The Breadwinner.

The Breadwinner just earned a nod from the Golden Globes in the Best Animated Film category, and is very likely to get a nomination from the Academy as well in the same field, where it’ll probably be an underdog to Coco but one with more than a puncher’s chance of winning because of the quality and themes of its story and the old-school feel to its animation. It’s not a movie for kids by any means, and the film lacks the feel-good resolution you expect in any animated feature, but none of that should detract from anyone’s appreciation of just how well-made this movie is.

Based very loosely on a 2000 novel by Deborah Ellis, The Breadwinner comes from Cartoon Saloon, the same Irish studio that produced The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, and is set in Kabul under the rule of the Taleban. Parvana is the young daughter of a disabled Afghan veteran who lost part of his leg in the war against the Russians. He is sent to prison early in the film for daring to talk back to a hotheaded young Taleban soldier, leaving Parvana, her unwell mother, baby brother, and older sister with no means of support or way to even go out into the market to procure food, since the Taleban forbade any woman to go out in public without her husband or brother to escort her. Parvana cuts off her hair and wears clothes of her late older brother so she can work odd jobs (with her friend Shauzia, who’s doing the same thing) and go buy food, eventually trying to save enough money to bribe her way into the prison and see her father.

The movie doesn’t shy away from depicting the repressive rule of the Taleban, including a scene where Parvana’s mother is beaten, off-screen but audible, for going out in public and possessing a photograph of her imprisoned husband. Those moments are juxtaposed with a story Parvana tells in pieces over the course of the film, first to her baby brother, then to Shauzia, and eventually to herself, about a young boy who goes to challenge the elephant king who has stolen all of the seeds from his village, threatening the villagers with starvation if they can’t plant their spring crops. The tale is fanciful and magical, providing a hopeful metaphor for the Afghan people suffering under the tyranny of a misogynistic theocracy, but also giving us a subtler way to answer the mystery surrounding the death of Parvana’s brother. This last part lies below the surface of the film’s action, but his death and the trauma it inflicted on the family are all explained by the truth of how he died, which tells a greater truth about life under the Taleban while also showing how recovery was never as simple as deposing them – even after their rule ended, there are still widows, orphans, disabled veterans, other grieving relatives, families left without sources of income, and more.

The split narrative does work against The Breadwinner, however, if you’re expecting something linear, the way nearly all animated film stories are. Parvana’s plot itself is bifurcated by the lengthy stretches where she tries to get to her father’s prison, a separate endeavor from what she’s doing to feed her family, and then split further by the tale she’s spinning in bits and pieces over the course of the entire movie, with the two uniting only at the very end. That conclusion is also itself incomplete, which works within the overall structure of the movie (a ‘happy’ ending would be wildly unrealistic, and nothing that’s come before really presages one), and seems to play a little loose with the geography established earlier in the script – although it does provide one sweet moment where the kindness of a stranger helps Parvana avoid disaster. It’s all one more reason this isn’t a movie for kids or even much younger viewers; the lack of a real resolution, especially with children involved, lingered even for me as an adult (and a parent) for days.

The Breadwinner is a beautiful film that makes effective use of perspective, exaggerating the size of many of the adult characters to emphasize how the world might look to Parvana. Some of the animations look incredibly real, while others are more like caricatures, the latter also having the effect of softening some of the more disturbing edges of the story. It’s been a down year for animation in general, with Coco the only other animated release to earn positive reviews; that said, The Breadwinner would likely be an awards nominee even against stronger competition.

My Life as a Zucchini.

My Life as a Zucchini (original title: Ma Vie de Courgette) was one of the five nominees for this year’s Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, and the shortest of the nominated movies at just 66 minutes. It’s a stop-motion animation film with exaggerated, absurd-looking characters, boasting a wonderful story that strikes a perfect balance between sweetness and the sad reality beneath. (I saw the film in French, with English subtitles, but there is now an English version in theaters too, with Ron Swanson providing the voice of Raymond.)

Zucchini is the nickname of the main character, the orphan Icare, whom we meet at the beginning of the film in awful circumstances: He’s the neglected child of an alcoholic mother, apparently friendless, with only a kite and his collection of his mother’s discarded beer cans to keep him company. She sits in her living room all day, drinking and yelling at the television, but dies a few minutes into the film in an accident that Zucchini caused, which sends him to the orphanage by way of the cop Raymond’s office. At the orphanage, he meets the other kids who’ll soon become his friends, including Simon, the bully with a good heart beneath his exterior, and eventually Camille, the new girl with whom Zucchini falls in love.

Every one of these kids is there for some awful reason. Alice is there because her father molested her and is in jail. Bea is there because her mother was deported to Africa while Bea was in school. (Sound familiar?) Simon’s parents are drug addicts. There’s so much sadness underneath this story that it’s remarkable the film feels so light, but the script gives us everything through the eyes of the children, and it’s a world in which I wanted to spend so much more time. And how could you not care about these kids? The characters are all realistic – not in appearance, with their gigantic heads and arms that nearly reach the floor, but in conception and in their reactions to their circumstances. Even the rough stuff is played for laughs without diminishing the harsh reality beneath; for example, Simon is the only one who knows anything about sex (referred to just as “the thing”), but it’s because he saw pornographic films his parents would watch. It’s awful on its face, but his child’s understanding of what happened on screen is written so perfectly.

Squad goals
Zucchini’s motley crew.

While My Life as a Zucchini is an animated film, it’s not for kids. My daughter is ten, and I’m glad she passed on going with me, because I think the reasons the kids are in the orphanage would have upset her. (The sex talk would have just embarrassed her.) And while I smiled and laughed through most of the film, I was always aware of the sadness beneath the surface. Even the ending, which I won’t spoil except to say that it’s a happy one, still reminds you of the bleak situation these kids – who are in what I can only assume is the greatest orphan home in the world – face. They will always feel, as Simon said, that there was no one left to love them. Mining heart and humor from such fearsome material, based on a French-language book by Gilles Paris, is an impressive reminder of the power of a great work of fiction, whether book or movie, live-action or animated. My Life as a Zucchini can’t match the technical mastery of Oscar winner Zootopia, but its story is far more powerful.

Quick endnotes: If you see the movie, look for an homage to Spirited Away in the graffiti on the wall around the Les Fontaines orphanage very early in the film. Also, be sure to stay through the end credits (at least in the French version) for an absolutely precious vignette from the audition of the child who voiced Zucchini.

Long Way North.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doesn’t release a shortlist of nominees for Best Animated Feature, instead simply listing all eligible films for a given year, with the 2016 list comprising 22 titles, five of which were eventually nominated. That’s how I stumbled on Long Way North, which is free to stream via Amazon Prime; directed by one of the assistants from the amazing 2009 film The Secret of Kells, Long Way North is a very old-fashioned sort of animated film, made in 2D Flash with a traditional feel and a strong, simple story for all ages. (You can also buy/rent it on iTunes).

Sasha is our heroine, the headstrong daughter of an ambitious Russian diplomat in the late 19th century, but after making a rather poor impression at her debutante ball, she chooses to run away from home to find out what happened to her adventurer grandfather, whose supposedly unsinkable ship never returned from an attempt to sail the Northeast Passage by way of the North Pole. She ends up on a merchant ship of tough guys who agree to search for her grandfather’s ship in hopes of collecting the enormous reward out for it, and, of course, she has to save the day through her courage and cleverness in figuring out where to look.

The movie succeeds on two core levels – the look and the story. The 2D rendering gives the movie a real old-school, almost comic-book feel, enhanced by the lack of contour lines in the film, giving the images a layered look, like paper or fabric pasted on backgrounds. In an era where we expect to be dazzled by animation – look at this year’s Oscar winner Zootopia, with its absurdly realistic rendering of animal fur, or Best Animated Short winner Piper‘s rendering of water – Long Way North delights with its minimalism. It’s a throwback in a good way, with an animation ethos like that of The Triplets of Belleville, where simplicity is given to us as an alternative to the near-perfection of Pixar. Once Sasha gets out of her parents’ dank mansion and into the world, the pictures explode with vibrant colors and sweeping fills that look painted on canvas.

The story is the real selling point in Long Way North, as it takes the coming-of-age framework and gives it a few more adult twists, even darker ones as Sasha and the crew face real life-or-death struggles as they approach the North Pole. Sasha is the center of the entire story and the only fully-realized character in the film, but her arc is more than just “spoiled kid meets adversity” or “child never gives up on dreams.” You know she’s not going to die in the Arctic, but the writers succeed in making her path from home to the Pole and back again matter in a way that gives us drama and tension without feeling forced, while also striking the right balance between rewarding Sasha’s blind faith in her grandfather and making her feel the consequences of the risks she’s taken.

The script itself has some really silly, avoidable mistakes in it. After an accident aboard the ship, one of the sailors rues the loss of all of their penicillin … which wasn’t discovered until about forty years after the time of this film. One scene has a character giving Sasha CPR, even though that technique was also decades away from invention. The Northeast Passage itself had already been sailed before the time of the story as well, by Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, after several partial expeditions by Russian sailors. There’s even a glitch where the title of a book that’s part of the plot changes (by one word). It’s all rather sloppy, which is jarring in a film that looks so clean.

My daughter is a fan of any film that has a female protagonist, especially one who saves the day through cleverness or perseverance, and she loved Long Way North even though the opening exposition is a little confusing. I was more drawn in by the lush feel of the film at first, and didn’t find myself as caught up in the story as she was until the first third or so was over, and Sasha was in the small port town where she boards the mercenary ship. I would probably still recommend this over The Red Turtle, which was nominated for the Oscar over Long Way North, because it’s so much more accessible, with a better literal story (instead of TRT‘s more metaphorical one), and a brighter feast for the eyes as well. And in a related story, I’m hoping to catch My Life as a Zucchini, the only one of the five nominees for Best Animated Feature this year I haven’t seen yet, when it plays here in Wilmington this weekend.

Oscar picks and movie rankings.

It’s Oscars Sunday, and for the first time since the 2013 ceremony, I’ve seen the majority of the nominees for Best Picture and several other categories. Here are my rankings of all of the 2016 movies I saw, based on release date or Oscar eligibility. Any linked titles go to reviews. As I review a couple more of these this week, I’ll update this post to link to them.

1. La La Land
2. Moonlight
3. Manchester by the Sea
4. O.J.: Made in America
5. Tanna
6. Arrival
7. Everybody Wants Some!!
8. Tower
9. The Lobster
10. Sing Street
11. Fences
12. Loving
13. Zootopia
14. Hell or High Water
15. Moana
16. Hail Caesar
17. Fire At Sea
18. Love & Friendship
19. Kubo and the Two Strings
20. Author: The JT Leroy Story
21. Midnight Special
22. Louder than Bombs
23. Finding Dory
24. Life, Animated
25. I am Not Your Negro
26. A Man Called Ove
27. The Red Turtle
28. Hidden Figures
29. The 13th
30. Phantom Boy

I’ve still got a half-dozen or so 2016 movies I want to see, which I’ll mention as I go through the remainder of the post.

I don’t pretend to any insider knowledge of the Oscars, so any predictions here are just for fun, and I think I only managed to run the table of nominees in one category, so don’t take my opinions too seriously.

Best Picture

Who should win: I’ve got La La Land as the best movie of the year, although I think Moonlight is more than worthy too.

Who will win: The heavy betting has been on La La Land all year and I don’t pretend to know any better.

I haven’t seen: Lion, which I’ll see eventually, and Hacksaw Ridge, which I won’t see because the director is an anti-Semitic domestic abuser.

Who was snubbed: All the movies I have in my top ten that didn’t make the final nine nominees would have been extreme surprises if they’d earned nods. I think O.J.: Made in America was the best movie not nominated, but if we’re limiting to realistic candidates, then Loving would be my pick.

Best Director

See above. I know sometimes these two categories are split, but I usually don’t understand it when it happens, and can’t imagine that happening this year.

Best Actor

Who should win: Casey Affleck gave one of the best performances I’ve seen in years in Manchester by the Sea. The only reason I could see for him to lose out to Denzel Washington would be Affleck’s off-screen issues – he has been accused by multiple women of sexual harassment.

Who will win: I’d give Affleck 55/45 odds over Denzel.

I haven’t seen: Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic) or Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge).

Who was snubbed: Colin Farrell was terrific in The Lobster. And A Man Called Ove fails utterly without Rolf Lassgård’s performance as the title character.

Best Actress

Who should win: I think Emma Stone for La La Land, but I’ve only seen two of the five nominated performances.

Who will win: Stone seems like a lock.

I haven’t seen: Isabelle Huppert (Elle), Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins), or Natalie Portman (Jackie). That last film just hit digital last week, so when it becomes a rental option I’ll see it. I won’t see Elle.

Who was snubbed: Amy Adams for Arrival.

Best Supporting Actor

Who should win: Mahershala Ali for Moonlight.

Who will win: Mahershala Ali for Moonlight.

I haven’t seen: Dev Patel (Lion) or Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals). I’ll get Lion soon.

Who was snubbed: I thought Kevin Costner was pretty great in Hidden Figures, one of the only characters with any complexity in that film. Shannon was excellent in Midnight Special, but he’s just kind of great in everything.

Best Supporting Actress

Who should win: Viola Davis for Fences, which was really more of a lead performance. She owns the second half of that film.

Who will win: Davis.

I haven’t seen: Nicole Kidman (Lion).

Who was snubbed: Octavia Spencer got a nomination here for Hidden Figures, so was Taraji Henson submitted in the lead category for the same film? If Henson was eligible for this category, she was better in a harder role than Michelle Williams’ brief appearances in Manchester by the Sea. I also thought Rachel Weisz (The Lobster) and Lucy Boynton (Sing Street) were worthy.

Animated Feature

Who should win: Tough call for me, but of the four I’ve seen I’d give the nod to Zootopia for the best combination of animation quality, story, and voice acting.

Who will win: I think Zootopia wins this too.

I haven’t seen: My Life as a Zucchini opens in Philly this upcoming weekend and in Wilmington the following Friday. I’m dying to see it.

Who was snubbed: Finding Dory wasn’t a great film by Pixar standards but I think in many years it gets a nod, perhaps losing out because there were two other Disney films in the category.

Cinematography

Who should win: I think of the three nominees I’ve seen, I’d give the nod to Arrival.

Who will win: La La Land.

I haven’t seen: Lion or Silence. Adnan Virk loved Silence – I think he named it his top movie for 2016 – but I think I’ll pass given its length and my short attention span.

Who was snubbed: Hell or High Water was beautifully shot, with wide pans of the New Mexican landscapes.

Documentary Feature

Who should win: It’s almost unfair that the seven-hour O.J.: Made in America documentary (from ESPN) is eligible in this category, but it is, and it’s among the best documentaries I’ve ever seen regardless of length or format.

Who will win: O.J.: Made in America. If anything else wins, it’ll be a travesty.

I haven’t seen: None. I got all five here.

Who was snubbed: Tower was absolutely deserving of a spot over at least three of the other four nominees; I could see an argument Fire at Sea over Tower, even if I don’t agree with it.

Foreign Language Film

Who should win: I have only seen two of the five, and neither of the two that appear to be the critical favorites. Tanna would be more than worthy of the honor, but I can’t say if it’s better than the two leaders.

Who will win: It sounds like The Salesman is going to win, because it’s a great film and because of the Muslim ban’s effect on its director.

I haven’t seen: The Salesman, Toni Erdmann, or Land of Mine. I will probably have to wait for digital options for all three.

Who was snubbed: I haven’t seen any other foreign-language films from 2016, but am very interested in seeing two films on the shortlist, Neruda (from Chile), which I just missed the one weekend it was playing near me, and The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (from Finland), which hasn’t been released anywhere here or online that I can see. That latter film has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes through 13 reviews.

Music (original song)

Who should win: Tough call for me, but I think La La Land‘s “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” hits the right combination of great song and essential to the film’s story, over Moana‘s “How Far I’ll Go,” which I’d say is the better song outside the context of the movies. That said, Lin-Manuel Miranda is a national treasure and I will never be upset to see him give an acceptance speech.

Who will win: I get the sense “City of Stars” is the favorite here.

I haven’t seen: I didn’t see Jim: The James Foley Story but I’ve heard the nominated song, “The Empty Chair.”

Who was snubbed: Sing Street‘s total absence here is a farce. “Drive It Like You Stole It” was my favorite from the film, but I could argue for a couple of others as well. Also, my favorite song from Moana was actually “We Know the Way.”

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

Who should win: This is Moonlight‘s to lose.

Who will win: Moonlight.

I haven’t seen: Lion.

Who was snubbed: The screenplay for Loving was deemed to be “adapted” by the Academy, although the Writers’ Guild classified it as original.

Writing (Original Screenplay)

Who should win: The Lobster.

Who will win: La La Land.

I haven’t seen: 20th Century Women.

Who was snubbed: Tanna.

Tower.

On August 1st, 1966, Charles Whitman, a white, Catholic 25-year-old who had trained as a sharpshooter with the Marines, murdered his wife and his mother, then went to the observation deck of the University of Texas Tower and began targeting and shooting anyone he could see, killing 14 and wounding 31 others. It was considered the first mass “school shooting” in U.S. history and the worst mass murder in Texas history to that point.

The documentary Tower, which was shortlisted for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, recreates the 96 minutes from when Whitman first started shooting until he was killed by policemen who, with the help of one courageous civilian, cornered him on the observation deck. By using first-person accounts from survivors and witnesses, Tower tells the story of the shootings via animation, some of it overlaid on actual footage from either that day or that time period. It’s an utterly gripping account that comes as close as possible to putting the viewer on the scene, and focuses on the victims, both those killed that day and those injured or involved who had to carry those memories for the rest of their lives. The film is available to rent on amazon and iTunes.

Whitman’s motives remain unknown to this day, although there are multiple theories, including that a brain tumor pressing on his amygdala had caused him to have murderous or delusional thoughts. Tower doesn’t get into Whitman’s story at all; in fact, he never appears in the film, not even in animation. Instead, the documentary gives us the stories of the people who are rarely if ever mentioned when the story of the Tower shootings are told.

One student, Claire Wilson, who was eight months pregnant and walking with her boyfriend was among the first people shot by Whitman; she survived, thanks to the help of multiple good Samaritans, two of whom eventually risked their lives to drag her to safety, but she lost the baby and her boyfriend was killed immediately. Another student, John “Artly” Fox, was one of the men who went into the open to bring Claire out of the sniper’s sight so she could get medical attention, and after three months in the hospital, she survived. Tower brings the two of them together for the first time since the shootings at the end of the film. A boy delivering newspapers was shot while on his cousin’s bicycle; he survived, but his parents were first told he’d been killed before finding him alive at the hospital. Air Force veteran Allen Crum, then the manager of the campus co-op store across the street, came out to break up what he thought was a fight, then realized there was a sniper and decided to make his way to the tower itself, eventually joining the officers on the observation deck and providing cover for them as they crept up on Whitman and killed him.

Many of the principals are still alive today and appear twice over in the film – as themselves, near the end of the documentary, but in animated form as their younger selves during the reenactments. The animation gimmick works incredibly well, more than simply hiring actors would have (if such a thing were even feasible), because it allowed me at least to focus completely on their words. There’s no question of someone overacting or rendering a person inaccurately here; we get their memories, enough to give us a fairly complete picture of those 96 minutes of hell, and a closing segment as those still alive discuss life after the shootings. And because this story is rarely told – victims are largely numbers, and modern accounts will always focus on the killer instead – there are tons of details here I’d never heard before, as well as the angle that elevates some of the day’s heroes over the murderer in the telling.

I’m floored Tower didn’t advance and earn of the five nominations for Best Documentary Feature. It’s better than the four nominees of normal length, with a clear narrative and a strong angle that remains important to this day (perhaps even more so, as the current federal government wants to ensure people with serious mental illnesses have easy access to guns). And it did something novel, combining animation with real footage to provide an accurate historical rendering of a major event in American history – one that I would say is somewhat forgotten outside of Texas, perhaps because school shootings have become so commonplace. It’s better structured than I Am Not Your Negro, more compelling than Life, Animated, and lacks the fatal flaw of The 13th. For it to fall behind all of those films defies understanding.

The Red Turtle.

If you saw that The Red Turtle came from Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli and figured this was another charmer from the producers of My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, well, allow me to disabuse you of that notion. This 80-minute, dialogue-free film, which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature this year, is by turns dark, pensive, and bizarre, operating almost entirely on a metaphorical level to elevate its paper-thin plot to something much more. And I still couldn’t really tell you how much I liked the film.

The movie opens with a man apparently surviving a shipwreck and washing up on a very remote tropical island, from which he begins to try to escape by building rather ornate rafts. Each time he tries to sail away, however, an unseen creature, which turns out to be the turtle of the title, smashes his raft to bits, so when the turtle comes ashore at one point, he attacks it and flips it over, leaving it to die. Somehow, this causes the turtle to morph into a woman, who then becomes the man’s mate, with the second half of the story following their life together as a couple and eventually parents of a young boy.

There isn’t even really that much of a story – we see a few events, like a tidal wave destroying much of the island, but so little happens here that I couldn’t process the movie in my head without immediately considering its possible metaphorical meanings. The arc of the entire movie has the main character starting at sea, landing, starting a family, growing old, and … well, the movie can only end in one or two ways, so I’ll leave it at that.

So what does the turtle/woman represent? I haven’t settled this in my own mind yet, but I think the turtle – the only red one in the film, as there are lots of turtles, but the rest are green – might stand in for maturity, or the way that the world forces maturity on us. Faced with the terrifying prospect of being stranded forever (growing up), the man tries to escape multiple times rather than facing the reality of the situation. The turtle prevents him from running away (and perhaps dying in the process), and only when he accepts that he has to stay can he continue with his life, at which point the turtle becomes his partner and eventually the mother of his child. But the turtle could represent commitment, or religion, or something else that he was fleeing before we first see him adrift in a storm.

The Red Turtle also has a strong ecological underpinning, with the man wholly dependent on the island for his survival. He begins by battling his environment, including the overt fight with the turtle, before submitting to his fate, and developing a way to support himself and eventually the woman and their child off what the island can provide them. If this was a deliberate theme, it comes through more in the animation itself than the story; the natural elements, especially the water and the foliage, around the island are drawn more delicately and thoroughly, with greater depth and complexity of color, than the relatively plain, barely-drawn people. If nothing else, I inferred that the filmmaker, Michaël Dudok de Wit, loves nature.

The film as a whole is dark, visually, in literal contrast to the other four nominees plus Finding Dory. The combination of the muted color palette and the lack of dialogue or significant action made the film seem a lot longer than it actually was; I enjoy some philosophical works of fiction, whether on the page or the screen, but perhaps The Red Turtle left too much of the deep thinking to me rather than putting it on the screen. This is the movie that wins the art film festival award, but if I were an Oscar voter, I would put it fourth among the four nominees I’ve seen for the category. (I haven’t seen My Life as a Zucchini yet, but I saw the trailer before this film, and it’s bright and colorful and looks absolutely fantastic; it opens in Philly on March 4th and here in Wilmington a week later.)

Kubo and the Two Strings.

Kubo and the Two Strings is one of the five nominees for Best Animated Feature for this year’s Oscars, or perhaps one of the four nominees that’s going to lose to Zootopia … although I could craft a good argument for Kubo winning instead, especially if the quality of the animation and visual style count as much as the story and voice acting do. It’s available to rent or buy (just $10) on amazon and iTunes.

Kubo is a 3D stop-motion film from the same studio that produced Coraline (which is fantastic), Paranorman, and The Boxtrolls, all also filmed with stop-motion animation, a painstaking process of which you get a glimpse if you hang around through Kubo‘s closing credits. It’s incredible to look at and I found it hard to believe some parts were done via stop-motion because they were too smooth and vivid, things we would normally associate with computer animation like Pixar uses in its best-in-breed films.

Kubo is the main character, a one-eyed young boy who lives in a cave outside of his village with his ailing mother, whose grip on reality seems to ebb and flow with the daylight. She tells him heroic stories of his father, Hanzo, a warrior who disappeared while trying to protect his family, and Kubo repeats those stories by day in the town square, using his magic shamisen, which builds and animates origami figures as he plays and talks. By night, he must return to the cave, or his evil grandfather and aunts will return to try to steal his other eye to make their powers complete.

Needless to say, he stays out one night, there’s a battle, and Kubo has to go on a quest to find his father’s missing armor so he can protect himself from his grandfather (voiced by Ralph Fiennes, who is a little too good at the whole villain thing). He’s joined by Monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron), a totem he kept who was animated by his mother’s last burst of magic, and eventually Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a giant insect samurai with meory loss, who help him try to retrieve the three parts of the armor and perhaps learn some Valuable Lessons along the way.

The story is a bit hackneyed, but the characters themselves are well-written and there’s plenty of humor within it to keep it from feeling too much like a fable. McConaughey gives a pretty good Buzz Lightyear performance as the flawed hero, mixing in bravado with the absent-mindedness that provides a lot of the comic relief. But Kubo is more of a visual feast than a great story – it’s just such a beautiful and unique-looking film that even the slower sequences when the quest first begins are still riveting.

I’ll also mention Finding Dory quickly here – it wasn’t nominated, falling behind two other Disney properties and two foreign films, and I can see why. It felt a lot like the softer version of Finding Nemo, with a lot less of the first film’s wonder and more feel-good elements – although I thought showing two sequences where Dory is separated from her family might be too much for younger kids. It’s a stunning film to watch, as Pixar manages to animate water and other difficult substances like nobody else in animation history, and I enjoyed the Wire reunion of Idris Elba and Dominic West as sea lions sharing a rock. It’s free to stream on Netflix now.

Anomalisa.

Anomalisa is the best depiction of depression that I’ve come across in any medium of fiction, even though it’s, of all things, made with puppets and stop-motion animation. It uses one incredibly effective gimmick to show us the main character’s illness without resorting to lengthy explanations, and then is carried forward by the three voice actors’ performances in a story that is at times heartbreaking yet often deliberately silly. (It’s also available on iTunes.)

Michael Stone, voiced by David Thewlis (a.k.a., Remus Lupin), is a successful author and public speaker on the topic of customer service, and he’s just landed in Cincinnati to give a talk on the topic. He’s also battling what we learn is a very longstanding case of depression, which is shown to us via his senses: He sees all other people as having the same face, and all their voices as identical as well. Male, female, child, adult, whatever, they all look and sound alike to him. (All of these characters are voiced by character actor Tom Noonan, who just moderates his pitch slightly for age and gender, nothing more.) Many of the people he meets are comically annoying, from the cab driver who gets him to the hotel to the bellman who just won’t leave, followed by a disastrous reunion with the girlfriend he left without explanation ten years earlier.

Later that night, he hears a different voice for the first time in years, Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a very insecure woman who drove in from out of town with her friend just to hear Michael’s talk. Michael pursues her, discovering that she’s lonely in her own way, and … things move from there, but I wouldn’t say they “progress,” so much as they stumble, because Michael is still depressed and Lisa – whom he dubs “Anomalisa” when she refers to herself as a sort of anomaly – is not the cure.

I have been there, so to speak, not for the length of time that Michael has apparently been depressed but for long enough stretches to recognize what he’s enduring, and I’ve described it as a sort of fog. Colors seem less bright, everything is darker, edges are less crisp, and memories are always less clear. You don’t even necessarily know what’s wrong until you’re out of it and realize that your perception of the world and everyone in it was warped by your condition. I never suffered from the sort of modified Fregoli delusion that writer Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich) gives Michael, but it works perfectly as a metaphor for depression in general. Your brain perceives the world without its details, so everything becomes less interesting or able to hold your attention, and you become overwhelmed with a feeling of sameness. (I assume the name Anomalisa also alludes to anomie, a sociological term that can refer to the loss of direction or purpose an individual might feel due to a sense of alienation or disconnect from society. Michael also stays at the Hotel Fregoli for another bit of Kaufman wordplay.)

Anomalisa also avoids showing depression as a one-dimensional disorder. Michael is depressed, but he can still function. He got on the plane. He’s given these speeches before and even written a best-selling book. He has fans. He’s supposed to be quite good-looking (for a puppet). Depressed is not dead. You can be depressed, or anxious, or even bipolar, and still lead a functional life – just not a fulfilled one. And for whatever reason, Zoloft, a very widely prescribed anti-depressant, doesn’t appear to have helped Michael. His foggy status could be a combination of the depression and the side effect of SSRIs that they tend to take the edges off your emotions, for better or for worse; at one point he mentions being unable to cry, something I’ve experienced on escitalopram (Lexapro) as well.

The film’s concluding sequence is somewhat jarring after the languorous pace of everything up to and including Michael’s encounter with Lisa, although it’s a logical series of events – it’s simply missing a few pieces, notably a last conversation between those two before Michael returns to Los Angeles, his miserable wife, and attention-starved son. Kaufman’s better at beginnings than endings; Being John Malkovich is a brilliant idea that crashes into the wall on the final lap, although I thought Eternal Sunshine ended well by returning to the beginning. Here, his script finishes with one final, beautiful flourish, a glimmer of hope in Lisa’s words and a visual trick you might miss if you’re not looking for it, that salvaged the slightly incongruous editing at the end.

If you’ve ever struggled to understand depression, perhaps because a friend or loved one has it, watch Anomalisa. All three voice actors are superb, especially Leigh, whose intonation reveals her character’s insecurity long before we understand her reasons for it. Kaufman’s script gives the disease an authentic, uncomfortable (quite so, at times) treatment for the serious, multi-dimensional story mental illness deserves. It’s a sad film, but never humorless, and left me wanting to see more.

Inside Out.

Pixar’s latest movie, Inside Out, lived up to all of the hype and praise it’s received so far, a visually stunning film that hits all of the bittersweet notes that have made Pixar’s best films – especially WALL-E and the Toy Story trilogy – masterpieces not just of animation but of cinema. It’s also, in many ways, one of Pixar’s riskiest ideas, thanks to one of its least conventional plots yet, making the ultimate success of the film even more remarkable. (Full, if obvious, disclosure: Disney owns Pixar and ESPN.)

Inside Out is a metaphysical coming-of-age story that manages to encapsulate a buddy comedy, a psychological thriller, and an Arthur Clarke-style sci-fi story all set inside of the head of eleven-year-old Riley Anderson, whose family has just removed her from her idyllic life in Minnesota so her father can work for a startup in San Francisco. Riley’s personality is determined by a pastel-colored world run primarily by five emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear, each voiced and drawn in distinctive fashion (and helpfully color-coded). Riley’s memories each bear one of those five colors, although we learn early on that Sadness (Phyllis Smith) can turn any memory blue (her color) with a touch, a sort of King Midas meets The Old Guitarist-era Picasso. When Joy and Sadness are inadvertently tossed from Headquarters, where the five emotions live and work, along with Riley’s core memories, her whole personality starts to crumble into depression and negativity. Joy and Sadness have to try to find their way back from the archives of Long-Term Memory while the other three emotions try without success to steer the ship.

The five emotionsJoy, voiced by Amy Poehler, is in essence a yellow-skinned, blue-haired, fuzzy Leslie Knope, full of enthusiasm and as much of a leader as the quintet of emotions can have; she was there first, Sadness second, and there’s an uneasy (but not antagonistic) relationship between the two. Their pairing in exile isn’t an accidental bit of plotting, as the film needs the two to play off of each other, even when they run into Riley’s largely-forgotten imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind) and end up in a series of misadventures as they try to get back to headquarters. (My favorite: their trip through abstract thought, where the three are transformed into cubist images, then deconstructed.) Some of the resolutions are a little obvious – Pixar writers have always taken the maxim of Chekhov’s gun very seriously – but the three writers do an excellent job of managing three disparate plot strands: the Joy/Sadness journey, the three knuckleheads still in HQ, and Riley’s real-world interactions with her befuddled (but never distant or cliched) parents.

The Joy/Sadness adventure – and that’s what it is, a buddy comedy with serious consequences for the other storylines – is the primary plot thread of the movie, and the relationship between the two characters, matched in Poehler’s and Smith’s voicing, is more oil/water than acid/base: Sadness doesn’t want to bring anyone down, but she can’t help it, while Joy remains indefatigable in the face of unfathomable odds. Sadness wants to be more like Joy, while Joy looks on Sadness as a well-meaning nuisance, so you can see who’s going to learn what lesson in the end. It’s how we get there that makes most Pixar movies such memorable experiences for the viewer – if you have a kid, you’ll probably get a little weepy, as I did at a few points during Inside Out – and such great art. The ending is happy, happier than, say, Toy Story 3, but it’s yellow with a few spots of blue.

The great achievement of Inside Out‘s plot isn’t the ending, or the adventure in Long-Term Memory, but the fact that the film works so beautifully without an antagonist. There’s no villain, no Big Foozle, no evil queen, hell, there’s no princesses (not that I’m anti-princess but a change of pace is always welcome). Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust are not set in opposition to Joy, but are depicted as essential elements of human personality. We don’t get the Dragon of Solitude or the Alienation Wraith; when Riley’s emotions have to fight their way back, they’re fighting something fundamental, not an artificial plot-contrivance bad guy whom they have to kill to get to their goal. Inside Out‘s tension is built around time, not threat, yet the film never drags for the lack of a foil for our twin heroines.

Inside Out is full of Easter eggs, as most Pixar flicks are; I only caught a few of them, including the music in the nightmare, the Chinatown reference, and the homage to Steve Jobs’ “reality distortion field.” I didn’t realize the two jellybean-like things guarding the subconscious were actually voiced by Frank Oz and Dave Goelz, longtime Muppet performers. There are apparently several I missed in the classroom scene, although I’m not sure I would have caught any without a remote control in my hand to pause it.

I’m kind of bummed that my daughter is too old for the Inside Out Box of Mixed Emotions, five books, one per emotion, aimed at 3- to 5-year-olds. It looks like Driven by Emotions is more age-appropriate; I’ll report back if we read that one.

Lava, the short animated feature that preceded Inside Out, is a cute but insubstantial love story, remarkable mostly for the quality of its animation (especially the landscapes on the sides of the two volcanoes) and the film’s song, which reminded me of the late native Hawai’an singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. Known as Israel K., his cover of “Over the Rainbow” is the only version of that song I can stand, and Lava‘s main voice-over actor, Kuana Torres Kahele, even sings in a similar fashion to Israel K.’s style.

Monsters University.

My report on Saturday night’s doubleheader in Wilmington, featuring Kyle Zimmer, A.J. Cole, and Robbie Ray, is up for Insiders now. I should be at Bowie on Tuesday night to see Eduardo Rodriguez, weather permitting.

Monsters, Inc. is one of my favorite Pixar films because it’s appropriate for kids (as all Pixar films are) but is in so many ways a mature, adult film. The issues involved are real, the perceived threat to the main characters is serious (even though we know it’ll work out), the humor is sophisticated, and the animation is superb. I had a feeling heading into Monsters University that it wouldn’t live up to its predecessor, and it didn’t – this prequel is more of a children’s movie than the typical Pixar film, lacking a strong antagonist and missing much of the trademark sharp humor of Pixar movies, although it was still fun to watch and beautifully rendered.

Monsters University is almost a bromance, telling us the story of how the two stars of Monsters, Inc., Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and Sully (John Goodman) first met while students – and rivals – in their college’s Scare Program. Aside from a brief and somewhat hackneyed intro with Mike as a young monster, we spend nearly the entire movie watching just a few days of action on campus, learning that Mike was the studious worker while Sully was the gifted son of a famous scarer. (Sully was the five-tool athlete here, while Mike had heart and grit and no natural talent.) We get cameos by Randy Boggs (Steve Buscemi) and other familiar faces from the first film, but the bulk of the activity from characters beyond Mike and Sully comes from new monsters and voices, including the fraternity the two join – Oozma Kappa – to try to win back their places in the Scare Program after a petty fight gets them both kicked out right before a critical final exam.

From there, we get a traditional underdogs narrative with a strong dose of teamwork, where Mike and Sully have to work together to train their misfit brothers, none of whom could scare a panphobe, to win the competition that will get them all back into the Scare Program. As you’d expect, each of the misfits finds some special talent or skill that comes in handy right at the moment when they need the help most. It’s well-executed, especially the parts with the five-eyed gelatinous Scott “Squishy” Squibbles, but aside from one plot element – the Big Twist that leads from the first, false climax to the film’s real resolution – it’s all rather expected. And with no true villain, the tension never gets very high; even Dean Hardscrabble, voiced by the always wonderful Helen Mirren, isn’t so evil or even mean, just strict and demanding. That lack of any character with actual intent to harm the protagonists means it’s appropriate for younger audiences than the typical Pixar film, but there’s less here for the parents, less humor – just a lot of good sight gags involving monster malleability – and less story.

The best thing Monsters University offers is the smarmy, condescending performance by Nathan Fillion as the big, scary head of the cool-monsters fraternity RΩR, who puts Mike down at every opportunity with a classic “I can barely put forth the energy to patronize you” tone. I’m a longtime Fillion fan, dating back to Firefly, and will subject myself to Castle when my wife watches it, just to watch Fillion crack wise a few times. (It’s not a good show by any definition, and Castle Minus Castle would probably be the worst 44 minutes on television.) But Fillion doesn’t get enough good lines, making more happen with his delivery than with his actual phrasing, with the few good one-liners going to his yes-man sidekick, the one-eyed Chet Alexander (voiced by SNL castmember Bobby Moynihan). Whether you think Billy Crystal is funny as a comedian or actor, he was funny in Monsters, Inc. because he took good material and played it up. Here, he doesn’t get the same kind of lines, and there’s little he can do to make them funnier, and John Goodman’s Sully is almost entirely a straight man, although his character benefits from the strongest development, going from spoiled legacy student to top-tier scarer and, of course, a good friend.

I’d take a child of just about any age to see Monsters University, unless s/he was especially prone to nightmares or bad dreams, which is the closest this film comes to producing any actually scary content. It’s lighthearted and sweet, without the emotional depth or breadth of a good Pixar film, which means a lot less explaining after the fact but also gives the film a superficial quality that wasn’t present in Monsters, Inc. It’s worth seeing for the family, and the preceding short film, The Blue Umbrella, is cute, but can’t touch Pixar classics like The Incredibles or the Toy Story trilogy.