You can tell summer vacation is going well when it races by. I’ve been busy! I’ve been playing a LOT of bridge. I wish I was getting better faster . . . but I do have to mention that I came in second a week ago in the 99er’s division at a local tournament. (Gimme a cheer, Noah!)
And it isn’t like I’ve let myself down as a blogger this summer: this marks the dozenth post I’ve made since I hung up my teaching shingle until the fall. However, I feel like I have to apologize to those of you who show up here to talk about mysteries. I haven’t done so well there; in fact, it has been a full nine days since I wrote anything remotely GAD-ish. I do have a book post coming up in the next day or two, but it involves my latest foray into modern crime fiction – and you know how well that usually goes!
Besides bridge – and the New York trip that led to a great many reflections on the theatre I’ve seen – this week my family has been visited by its newest member! Meet Faye:
Faye is my niece’s baby girl, named for my paternal grandmother Fay, who we used to call Mimi. (Is this all making sense?) Baby Faye is the sweetest thing you ever did see, both in looks and temperament. And naturally, she has caused the elevator at my parents’ apartment building to hum with activity. It’s the first time in a long while that the entire Friedman family has gotten together: relatives have flown from the northeast (Connecticut), the northwest (Seattle, WA), and the southeast (Franklin, North Carolina) to the West Coast (San Francisco) to celebrate baby Faye officially making the Friedmans a four-generation clan.
Among the attendees at last night’s pizza party was my nephew Michael, Faye’s uncle, who is a senior in college and is about to embark on the most amazing “semester abroad” that I have ever heard of: a four-month-long ship’s voyage around the world, hitting every continent involving all sorts of amazing excursions. As Michael showed me his itinerary and explained all the safaris and natural history hikes and famous monuments he would be attending, I could only imagine how thrilled he was. As it turns out, he was widely anticipating a lot of things:
Michael: “Hey, Brad, aren’t you excited about this fall’s sequel to Wreck-It Ralph?”
Me: “. . . . . . . ?”
I did not know what he was talking about. At this point, everybody in the room under the age of thirty – or anyone who was a parent of a person under the age of thirty – started to talk about this movie. Michael, who always comes prepared, merely sighed, stood up and walked over to retrieve his jacket. I thought for a moment he was going to leave in disgust. Instead, he took out a little case, opened it up, and slid out a sleeve. He walked over to me, handed me the sleeve, and said, “Watch it.”
But there’s more.
At this moment, my sister-in-law began extolling the charms of the latest animated hit, The Incredibles II, and when I said I had not seen this either . . . . . . . . . . well, the silence began to get uncomfortable. Honestly, folks, I haven’t been in the mood lately for cartoons. The only movies I’ve seen this summer are a heartwarming documentary about Fred Rogers and a nightmarish one about three triplets who were separated at birth. Both of these films were
Anyway, that is how I came to see not one but two Disney animated movies in one day. This morning we all gather for brunch, and I know Michael and Scia will be awaiting my report. That’s when I can hand them my phone, tell them to look up my blog, and munch contentedly on my bacon as they read.
I think the gift that Disney gives us with each animated feature, particularly those made by Pixar, is that they tend to operate on multiple levels. Sure, the artwork is always fine, sometimes terrific, but the story has an arc for kids and one for adults.Wall-E is a love story that is also an object lesson in humankind’s monstrous dependence on technology. Up is a story of flying houses and balloons that is the perfect elegy to long-lasting love. Toy Story. . . well, Toy Story is designed to make kids laugh and adults sob. “Funny Mr. Potato Head,” says your 4-year old. “I wonder what happened to my Mr. Potato Head,” you ask yourself amidst your tears.
With that concept in mind, we turn to today’s double bill. Movie #1, Wreck-It Ralph, was a fun ride but very much a kid’s movie. (For the record, it is not a Pixar film.) To be fair, I think I’m missing a certain level of humor here because I never played video games. Yup, I missed the Pac-Man craze. Never owned a Game Boy or any of the more sophisticated platforms that followed. Hey, I’m good at Words with Friends!
Thus, I didn’t quite get all the potentially more grown-up in jokes about video games that I believe permeated this movie. What I was left with was a serviceably charming tale about Ralph, the villain in a retro game who is sick and tired of always being treated like the bad guy. He tries to accept himself – an early scene at Bad Anon, a support group for game villains, the best one in the film – but finally he can take the isolation no more and embarks on a mission to gain a hero’s medal in order to make his fellow game characters respect him. On his quest, he nearly succeeds in destroying the – what, the gameosphere??? There’s a LOT of mythology in this film, and I wasn’t clear as to how much of it gears up to real-life games. I fear that lessened the film’s impact for me.
However, John C. Reilly voiced Ralph in a way that really made you root for him, and Sarah Silverman was adorable as Vanellope von Schweetz, a little girl from Sugar Rush, another video game (I assume a play on Candy Crush) which, if nothing else, made me totally content with the fact that I don’t play video games. The citizens of Sugar Rushwere a riot of colors and noise, with names to make kids giggle (Taffyta Muttonfudge?), although I did like the king’s police stooges, two doughnuts named Wynnchel and Duncan. I preferred the roly poly, much lower key citizens of Fix-It-Felix, Ralph’s home game. (Maybe I’m a bit retro myself.)
Jack McBrayer was charming as Fix-it Felix, the heroic construction worker whose building poor Ralph must continually try to bring down. Felix turns out to be a better friend than Ralph imagined, and he finds support – and an unlikely love interest – from Jane Lynch as a tough military leader from yet another game, Hero’s Duty (Call of Duty, right?)
The visuals are good, and I think the lesson at the end is to never give up on your dreams. Or strive to reach your potential? Or even bad guys deserve to be loved? Oh well, I think the lesson’s not important. Michael, thank you for your recommendation and for lending me the DVD. I enjoyed myself . . . but I might not rush to see this fall’s sequel, Wreck-It Ralph Breaks the Internet. (Evidently, “breaking the internet” is a thing?)
Easily the best moments in the movie!
* * * * *
Have no fear, though: I cannot lavish enough praise on The Incredibles II. The first film (2004) was actually at the forefront of the emerging popularity of super hero movies. It effectively lampooned super hero groups, the whole Marvel-esque concept of mutant envy translating to persecution of “Supers”, and the whole thing turned out to be an excuse for a brilliant family film. No, I mean a film about family. I mean, a film about being yourself and respecting your kids. Oh, I guess this message is complicated, too.
The sequel arrives in a world where we have been over-saturated with super heroes. I’ve had little reason to visit the movie theatre this summer because, truth to tell, I’m sick to death of these mindlessly dull, yet review-proof, spectacles. Maybe that’s why it took a nudge from my sister-in-law to go see this one. I needn’t have worried: The Incredibles II is, to my mind, even better than the first one. Oddly, it begins with a brief clip of the three stars, Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson, and Samuel L. Jackson, apologizing for creator Brad Bird’s taking so long to create a second film and promising us that it would be worth the wait.
The film essentially begins right where the last film left off, with the family ostensibly working together to defeat their latest villain, The Underminer (John Ratzenberger) – except the kids Violet and Dash are charged with taking care of baby Jack Jack while mom and dad do the heavy superhero lifting. Supers are still viewed with antipathy by the public, so even though the Incredibles try to help, they are charged with all the damage wrought by fighting their nemesis.
Enter Winston and Evelyn Deavor (Bob Odenkirk and Catherine Keener), a wealthy brother and sister team who run DevCorp, (I could not figure out what this corporation does!) and who have an idea of how the public’s perception of Supers can be flipped. The first stage of their plan centers on Helen Parr, aka “Elastigirl” aka “Mom.” This leaves her husband Bob behind as a frustrated stay-at-home dad. Will this state of affairs lead to a sense of female empowerment for Helen? You bet. Will it involve one amusing domestic crisis after another as Bob slowly inches toward discovering his gifts as a father? Of course.
The biggest crisis Bob has to deal with in the first half of the film is the discovery of Jack Jack’s emerging powers, and this provides the biggest laughs in the movie, capped when Bob in desperation turns for advice and help from no other than Edna, the pint-sized super hero fashion maven played by Brad Bird himself. Meanwhile, the Deavors gather as many super heroes to work with Helen as they can find, and they are also a funny bunch, with names like Void and Reflux (you can just imagine his power!) All this fantastic stuff is so beautifully drawn that you find yourself buying it as real. In fact, I was more emotionally invested in the Parr family than in any XMen/Avengers/Star Wars saga I’ve seen in the past five years.
And things only get better as the Supers renovation plan hits a snag with the appearance of a new supervillain, the Screenslaver, who is actually pretty scary. Yes, I had a good hunch as to the secret behind this masked super villain, but Bird plays with our feelings about a few characters well enough to maybe cast doubt in some people’s minds as to what’s going on. And the villain is unmasked in time to allow for a nail-biting third act where the onus for saving the world is put on the tiny shoulders of the newest generation of heroes.
I won’t spoil any more – except to say that there are no Easter eggs in the credits for either of these films, just in case you planned on waiting around. I was perfectly happy to do that for you. To sum it up, Wreck-It Ralph is a fine film to show to your kids, while The Incredibles II is the perfect film for the kid in all of us.
And just in case stop action animation is your cup of tea, a former student of mine who is a fine artist and happens to draw for Disney Publishing informs me that the next Pixar film, Toy Story 4, is already looking like a winner!
You heard it here first, kids!