disappointment that Zeitlin couldn’t build on a strong, if flawed, debut. Beasts of the Southern Wild has its issues, but the performances and Zeitlin’s zest for the material makes those issues the mere ring around the bathtub instead of the bathtub itself.
After the council estates of Fish Tank and the cruel social grasping of Wuthering Heights, English director Andrea Arnold takes her cinematic poverty tour to the US in American Honey. The trailer parks, long-term hotels, and fracking boom towns of the South and Midwest are fertile ground for Arnold’s interests, namely the parts of a fiscally-disadvantaged life that make risk-taking more likely, if not more rewarding. Her protagonist, Sasha Lane’s debut as Star, can easily imagine a life with a radius of a few miles, moving from a Muskogee trailer with her creepy father and young half-siblings into a nearby one, perhaps with a few kids of her own. Being confronted with those limitations makes the possibilities of travel presented by a roving magazine crew attractive, and Star is soon shooting from state to state, hawking subscriptions that’ll never arrive. American Honey, a worthy companion piece to fellow elevated poverty porn The Florida Project, poetically captures the underclass through the eyes of one of its teen members as she awakens to the vastness of her country and her place within it.
The tortuous world lurking under the glossy surface of Toy Story gets taken out once again for more puzzling philosophical questions. Already appearing to be immortal and indestructible, the toys in Pixar’s flagship franchise now seem to be borne out of the slightest humanization, such that a box of googly eyes are the equivalent of god breathing life into Adam dozens of times over. Toy Story 4, like the previous entries, implies endless and interminable torture in the lightest possible package. The animation has never looked more realistic as the animate inanimate objects of the film struggle with a new kid to entertain and the redefinition of their existences. Just don’t think about it too hard.
Laika Studios suffered its biggest failure with Missing Link, an unjust treatment by the moviegoing public for a group of true artisans. The stop-motion animators, increasingly backed up by the largesse of CEO Travis Knight’s father and Nike founder Phil Knight, consistently make beautiful creations and complex stories for the family. Missing Link is no exception, it currently reigns as the biggest box office animated bust of all time. Hopefully, Laika can withstand this blow, because in a sea of CGI, no one else makes movies like they do. Missing Link isn’t up to the standard Laika has set by previous greats and personal favorites Paranorman and Kubo and the Two Strings, but there’s still plenty here to warrant success instead of historical failure.
Despite coming out at the beginning of the 2010’s, How to Train Your Dragon remains one of the best films of the decade, not only in animation but across all genres. Dean DeBlois’ and Dreamworks Animation’s adaptation of Cressida Cowell’s fantasy series put aside the crass and tired pop culture references that made the studio successful in favor of powerful and cinematic storytelling that stresses a message of experimentation and resistance to hidebound tradition, potentially sparking a generation of scientists who upend established knowledge while humming the film’s rousing theme. Nine years later, DeBlois closes out his franchise with the trilogy-ending How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, a film that seems designed to surgically remove tears from the eyes of viewers who love the original. The new film contains mirrored shots that augment and deepen images etched in a fan’s memory. It makes for an experience more subjective than the already-subjective process of reviewing a film, as this is a can’t-miss stunner that feels like it was made specifically for me.
The second half of the cinematic 2010’s has been marked by backlash against more diverse storytelling, especially when women star in franchise reboots. Ghostbusters, Star Wars, and the Ocean’s movies all experienced resentment against a shift away from white male protagonists. On the one hand, the trifling man-babies who complain about something so insignificant should be ignored at all costs. On the other hand, they can be wholly marginalized by telling new stories, a practice that allows studios to find unique voices from underrepresented backgrounds and create new properties that future generations of braindead executives can strip-mine for content. Disney now contains such vast holdings that they can recycle comic book content indefinitely and shunt riskier (i.e. not based on preexisting properties) projects into other storied divisions like Disney Animation, home of the exceptional Moana. Looking for innovation from a studio that’s been adapting fairy tales for almost a century would seem a fool’s errand, but Disney’s reach means it can attract great minds like the film’s composer Lin-Manuel Miranda and funnel his work through veteran directors like Disney mainstays Ron Clements and John Musker. Moana’s considerable pedigree, its novelty as a tale set amongst Polynesian villagers, and its absence of princess-related baggage makes it into one of the best animated features in Disney’s long history.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.