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Finding Dory

Disney/Pixar (June 17 2016), Walt Disney Home Entertainment (November 15 2016), three discs, 97 mins plus supplements, 1080p high-definition widescreen 1.78:1, DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1, Rated PG, Retail: $39.99

Storyboard:

Cute clownfish Nemo is back…or at least his sidekick pal Dory is…in a somewhat belated sequel that provides many hyperactive shenanigans to wash over the fact that this is actually as shallow as big studio entertainment comes.

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The Sweatbox Review:

Audience tastes and personal reactions to various movies never fail to astonish me: in a record-breaking 2016 for the Disney Studios, two of its high-profile titles – a sequel to Tim Burton’s billion dollar-grossing Alice In Wonderland, the outright financial flop Alice Through The Looking Glass, and the risky remake of Pete’s Dragon, which while a moderate hit wasn’t the kind of out-and-out smash that would rank alongside the likes of Maleficent and The Jungle Book – may not have exactly set the box-office alight, but actually proved to be two of the best examples of Disney’s contemporary brand of movie magic of recent times.

Surpassing any expectations, the new Burton-less Alice managed to shake free of the director’s usual tropes (he produced only, among others) and became a film of whimsical wonder, an odyssey of a fantasy film that we haven’t seen in many a year: indeed, my description was that it felt like the kind of film that could have been made in the 1980s era of The Dark Crystal, The Never-Ending Story, Return To Oz and Labyrinth, but with today’s technology and sensibilities. Full of wit and invention, is a shame audiences may have been put off by a follow-up coming too long after the original, or by star Johnny Depp’s well-publicised and badly timed personal problems.

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Alice Through The Looking Glass was the kind of film that, had it been made in the 1980s, viewers of a certain age would now be remembering with a nostalgic fondness, and although we were unable to secure review coverage here at Animated Views, I do hope the film finds something of a decent audience on home video, much as those 80s classics predominantly did. Likewise, Pete’s Dragon, which will be the subject of an upcoming AV review, could have gone either way, but turned out to be nothing short of exemplary family film fare – possibly my favorite of Disney’s releases this year, in fact. Both movies deserved more audience recognition…except for the fact that those audiences were all off making this rather desperate and hollow stablemate a massive hit instead.

I also find it ironic that, when Disney brought in the Pixar folks to rejuvenate its then-flagging animation unit, they lamented the Mouse House’s growing trend, and ultimate reliance, of sequelizing their biggest feature animation titles in a lower-budgeted series of what came to be known, by disillusioned fans, as “cheapquels” and television spin-offs. The nixing of the direct-to-video operation was among the first tasks the Pixar regime demanded, signalling a return for Disney to original stories that reflected its traditional roots, and a heap of hits duly followed. All the while, it seemed Pixar itself, with founder John Lasseter stretched between the two studios, began to suffer from his lack of full attention or felt pleased enough to simply rest on its own laurels – possibly a combination of both – and slid into the predictably Hollywood easy route of…you guessed it…sequels and spin-offs.

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Now, there’s nothing inherently “wrong” with this: it’s a fact of Hollywood filmmaking that a massive hit will be bled dry many times over if the audience demand is there, and Pixar – despite how special its many fans like to think the place is – wouldn’t be as successful as it has been, with a batting average that has seen a hit every time except for last year’s blip of The Good Dinosaur (and even that didn’t lose money), if it didn’t adhere to the bigger industry’s traditional machinations. The trouble is, and here’s where the irony comes in, that Pixar’s sequels have largely…(whisper it)…just not been very good.

After the extraordinary Toy Story 2, itself a last-minute fix to a knee-jerk reaction to rush out a follow-up to that smash first film and still, for me at least, a pinnacle of the computer animated medium, and an astonishing run of truly original films from directors Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter that recalled in spirit the feel of Walt’s golden age features, a recent dependency on sequels, prequels and spin-offs, such as a duo of Cars-world set Planes features (albeit branded as Disney product), has even seen the studio itself publicly address the fact that it will soon return to a healthy slate of original pictures (after Cars 3, Brad Bird’s anticipated Incredibles continuation and Toy Story 4, of course).

Let’s be honest here: Pixar insists that it doesn’t put any sequel into production before they have a great concept, and there’s certainly a sometimes fair argument that the studio’s lesser outings often beat, or at least equal, most other studios’ attempts, but all too often the resulting films have not lived up to those concepts. I wasn’t a fan of the original Cars or the world it was set in, but was willing to strap in for the international spy adventure sequel, which sounded big fun until I saw the eventual mess it was and fell asleep halfway through, while even the much-lauded Toy Story 3 may well have tied up loose ends and closed the trilogy (as it was, until the movie made a billion dollars) in appropriate style, but it ultimately felt more like an amalgamation of elements from the first two films than anything surprising or fresh.

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The less said about Monsters University the better, the result being a concept that might well have played for a good joke as a short film but felt stretched to feature-length, with the filmmakers not even adhering to backstory mentioned in the original film (and shrugging off the fact rather than working out their details in an alternate way so as to work with what had been established already), which didn’t help with the feeling that the film had been made with less care and attention than an original may have been. (One might even suggest that there is a mild complacency at work in these films, as if the audience will eat it up despite any reservations simply because “it’s Pixar” and, to an extent, that’s true.)

Even the flagship Toy Story has been diluted by a series of admittedly decent short films which then turned into a couple of TV specials that eventually kind of threw out the whole basic concept of what the Toy Story world was really about, while Disney Animation itself hasn’t been immune to this trend: the long-gestating Tangled begat Frozen, which in turn spun off its own short film, an upcoming TV special and a feature sequel in the works: decades of the studio resisting Hollywood’s ways and sticking to Walt’s edict that “you can’t top pigs with pigs” falling by the wayside as the easy buck is chased for a Tangled TV show and Wreck-It Ralph 2. Based on this amount of sequel activity, I really don’t think those DTV films could be said to be the huge affront to Disney values as they liked to make out…

Which brings us, finally…although I’m actually in no rush to get there…to Finding Dory, aka Finding Nemo 2, a film that demonstrates those sometimes half-baked home video titles are not so much a thing of the past as they are still made, albeit with bigger budgets and theatrical release campaigns. Returning co-writer/director Stanton himself confesses that the Nemo story was wrapped up in one neat, beautiful film, and for many years he resisted calls for a follow-up, feeling the story had been told. And told it was: I loved the original and, for me, it really pushed the boundaries of what computer animation could achieve not so much in terms in technical terms, but in emotional depth (no watery pun intended), with characters that had nuance and a story that resonated beyond the then-usual Pixar antics of talking toys, bugs and monsters.

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Such an achievement was rewarded, deservedly so, with a massive box-office bounty and an Oscar win for Pixar’s first Best Animated Feature award, giving Stanton the clout to make the equally superlative WALL-E and, following that film’s just as huge audience approval, his own pet project, an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ almost legendary John Carter books. Issues with the live-action film translation of those original pulp stories abound, and part of the problem with any movie version to come along in this day and age is that the 100+ year old source material has been pillaged and plundered by almost every major work of speculative fiction to come since, making the elements seem derivative of, well, everything to have come since.

Despite these obstacles and the many rumors surrounding its sometimes troubled production, followed by a total lack of faith in the project from Disney’s marketing team, Stanton actually turned in an excellent fantasy adventure movie, ostensibly setting up a new franchise with an intended trilogy of movies. However, the infamous bombing of the film in box-office terms found not only Disney’s marketing to blame, but audience apathy as well, and that, in Hollywood, does not keep a director in the hot seat. Pixar is keen to stress that Disney does not dictate which films it makes, and that’s a lovely public face to present, but while the head office may not “demand” a title be put into production, one can bet that hints are dropped.

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“Do you have another one of these?” is a paraphrased question Disney chief Bob Iger asked Lasseter after the surprise success of Tangled‘s half-a-billion-plus take. Disney Animation didn’t, at the time, but had been struggling with a then-canceled version of The Snow Queen. Without Iger insisting (he asked nicely, after all), the film went back into production, its story issues ironed out, and Frozen thawed out into a billion-dollar-plus commercial smash (needless to say that a sequel is on the way). With Stanton in “director jail” after John Carter‘s disappointing run, a traditional path of redemption is for a director to return to past glories to restore luster to their filmographies, and though he had said that the book had been closed on Nemo, one can’t help but wonder if another friendly question was put his way.

Someone in a similar position to Stanton is Brad Bird, director of The Incredibles, a big hit, and Tomorrowland, a big, ambitious but nevertheless enjoyable live-action feature that was too full of too many ideas and ultimately shared John Carter‘s fate at the box-office. However, before Tomorrowland hit, Bird had already announced that his next movie would be the long-awaited follow-up to The Incredibles, thus protecting himself from accusations that he was only returning to that world following the Tomorrowland bust (my theory is that had Tomorrowland been a hit, he still would have followed with an Incredibles sequel and parlayed that huge double-success into his long-proposed San Francisco earthquake drama).

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Bird, it seems, understands the “one for me, one for you” principle that the likes of Clint Eastwood and, to an extent, Steven Spielberg, have been operating under for most of their career: the alternating between a personal project that may or may not make much money in theaters but is creatively rewarding, with a bigger, broader endeavor that’s more likely to bring in the big bucks (and cover any losses on those smaller films, although I’m sure Disney was more surprised than anyone when Spielberg’s excellent thriller Bridge Of Spies made three times the amount that intended blockbuster The B.F.G. brought in). It’s a smart system and one that keeps a filmmaker both revitalised creatively on a personal level and commercially relevant in the studios’ eyes. Now, I’m not suggesting Stanton suddenly found a deep down desire to return to his biggest hit just because he’d suffered a big dent to his directorial pride, but doesn’t the coincidence seem a little fishy to you?

I’m sure at the very least a jovial prompt in the right direction got him thinking about Nemo‘s world again (“you know, we’re not asking or insisting that you make this, but a new Nemo would sure clear up any ill feeling on Carter and go some way to your getting another live-action movie off the ground…”) but, despite words said in publicity for the film and the unexpectedly massive box-office reaction to its release, one can’t help but feel that Stanton’s heart just isn’t really in this one from the get-go, and as the film wears on and situations and characters are just repeated from the first film in a series of “greatest hits” appearances, it really does little to suggest that the director (co-writing here with Victoria Strouse) isn’t just coasting along.

Right from the start, Finding Dory is confused and confusing. Gone is the warm, heartfelt drama and character interaction of Nemo, replaced with a cuter than cute baby cute version of a cute baby Dory, complete with cute little squeaky cute child voice. Sure, she’s cute – we get it – and her sweet little cute memory loss disability is cute too, sometimes troublingly so when it comes and goes to serve the convoluted plot, but with every cute moment that passes you can feel your cute buttons being pressed: inside out, Sadness and Joy are playing tug-of-war with your emotions, while your brain is trying to figure out who is voicing her parents (an almost unrecognisable Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton, for the record).

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Suddenly…Dory’s lost her parents and we’re then rushed midway into a scene recreation from Nemo, where a now grown up Dory meets Marlin, Nemo’s dad, and they head off on their original adventure. But we’ve seen that movie already, and there’s no need to swim through old waters, so we leap forward “one year later” again in a blip…and all this in under the film’s first six or so minutes of screentime. Setting up multiple story elements can be deftly achieved – see Disney’s Tarzan opening for starters – but that’s certainly not the case here (if you haven’t seen Nemo you won’t have a clue what’s happening), especially when, for the sakes of kicking the plot into gear, Dory comes to the fore and suddenly remembers her parents (and here I was understanding that she suffered from short term memory loss…).

And then the movie turns into Dory Finding… because she doesn’t so much as get lost (though you sometimes wish she did) as go searching for said parents, meaning that even the title of the movie doesn’t really add up. So Dory, successful as supporting comic relief for a reason in the original film, finds herself a one-tone star of a one-tone movie, in which the comic relief is supported only by other comic relief sidekicks and everything quickly becomes tedious (at one point, the story seems to be naturally resolving itself, but we’re only halfway through and so it literally starts to repeat itself as a way to fill out the duration). When the movie seems to come to a close again, we’ve still almost a half-hour to go, including an overlong epilogue that simply doesn’t know when to end… Stanton and the filmmakers know this, so they just keep packing in hyper-excited voices, characters that shout all the time and various Nemo repeats.

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So we get Mr Ray and his “Oooohhh…” migration song; a brief return for righteous Crush in an absolutely pointless cameo that serves no purpose other than to just include him for thirty seconds; there’s a pair of sea lions who take over from the seagulls of the first film (“Off! Off! Off! Off!”); and a supposed reason for Dory knowing whale talk, which becomes its own “thing” here to a mind-numbing degree (and why is it that Dory’s shouty childhood friends don’t seem to have grown up a day since Dory knew them as a kid?). There’s even a “celebrity cameo” from Sigourney Weaver (Stanton’s ship’s computer in WALL-E) that feels like it’s from some other movie, quickly gets overplayed and feels like the director called in a favor that may have been best saved for something more worthy. And at the center is Dory, again voiced by Ellen DeGeneres – and who knew that you could actually find this otherwise personable performer so freaking annoying!?

The film troublingly finds amusement in mental disabilities, not just from Dory, but in several other supporting characters, but it’s okay because they’re funny, right? Well, yes, on the surface, and that’s this movie’s big problem is that it’s all just surface and no depth. Even Dory’s parents come over as condescending rather than understanding of their daughter, while a shortsighted whale shark swimming her head into things all the time and what amounts to psychological torture of other mentally challenged characters is supposedly hilarious. The yelling, excited characters certainly don’t help, and having Dory as the focus of it all gives the whole thing the feel of a perfectly fine sidekick’s short film that’s been blown out of all proportion into a feature star-vehicle and where the character’s flaws are all too obvious.

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Dory forgetting something now and then as a support in Nemo is charming; Dory forgetting things all the time as the lead is just monotonous, mundane and, more than anything, boring. A more appropriate title might have been Finding Bory, since that’s what we find here. “Wait! You don’t understand!”, Dory keeps insisting over and over, irritatingly, and it’s true: we don’t. Plot points come and go (how does a fish know where California is?) without reason, and the situations are so convoluted once we reach the Marine Life Institute (a happy place with no “blackfish” here) so as to be ridiculous even in an animated movie about talking fish. The ways they skate around the fact that fish need water to survive in could have been witty and exciting in a cliffhanger style, but that it’s all played just for laughs means there’s a total lack of jeopardy, and a sequence in which Dory and Hank navigate around the park in a baby stroller is almost shockingly bare of any danger, or worthy of any human attention, so it seems from the scant reactions from only the occasional onlooker.

At one point early on, when Dory might have been killed on a school trip, the kids audibly lament that the blue fish is, in fact, okay and alive. I’m sorry, but after sitting through this, I’m with the kids and wish it had ended not long after it had begun: with end credits, an hour forty of this is just way too long. Finding Dory is almost worthy for introducing Hank the octopus, but let’s hope that Finding Hank isn’t next. If anything I wouldn’t be surprised if after the inexplicable billion-dollar gross (I guess there’s a lot of Nemo fans, now parents, out there taking their kids) that we get a movie following Nemo’s search for Marlin, since it might make up for poor Albert Brooks being given very little to do here other than keep serving up curmudgeonly lines (he was much better this year in the concurrently released The Secret Life Of Pets, a film that shares a similar, but more skilfully handled chase ending).

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Finding Dory finds Pixar literally jumping a shark, their formula watered down, with director Stanton treading water and whatever other suspiciously fishy analogies you might wish to use. It’s easily a sea-quel too far and, ironically for a movie about memory loss, that rare catch of being a totally forgettable Pixar movie. Unless that was the intention all along and the studio has actually succeeded in creating the first “meta movie”. At the very least, let’s hope that an inevitable Finding Marlin is better, since Stanton isn’t a dopey filmmaker and, after his previous films, I had expected more from him. I’m not sure that Finding Dory is the nadir of Pixar’s sequel endeavors, since Cars 2 takes an awful lot of beating, but but it certainly sinks down there. Hopefully the studio’s upcoming follow-ups will be more creatively rewarding, even if I’m sure Stanton isn’t too worried with a billion-dollar gross and a reputation restored. On that score at least, it’s fishin’ accomplished.

Is This Thing Loaded?

Whatever one thinks of the main feature itself, we can all be thankful that Pixar retains the clout within Disney to issue its own Collectors Edition sets and, just as Nemo before it, Finding Dory boasts about as extensive a collection of supplements as we have had from the Mouse House in some time, with a second Blu-ray disc of extras (an Ultimate set adds an additional 3D platter). It all kicks off with the short film Piper that accompanied Dory in theaters, a cute but slightly lacking film that’s nevertheless an improvement on the studio’s recent short Lava, which simply befuddled, a catchy song aside, but whose greatest strength or weakness is that it just feels too “quintessentially Pixar”.

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Marine Life Interviews struggles too hard to go the Aardman Creature Comforts route to feature the feature’s supporting characters talking “candidly” about how they feel about Dory herself, complete with a microphone in the corner of one shot, but if this is supposed to be something approaching an exclusive short created for this set its woefully unfunny and redundant at under a scant two minutes. Much better is The Octopus That Nearly Broke Pixar, the first of the behind the scenes extras proper, that delves into the creation of Hank, from character concept, voice recording and innovative animation techniques, and packs a bunch into its nine minutes.

A mix of likeminded material follows, from Stanton’s take on Dory in What Were We Talking About?, which point blank admits that an issue with the film is that the filmmakers were “taking a character that was designed to be a sidekick and transitioning her to be a main character”, and Casual Carpool, a frankly bizarre set-up clip of the vocal stars being driven to work by Stanton, to Animation & Acting, a more serious few minutes of how the voices help to inspire the artists’ depictions. Deep In The Kelp has a Disney Channel moppet briefly exploring Pixar’s research trip to a nearby aquarium, while Creature Features has more from the voice cast, who come up with a fun fact each on the species they portray.

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Wrapping up this first disc is a Feature Commentary with co-writer and director Stanton, co-director Angus MacLane and producer Lindsay Collins. Stanton opens up with his “why now?” explanation right off the bat, although here as in the publicity surrounding the film’s theatrical release it still doesn’t really wash that Finding Dory is built on anything approaching a solid reasoning for a full-length film. The rest of the chat is jovial enough, but as with the film there’s a feeling that this isn’t the most substantial of tracks, where the drama of the first film has been swapped for a more frantic and comical approach, especially emphasized going by the laughs shared by the trio participating here.

If this was a Disney disc then you may feel lucky to have gotten as much as that, and indeed that’s all the content on the first platter, but wait…there’s more, with a second, pretty full disc of supplements. Behind The Scenes offers up five additional featurettes, beginning with Skating & Sketching With Jason Deamer (4:14) is a Pixar profile on this artistic designer and his unique approach to visualising characters through shapes, while Dory’s Theme (4:57) finds composer Thomas Newman interestingly analysing several of his score cues in an all-too-brief clip, and Rough Day On The Reef (1:11) is one of those montages that amusingly shows up how final renders can get turned upside down when computer glitches take over.

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Although still ostensibly Behind The Scenes, Finding Nemo As Told By Emoji (2:47) returns to the plot of the original film and feels more like a promotional piece, or…something. I’m not really a fan of these kinds of things – they don’t really work on their own terms and so what’s ultimately the point? – but I guess it fills the disc up a little more and it admittedly covers the entire movie coherently with music and sound effects and even acts as something of a refresher of the first film as well as a teaser for the new one. Also pushing the boundaries of what a behind the scenes section should constitute, Fish Schticks (3:35) is again more promotional in scope, being an assemblage of character interstitials and TV channel bumpers run together as something of a plotless short serving up a series of random situations, a couple of which bring a smile.

Living Aquariums recycles the same idea from the previous Finding Nemo DVD and Blu-ray, running essentially static-camera backgrounds from the film, and it’s clear from the average three hour runtime that this is where the bulk of the disc space has been allocated. There are four to select: Sea Grass, Open Ocean, Stingrays and Swim To The Surface, a couple of which feature some of the supporting characters floating by, but not any specific character interaction (from the few minutes I let a couple run). More than slightly monotonous (especially the circling stingrays), these are neat ideas but I wonder how many people actually “use” them as TV wallpaper…and if indeed there are any surprises to be found a couple of hours in?

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These “Aquariums” (the name doesn’t really work since they’re more like windows into the Finding world than a tank with fish in it) don’t seem to be as unique or innovative as the ones offered up on previous discs, and just seem like a large loss of platter space to me, when an hour or so on a loop would provide the same effect and leave room for more worthy extras. The last one admittedly is just an hour in length (and loops more often), but one still can’t whizz through these since the fast-forward function has been disabled on the disc, which is an additional frustration. Much, much better, and something of a generous surprise is the highlight of this second disc and arguably the supplements as a whole: a whopping 50 minutes worth of Deleted Scenes introduced by Stanton.

Seven such moments play out, mostly being abandoned scenes from early editions of the film or alternate versions of moments that still feature, but none come close to feeling essential or that might have made for a better film. Indeed, the majority feel painfully cliché and another indication that the filmmakers were always looking to find a decent Dory movie after the initial idea. Losing Nemo, Sleep Swimming, Little Tension In Clown Town, Metting Hank, The Pig, Dory Dumped and Starting Over are featured, with Stanton teeing up each clip, and of particular attention is Sleep Swimming, which was taken out so late in production that it is not only fully complete, but provided the basis for the film’s teasers, which brings us to a group of Trailers including Sleep Swimming, Theatrical Payoff, Can’t Remember and Journey previews for the United States, Japan, Spain and Russia, respectively.

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Over around eight minutes of content, it’s always interesting to see how films are marketed around the world and which elements are promoted more in each country, and the Spanish trail especially has fun with the narrator’s apparent memory loss. Rounding up the set is the usual bunch of Sneak Peeks, promoting Disney Movies (not quite) Anywhere, upcoming sure-to-be-juggernauts Moana and Beauty And The Beast and various Disney-branded services and experiences. On the whole, this isn’t as massive a bunch of extras as back in the good old LaserDisc, DVD or even early Blu-ray days, but it’s a step back in a healthy direction and, for a sequel of this nature, feels more than satisfying enough to wade through, especially in the deleted scenes, of which the Starting Over option presents several different openings that explore the eveolution of the film, even if it kind of does exemplify that this isn’t so much Finding Dory as it is about Dory finding her parents. Huh.

Case Study:

Disney’s usual bordered slipcase brings a touch of substance to the set, which is also available with an additional 3D disc. This edition packs in the two BDs of feature and bonus content, plus a DVD of the film and a Digital HD code card.

Ink And Paint:

Of course this looks absolutely fantastic and, if nothing else, the sharp image and bright colors will keep the less demanding younger viewers in the household pleasantly entertained.

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Scratch Tracks:

Of course this sounds fantastic but, if nothing else, the sometimes shrill Dory and comedy noises some of the supporting characters insist on making will lead parents to distraction.

Final Cut:

Where Dory came from isn’t a question that anyone was particularly screaming out to have answered, or had even thought about asking in the first place, and that’s the fundamental problem with a film built around a character purpose designed as a comedy sidekick. That Dory’s actually hugely annoying as the featured star of the film is another issue, and one that even the filmmakers acknowledge in the extras. Disney’s Blu-ray set is fairly robust in the technical and supplemental areas, but the film is certainly lacking and I’m surprised at Stanton’s choices here, as it goes against everything we have seen from him before, the final chase act of the film feeling like the kind of derivative nonesense that one would expect from other studios than Pixar, who seem to be floating along with the flotsam and jetsam here. Unforgettable, sings Sia during the interminable ten-minute end credits. If only we could.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?


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