My Faves: The Iron Giant

Long before Groot, Vin Diesel played another heroic giant of few words. One word, in particular, has melted thousands of hearts and caused the shedding of many tears.

“Superman!”

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The Iron Giant
Director: Brad Bird
Writers: Brad Bird and Tim McCanlies
Starring: Vin Diesel, Eli Marienthal, Harry Connick, Jr.
Based (veeerrrry loosely) on the book “The Iron Man” by Ted Hughes
Released: 1999
Rated PG

This is a special movie. It didn’t do well in theatres when it first came out, but nowadays you’d be hard pressed to find anyone willing to say they dislike it. It’s my favourite 2-D cartoon and possibly my favourite animated movie, period. And like most animated movies I love, it’s all about superheroes.

But just in case you have not had the pleasure of seeing this movie, here’s the plot: Hogarth Hughes is a 9-year-old boy who lives with his single mother in the town of Rockwell, Maine, circa 1957. One night, he goes outside to investigate a malfunctioning TV antenna and discovers a 50-foot robot munching on a nearby power plant. The robot gets a nasty shock from the electricity, and even though Hogarth is scared out of his mind, he manages to shut off the power in time to save the Giant. Next thing you know, he has a new friend. The robot has crash-landed on Earth and doesn’t remember anything about himself, where he came from, or why he’s here. Hogarth starts teaching him things like how to talk, how to avoid squishing people, and most importantly, how to use his powers for good just like his favourite hero, Superman. He enlists the help of a junkyard owner named Dean to take care of the Giant, who only eats metal.  But it’s difficult to hide a gigantic robot with the mind of a toddler, especially in the panicky climate of the ’50s, and things only get worse when government agent Kent Mansley arrives to investigate some strange occurrences around Rockwell.

Man, where do I start with this movie? I guess the animation is a good place. It’s beautiful. I’ve only come to appreciate it more as I’ve watched more cartoons, even recent ones, which often don’t measure up despite all the technology available to animators now. The landscapes are so detailed, and the characters’ expressions and movements are so full of life–even when said characters are made of metal. Some scenes look like an animated Norman Rockwell painting, which was probably intentional, given the name of the town.

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But, like, seriously, look at it. Look how gorgeous those trees are.

The movie also does an excellent job of recreating the 1950s American setting. From the classic ’50s diner where Hogarth’s mom works to the hilariously awful instructional video his class watches on how to survive a nuclear attack, it’s obvious the filmmakers did their research on the time period. Most importantly, the movie perfectly evokes the atmosphere of paranoia and xenophobia that existed during the Cold War. Characters talk about the recently-launched Sputnik with dread, worried that the Soviets might be watching them. Hogarth owns propaganda comics with villains like “The Red Menace” and “Atomo.” But it’s Kent who really embodies the Cold War attitude, being ready to assume the worst about the Giant even before he has proof  he exists. “All I know is, we didn’t build it, and that’s reason enough to blow it to kingdom come!” he yells at one point. And that paranoia makes him the perfect kind of villain for a story like this: a cowardly bully.

Of course, Hogarth and the audience don’t know where the Giant came from either, or why he was built, and the movie remains pretty vague on that point. But Hogarth doesn’t really care. This is a kid who thinks of wild animals as friends, much to his mom’s chagrin, and idolises Superman, one of the most idealistic superheroes around. The only reason he needs to help out the Giant is that, in his present state, the robot is kind, innocent, and in need of a friend.

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“He’s…like a little kid.”

The first half of The Iron Giant is pretty light-hearted and funny. After the Giant makes his slightly menacing entrance, and Hogarth finds out he’s really not so menacing, the story becomes about him having comical adventures with his new friend and trying to keep him hidden, while Kent bumbles around searching for a mysterious meteor and generally being ineffectual. There’s a hilarious scene, in which the Giant’s hand gets separated from the rest of him and starts wandering around Hogarth’s house during dinner, that still makes me laugh every time I see it. And of course we’re introduced to Dean McCoppin, who is just awesome.

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“What you currently have IN YOUR MOUTH is ART!!”

But when I first watched the movie, there was a distinct point at which I realised I was watching something a little deeper than your typical funny children’s cartoon. It’s a scene about halfway through, in which Hogarth finds himself having to teach the Giant about death. After that, the movie takes on a much darker tone, but it’s also the beginning of the Giant’s struggle to make sense of his own existence. After all, as that very scene foreshadows, somebody made the Giant for a reason, and it likely wasn’t a peaceful one. He has to figure out how to balance his questionable nature with his desire to do good and protect his friends.

And this is what I love most about The Iron Giant. Lots of kid’s movies have morals they want to teach their young audience, which is a good thing. But so many of those morals boil down to something trite and easy, like “follow your heart.” Not so with this movie (or any Brad Bird-directed flick, as Pixar fans can attest). Here, there are two primary messages, the most obvious being summed up in the quote, “You are who you choose to be.” The Giant’s character development is all about choosing to be a hero, even if that goes against his “programming.” And while the quote is an oversimplification, I think it’s great to show kids that people are defined by their actions rather than by their backgrounds, and that doing the right thing sometimes means going against one’s natural inclinations.

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“You’re made of metal. But you have feelings, and you think about things, and that means you have a soul.”

By contrasting Hogarth and Kent’s reactions to the Giant, and showing the consequences of each, the movie also promotes another message: xenophobia is bad, and fear leads to destruction, while compassion and kindness can prevent it. While the Giant’s own choices determine his character in the end, it’s Hogarth’s friendship that sets him on the path to becoming a hero, and his love for Hogarth that helps him remain one. If Kent Mansley or a paranoid Rockwell resident had met the Giant first…let’s just say the movie would have had a grimmer ending. But because Hogarth reacts to a strange alien monster with compassion and curiosity rather than fear, said alien ends up following his example. Again, I think this is a fantastic lesson to teach kids…and these days, it seems a lot of adults need to learn it as well. With fear of the unknown and the foreigner seemingly on the rise in many places, we could use more stories about showing kindness to strangers.

But of course, neither of those messages would come across very well if this movie wasn’t expertly written, acted, and animated. Fortunately, it is. The script is funny when it tries to be, emotional when it needs to be, and profound without being preachy. All the voice actors do a fantastic job, especially Vin Diesel, who only says a few dozen words as the Giant, but makes every one of them count. The music is also gorgeous, even when it’s not incorporating catchy pop songs from the ’50s.

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Art.

I suppose, if you really wanted to, you could find things to complain about in this movie. There are probably some historical inaccuracies (though I think it would take a professional historian to discover them), and the plot does closely resemble E.T. (except that it’s based on a book that was written before E.T., and it’s also better than E.T.). Personally, though, I think The Iron Giant is about as close to perfect as any movie can get. Why? Well, in addition to all the reasons listed above, I’ve seen it at least a dozen times now, and I still find myself getting misty-eyed at the end. This is the kind of movie that makes you feel better about life, and people, and the world in general after you’ve watched it. And not because it sugarcoats real-life problems or provides an escapist fantasy, but because it shows good triumphing over real evil in a spectacular way.

I also love it as a superhero fan, because it offers a perfect example of what I think the ideal superhero should be: unfailingly kind, hopeful, and brave. And honestly, has any actual Superman movie had a “saving-the-world” scene as awesome as the climax of this one?

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He’s the real Man of Steel.

If you haven’t seen The Iron Giant, do yourself a favour and go watch it. If you have kids, make them watch it. But if you’re a single adult, like me, there is no shame in watching this particular cartoon on your own.

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The LEGO Batman Movie

It’s been three years since The LEGO Movie surprised me by turning what should have just been a two-hour toy commercial into one of the funniest, most creative, and most heartwarming animated movies in recent memory. And it’s been four years since the DC Extended Universe, which should by rights be the best superhero movie franchise ever, began the slow, agonising process of breaking my heart. Now, in this year’s  crossover, can the magic of LEGO save the Dark Knight from dullness?

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This movie centres on Batman as he appeared in The LEGO Movie, in all his self-absorbed, dim-witted glory. He has no trouble saving Gotham from the Joker’s latest evil schemes (not even when latter teams up with such fearsome villains as Calendar Man and Condiment King), but he is having a lot of trouble forming relationships. Even admitting the Joker is his arch-nemesis proves to be too great a commitment for Batman–which the clown doesn’t take very well. When the new police commissioner, Barbara Gordon, unexpectedly helps to capture all of Gotham’s supervillains at once, Batman is left with no one to fight–except Alfred, who wants him to become more mature and responsible, and Dick Grayson, the orphan he accidentally adopted, who just wants a dad. To get out of his funk (and, of course, foil a new scheme by the Joker) Batman must confront his greatest fear: being part of a family again.

If you saw The LEGO Movie, you have a pretty good idea of what to expect from this semi-sequel: gorgeously detailed animation, a diabolically catchy soundtrack, tons of pop culture references, and Batman being a giant ham. It’s every bit as funny and frenetic as its predecessor, even if the concept feels less fresh and original than it did the first time around. The plot twists and surprises of the first movie are hard to beat, and for the most part, this one doesn’t even try.

But that’s okay, because this doesn’t feel as much like a LEGO movie as it feels like a Batman movie where everything happens to be made of LEGO. And when you look at it that way, it becomes what DC fans have been vainly hoping for ever since Man of Steel came out: a DC-based film that makes sense, respects its source material, and is willing to have fun. It’s packed with shout-outs to every incarnation of Batman that has ever graced the screen, from the ’60s TV show to Suicide Squad–which it soundly mocks. It even gives a nod to HISHE’s “Because I’m Batman!” meme, for those of us who frequent YouTube. And the story itself wouldn’t feel too out-of-place in a Batman comic (well, with the exception of a few non-DC properties that turn up towards the end). It truly feels like a movie made by and for Batman fans.

“How many characters from the comics should we put in this movie?” “ALL OF THEM!”

This is undoubtedly the most light-hearted incarnation of the Dark Knight to hit the screen in my lifetime, but he’s still got some issues. Just like in all his appearances, he’s hung up on his parents’ death, which in this case makes it hard for him to form relationships, for fear of being hurt again. It’s a pretty relatable problem, and in between all the jokes, it’s developed in a pretty touching way. When it comes time to give Batsy some much-needed character development, this story does so with great sincerity and heart.

And as always, Batman would be nothing without his supporting cast, who are all in fine form here. Alfred has never been more kind and fatherly, or more awesome. Robin has never been more adorable. And Batgirl–well, Batgirl hasn’t made a lot of appearances on the big screen, has she? So I guess I’m just happy she’s here. I’m also happy that she’s voiced by Rosario Dawson, a.k.a. Claire Temple, who has lots of experience talking sense into overly angsty male superheroes. Even the Joker is kinda likable in this movie, even though he’s still pretty evil.

He just needs a hug. And an archnemesis.

I have some nitpicks, of course. For example, I’m sick of seeing Batgirl played as a love interest for Batman. It’s creepy, it’s weird, and it still feels a little wrong even when it’s played for laughs in a kid’s movie. Also, I don’t know how I feel about Sauron being part of Joker’s evil army at the end (minor spoilers, sorry). I know it’s fun to put a bunch of Big Bads from various franchises together in a LEGO movie, but if you’re going to parody the incarnation of evil from the best fantasy tale of all time, you should at least  pronounce his name right. Also also, did Batman need to be waving an iPhone around? Do Warner Bros. and LEGO really need the advertising money?

Look at this. I’m critiquing a LEGO movie. What is wrong with me?

I’m as useless as Bat-Shark Repellent.

Despite some minor flaws, this is, without question, the best Batman movie since the Dark Knight saga. I won’t go as far as some critics have and say it’s the best Batman movie ever made, but it’s definitely in the top five. And like The LEGO Movie, it comes with a message any parent should be glad to teach their kid: You can’t do everything on your own. It’s worth it to make friends and be part of a family, even if you risk getting hurt in the process. That lesson isn’t exactly revolutionary coming from a kid’s movie, but I can think of a few grown-up superheroes who could stand to hear it again. Not to mention a few real-life humans.

Bottom line: LEGO has, indeed, saved Batman. (At least until Justice League comes out and ruins him again.) And everything is still awesome in the LEGO-verse.

The seating arrangements could use some work, though.

Grade: A

Moana

I can’t decide how sad I should be that Disney owns Lin-Manuel Miranda now. On the one hand, I think it’s going to be a really bad thing for his creative freedom (not that we’re likely to hear him complaining), but on the other hand, it’s obviously a really good thing for Disney.

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Moana is the story of…Moana, the daughter of a village chief on the South Pacific island of Motu Nui. Despite being surrounded by ocean, her people refuse to sail very far out on it, for fear of monsters and storms. But our rebellious teen heroine loves the ocean, and it turns out the feeling is mutual. Meanwhile, a curse is destroying all the islands in the Pacific because a demigod named Maui has stolen, and subsequently lost, the heart of life-giving goddess Te Fiti. When the curse reaches Motu Nui, Moana sets off on a voyage to save her people by finding Maui and returning the heart.

This movie doesn’t seem to be getting Frozen levels of hype yet (thank the Lord), but just in case it gets there in the coming months, let me reassure you: nothing about Moana is going to revolutionise Disney forever. True, it taps into a culture and mythology that Disney hasn’t really explored before, which is cool. But it’s still about a princess (with the same face shape the animators have been using since Tangled, no less) who rebels against her overbearing dad and her society’s expectations, has a goofy animal sidekick, goes on a journey, finds out she’s The Chosen One, joins up with a grumpy magical creature, and gets encouraged by the ghost of a dead ancestor. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before.

It’s a good thing she’s not white, because I was running out of ways to tell Disney princesses apart.

The only thing Moana is missing, in terms of Disney princess cliches, is a prince. I guess this movie is slightly revolutionary in that, not only does Moana not have a love interest, but the topic of romance and/or marriage never comes up once in the entire story. Which is great, because there’s no room for it, and it’s about time we got a fantasy adventure that wasn’t bogged down by a romantic subplot. Moana’s got oceans to sail and islands to save! Romance can wait!

I will freely admit that the main reason I went to see this film on opening weekend was that I’m obsessed with Hamilton. But by and large, I enjoyed it. The animation is lovely, the characters are engaging, and it goes without saying that the music is awesome. (Except for the hideous pop cover of the main character’s signature song during the credits.) My favourite song is “We Know the Way,” the one where you can actually hear the Lin-Man’s beautiful, beautiful voice.

He’s the only Disney prince I need.

But I digress.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the Disney formula. It works spectacularly just as often as it doesn’t, and it’s produced many a classic in the past, which is why Disney owns the world now. Moana is a perfectly good princess movie, and, while it may not reach the heights of some of the greatest classics, it’s a huge improvement on Frozen.

But Moana is also an excellent example of some of the things I dislike most about Disney. For one thing, I can’t understand their current trend of injecting self-conscious, 2010s-style dialogue into supposedly timeless fairy tales. I am simply not amused by forced Twitter references and fourth-wall-breaking discussions on whether or not Moana fits into the Disney princess canon. I’d rather just laugh at the suicidal chicken, thank you very much. (I’ll admit, though, the sneaky Godzilla cameo made me smile.)

More importantly, though, this movie’s underlying message is the safest, most time-worn Disney message in history: Be yourself and follow your heart. I’ve always found that movie advice to be puzzling, because back when I was a part of Disney’s target demographic, my heart was mainly telling me to read books all day, throw rocks at my brother, and tell my little cousins that Santa Claus wasn’t real. And only one of those was a good thing. It’s all very well for Moana to follow her heart, since it only tells her to go sailing and save her island, but it’s not the best advice for most real people, especially children. Then again, when has Disney ever cared about reality?

Never. That’s when.

Other thoughts about Moana: 1. I had no idea The Rock had any talents other than body building, but he actually did a pretty fantastic job as Maui. 2. One minor villain’s song seemed weirdly out of place in this movie, but I still kinda liked it. 3. The coconut pirates were adorable and I want to hang one from my windshield.

All in all, a good Disney flick. Disney may never make something as great as Kubo, but they’ve done much worse than Moana.

“I forgive you for stealing Lin.” “You’re welcome.”

Grade: B+

Kubo and the Two Strings

I have a new favourite movie of the year! It’s Kubo and the Two Strings, a pleasant surprise that I knew nothing about before going to see it.

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Kubo is a young boy with some pretty neat magical powers. He can bring paper (and anything paper-like) to life by playing his magical shamisen (a three-stringed lute, for my fellow ignorant Westerners), and he can fly. But everything else about his life sucks. He’s never known his father, he has to take care of his mother because she’s catatonic most of the time, and he’s missing an eye. To make things worse, the people responsible for all these problems, his monstrous grandfather and aunts, are still after him. When they finally find the village where he and his mom are hiding, Kubo has to go on a quest to find his father’s magic armour, his only hope of defeating  his evil relatives. He’s accompanied along the way by a fighting snow monkey and a forgetful giant beetle (plus his ever-present living origami creatures).

Story aside, this is easily one of the best looking animated movies I’ve ever seen. It’s so gorgeous that the sound could have been turned off and I would still feel like I’d gotten my money’s worth. And it gets even more incredible when you realise that it’s almost all stop-motion. Epic mountain landscapes, terrifying monsters, flocks of paper birds, stormy seas, characters with the full range of human expression–all stop-motion puppetry.  The giant skeleton Kubo and Co. fight halfway through the movie? Yeah, that’s an 18-foot-tall puppet. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it puts Pixar to shame.

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Puppets. All puppets.

Oh, and the soundtrack’s lovely, too.

Story-wise, Kubo himself is my favourite thing about the movie. He’s an expert storyteller himself (therefore automatically awesome), and boy, is he good at surviving adversity. I haven’t seen a child protagonist put through the wringer like he is since Oliver Twist. But no matter how much emotional trauma the movie heaps on him, he hangs on to his positive view of the world and never gives up fighting for what he loves. Plus, his magic paper powers are really cool, and he gets to use a sweet samurai sword.

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This is the face of a kid who’s had a few too many bad days in his life.

Kubo deals with some pretty heavy stuff for a kids’ movie–which is one of my criteria for a good kids’ movie. Death, and what happens after, is a major theme, as is the power of stories and the importance of honoring one’s true family, even after they’re gone. Even though it’s made by a bunch of Americans, Kubo‘s Eastern philosophical influences are pretty obvious (and, as far as my very limited knowledge goes, pretty accurate).

But its loudest message is one that’s often found in fantasy movies, kid-friendly or not: “Humans are awesome!” The villains are god-like beings that live in “the heavens” (specifically the moon, if Grandfather’s official title, the Moon King, is any indication), and look down on humans for their imperfections and mortality. But all the human and human-like characters are shown to be heroic and brave, while Grandfather’s definition of “perfection” seems to amount to “being a joyless psycho.” So it’s no surprise that Kubo doesn’t fall for the Moon King’s attempts to convince him to come live in the stars. In real life, of course, there are as many “Grandfathers” here on earth as there are Kubos and Monkeys, and from a Christian perspective, the Heavens are our only reliable source of heroism. But as long as we’re telling stories, it’s nice to focus on the positive side of humanity once in a while.

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And the positive side of monkey-kind, and beetle-kind, I suppose…

Kubo isn’t perfect. A couple of “twists” near the end were so obvious that it was hard for me to take their “reveals” seriously, and the jokes didn’t all quite land for me. But this has been a terrible summer for movies, so I’m not inclined to complain a lot about the one film that actually tried to be a creative, thought-provoking piece of art.

A note of caution: this movie might be a little too scary for some kids. Kubo’s aunts, the Sisters, are extremely creepy, and like I said, there’s a giant skeleton.  And some main characters die in rather upsetting ways. I am personally very much in favour of putting actual danger into kids’ movies, because they’re going to encounter scary stuff sometime, and what better way to get introduced than through an exciting, fictional story where the good guy wins? One can go overboard with the scariness, but I don’t think this movie did. But it all depends on the kid.

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Nightmare-prone children should probably stay away.

And one final note: I think it’s hilarious that this movie cast George Takei (and gave him top billing!) just so he could say “Oh, my” in the trademark tone. ‘Cause that’s pretty much all he does. 🙂

Grade: A

Finding Dory

I swear, every movie coming out for the next three months is a remake or a sequel. Every. Single. One.

*Sigh* Must be summer.

Anyway, out of all these unnecessary movies, possibly the most unnecessary is Finding Dory, the sequel to that great family movie about fish that came out more than a decade ago and wrapped up its whole story with a nice happy ending. Not much has changed under the sea since then (apparently it’s only been a year in fish time). Marlin, Nemo, and Dory are living happily in the coral reef, and still going on field trips with Mr. Ray. But during one of these trips, a sudden flashback overcomes Dory’s short-term memory loss, and she remembers that she has a family. So it’s time for another journey across the ocean, with the destination this time being an aquarium in California.

I’m calling it right now: Baby Dory is going to be the cutest thing to hit the big screen all year.

Much of Finding Dory plays out just like its predecessor: the characters go on a journey, meet other friendly fish, almost get eaten by a nasty creature in a shipwreck, endure the horrors of human children, and end up reuniting with their lost loved ones, just before initiating a crazy escape back to the ocean. The difference, of course, is that this time around, the focus is entirely on Dory. Marlin and Nemo, in fact, are pretty useless. They don’t do much, and, disappointingly, Marlin doesn’t seem to have learned anything about over-protectiveness since the last movie.

But when it comes to Dory, there’s not much to complain about. Ellen DeGeneres does a brilliant job voicing her, as always, and it’s kind of refreshing to see her as more than just a comic relief character. While the last movie mostly treated her short-term memory loss as a quirky running gag, this one treats it like a serious mental illness. Dory can’t remember her own parents except in brief flashbacks, and she has a full-blown panic attack every time she’s asked to go anywhere alone, because she knows she’ll get lost. While the search for her parents forms the main part of the plot, the movie is really about Dory coming to grips with her condition and learning how to do things on her own even when she can’t remember where she is. And she ends up saving the day in even more awesome ways than Marlin did in the first movie (to the point where it feels a little over-the-top at times).

In addition to the protagonist we all know and love, this movie introduces some fun new characters, like Destiny the near-sighted whale shark, Bailey the ditzy beluga, and a pair of sea lions who more or less fill the role of the friendly sharks in the first movie. But my favourite of the new characters was Hank, a grumpy octopus who camouflages himself anywhere, moves freely on land, operates his tentacles with human-like dexterity, and generally confirms my long-held belief that octupuses will take over the world the instant they become self-aware.

Fortunately, our future overlords don’t like touching humans. This could end up saving our lives.

Overall, the movie has a much more “kid-friendly” feel than the first one, not that Finding Nemo was in any way inappropriate for kids. It’s less scary and has more silly and/or gross-out moments, like Hank “inking” a pool or Marlin throwing up during a turtle ride. It also doesn’t pack the same emotional punch. Dory’s relationship with her parents is shown entirely through flashbacks, which isn’t quite the same as letting us see their relationship play out for five minutes before the conflict kicks in. It’s well done as far as it goes, and her desire to see them again feels genuine, but it also feels sort of tacked-on after the first movie’s happy ending.

If Finding Dory has a “message,” it’s that people with disabilities are just as capable of great feats as anyone else, and that no one should ever apologise or feel inferior for having a mental problem. Which is, I must admit, slightly more inspiring than the first movie’s “over-protective parents are wrong” aesop. There are some very powerful moments toward the end that show Dory getting over her fear of forgetting things, and learning how to use her own unique strengths to get out of trouble.

But in the end, whether it’s because of the storyline’s familiarity, the more childish atmosphere, or something else, the movie just didn’t stick with me like the first one did. It was decently entertaining, for a sequel, but it didn’t really offer anything surprising or new.

Look. Look how beautiful it is. The whole short is like this. I could cry.

The opening short, “Piper,” is a different story. The almost photo-realistically animated story of a baby sandpiper overcoming his fear of the ocean, it’s worth the price of a movie ticket all by itself. I didn’t think it was possible for me to be blown away by 3D animation anymore, but Pixar keeps on proving me wrong. This is a gorgeous bit of storytelling done without any dialogue, possibly their best short yet. It’s just a pity they can’t seem to bring the same level of originality to their feature-length films anymore.

Overall, I can whole-heartedly recommend Finding Dory to anyone wishing to take their young child/sibling/cousin/etc. out for a fun evening. For a single adult like myself, it may not be worth the ten bucks.

Grade: B