By Marc S. Sanders

It’s kind of neat to see the evolution of a classic film character when you are a fully aware adult.  In 1995, I had no idea what the term Pixar meant, or knew the impact it would have with the Disney brand as a whole or on the cinematic landscape.  Pixar is now as pioneering as Skywalker Sound or Industrial Light and Magic.  There’s Pixar, and then there’s everything else.  Back in ’95, I was age 23, and my intuition never perked up that I was watching a touchstone character like Buzz Lightyear who would become as grand today as Batman and Elvis turned out to be in an ever-changing pop culture lexicon. Buzz Lightyear is by far one of the company’s most inventive creations.

Jump to nearly thirty years later, with four Toy Story adventures, and endless amounts of merchandising the Space Ranger has been primed for a more personal adventure beyond the imagination of a young child possessing an action figure in his playroom.  Lightyear tells of the adventure that leant to merchandising of the toy depicted in the Toy Story fictional world.  (Try not to think too hardly on that description.)

Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) is the eminent Space Ranger of Star Command, out to explore strange new worlds and seek out new life and– STOP! That’s another franchise.  When Captain Lightyear comes upon an unchartered planet, complications in unexpected science fiction adventure ensue.  Buzz and the small colony living on his global spaceship are marooned on this planet with no immediate solution for getting off and returning to Earth, 4.2 billion light years away.  Buzz makes it his mission to uncover a new kind of resource fuel that will eventually help the colony make its eventual return home.  Yet, with each experimental try, the minutes he spends in his super speed orbits around the planet equate to years for the colony who have set up habitation below.  His comrades on the ground below continue to age while Buzz does not.

I needed help with this picture.  My wife had to explain the staple lesson that usually comes with each Pixar film that I just didn’t catch while watching Lightyear.  I don’t think I’m spoiling anything, but the film reminds us to accept the hand dealt to us and appreciate what has come even if we never expected or planned on the circumstances in the first place.  It’s a good lesson.  I guess I just wish Lightyear made it a little clearer.  There’s a lot of mud on the windshield that I needed to wipe away before I realized what the message was about.

Maybe I was not fair with this film.  Tim Allen was not invited back to lend his recognizable voiceover to the character.  I guess Pixar is insistent that he’s reserved only for the toy version of the character.  Chris Evans is fine, mind you, and he doesn’t overdo it.  Yet, I could not help but think Tim Allen would have been just as capable and even more entitled to voice the role yet again.

Perhaps I was thinking that if Pixar wanted to go in another animated direction with the character, it just seemed completely fruitless.  How different could Lightyear be from the Toy Story films if the animated design is pretty similar in every frame?  Honestly, it doesn’t look like a new kind of device.  So that was a problem for me, as well.  It wasn’t inventive enough.  Maybe it’s time for a live action version of the space traveler.  Imagine Chris Evans wearing a live action and tactile version of the famous astronaut costume with the colorful buttons.  I still say that could work, and it’s what Disney/Pixar should have considered.

Maybe I’m getting bored with the time travel motif.  Isn’t everyone doing that these days?  Doesn’t it also seem like all our heroes are meeting their future selves and struggling to understand their current predicament?  Lightyear hinges on these story developments, and when the moments arrive my eyes rolled in the back of my head.  Time travel stories are very tricky for me to appreciate.  Often, the narrative paints itself into a corner, unable to explain itself back correctly.  Only two films that come to mind have worked their way out of it almost seamlessly – Back To The Future and 12 Monkeys.

So, while I love the lesson that Lightyear offers, the standard carbon copy plot outline left me unfocused at times.

The voiceover cast is well done with Keke Palmer, Taika Waititi and James Brolin.  The animation is gorgeous, most especially when Buzz is piloting his super jet around the planet’s sun. The atmosphere of the planet is fun when it becomes a nuisance with giant flying insects and vines that come alive to entangle the characters at any given moment.

Science Fiction can go to infinity and beyond with the directions it can take.  There is absolutely no limit.  With today’s technology in filmmaking and the endless resources that Disney provides, why didn’t the filmmakers try a little harder with Lightyear? Again, a live action interpretation would have allowed it to stand apart from the character’s prior Toy adventures, and some different avenues in space exploration would have opened a leaner and more entertaining story.  If Star Trek can do it, Lightyear can do it too.

I think Pixar tried to go the route of Christopher Nolan, by way of Interstellar.  However, Lightyear is designed for people of all ages where the brain of the show is in reminding us how to carry ourselves through life, and not to uncover the twists that a brilliant filmmaker like Nolan has become recognized for.  I didn’t want to resolve a puzzle in fictional science.  Lightyear is trying too hard to be to be brainy and thus we get distracted from its “The More You Know” lesson in self-effacement.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Domee Shi
Cast: Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Wai Ching Ho, James Hong
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 95% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A 13-year-old girl named Meilin wakes up one morning with the rather inconvenient power to turn into a giant red panda whenever she gets too excited.

Disney/Pixar’s Turning Red is one of the best, funniest animated movies I’ve seen since Inside Out.  Or The Lego Movie.  Take your pick.

If you’ve seen the trailer, you know the plot.  A 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl named Meilin [may-LINN] discovers one day she has the (inconvenient) ability to turn into a giant red panda.

Details: Meilin’s relationship with her mom, Ming (Sandra Oh), is complicated enough without this new tangle.  Ming encourages Meilin to excel at everything and has enlisted her help with running and maintaining a small Chinese temple devoted to an ancient ancestor of theirs who supposedly channeled the power of the red panda to defend her children thousands of years ago.

When Meilin learns to control her newfound power to a certain degree, she decides to use it, not to fight crime, but to earn some money to buy a ticket to see this awesome boy band, called 4Town (even though they have five members), with her three besties.  Like, Oh.  Em.  GEE!

Complications ensue, Meilin tells a crucial, heartbreaking lie at one point, and previously unsuspected powers are unleashed.  That’s all you’re getting out of me, story-wise.

While the story was great, and worthy to stand with Pixar’s finest films, what made Turning Red stand out for me was the humor.  It is just plain laugh-out-loud funny.  I was laughing through almost the entire movie.

Through a completely believable misunderstanding, Meilin’s mom, Ming, thinks she knows what’s behind Meilin’s strange new behavior and asks her, ever so delicately, “Did the scarlet peony bloom?”  There’s a brilliant moment when Ming chases Meilin to school and, in front of an entire classroom, holds up an item she forgot to pack in her bag: a box of pads.  That’s right out of a John Hughes movie, man!  I laughed like a maniac.

Meilin’s three friends are a treat, especially the little spitfire named Abby, whose face seems to be permanently stretched into a fierce scowl.  There’s a moment when she catches one of those red playground balls with her teeth.  Maybe SHE’S the monster.

As with all the best Pixar films, though, the humor, as effective as it is, is just window-dressing for the real thrust of the story.  The exploration of the mother-daughter relationship hasn’t been done this well since Brave.  And I’ve gotta say, it was refreshing to see how real the character of Meilin was.  Because she’s rooted in the real world (of 2002 Toronto), her attitude felt more authentic somehow.  Sure, in Brave, Merida had the same rebelliousness and determination to forge her own path despite an imposing mother figure.  But with Turning Red, everything was more grounded.

There’s a moment when Meilin has turned into a panda and is running down a city street trying to hide.  She passes a convenience store where a cute guy works the counter.  She is desperate to get out of sight…but she stops just long enough to glance through the window at the cute guy, stomp her foot like Thumper, and yell, “Ah-OOO-gah, ah-OOO-gah!”  Another big laugh.  And I thought to myself, “See, that’s normally what you would see GUYS do in a movie.  Who makes a Disney film about a girl obsessed with boys?  What a treat!”  (I know, I know, the early Disney princesses weren’t exactly models of modern feminism, I’m talking about more recent films, stay with me here…)

Naturally, there’s a lot of symbolism with Meilin being thirteen, coming of age, and suddenly going through all sorts of changes.  What’s great about the storytelling is that the symbology is secondary, at least initially.  There’s the usual very well-executed denouement where all the emotional threads come together.  But before we get there, it’s just a story about a young girl with a weird problem.  And I have to say again, it is doggone FUNNY.

I took a glance at the “rotten” reviews at, and I kept seeing one repeated phrase among several of them: the lead character was “irritating.”  I am at a loss to explain this point of view.  Meilin is a 13-year-old girl.  Of COURSE, she’s irritating.  AND obnoxious.  What were you expecting?  Meilin is endearing precisely because she’s portrayed as someone who isn’t perfect, even though she’s trying hard to be.  She lies to her parents.  When she has to think of something to calm herself down, she doesn’t think of her mom…she thinks of her best friends.  She feels bad about it, but what are you gonna do, she’s thirteen.

Further pontificating from me seems pointless.  Take it from a lifelong Pixar fan.  Turning Red is one of their finest moments.  It’ll make you laugh, and if you’re not careful it’ll make you cry.  It might make you remember what it was like to scream like crazy at a rock concert.  It’ll make you remember your first real best friends.  And it’ll make you wonder why more people don’t make movies like this.  Because they should.

TOY STORY 4 (2019)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Josh Cooley
Cast: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Joan Cusack
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 98% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A new toy called “Forky” joins Woody and the gang, and a road trip with old and new friends reveals how big the world can be for a toy.

Frankly, one of the best “perks” of Toy Story 4 is the return of Bo Peep.  I had always wondered what had happened to her in Toy Story 3 that had Woody so sad.  I’m glad we got to see why she was no longer around, and I’m glad we get to see how she’s fared in the intervening years.  Just wanted to get that out of the way.

Toy Story 4 is not quite the pinnacle of perfection that is Toy Story 3, especially when it comes to the heartstring-tugging, but it’s a marvelous film on its own, and the ending is a fitting curtain call to the franchise.  Woody, Buzz, and the gang have gone through more hair-raising, death-defying adventures than Indiana Jones, it sometimes seems, and the fact that they reach the start of truly new chapters in their lives by the time the credits roll is comforting.

This fourth film introduces an intriguing element in the form of a doll named Gabby Gabby.  She’s one of those dolls that every girl seems to have owned at some point in her life…at least, every girl born before the year 2000, I’d guess.  She resides in an antiques store, and she has a problem: her voice box is defective.  When you pull her string, instead of a little girl’s voice, you hear what sounds like a 45 being played at 33 1/3.  (You older readers can explain that to the younger ones.)

Her potential salvation: Woody’s voice box is in perfect working order.  All she has to do is somehow exchange voice boxes with Woody, and she’ll have the chance to get a little human girl to love her enough to take her home.

This is…creepy.  There’s something unsettling about this Gabby Gabby character because she’s a cute little doll who essentially wants to perform an organ transplant whether Woody wants to or not.  She’s just so…matter-of-fact about it.

I’m doing a lot of simple play-by-play, and not really giving a sense of the movie itself.  That’s because, while it’s skillfully made and emotionally engaging, it’s not like this movie breaks new ground, exactly.  I think it’s a good thing this will finally be the last Toy Story film.  It’s becoming much harder to imagine what else Pixar can put these characters through, and I’d hate for them to push things too far like they did with the Cars franchise.

But don’t get me wrong, it was incredibly entertaining, and I loved every minute of it.  If you liked the first three movies – heck, if you love ANY Pixar movie – you won’t be disappointed by this one.  It’s just…you’ve gotta see it for yourself.  At this point, any further reviewing of the movie would involve spoiler alerts and scene descriptions and re-telling my favorite lines, and that’s not really a review anymore, that’s just a synopsis.

Suffice to say: “Toy Story 4” delivers the kind of movie we’ve come to expect from Pixar.  It’ll make you laugh, jump, laugh some more, give you a couple of hanky moments, and it’ll look GREAT doing it.


By Marc S. Sanders

I’m thinking director Dan Scanlon could very well be the next Chris Columbus or JJ Abrams or maybe…well maybe not Spielberg. But still! His new film Onward from the genius labs of Disney/Pixar is better than I ever expected.

Think about it. The imagination of the film all goes in reverse. Magic and sorcery once ruled in a land of mythical creatures. But then the automobile was invented, along with cell phones, video games, exercise machines and every other every day to day invention known to mankind. Who needs magic anymore?

When two elf brothers, Ian and Barley, voices by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt, come upon their deceased father’s magical staff, they realize that as nerdy as he was, he was in fact a wizard. Some exposition allows them one day to revive him and spend only that particular day with him. It’s an opportunity for older brother Barley to reconnect and Ian to meet him. Something goes awry though when dad is only resurrected up to his waste, legs dressed in khakis with chino shoes and black leather belt. Hilarity and adventure ensue as they must embark on a quest to find a precious gem that will complete the resurrection before time runs out and the sun sets.

As the boys hop into Barley’s van called Guinevere. Adventure inspired of the level of The Goonies fare takes place. There are caverns with booby traps, maps and Holland and Pratt give up good vocal chemistry as they sort out their brotherly issues.

Julia Louis Dreyfus is mom and basically doing the typical Pixar mom but she has a great sidekick. Octavia Spenser as Corey the monstrous Manticore who runs a restaurant. To give side story filler, Dreyfus and Spenser are brought in to be on the trail of the boys. They have some good moments.

Onward has good, often funny and sentimental writing from Scanlon along with Keith Bunin and Jason Headley. It’s ironic actually. So many films from Harry Potter to Star Wars to Marvel focus on mysticism and magic that as movie goers we’ve become inundated with the gimmicks. Onward reminds us that ordinary dependence in a more grounded reality can actually lead to adventure too.

I liked it.


By Marc S. Sanders

Disney/Pixar and (yeah, let’s single him out) Director Brad Bird continue to impress with marvelous feats of imagination. Yet I’m not necessarily referring to the art of their animation, outstanding action scenes or the colorful superhero names. Rather, it’s the story that usually stands above all else in each entry that’s released year after year.

Allow me to sidetrack for a moment. Consider a film like Lethal Weapon 2. It’s a fun movie that I’ve always liked, but it was not just an action movie. I mean, think about it. There’s a reason the first film was on Roger Ebert’s Top 10 list of 1987. It focused on the trauma and suicidal tendencies of a burned out cop along with some great action and humor. It’s sequel however, just did the same thing. Just more of the same stuff, despite a very capable partner that was featured in the film. The partner remained the sidekick again. Not much effort in thought the second time around (or 3rd or 4th).

Incredibles 2 avoids the same trap. While the first one focused on Bob Paar and his alias, Mr. Incredible, this new film relies on Holly Hunter’s Elastigirl, known by day as housewife Helen Paar. Yeah, as I’m writing this, I’m realizing she’s kind of recruited for a mission the same way her husband is, but the perspective seems fresh; consistent in step with other female hero protagonists like Wonder Woman and Katniss Everdeen.

Adding to the effectiveness of this film is that these larger than life characters are humanized. Dad is out of work, following a government mandate. So he stays home with the kids and mixes the pinks with the whites while trying to get the atomic demon baby Jack Jack to sleep. Side note: Jack Jack is an awesome scene stealer. There’s a reason this kid was on every toy shelf and t-shirt in countless variations from the end of summer through Christmas. He’s now up there as one of my favorite Pixar characters.

A surprise reveal is no surprise at all. So don’t set yourself up for disappointment. Just relish in a very cool new villain known as The Screenslaver. He’s no Syndrome but he’s pretty intimidating nonetheless.

As a major comic book geek, another thing I appreciated was that Bird’s script and direction follow a pattern of the golden and silver ages of comics without all the heavy drama that comic film adaptations depend on today. There’s a bad guy wreaking havoc and the superheroes come in to save the day. There’s no heavy pseudo tragedy to get in the way. Often I don’t mind that, but here it’s absence is refreshing. Just make it about a bank robbery and a bad guy with the “mwah ha ha” maniacal laugh and it’ll satisfy. It kept the movie light, playful and especially funny.

So glad that I was able to take time out to see Incredibles 2. Go find your super suit and soar to seat in front of the screen.

NOTE: there is a scene midway through the film that might be disruptive for people prone to having seizures. It contains the equivalent of an actual strobe light effect and it lasts a good 2-3 minutes. Please take that into consideration. If you want to know when it takes place, message me and I’ll clue you in when you might want to excuse yourself from the viewing.