Friday, June 27, 2008

WALL•E Review

(NOTE: No Spoilers, read with confidence)

What does it feel like to know you are watching a masterwork unfold before you while you are experiencing it?

Well, in the movies, it happens like this. Your senses are heightened because your interest is piqued and you are leaning forward, with eyes as wide and sparkly as hubcaps, intently gathering as much info about what is happening before you because you don't want to miss a single frame of information, or the tiniest moment of humor, beauty and wonderment. You are transfixed, yet transported. You are emotionally invested in the story and characters and your eyes have welled up.

You continue watching and it dawns on you what you are witnessing. A masterpiece. You are watching a masterpiece and its name is WALL•E.

WALL•E portrays the adventures of a solitary robot who exists on earth, 700 years into the future. WALL•E is an acronym for Waste Allocation Load Lifter - Earth class and is a robot trash compactor. He diligently does what he is meant to do, stacking his cubes of compacted waste as per his programming. As the movie itself progresses, WALL•E is revealed to be resourceful, curious and lonely, having a special appreciation for a cheery, happier time filled with color, music, dance and, above all, love.

We follow WALL•E's adventures on and off earth in what is at once a carefully crafted love story and an equally adept cautionary parable. It's told in the best and most clever use of cinematic language with sound and sight holding equal importance. Its messages run so very deep and heartfelt that they almost become tangible. Our protagonist WALL•E is technology which represents the best of humanity - our determination, love, and caring, surrounded by the worst of humanity - our disrespect for the environment as evidenced by mountains and spires of trash, the detritus of our culture.

Attention Must Be Paid

From its expository epic scenes of WALL•E's world, to outer space to its compelling poignant conclusion, this is not a movie during which you can get up and go visit the snack bar or the bathroom and expect to pick up where you left off without missing anything significant. Please, don't rob yourself of the experience. Before you settle in, take care of your personal business and concentrate on this movie which deserves your attention.

You'll be rewarded with refreshing storytelling choices; non-English cues throughout which demand viewer participation. You'll quickly learn to recognize these actions and sounds and react accordingly - much like audiences did when Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Lillian Gish and Gloria Swanson were in their prime. Pay attention. It's all there for you. Loaded with action and especially heart, the payoff is abundant. Despite the robot at its center, WALL•E has more pathos, feeling and achingly true emotion than many a live action movie. In fact, you may find yourself heavily invested and by movie's end, touched to your core.

WALL•E is not only special, but daring. There are camera 'mistakes' in zooming and framing, intentionally made to give the film a documentary, immediate texture. Relying on mostly sight, brilliant sound effects (designed by the ultra-talented Ben Burtt), and music (thanks to composer and conductor Thomas Newman who provided the original score) audiences can identify with characters and follow key plot points. This is no easy undertaking considering the assumption is that audiences want their information spoon fed and dumbed down, being told how to think and feel. But WALL•E presents its information in an exacting and precise manner.

Throughout, there are many moments of sheer spectacle and graphic richness. Midway through WALL•E, I was struck by the beauty of a carefully choreographed sequence in which two of its main characters are so artfully propelled through space creating a pas de deux which together with lush music, was awe inspiring, beautiful, graceful and moving. Plus, it furthered character and plot development. Even adding humor. Masterful and terrific.

Can I Continue To Gush For A Moment?

How lucky we are to live in a time when technological advances have come to a point where artists like Andrew Stanton (WALL•E, Finding Nemo), Brad Bird (Ratatouille), John Lasseter (Toy Story, Cars) and a host of others can see their concepts come to such fruition! We the movie going public are lucky to have Pixar in our lives. They value the art of the animated film such that in their efforts to develop interesting characters, wondrously beautiful background artwork, and groundbreaking storytelling aesthetics - elevate the genre. No other studio can touch them. Not Disney. Not Dreamworks. None of them. They are above the stratosphere while the others are standing on Everest, looking up and wondering where Pixar is. For sure, Pixar aims high and simply operates in its own league. They're driven by their own demand for excellence, which upon execution, self-propels them to seek out even more creative solutions for their next project, which inevitably leads them to their next excellent outcome.

Go See It Now (after you finish reading this)

I loved this film. It is wonderful. It is artfully done. WALL•E's gorgeous, hyper-realistic, visual richness demands repeat viewings. The film speaks to viewers of all generations with messages of finding one's life purpose, of perseverance despite the odds, of the value of cultivating natural curiosity, of never losing hope, of respecting the earth, of the dangers of blind, mass consumerism, of celebrating life and love, of clever use of your own resources, of a rejection of laziness - are timeless. It is not like any animated film which has come before it. It's technically brilliant and sophisticated but more importantly, it will grab your heart and quite possibly, move you. Go see it.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Kung Fu Panda

There was a definitely palpable anticipation emanating from the excited crowd as the movie theatre house lights went down and the first flickers of 'Kung Fu Panda' hit the screen. Well, the lights have come up and we can all relax and breathe a zen sigh of relief because the film delivers well on all important aspects - directing, cinematography, character design, and animation - with such humor, wit AND without pulling any punches (couldn't resist).

Jack Black is the voice of Po, a giant panda filled with a hearty appetite for food and loaded with hero worship for the Furious Five, a legendary group of kung fu fighters who protect his village. Black's vocal performance embues Po with loads of personality and heart. Po dreams of being a kung fu hero but in reality, his life as a noodle soup maker is humdrum. The plot progresses to take Po out of his dull life and into the exciting world of kung fu (didn't see that coming didja?).

From the opening 2-D sequence, accomplished in a highly stylized, very graphic presentation evocative of traditional Far Eastern shadow puppetry aesthetics - the movie is visually compelling. Any artist worth his salt will note the dazzling color design and its use to successfully support the emotions evoked throughout the film. I think to begin the film in one style, based on tradition, is a wonderfully effective choice, particularly when the movie zips to CG/3-D animation. It grabs you. (Find link to Opening Dream Sequence. Only watch this one - other clips may contain spoilers.)

Noteworthy vocal performances come from Dustin Hoffman as Head Master (Shifu Red Panda); Ian McShane as Tai Lung (Snow Leopard), Randall Duk Kim as Ancient Master Oogway (Tortoise) and Angela Jolie as Master Tigress (South China Tiger). The movie also features Jackie Chan (Master Monkey), Lucy Liu (Master Viper), Seth Rogen (Master Mantis), James Hong (Mr. Ping) and Michael Clarke Duncan (Javan Rhinoceros) all getting as much character and emotion out of their parts as the script will allow them.

Vocal performance highpoints include Dustin Hoffman's droll delivery in the face of Po's inept fighting and Ian McShane's resurrection of the energy and passion of his Deadwood character, Al Swearengen in his villianous snow leopard's threats. (I was a huge Deadwood fan and to listen to McShane even come close to Swearengen made me giggle during the film.)

Character design and animation is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. It was apparent when I first saw the trailers and doubly confirmed as I watched the film. Very appealing designs all around. And the movement, particularly during the fight scenes is wonderfully creative. The highlight here are the poses created for each of the Furious Five's meditative states. Oh, and the movement on Oogway the tortoise. His slight tremor of his head and hands while he speaks make for the best kind of character animation - denoting age and wisdom and frailty all at once.

(Here's a link to the title sequence: Kung Fu Panda Titles)

The movie operates on a few levels when it comes to humor. And it's not hard to figure out and understand. There are the juvenile lowbrow jokes and the wittier jokes. The sight gags tend to be more on the lowbrow, occasionally predictable side but the movie's wit really shines when it simultaneously satirizes and celebrates the flashy fighting, aerial acrobatics, and even cinematic technique, established in live action kung fu movies from the Bruce Lee flicks of the '70s to present day Jet Li, Chow Yun Fat and Jackie Chan. Many times the 'master/student' relationship is mined for its inherent comedic possiblities.

The plot, though forgivably predictable in sections, takes a secondary seat to the excellent design and movement. I liked the plot's simplicity. It does what it should - driving the movie forward - without getting in the way. And the benefit here is without worrying about any significant plot complications, I was free to explore the dazzingly rich environmental design and textures. My eyes could linger over the more beautiful sections, which is kind of a rarity in movies these days. (Can anyone say 'Speed Racer'?)

Anyway, I would recommend this movie for kids and adults. Two opposable thumbs up. Go see it.

Friday, June 13, 2008


We saw a screening earlier this evening (6/12), of the animated feature Wall•E at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville. The movie will open to the general public later this month (June 27). Suffice to say that it is awesome and I can't wait to see it again at a local theatre with a capacity crowd. Congratulations to all concerned. It was beautiful. (more on this film after 6/27)