Friday, February 5, 2010

Oscar Time

Now that my article has had a little breathing room, I can talk about one of the big news stories in the animation world this week: the 2010 Academy Award nominations. With five nominees in the Best Animated Feature category, five shorts vying for Best Animated Short, and either one or two animated films up for Best Picture - depending on whether you buy Cartoon Brew's argument or James Cameron's - it's a pretty exciting year for animation fans.

In case you haven't heard, here are the nominees for Best Animated Feature Film:

If you're keeping track, that's two puppet animated films, two hand-drawn, and one computer animated. It makes for a nice reminder to the general public that feature animation isn't just computer animation. The other big news in animated features is that Up is also among the ten nominees for Best Picture. It's a great acknowledgment for a film I really enjoyed, but I don't see it winning the big prize. I don't think the Academy is ready to give their top award to an animated film just yet, which is why you have James Cameron tying himself in knots trying to claim that Avatar is not an animated film. Besides, they can still reward Up by giving it one of the six other awards it's up for, including Best Animated Feature, which I think it has strong chances of winning. I mean, look at it logically. Of all the Best Animated Film nominees, Up is the only one to also be nominated as one of the ten best films of the year, period. It's not a complete lock; Fantastic Mr. Fox has been getting a lot of praise from film critics and could give Up some stiif competition. But I think the Best Picture nomination gives Up a slight edge. For a long time, the Best Animated Short Film category was notable to the general public more for the animated characters who "presented" the award than the nominated films. As studios stopped making shorts - animated or otherwise - the nominees went from films you could see at your local theater to film that you had to seek out at animation festivals. But the short format has had something of a comeback in recent years, with studios like Pixar and DreamWorks creating new shorts to run in front of their animated films. And between DVD and the internet, it's much easer to see the animated shorts that may not be running in the local multiplex. This year, Cartoon Brew has links to all five nominees so you can view them online. The Best Animated Short Film nominees are: My guess for the film that will win is A Matter of Loaf and Death. The Academy has generally been kind to Wallace and Gromit and Aardman. None of the nominated films have visuals that feel all that innovative or unique, so the prize will likely go to the most filmgoer-friendly film with the strongest story. Which films should win Best Animated Feature and Best Animated Short? For now, that's for you to discuss in the comments.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Trivia Answers - Defending You From This Show


The winner of last week's trivia challenge was my good friend Jennifer. The show I was thinking of that features Flash Gordon teaming up with other comic strip heroes was Defenders of the Earth. Unfortunately, where Flash Gordon was better than i expected it to be, Defenders of the Earth is pretty disappointing. It takes what should be a fun hero team-up premise and crams it full of 80s cartoon cliches like teen sidekicks and a cute, friendly little gremlin that serves as the team's pet.

I don't think it's even worth going into why the show is bad at length, so I'll just give you one example. At the beginning of the show, Flash Gordon has a wife and a teenaged son who have been captured by Ming. His wife doesn't look like Dale Arden as she appeared in the comic strip or the Filmation TV series. But since her name is never mentioned and she is voiced by the same actress who played Dale on the Filmation show, let's just call her "Dale" for the sake of argument. Anyways, Ming uses his memory draining whatsit to try to extract Flash's current location from Dale's mind and kills her in the process. Fortunately, her "essence" - all of her memories and personality - ends up stored in a crystal which the Defenders' pet fuzzball retrieves. Flash's tech savvy son Rick Gordon then uses this crystal to power the Defenders' new computer, Dynak X. Once this crystal containing all of Dale's personality and memories in installed, the computer begins...warning the Defenders about an incoming threat in a monotone computer voice. It's not that I expect a not very deep cartoon for kids to fully explore the potential tragedy of Dale's situation. It's that the show goes through the trouble of actually killing her off, makes a big deal of how this crystal contains everything that Dale was, and then just seems to wander off and lose interest, opting for a generic talking computer instead of a computer with Dale's personality, or any personality.

I only watched a few episodes of the show before deciding that it wasn't worth my time, but what I've read is that Flash only pays occasional lip service to the idea of restoring Dale to a real human body. In the meantime, he spends his days getting flirty with other women. How is this supposed to be the same guy who consistently chose Dale over scores of hot alien women who were throwing themselves at him on a regular basis?

Why I Love Animation: Toy Story 2 - Part One


I am excited for Toy Story 3. Because I know I am going to see it no matter what, I’ve been trying to read and watch relatively little of the pre-release peeks at the film. But what I’ve seen and heard so far I like, for the most part. I think the premise is an extremely bold move and I can’t wait to see how Pixar pulls it off.

Roughly eleven years ago – and yes, it really has been that long – I was feeling a little less excited and a lot more worried about Toy Story 2.

How could I have ever been concerned about a movie that ended up being one of my favorite animated films of all time? For starters, it was 1999 and Pixar’s track record consisted of a whopping two films: the original Toy Story, which was a great movie, and A Bug’s Life, which was good but didn’t grab me quite as much as Toy Story did. So Pixar had made two quality films. A good start, but not enough to call it a pattern. Not enough to make me certain that they would keep making good films and avoid potential huge missteps. Five years before, Disney had kicked off their controversial direct-to-video sequels with The Return of Jafar and while I expected that a theatrically released Pixar film would be of better quality than most of Disney’s home video offerings, I did wonder if the release of a sequel relatively soon after the original film was due more to a desire to capitalize on the success of Toy Story than to a desire to tell another great story. But I think a big contributor to my nervousness was the teaser trailer:

I liked seeing the little squeaky toy aliens and Woody and Buzz back on the big screen. But what got me worrying was how Buzz and Woody were acting. To me, it felt a little to close to the animosity they displayed towards each other through most of the first movie. And that had me worried that Pixar was about to make one of the biggest mistakes the possibly could: releasing a sequel that was a retread of the original. The challenge of making a good sequel is finding the sweet spot between giving audiences more of what they loved the first time around and presenting them with something new and fresh. Too much of the latter and you lose the benefit of having a successful first movie, because your sequel doesn’t have enough connection to the original. Too much of the former, which was what I was afraid of here, and it’s like the first movie didn’t matter. Anything that the characters learned or gained in the original film gets erased in the name of ensuring that audiences get exactly what won them over the first time around.

Of course, I needn’t have worried. Toy Story 2 wasn’t a retread and didn’t erase everything that had happened in the previous film. It showed me that Pixar knew what they were doing and made me trust that their future films would be of high quality. It became my new favorite Pixar film (and remained in that spot for a long time, though now I can’t decide between it and The Incredibles), one of my very favorite animated films, and that rarest of beasts: a sequel that I liked more than the original.

As is always the case when I do a full-blown analysis, the rest of the article assumes that you have already seen the movie and spoilers abound. I would strongly recommend that if you’ve never seen the movie before, you find yourself a copy and watch it before reading further. Of course, you can just read the article without having seen the movie and even comment on your impressions if you so choose. Just keep in mind that this is no substitute for actually seeing the movie and in this case, you’re missing out on a really excellent film.


The movie kicks off with Buzz Lightyear, a character we all know from the first movie. The setting, however, is literally alien. Buzz dives down from outer space like a comet and soars through a rocky landscape before touching down on the strange planet. What’s going on here? We recognize Buzz, but the fist Toy Story was partly about Buzz accepting the fact that he is a toy, not a space ranger, not capable of doing exactly the things we’re seeing him do now. Is this a dream? Andy's view of a game he’s playing? Something else? As it turns out, it’s all a Buzz Lightyear video game. By the filmmakers’ own admission, it’s also a misdirect. This is part of that balancing act between staying faithful to what the original move was and creating something new and different. Giving the audience exactly what they’re expecting all the time can get boring for everyone, so this film starts with something that appears to be pretty far distant from what the original Toy Story was all about.

Is the opening to Toy Story 2 just a fake-out, the equivalent of saying “Ha ha, fooled you! Now here’s the real movie”? No. Aside from keeping the audience on their toes and letting them know that Toy Story 2 will not be the same movie as the first one, the video game scene gives us our first new character introduction, or our first two new character introductions, depending on how you look at it. The obvious one is the evil Emperor Zurg, intergalactic archenemy of Buzz Lightyear. Zurg did get a passing mention in the previous film, but he’s never actually appeared before and it would be a pretty big risk to assume that viewers would remember his name. So we get to see Zurg watching Buzz’s approach through his red-tinted monitor, laughing evilly, and blasting Buzz’s upper body into dust right before the true nature of the scene is revealed. We don’t know that Zurg is an actual character within the real story of the movie yet and he doesn’t appear in the plastic until much later. This scene sets him up in our minds so that when he does actually show up, our reaction is “uh-oh” rather than confusion.

The other character introduced in this scene is Buzz. No, I’m not losing it. I know Buzz was already in the first movie. But what this scene does is to remind us of the particulars of Buzz’s fictional backstory and his former delusions. This will become important later, when there are two Buzz Lightyears, one of whom is still under the impression that he is a real space ranger. Again, we don’t know that any of this is coming; we’re just having fun watching an exciting action scene. But when we meet the second Buzz later on, we’ll have a better idea of what to expect of him because of what we saw Buzz doing and saying in the opening.

The reveal comes about four an a half minutes into the movie and we see timid tyrannosaurus Rex with a proportionately huge control, wailing over his latest defeat at the hands of the virtual Zurg. This brings us back to the world of the familiar, the Toy Story 2 we were expecting, with all our favorite characters and everything we know and love from the first movie.


If I still had any concerns that this sequel was going to ignore the changes that the characters went through in the first movie in order to go back to the formula that had worked before, seeing Buzz talking to Rex all but erased them. What really reassured me was Buzz’s attempt to dull the sting of Rex’s video game loss by saying “In fact, you’re a better Buzz than I am.” This isn’t the same deluded, self-important guy who showed up o Andy’s bed in the previous film. Buzz knows who he is now and he’s comfortable with life as a toy. As the scene progresses, we see that Buzz’s relationship with Woody is much better than what it was through most of Toy Story. These are still two guys and Woody is understandably stressed at the moment. So they aren’t going to sing songs about what good friends they are, and Woody is still capable of getting mildly irritated by Buzz in his flustered state. But the really important detail in their interaction is that Woody is leaving Buzz in charge while he’s away, something that he never would have done willingly in the first film. The first time I saw the film, this was the point where my doubts were completely gone.

Since the first Toy Story was a big hit, it’s fair to assume that most people seeing the sequel already know who all of the major characters are. So instead of doing full introductions for them, all that’s needed is to lightly tap the audience’s memories. For starters, we have Andy’s room. It’s not the exact same Andy’s room where a good chunk of Toy Story took place; remember Andy’s family moved into a new house. But it still has enough recognizable features to let us know where we are, even without the added clue of all of Andy’s toys being there. Many of the furnishings are the same, though the layout is slightly different. The overall décor is still split between Buzz and outer space themed items and Woody wild west ones representing both Andy’s love of his two favorite toys and the hard won friendship between Woody and Buzz. The biggest difference is the wallpaper, and even that is similar enough to jog memories of Andy’s old room. Where the old room features a pattern of white clouds on a sky blue background, the new one swaps the clouds for yellow stars.

The characters themselves are reintroduced by giving them all some role in the task of finding Woody’s missing hat that recalls some aspects of their characters. When Woody’s frantic searching for his hat causes him to fall from the chest of drawers, Buzz rushes to his aid by way of the Hot Wheels track that helped him to “fly” in the first film. He no longer thinks he’s a space ranger, but Buzz is still an athletic and heroic character. Sarge is ordering the army men to continue digging through the toy chest. Hamm, who maintains the toys’ literal window to the outside world, is communicating with the next door lawn gnome, who reports that Woody’s hat is not in the yard. Mr. Potato Head is completely oblivious to Woody’s problem and only cares about himself and one other, who we’ll get to shortly. Loyal, laid-back Slinky, Woody’s best pal, is the one to actually track down his lost hat.


In addition to reintroducing the returning characters, this scene debuts no less than three new characters. First is Mrs. Potato Head, who was one of Andy’s sister Molly’s Christmas presents at the end of the previous movie. She ends up being more of a secondary character here and we won’t see all that much of her, but she still provides a lot of entertainment value when she does appear. We first see her reading to some of the preschool toys, a sign of her motherly nature. She clearly adores Mr. Potato Head and he loves her too. While the rest of Andy’s toys are busy looking for Woody’s hat, Mr. Potato Head is only concerned with finding his wife’s missing ear. He’s largely still the same surly spud from the first movie, but his wife’s influence does seem to have softened him a little.


The second new character, like Zurg and deluded Buzz, makes his first appearance without the audience realizing his importance to the story. “Al’s Toy Barn” was a throwaway line at the end of the Buzz Lightyear commercial in the original Toy Story. Now, through another commercial, we’re introduced to the eponymous Al. Al’s future significance is a little more obvious than that of the characters from the video game. Why bother showing the commercial and having Hamm comment on his distaste for the guy in the chicken suit if it’s not going to come up again? But Al is onscreen for less than twenty seconds here, so the audience isn’t being hit over the head with the idea of him.

I tend to think – and I believe rightly so – that the people at Pixar are very talented and very smart, among the best in the business. But this does not prevent them from making the occasional mistake. In a story recounted by Disney Legend Floyd Norman, credited as an additional storyboard artist on Toy Story 2, some elementary school children paid a visit to Pixar and got a look at an early version of the film. They liked what they saw, except for one small detail. “Hey, where’s the dog?” they asked, referring to the puppy that Andy got for Christmas at the very end of the original movie. And all of these wonderfully creative and intelligent filmmakers looked at each other and said “Whoops.”


So thanks in part to a group of schoolkids, we have our third new character: Buster the dog. His introduction is another misdirect and a bit more of a cheat than the video game opening. Though a lot of it does count on our memories of Sid’s vicious dog Scud and use similar shots to stir them up, the toys’ reactions to Buster’s approach seem a little too fearful once it’s revealed that Buster is really a sweet puppy and the only reason Woody has to hide quickly is so that he and Buster can play their customary game of hide and seek. Buster is another character who doesn’t have many scenes, but is still a lot of fun. Though, like the toys, he is capable of doing and understanding more than the humans in the house suspect, he is still very much a real dog. He can’t talk, walk upright, or do anything that a normal dog is physically incapable of doing. He may be a little smarter than the average dog, everything he does fits with the personality of an exuberant, eager to please puppy.

Buster is also the most obvious example of how computer animation has advanced since the first movie. Where Scud had a flat texture with marks carved into him to resemble fur, Buster has a fur texture much closer to that of a real dog. Although Pixar is very good about picking subjects for their films which their technology can handle well, their technological advancements tend to be dictated by the needs of the story. Buster is a necessary part of the narrative, not just a way to show off a cool new way of rendering fur.

We’ve reconnected with all of our old friends and met some new faces. But we also need to be reminded of what’s at the heart of the story. Woody is searching for his hat, desperate to find it. Why? Because Andy is leaving for cowboy camp today. Why is Woody excited about cowboy camp? Because it’s a trip where Woody gets to spend time alone with Andy, something that Woody can still appreciate even if he’s no longer jealous of Buzz. This brings back one of the big emotional points from the first movie: how much Woody loves Andy. And when Bo Peep reassures Woody, telling him that the boy who wrote his name on Woody’s foot will take him to cowboy camp with or without his hat, we’re reminded of how important Woody is to Andy and that the “Andy” on Woody’s boot is a symbol of the connection between them. So now we’re all caught up with the current state of affairs in Andy’s room and just about everything we needed to know from the first movie. On with the show!


I love this scene. I could easily watch twice as much of just Andy playing with his toys. Though we knew by the end of Toy Story that Andy cares very much about both Woody and Buzz, we never got to see how he now plays with them together. Here, we get both that and more of Andy’s genre-mixing way of playing. It’s also another good example of how some of Andy’s toys are permanent characters and other fill different roles on different days. Regardless of the scenario, Woody is always Sheriff Woody and Buzz is always Buzz Lightyear of Star Command (represented here by a cardboard box labeled “Star Command.” It’s possible that Bo Peep is always Woody’s love interest, a rare reflection of her real relationship with him. But Hamm has been promoted from playing the bank in Andy’s game from the opening of the original movie to the role of the misplaced Bond villain, Dr. Pork Chop. And Mr. Potato Head, formerly the infamous One-Eyed Bart, is now merely an unfortunate victim of “death by monkeys.”

But the real point of this scene is to create the rip in Woody’s shoulder which ultimately leads to him being left behind when Andy goes off to cowboy camp. Pains are taken to show both how upset Andy is when Woody is damaged and that Andy was not doing anything wrong to cause the rip. His toys do get knocked around when he plays, but most of them can take anything Andy can dish out. The problem is that Woody is not as sturdy as most of his fellow toys, a condition that may well be related to his age, which we will learn about later. Andy’s mom, compassionate as ever, suggests that they try to fix Woody on the way to cowboy camp. It is Andy who sadly decides that he’s better off leaving Woody behind, but his mom is the one who delivers the line that brings in one of the movie’s main themes: “Toys don’t last forever.”


Before this line, there isn’t much difference in tone and theme between Toy Story 2 and Toy Story. It’s still about a kid’s toys and what they do when no one is around. The emotional lynchpin is still Woody’s relationship with Andy. As a good sequel, Toy Story 2 picks up on these important threads from the first movie. Part of what makes Toy Story 2 both a great sequel and a great movie is that the central issue of the second film is much more complex than that of the first. The ultimate message of Toy Story is that Woody’s fears were unjustified and Andy was capable of loving both Woody and Buzz. New toys aren’t competition for the older ones and birthdays and Christmases are nothing to be afraid of. The important thing about the statement “toys don’t last forever” is that it’s undeniably true and the movie will never pretend that it isn’t. Woody is not Winnie the Pooh; he doesn’t live in a magical vision of childhood, forever safe, where Christopher Robin, children the world over, and the creators of the next Winnie the Pooh film can always find him for years to come. There will be no scene at the end where the toys no longer fear yard sales, which they equate with being discarded the way they once equated birthdays with being replaced. While the story does conclude that there is a “right” course of action, it is not an easy decision. The stakes are higher here and Woody’s decision feel all the more real and courageous because he knows the consequences. He can never deny that neither he nor what he has with Andy will go on forever. This one line not only lays the framework for this movie, but sows the seeds that look like they will bear fruit in Toy Story 3.

To be continued....

Trivia Time! Pixar frequently includes little in-joke references to their other films and shorts in their movies. Toy Story 2 is no exception. Your challenge this week is to name at least two such references in Toy Story 2 to previous Pixar works other than the first Toy Story. Post your reply in the comments. Winner get their name posted next week along with a link to a site of his or her choice.

All images in this article are copyright Disney/Pixar.