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.
If the Great Man theory of history had to be applied to the symbiotic relationship between humans and dogs, some nameless, intrepid human had to be the first one to extend their hand to some nameless, curious, probably low-testosterone wolf. Such a pivotal, nonexistent moment gets adapted into Albert Hughes’ Alpha, a deft and effective picture of survival left to languish in the dregs of summer. Hughes brings a mythic sweep to a film that many directors hackier than him would have contentedly left as a marginally grittier Incredible Journey or an equally corny 10,000 BC. From its opening sequence to its rousing ending, Alpha emerges as one of 2018’s biggest surprises.
The Paddington Bear character has been a part of British children’s literature for decades, and Paul King’s adaptation could have been released in the immediate aftermath of the character’s mid-century debut. With the exception of the seamless CGI creation that is the titular character, there’s little in Paddington that doesn’t feel like a throwback. By eschewing the glitz and noise of its contemporaries in the family film genre, Paddington achieves a timeless quality and avoids the corniness that can emerge alongside attempts to revitalize classic jokes and tones. King and co-writer Hamish McColl reject the snark of the age and embrace the same earnestness that animates Paddington himself.
Andrew Haigh’s brief and eclectic filmography moved from lusty gay romance to elderly marital drama, and he takes another genre leap in the modern Western Lean on Pete. Haigh’s intimate and naturalistic work with his actors is well-suited to this tale of a preternaturally good kid who runs through an earth-shaking run of bad luck. In the lead, Charlie Plummer is on the level of Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone for breakout performances, and every single actor down the cast list, no matter how small the part, gives him plenty to play against. Haigh has an affection for Lean on Pete’s characters, as much as Plummer’s Charley Thompson has for the titular beast, and out of that affection comes a deeply-felt film.
Wes Anderson returns to his natural medium of stop-motion animation in Isle of Dogs. Where better can the director, so well-known for his just-so filmmaking, exact complete control over what comes onscreen than with figurines and miniatures and models instead of imperfect humans? In that vein, Anderson leaves behind people as the main characters in his latest, focusing instead on a pack of exiled pooches in near-future Japan. Though he’s telling stories around a different species, Anderson can’t help but make the same choices he always makes, for good or ill. The fan of Anderson will love Isle of Dogs, the detractor will find plenty to be irritated about, and the wait-and-see moderate, like this reviewer, can see both sides clearly and wish the director would try and branch out.
The 19th film from Pixar studios, Coco, takes liberally from the animated masterpieces that have come before it. Outliving one’s usefulness is here, as it has been in the Toy Story films. A magical moment of Proustian recall evokes personal favorite Ratatouille. A theme of reunion runs through Coco, as it did in Finding Nemo/Dory and The Good Dinosaur. This kind of connection to Pixar’s artistic past is anything but a crutch, especially when Coco itself is dedicated to keeping the past alive. This applies to the characters within Lee Unkrich’s and Adrian Molina’s beautiful film and to Coco itself, another Pixar masterwork that slots in next to the studio’s many other highlights.
Author-turned-screenwriter David Remnick’s young adult book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and its Martin Scorsese-filmed adaptation Hugo reveled in the simple sight of an inquisitive child taking in the world around him. With Wonderstruck, Remnick and director Todd Haynes exchanges a Parisian train station and Georges Melies for New York City museums. Like Hugo, Wonderstruck is an utterly earnest film made by someone who doesn’t deal in that realm. Neither Scorsese nor Haynes typically feature characters who wear their hearts on their sleeves, with the former more comfortable in macho self-delusion and the latter in sexual repression. Maybe it takes a director who’s got a gift for liars and obfuscators to make Remnick’s brand of independent young protagonists pop off the screen. Wonderstruck might be out of Haynes’ wheelhouse, but it’s a welcomed change when the product is as endearing and beautiful as this.
David Oelhoffen’s bleak film set at the cusp of French-Algerian war begins in a one-room schoolhouse amidst the North African landscape. Viggo Mortensen’s Daru is teaching young Algerian children about French geography, a particular set of knowledge probably less pertinent than others for rural kids under France’s colonial yoke. Daru, an ostensibly charitable man still teaching from a Euro-centric standpoint, is revealed to be a man tentatively accepted by both sides but not fully at home in either. His European blood gives him a pass from the French masters, but his sympathies and preferences lie with the Algerians. Though he fought with both during WWII and maintains close multicultural friendships, the days of straddling the fence are coming to an end. Far From Men forces its characters to choose sides despite all evidence speaking to the impossibility of such a choice.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.