Thursday, 31 December 2015

Movie Review: The Good Dinosaur/Holding The Man (2015)

Since we’re at the point where Disney has such a monopoly on the world’s entertainment, making a statement like “They’re having a good year” would be rather redundant. It’d be like saying General Electric has made a profit; it sets off ‘no shit’ alarms pretty quickly. That said, even for a company as prolific as Disney, this has been an amazing year for them: The continuing success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Inside Out, the latest iteration of Cinderella and let’s not forget the hype singularity that is The Force Awakens. And even outside of their commercial write-ups, their average for quality has been far better than previous years; hell, my top two films of the year are both Disney properties. So, considering all that, I can think of no better way to close out the year than with a look at another release from the House of the Mouse. So, for the first part of the finale of my insane month of reviews, let’s take a look at Pixar’s second release for the year: This is The Good Dinosaur.

The plot: In an alternate history, where the asteroid that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs never hit the Earth, said dinosaurs have continued to grow and thrive and have even evolved to the point of being able to speak. Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), an Apatosaurus, lives on a farm with his father Henry (Jeffrey Wright), his mother Ida (Frances McDormand), his brother Buck (Marcus Scribner) and his sister Libby (Maleah Padilla). When a freak accident causes Arlo to be washed away in the nearby river, alongside a human child he named Spot (Jack Bright), Arlo must traverse the dangerous prehistoric landscape and make it back home safely.

Pixar, when they are legitimately trying, can come up with some truly gorgeous CGI that stands as a testament to the art form. The animation here, at least for the scenery, is seriously close to Walking With Dinosaurs-level quality. The weather effects, the texturing, the fact that they gave some form of character to different types of water; this is easily some of the best I’ve seen from this studio with a lot of photorealistic detailing. The dinosaur designs, on the other hand, aren’t as good. Not to say that they’re bad, far from it, just that it feels a little too cartoonish when put on top of the beautifully realized backgrounds. That said, credit is definitely deserved for how they didn’t immediately go for the easy designs for the dinosaurs. Apart from a few of the more recognizable creatures, we’ve also got some nice mid-transition looks like the semi-chickens that Arlo and his family farm for I’m guessing the eggs. Yeah, even with how well they portrayed that farm in relation to those dinosaurs without dialogue, some bits of it don’t hold up as well as others.

Speaking of what is portrayed without dialogue, I once again have to congratulate a studio that has the nerve to use the visual medium in a family film. While there is dialogue, and it is mostly well-written and delivered, a lot of the more crucial points are delivered just through what we see. There are two examples in this film that are genuinely heart-melting in how they handle emotion through the visuals, and oddly enough they’re both incredibly sad moments. One of them is how the first on-screen death is handled, which is very sombre and tear-jerking without needing to even say “I’m sorry. _____ is dead.” The other involves Arlo trying to explain the idea of ‘family’ to Spot using sticks in the ground. Very little dialogue, most of which is comprised of the word “family”, and it is easily one of the most emotionally hard-hitting moments I’ve seen all year.

During the first act, while definitely being impressed by the animation and music, I couldn’t help but feel that this is the kind of story that seriously didn’t even need to involve dinosaurs. It basically plays out like a Western, even includes herding cattle alongside Sam Elliott as a T-Rex, with hints of the ‘boy and his pet’ sub-genre mixed in there as well. But as the film progresses, a thought started to sneak in: What if you replaced the dinosaurs with humans and played this as a live-action Western? Maybe have Spot be played by a dog or a wolf alongside our farm boy Arlo. Well, if that was the film that we got, it most certainly would not be marketed towards kids.

This is an especially dark story in that light, considering some of the characters that Arlo runs into along the way. We have Thunderclap (Steve Zahn) and his fellow pterodactyls that worship “the Storm” and basically act like a surrogate for Christian ministers, rescuing people from the aftermath of a natural disaster. Of course, ministers aren’t usually known for eating those that they rescue in those situations. Add to that the story of how Butch (Sam Elliott) got the scar on his face and a threat he makes to Arlo at one point, and all of a sudden this is a Wild West story involving cannibals. There’s also casual decapitation of an insect by Spot, the insect in question being about three times his size, and Arlo and Spot being the first creatures in human history to get drunk (or possibly stoned) after eating rotten fruit. Basically, this film stands as a monument to exactly how much can be snuck by kids when the right facades are put in place. In all honesty, I have to commend the filmmakers for creating an incredibly dark cowboy tale and wrapping it up in a child-friendly package.

Here’s the weird thing, though. I know that applying that same mindset of swapping the surrogate creature with a human can make a lot of different tales a lot more adult by comparison. However, the reason why I use it in this case is because I think the filmmakers want us to see that way to a certain degree. Spot’s very canine mannerisms and movements, right down to shaking his leg when he gets scratched, Arlo and his family’s very human-looking farm, the Southern accents given to most of the scavenging dinosaurs (whom usually want to eat the main characters) and even how the T-Rexs’ movements resembling a man riding a horse, much like a cattle rancher would; in a few subtle and not-so-subtle ways, the film is trying to humanize the characters and settings it presents to us. Under normal circumstances, the attempts to humanize these dinosaurs combined with the gruesome implications would make me question exactly how child-friendly this film really is. Of course, I’m the kind of filmgoer who loves the dark and unexpected; I can only see this as a selling point, really.

All in all, I freaking love this movie. It’s essentially a gruesome coming-of-age Western disguised as a children’s film, portrayed through excellent voice acting, spectacular animation and writing that manages to work both on a surface level and as a nice serving of Fridge Horror. This may not be the best Pixar film ever, but that doesn’t mean that this should be completely discarded like it seems likely to be. This is still quality Pixar work that deserves to be seen. It’s better than Straight Outta Compton as, even considering my own love for all things hip-hop, that falls short of the tremendous respect this generates for the sheer balls this film has. However, even with that in mind, the utter fascination created by The Death Of “Superman Lives” wins out in comparison.

The short that precedes the film, Sanjay’s Super Team, is an encapsulated bit of just how amazing Pixar can be. The animation, the pacing, the juxtaposition of Hindu religious icons and modern-day superheroes and the questions that such a comparison raises; this more than holds up to the company’s pedigree for shorts.

On June 26th of this year, a legal decision shook the majority of the Western world when it was decided that same-sex marriage would be made legally recognized for the entirety of the United States. In the ensuing months, the debate for similar legislation here in Australia has constantly being brought up and shot back down again with equal vigour. It would eventually reach the point where, even without having officially solved anything, the matter would fall away from the public eye like so many other “important” issues of the past. Given how much of an impact this had on how the rest of the year would shape up, I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up as we come to a close on what was a particularly interesting and eventful year. As such, we come to the last film in my list of releases that slipped by me the first time through. This is Holding The Man.

The plot: Timothy Conigrave (Ryan Corr) and John Caleo (Craig Stott) first met in high school. This would be the start of a 15-year relationship that would come under fire from the prejudices of their families, their friends and their country, but would persevere nevertheless. However, once both Tim and John are diagnosed with AIDS, it seems that there are some things that even their love can’t overcome.

This is an A-grade cast list who all do outstandingly in their roles. Corr, after being one of the few legitimately good parts of last year’s stinker The Water Diviner, is great as our lead, being made even cuter by how much chemistry he has with Stott. Through every bit of elation, frustration and figurative flagellation they go through, you see every ounce of that joy and pain in equal measure through their performances; Stott in particular is haunting in his portrayal of the later stages of his disease. Sarah Snook is competent but, in all honesty, falls short of the powerhouse duo at this film’s core; still, it’s good seeing her put her talents to a film that genuinely deserves them, unlike the other films she was in this year. Guy Pearce and Anthony LaPaglia, as Tim and John’s father respectively, show prejudice without feeling like the film is propagandizing for the sake of its main couple. Pearce shows more fear for the legal ramifications of his son’s relationship, and while LaPaglia embodies the more traditional and religious objections at first, he eventually cools over to the idea as the film goes on through a very natural-feeling progression. Geoffrey Rush gets a very small part as Tim’s acting teacher, but damned if he doesn’t make the most of it by probably delivering some of the film’s most pointed and poignant dialogue.

Rather than serving as reasoning to discuss the homosexual climate in Australia, either during the setting of the film or in modern day, this film is about the relationship between Tim and John first and foremost. There aren’t any underpinned political leanings attached to it or a need to soapbox beyond the confines of the story; instead, it follows their emotional connection from their first encounter, to their diagnosis, to their confrontations with those less tolerant of their lives and finally to the heart-breaking ending. Tim and John show all possible ranges that a relationship would go through: It’s awkward, it’s giddy, it’s erotic, it’s heated, it’s tragic, but most importantly it’s real. It lives and breathes and hits right at the heart of what it was aiming for. That powerful of a loving connection is what ultimately makes some of the more downbeat elements of the film hit that much harder, particularly during the final reel: The pin-drop silence of death coupled with Tim only being recognized as John’s “friend” at the funeral is seriously close to Still Alice levels of soul-crushing.

All in all, this is a powerful piece of cinema. The acting is fantastic, particularly from Ryan Corr and Craig Stott, the writing shows true emotional love while keeping the QUILTBAG politics to a comfortable level and not letting them overshadow the core relationship, and the music is classic tunes to carry the whole package along; I don’t think I’ll ever see a more suitable usage for Blue Oyster Cult in my life. It’s better than The Human Centipede III because, even with how unrepentant I am in admitting how fun that film was, this film wins out for its emotional impact. However, as a depiction of a relationship regardless of the parameters, Man Up just barely wins out thanks to its writing and even greater use of soundtrack.

I would like to thank everyone who joined me at any point during this past year; it sure has been an interesting one. I’ll be taking a short break from reviewing for a while after this, although I will be posting some year-end lists over the next few days. The great work begins again.

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