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Wonder

Posted December 3, 2017 By Curiosity Inc.

Wonder tells the story of August “Auggie” Pullman, a kid born with a freak recessive gene mutation and subsequently put through a couple dozen corrective surgeries before he’s even in the fifth grade. The movie covers his entire fifth-grade year, his very first in a school with other kids following a childhood in home school. Jacob Tremblay plays our lead character (under thick prosthetics and makeup), and Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts play his parents, while Mandy Patinkin and Daveed Diggs respectively play his new principal and homeroom teacher.

Given this premise, this cast, and this release date, the film was clearly made and marketed as an awards contender. And this easily could’ve been just another bit of disposable Oscar-bait. But it isn’t. It’s actually something a lot more rare and beautiful.

To be clear, the proceedings do get sappy and contrived at times, often laughably so. Right off the bat, for example, we have to wonder how this white middle-class family can afford so many corrective surgeries for their son and live in a New York brownstone AND send their two kids to private school. All on the income of a single working parent, I might add, while the mother has spent the past decade at home teaching her kid. And that’s just for starters — as the movie keeps going, we see a lot of predictable and cliched moments in between the cloying voice-overs and obnoxious Star Wars sight gags.

And what is all of this for? Well, it’s obviously a movie about accepting others for who they are and what they can do, rather than how they look. It’s a movie about how extremely difficult and necessary it can be to make friends and keep them. And to be clear, these messages are very clearly and explicitly designed for the context of grade school and high school. Yes, I suppose you might be able to read this as a metaphor for sexual/racial inclusion, if you wanted to dislocate a few limbs and fingers making that much of a stretch.

That’s when it finally hit me that I was looking at this movie all wrong. As a deep and profound awards-bait movie made for adults, it didn’t make any sense. But as a moral message crafted for kids and young teens, it makes a lot of sense. In fact, it’s really kind of genius.

For every time when this movie gets all saccharine and cliched, there’s another time when this movie acts against the grain in some bold and impressive ways. We see these kids play with their food, hold burping contests, and help each other cheat on tests. We see them shout at each other, refuse to speak to each other, and even physically come to blows with each other. It really is quite astounding how the characters get to be more developed and authentic as the plot unfolds. Thus the movie can get away with the more cliched moments because it’s balanced out with so many moments of genuine emotional hardship. What’s even more impressive is that the filmmakers somehow toned down the more extreme moments to be kid-friendly without sacrificing an iota of the emotional (or visceral) punch.

Auggie is of course the prime source of the movie’s pathos, since he has to learn how to coexist with children too young to learn (as he tragically already has) that nobody goes through life without picking up scars. But we also see the other kids talk behind his back and make rude remarks to his face, unaware of what an impact their words and actions have. Easily the single greatest — and most important! — thing that this movie does is to clearly illustrate how even the smallest word or action can leave a significant impact. Time and time again, we see how the characters are uplifted by a single gesture, or utterly destroyed by hearing someone else say the wrong word. This is a huge part of how bullying is portrayed in such an authentic and hard-hitting way that will absolutely resonate with kids.

(Side note: One of the most devastating scenes for Auggie happens during Halloween. The character is dressed in a full-body costume with a mask that covers his entire face, and the movie still portrays the character’s heartfelt pain in visceral detail without a word spoken. I don’t know how the filmmakers pulled that off, but kudos.)

And of course that’s just what we see with Auggie and his peers. We also get glimpses of Diggs’ character trying to create a nurturing environment for his students without stepping on any toes. Patinkin’s character tries to tamp down on bullying in school while dealing with willfully ignorant parents who insist their kids could do no wrong. Auggie’s parents are trying to raise two kids when one of them demands so much more attention than the other. Which brings me to my personal favorite case in point, Auggie’s older sister (Olivia “Via” Pullman, played by Izabela Vidovic).

Via has a lot of sibling jealousy going on, given how pretty much everything has been put on hold to care for little brother since the day he was born. That said, while Via may resent how Auggie is always the center of attention, she knows and understands how much he hates to be in that position. They love each other and support each other, and while Via may occasionally lash out because nobody will ever make time for her, she’s had a lifetime of practice at keeping that bottled up. For better or worse.

Moreover, Via had two coping mechanisms for getting the attention she needed. One of them was her grandmother, who recently passed away. The other one was Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), her best friend since kindergarten, who’s mysteriously stopped talking to Via since the day school started. We do eventually learn what’s going on with Miranda, but there’s no way I’m getting into that here. Suffice to say that Via and Auggie both feel like social outcasts, deeply hurt by those they thought were their best friends. Even if Auggie’s case is far more severe, that doesn’t make Via’s problems any less real or painful. It’s a sweet little bonding moment when the two of them realize that all they have is each other.

Tremblay further proves that he’s a bona fide powerhouse in spite of his youth, and Vidovic turns in a starmaking performance. In point of fact, all of the child actors and young adults in the cast are uncommonly, exceptionally good. Credit is also due to Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts, both of whom turn in their best work in years. Daveed Diggs and Mandy Patinkin each get very little time, I’m sorry to say, but they have such powerful screen presence that they’re able to leave a strong and instant impression all the same.

Overall, Wonder threads the needle to hit a rare and difficult balance: While this was definitely made for children, it’s heavy and intelligent enough to keep the adults involved. It’s a movie that directly addresses kids and young teens without talking down to them, taking it for granted that kids are not immune to the slings and arrows of fate and are perhaps more capable of enduring them than we realize. In point of fact, one of the film’s cornerstone messages (“precepts”, if you will) is the message that even at such a young age, kids may be suffering through more than meets the eye and could be in need of a helping hand.

While “PG” has come to mean “Practically G”, this is absolutely a true PG movie. Its authentic and potent messages of friendship and communication absolutely demand to be seen by kids and discussed with their parents afterward. If you’re under the age of 16 or you know anyone who’s under the age of 16, I strongly recommend that you give the film a good hard look.

Coco

Posted December 3, 2017 By Curiosity Inc.

It’s remarkable how Hollywood has been more open to embracing diversity in recent years. While we certainly still have a long ways to go, audiences have made it perfectly clear that we want and need more people of color in strong leading roles, and studio execs certainly seem open to attracting a wider audience if nothing else.

So here’s Coco, the latest movie from Pixar, featuring a distinct emphasis on Dia de Muertos. It’s not just a motif as in The Book of Life, and it’s not just a brief set piece as in Spectre — no, this whole movie revolves around the Day of the Dead. The filmmakers use the rules, mythology and iconography of the Mexican holiday, utilizing all of them as crucial plot devices. Some actual figures of Mexican history even make cameo appearances.

All of this could easily have been used as a lazy storytelling shortcut at best, or cultural misappropriation at worst. But the movie avoids that trap by taking its setting very seriously. All the cultural trappings and traditions are treated with profound reverence, such that this story could never have been told in any other time or place, and the attention to detail is astounding. Every last pixel onscreen is gleaming with polish, and the animation — particularly during the musical segments — is sublime. It’s seriously hard to accuse the filmmakers of not giving a shit when they’ve put this much work into their movie. And it’s also a movie with an all-Latino cast, which certainly helps.

It’s really the presentation that saves this movie, because there’s surprisingly little going on under the surface. But we’ll get back to that.

The story opens with a prologue, in which we hear about a musician who left his wife and daughter to seek fame and fortune. The wife and daughter went on to start their own business making shoes, handing it down through the generations. Out of spite, they also erased the musician’s name and face from all family history and have forbidden any music of any kind to be played or heard.

Yet along comes Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez), the great-great-grandson of that disgraced musician. Miguel himself is a prodigal and passionate guitarist, having learned from obsessively watching the movies of the legendary actor/singer/songwriter Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), and playing along on a guitar he built from scrap. Long story short, Miguel comes across evidence that his idol may actually be his great-great-grandfather. Following his example, Miguel sets out to escape his family and start on his path toward being a world-class musician.

Instead, through circumstances far too messy and convoluted to recap here, Miguel winds up in the Land of the Dead. He needs to return to the living by sundown, and he can only do that with the help of his family. (I don’t have time here to go into how that works, but I promise it makes sense.) The good news is that his deceased family members (led by Imelda Rivera, the abandoned great-great-grandmother herself, played by Alanna Ubach) is willing to help out. The bad news is that they’ll only send him back to the living on condition that he never plays music again.

First of all, it’s really quite clever how the “Day of the Dead” conceit was used to make Miguel’s conflict with his family history into a literal conflict between him and the ghosts of his family. Second and more importantly, it’s really quite impressive how the good guy/bad guy line isn’t so clear-cut when it comes to Miguel and his family. Yes, on some level, Miguel’s relatives are being selfish and stupid for obsessively holding onto this grudge through so many generations. And in their efforts to silence any and all music within earshot, they go to lengths that are frankly absurd.

That said, one imagines how difficult it must have been for a single mother to learn a trade and maintain a business after starting from literally nothing. It makes sense that this family would want to preserve their zapateria by any means necessary, since it’s pretty much all they have. Especially since these characters explicitly carry the weight of their forefathers and an obligation to carry on what they helped create. Speaking of which, there’s definitely the pressure to make sure that nobody in the family takes after the prodigal forefather, setting out with no regard for the family left behind.

Of course, it could be argued that the disgraced great-great-grandfather is as much a part of this family as any of the other relatives, and ill deserves to be so thoroughly disowned. The counter-argument is that he gave up any claim to this family when he walked out and never returned. And why would Miguel even want to pick up the musician’s mantel anyway, when he’d have to make it entirely on his own without the support he has back home?

All of this makes it easy to understand where Miguel’s antagonists are coming from. And it certainly helps that while they have their differences, we see an abundance of evidence that Miguel’s family truly and deeply loves him. So what are the points in Miguel’s favor? Well, to start with, it’s obviously short-sighted and hopeless to think that every single member of the growing Rivera clan will always avoid music and stay to work at the zapateria from now to eternity. But more to the point… well, Miguel is just that damned good. Pretty much all that Miguel has to fall back on is that he’s destined for greatness as a musician, such that he’d be wasted and miserable doing anything else. There’s no way that could carry any weight unless Miguel had the skills and charisma to back that up, and I have to give major kudos to Anthony Gonzalez and all of the filmmakers for selling it.

The conflict between Miguel and his family is so compelling that all of the other characters are kind of drab by comparison. Don’t get me wrong, Gael Garcia Bernal puts in a spirited performance as Hector, a knavish ghoul who assists in Miguel’s quest to advance his own agenda. And if you haven’t already guessed what that agenda is by now, no way I’m telling you. Likewise, Benjamin Bratt is more than charismatic enough to sell Ernesto as a (living) legend, but then we actually meet the character and he gets significantly more predictable and less interesting.

It really is disappointing that the movie should take all this time developing such nuanced and conflicted characters, only to flush that all away with a third act that’s so aggressive in its simplicity. There were seriously at least two plot twists I had seen coming from an hour away, and the movie had to damn near pull a deus ex machina to get the ending where we all knew it had to go.

Even among Miguel’s family, there are some dud supporting players. Aside from namesake Mama Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia), Abuelita (Renee Victor), and the aforementioned Mama Imelda, every last one of Miguel’s relatives both living and dead are completely disposable. We’ve also got Dante (I see what you did there, Pixar), the stray dog who serves as Miguel’s comedic sidekick. While he may not be quite as stupid or useless as Heihei of Moana, that’s a low bar to clear and the two characters are definitely in the same class. Oh, and I can’t forget the Clerk (Gabriel Iglesias) who gets only one scene as a blunt and blatant exposition machine.

Yet the film makes up for these relatively weak characters by making them genuinely funny. All of these characters get at least one solid joke or a really good sight gag. In particular, Hector gets a whole ton of sight gags that are simply inspired. There are, however, two exceptions: Ernesto is still a weak character, but Bratt does a fine job of selling him. The other exception is Edward James Olmos, whose character vanishes after maybe two minutes of screen time, but god damn is Olmos good enough to leave an impression with so little time.

Moving on to the music… eh. While I was deeply impressed with the instrumental work and the vocal talent involved (and of course the animation was gorgeous to look at), the lyrics left me cold. This was especially notable in the case of “Remember Me”, the movie’s big Best Original Song contender, hyped within the film as the single greatest hit of Ernesto’s storied career. Yet after all of that buildup, I found the song itself to be lamentably underwritten. It simply didn’t leave enough of an impression. Additionally, as much as I absolutely love Michael Giacchino’s work and I think the world of him as a composer, he was the wrong choice to write the score for this. The movie is so drenched in Mexican culture and music that hiring a non-Latino for the job was a huge mistake, and it shows in the end result.

On a final note, I’m afraid we have to talk about the “Frozen” short that precedes the film. In summary, Olaf goes through the village of Arendelle to hear about all the various holiday traditions out there, because Elsa and Anna don’t have any holiday traditions of their own and we’re supposed to care about it for some reason. It’s a twenty-minute short and there’s something like five or six musical numbers. Not even joking.

Look, Disney, these shorts are never going to generate more advertising revenue, give us the next “Let it Go”, or bring in any moviegoers who wouldn’t have seen the movie otherwise. They’re not going to introduce new ideas, win any Oscar nominations, or give a chance to up-and-coming talent the way Pixar’s short films usually do. All that these short films about Frozen are going to do is run in place.

These pointless and boring short films do not have the screen time or scope to sufficiently develop these characters or expand the world of the franchise. The fans deserve better, the talents behind this franchise deserve better, and to be perfectly honest, the franchise itself deserves better. Yes, I know that the success of Frozen was a happy accident — Disney marketed the film with such brazen incompetence that they clearly didn’t know what they had, so of course they don’t have any idea what to do with what the franchise became. But in this case, it should be obvious that if Frozen 2 is on the way (and it is), then why are we wasting everyone’s time and money on short films that will ultimately prove irrelevant?

Getting back to Coco, it has a story that can be flimsy and uninspired at times, especially during that third act. But even its most glaring flaws are sufficiently covered by jaw-dropping execution. The visuals are colorful, creative, and gorgeous. The cast is uniformly outstanding. The animation — especially during the musical segments — is incredible. The use of Mexican culture and mythology is phenomenal. The best characters are beautifully complex and nuanced, and even the weaker characters work nicely as effective comic relief.

The movie is vibrant, funny, creative, and brimming with heart. Pixar’s greatest strengths are on full display here, and it’s absolutely worth a watch.