Every geek dreams of being able to apply their obscure knowledge to a real world situation. It hasn’t happened for me yet, but Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt) is about to get his chance. See, Barley and his brother Ian (Tom Holland) live in a fantastic world where magic is real, or at least was real before technology took its place.
As a result, Barley’s favourite fantasy role playing game is not just fiction. Instead, it’s based on historical events, and Barley‘s knowledge of those obscure facts really comes in handy as Ian and Barley embark on a quest to find a Phoenix Stone to power their father’s magic wand which will allow them to bring their dead dad back to life for 24 hours. If those stakes weren’t high enough, Ian and Barley have accidentally brought back their dad’s legs so the clock’s ticking!
What might have been a paint-by-numbers fetch quest in lesser hands is an epic adventure imbued with magic and wonder from Disney-Pixar. The extraordinary attention to detail makes Onward’s world feel authentic and exciting as we follow Barley, Ian and their half-a-dad on their epic adventure. Along the way, their efforts revitalize the world around them and bring back some of the magic that’s been forgotten. By the time we arrive at the final battle, everything has come together just as the prophecy foretold (truth be told, there is no explicit prophecy mentioned but this adventure is clearly the stuff of destiny). It’s a lot of fun to see it take shape.
Onward is more pure cinematic magic from Disney-Pixar. Even though Onward may not quite hit the heights of the studio’s very best, it’s a worthy addition to the catalogue and it will be especially enjoyable for anyone who has slayed dragons as an elf, troll or wizard in their basement (whether in modern digital form, the classic tabletop and 20-sided-die variety, or both).
Toy Story movies have always been darker than people give them credit for. In the first film, Buzz believes himself to be a hero stranded in a hostile environment. Turns out, he’s just a toy – everything he thought was real is a lie. He exists to be someone’s plaything, and Woody and the gang convince him that there’s dignity and even nobility in this fate, even if it strikes you and I as a kind of slavery, to exist merely at someone else’s whim, until you’re all used up, and then you’re disposed of. What a dizzying and disorienting concept; it’s no wonder Buzz literally gets depressed when he learns his true nature. In the second film, Woody literally contemplates his own mortality. His benevolent master Andy will one day tire of him, and worthless, he’ll be discarded. His friend Jessie really hammers this home with a heart-wrenching flashback of being abandoned at the side of a road by someone who once claimed to love her. Ultimately, Woody chooses to live as a toy rather than achieving a sort of immortality as a collector’s item; he’ll have a short but meaningful life rather than a long but insignificant one. What a choice. In the third film, Woody and the gang face the consequence of this choice: Andy goes off to college, and eventual abandonment becomes actual abandonment. Not only that, but the best friends are being separated, with Woody being doomed to spend his twilight years alone on Andy’s shelf, no longer a useful, loved plaything, but a mere relic of his past. Meanwhile, his friends are going to molder up in the dark oblivion of an attic. What cold comfort. Luckily, the toys are instead given to a little girl named Bonnie to live out a happy afterlife. Cue the fourth film.
Woody (Tom Hanks) and pals are having a grand old time being played with by Bonnie. Sure, the little girl prefers cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack) over cowboy Woody just a tad, but still, it’s a good life, no complaints. Bonnie is starting kindergarten soon, and at an orientation session, she shows some initiative (fancy term for not following instructions) and makes herself a toy out of trash rather than a pencil cup out of art supplies. She brings her cherished new friend home and gives him a place of honour among toys. “Forky” is no more than a spork, some googly eyes, a pipe cleaner, and a broken popsicle stick, but he’s Bonnie’s new best friend, so Woody vows to keep them together at all costs. That’s going to be a problematic promise because a) Bonnie’s family is embarking on an RV roadtrip and b) Forky has some suicidal tendencies. Forky was never supposed to be a toy, you see. He’s trash. He knows he’s trash. Rather simple-minded and fairly spooked, all he wants more than anything in the world is to be trash once again, which is where he keeps launching himself. Woody keeps dutifully fishing him out, but one of these times he’s bound to get thrown out for good. It’s on one such rescue mission that Woody encounters an antique store where he thinks he may find an old friend/lost toy/love interest, Bo Peep (Annie Potts). We haven’t seen Bo Peep since the second movie, which was 20 years ago. Where has she been this whole time?
Bo’s been living free and wild as a toy with no owner. That’s essentially Woody’s worst nightmare but she makes it sound rather grand. Besides, Woody has a new worst nightmare: another antique store occupant, vintage doll Gabby Gabby wants his voicebox and she’s prepared to rip the stuffing out of his chest to get it. Yikes!
Structurallly, this fourth installment plays out a lot like those that came before it. There’s always some kind of separation, and then some kind of secondary rescue mission when the first one fails. These toys sure do get themselves into some high-stakes situations on an alarming basis!
It’s wonderful to see the cast of old friends: Bo looks shinier than ever, and Jessie’s hair has never looked yarnier. The animation on these films started out innovative and has only improved. And new friends are a hoot and a half: Forky (Tony Hale) is a walking, talking existential crisis, but the rendering of his pipe cleaner is photo realistic. Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) was a dollie defective right out of the box, and her resulting failure to bond has really warped her. Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) is a Canadian daredevil who never lived up to his promise; he is haunted by his past, and by the kid who resoundingly rejected him. Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele) are two brightly-coloured stuffed animals attached at the hands. They’ve been unredeemed carnival prizes for far too long, and are a little unhinged. Officer Giggle McDimples, Giggs for short (Ally Maki), may look precious and pocket-sized, but she’s a force to be reckoned with, and fiercely protective of her road warrior partner, Bo Peep. All these new toys will come together in surprising ways to give our pal Woody one last big adventure.
Coming full circle with the original film in the franchise which was released 24 years ago, Toy Story 4 has Woody once again paired with a toy who does not believe himself to be a toy. Woody’s experiences with Andy, and now with Bonnie, position him to a real advocate for finding and fulfilling one’s purpose and embracing one’s destiny. Heartwarming and heartbreaking in almost equal measure (I cried twice before the opening credits were over, and then alllllll the way home), Toy Story 4 more than justifies its existence. But after the perfect send-off in #3, is #4 a necessary or worthy addition? As much as I looked forward to connecting with these characters again, I surprise myself by saying no. Toy Story 4 is a good movie, an entertaining one, a very sweet one, but I can’t help but wish they’d left it at a trilogy so that we could have one perfect, shiny thing in our lives.
Time and again, we have been told that a toy’s only intrinsic value is to be useful. And when that toy ceases to be useful – either it gets broken, or a kid stops playing with it – well, that toy has met the end of its life. Yikes. Woody and friends have occasionally had the chance to grab at immortality but have always convinced themselves that to be Andy’s toy is the highest possible achievement. There is no better thing, therefore it is okay to accept the eventual certainty of death. One day, Andy WILL grow up, will leave for college, will leave them behind.
That day has come.
Andy is indeed off to college. Toy Story 3 was released in 2010, 15 years after the first one, so by any accurate count, Woody and the gang have had some bonus years. But their luck has run out. Andy is packing up his room – putting aside a few things to store in his mother’s attic, a few essentials to bring along with him, and the rest will be marked for garbage. Andy’s sentimental side has him setting aside Woody for college, and bagging the rest of his old pals for storage, but a misunderstanding leads both his mother and the toys themselves to think that they’re meant for the trash. The toys manage to save themselves from the metallic maw of the garbage truck, and they throw themselves into a donation pile destined for Sunnyside Daycare.
The toys are sad to leave Andy, but thrilled that they might once again be played with. Until now, the toys have spent their lives caring solely for Andy, wanting nothing but his happiness. Their own needs have occasionally gone unmet in this quest, especially in these last few years, with Andy the teenager no longer having time for them. The toys, and Woody in particular, have often seemed parental in their concern for him, and in fact, with Andy’s dad curiously absent and unremarked upon, Woody seems to have stepped into that of father figure. But parents too must say goodbye to their children eventually, and when they grow to become useless, they too will be placed in an institution. The toys are optimistic about the daycare centre, but it’s easy to read it as relegation to retirement living, being put out to pasture (Buzz even gets lobotomized, like a dementia patient). There’s always been this double read to Toy Story, one that often leaves us choked up. Thanks a lot, internet. I thought the well had finally run dry, and now I’m flooding my keyboard with tears.
But that’s not even the sad part! Toy Story 3’s genius has the toys not just facing oblivion and meaninglessness without a kid to serve, but it has them facing actual death. When the daycare turns out to be a pretty awful, tyrannical living situation, they find themselves embracing death. This is possibly this decade’s most traumatic and touching scene: with death mere moments away, the toys stop their futile efforts to save themselves, and hold hands to face it bravely together. Luckily, Pixar thinks better of killing off their revered heroes, and they do get a last minute reprieve and a second chance at life with Bonnie, a little girl just down the street from Andy. Even Woody, who was meant to accompany Andy to college, gets reassigned, and frankly, it’s with a sigh of relief that we find he will remain with his friends. Because for me at least, it wasn’t actually death that seemed the worst of it, it was thinking of Woody and Buzz, best buds and life partners, being separated in their twilight years. Is anyone not thinking of their grandparents, and who will die first, leaving the other to face those bleak years alone?
Toy Story 3 improves upon its predecessors in my ways. In 11 years, the animation has of course improved by big heaping gobs. In the first film, we briefly see a teddy bear that’s been relegated to the shelf; they chose not to make him part of the gang because fur was just too hard to get right. In this film, Lotso the bear is made a proper villain, and he looks glorious. Not only are the colours and textures perfect, but the animators find ways to show proper wear and tear on the toys as well. The animation is vivid and astonishing. The expressions on the toys’ faces are often so realistic that you have to pinch yourself to remember it’s just a cartoon (Woody has 229 animation points of movement in his face alone). In Toy Story 3, the Pixar animators are fearless. Whereas before they struggled to get clothes right, in this film they embrace them, with Ken making over 20 costume changes alone (and all of them fabulous). Hair swings. Fibers are differentiated. But they’re not just improving, they’re innovating. Believe it or not, in this film, the real challenge was the trash bag. They have properties that apparently you and I take for granted, but the animators truly struggled with.
But we don’t keep coming back to this franchise for the richly drawn cartoons, we come back because these characters are our friends, and the excellent story-writing has made us care. And boy did we line up in droves to see this film, even if it had been more than a decade since the last installment: it was the first animated film to make a billion dollars worldwide, which it did in just over 2 months at the box office. It was also one of only 3 animated films to score an Oscar nomination for Best Picture (Beauty and the Beast and Up were the other 2), and it did it without any of its predecessors being nominated. Toy Story has continued to surprise fans because it actually feels that each sequel is better than the last, while Hollywood of course has led us to expect exactly the opposite. Although, it should be noted: while the first and second films both had 100% ratings on Spoiled Red Fruit, this one had a mere 99.
If the nostalgia attached to vintage toys and TV shows and lunchboxes isn’t enough for you, I find it kind of neat that Toy Story has managed to keep the same guy, John Morris, as Andy’s voice for its entire run (there was an 11 year gap between this film and the one before it – the producers had no idea if adult Morris would at all be suitable, but they called him up and his voicemail convinced them on the spot). And Laurie Metcalf as his mom; Roseanne was still on network TV when the first film premiered, and now I suppose it’s kind of on again. Of course, we’ve lost some voice actors along the way: Jim Varney (Slinky) was replaced by his friend Blake Clark. And Don Rickles (Mr. Potato Head) will appear in the latest film via archival audio. But we’ve also seen some great additions. Toy Story 3 introduces Ned Beatty (Lotso), Michael Keaton (Ken), Jodi Benson (Barbie – but most famous as the voice of Ariel, of course), Timothy Dalton (Mr. Pricklepants), Kristen Schaal (Trixie), Bonnie Hunt (Dolly), and the list goes on. Toy Story 3 has over 300 characters, which is a lot for any movie, never mind one in which each needs to be rendered from scratch!
Toy Story 3 earned a place in our hearts with scenes that register both pleasure and pain – bittersweet, like life. It taps into our primal fears (uselessness, loneliness, death) but ends with a hopeful note. Toy Story 3 was the perfect way to end a beloved franchise: Andy says goodbye to his toys, and so do we. We know they’re safe and happy in their after(Andy)life, with the final scene panning up into white fluffy cloud, reminiscent of Andy’s wallpaper, but also a sure symbol of heaven. But this franchise has again proved irresistible and Disney-Pixar just couldn’t stay away: a fourth installment hits theatres this weekend, so if you’re curious what life has been like for the toys in their new home, you’re in luck. Just pray that this one holds up to the rest.
Minutes from departing for cowboy camp, Woody (Tom Hanks) suffers a rip to his arm seam that shelves him. Up there, in the dusty recesses of Andy’s room, Woody has an existential crisis. If he is a broken toy, what value does he have? Is he to be forgotten forever? Has his time as Andy’s toy come to an end? It doesn’t help when he meets an old friend up there, Wheezy the penguin, who was shelved months ago due to a broken squeaker. Even worse, an impending yard sale is a serious threat to all and any toys who may not have been recently played with – especially when a declutter-happy mom (Laurie Metcalf) is allowed to make cuts while Andy’s still at camp.
Woody gets a little too close to the yard sale and an eagle-eyed toy collector, Al, from Al’s Toy Barn (Wayne Knight), refuses to take no for an answer. He steals Woody, to the toys’ horror. Turns out, Woody is the valuable central piece in a collector’s set of retro toys. Woody meets the other toys in the set: yodeling cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), Woody’s sidekick and noble steed, Bullseye, and the prospector, Stinky Pete (Kelsey Grammer). True to his nature, Woody is at first concerned with returning to Andy, but as he contemplates his fate as the broken toy of a growing boy versus the intoxication of a full restoration by Al in order to be sold to a toy collector in Japan, he can’t help but weigh his options. And his new friends have a vested interest in Woody’s sticking with them: without him to complete their set, they’ll go back into storage. Without him, they’re worthless.
I moaned on and on about how cleverly the characters were built in the last movie, and once again, I can’t help but admire what they’ve done with the new toys. Jessie wants very much to convince Woody to stay, but as a former toy herself, she remembers the heady feeling of being someone’s beloved. Pete, on the other hand, is mint in the box. He’s never been played with. Together they sow the seeds of doubt.
But if the first Toy Story was a buddy comedy of sorts, all of the films in the franchise are a testament to friendship. Woody’s friends at home once again launch a rescue mission, and it’s adorable the lengths they’ll go to in order to reunite their friend with his owner. But will Woody go?
At its heart, this film is once again more contemplative and nihilistic than your typical children’s movie. Heck, than most movies, period. Being loved by a child is the thing that gives a toy’s life meaning. But accepting that means that one day you will be rendered useless, which is worse than death. It means a brief period of being adored followed by an eternity of nothingness. But this toy museum in Japan offers Woody another option: immortality. He may not be loved by anyone, but he’ll be appreciated, not forgotten. And Jessie really drives that home with her heart breaking flashback wherein she remembers being loved, and then being abandoned. Because all children grow up, and all toys are eventually discarded.
So yeah, there are some dark ass themes in this movie, but they’re told with boldly coloured characters that make the whole thing just so gosh darned palatable. Woody is still the rootinest, tootinest cowpoke we know, but there’s an edge to him, a darkness. Woody’s been through some shit. Is there a single soul who watched this movie who didn’t, at least for a split second, experience dread over the treatment and neglect of their own childhood friends? I wager there is not.
The first Toy Story was ground-breaking in its animation, but this sequel, which came out just 4 years later in 1999, is already lightyears beyond it. They’re better at animating hair; Andy’s mom has her hair down in this film whereas she had to keep it in a ponytail during the first because of animation limitations. Everything’s gone up a notch. Bo Peep, who Andy uses as a toy, is actually a detachable porcelain figurine who belongs on his little sister’s lamp. In this movie, we can actually SEE that she’s porcelain; she has a particular sheen to her that the plastic toys do not. Pixar was motivated to keep its reputation as an innovator, so they didn’t just recycle stuff from the first film, they went in and upgraded character models, created new locations, and utilized more complicated camera shots that weren’t possible in the first. But they were careful not to let the look evolve too much from the first, wanting to keep the films looking cohesive. Perhaps their greatest technical achievement was up on that dusty shelf where a broken Woody reunites with Wheezy the Penguin. Turns out, dust motes are frustratingly complex to animate. Pixar animated 2 million of them – a major feat since this sequel was originally planned as a direct-to-video release which got bumped up at the last minute, leaving animators scrambling, and fully a third of them with some sort of repetitive strain injury (like carpel tunnel) by the time animation was complete. In a perfect world, making movies wouldn’t result in injuries, but this isn’t a perfect world. It is, however, a perfect sequel. A perfect movie, in fact. I wouldn’t dare tell anyone their injuries were “worth it” but Toy Story 2 achieves even more than its predecessor. It capitalizes on what made the first film great but it doesn’t recycle its success. The story works harder, the characters dig deeper. Though the toys are often out of their element, we are firmly in their universe, a universe that is clever and expansive and shockingly complete.
Pixar establishes itself as a studio that animates adventures that kids will love but writes stories that speak directly to the adults in the audience. It even has an erection joke that’s cloaked in Pixar’s special camouflage – obvious to adults, unnoticed by kids. That’s a rare and unique talent from a studio that keeps the boundaries on what we’ve come to expect from an animated film.
You can blame John Wick for this review. As the lights were dimming in our theatre I suddenly thought – should I have rewatched the previous films? The answer was yes, but I hadn’t. I am a learner of lessons. More or less. Occasionally. When the lesson means watching movies instead of doing work. I did rewatch the incredibly complex The Secret Life of Pets in order to fully appreciate the nuances of its sequel. Now I shall do the same for a much better franchise of movies, one that has more than earned a spot on this site anyway – Toy Story.
As you can likely tell from the title, I was taken aback by the year of its release. Intellectually I probably could have told you the year, but emotionally I just wasn’t prepared to face the consequences. This movie is dang near 25 years old. I was a kid when it came out and don’t remember if I saw it at the cinema. In fact, I don’t remember seeing it for the first time at all, which is strange for such a defining moment in animation (and I’m sure I called it such when I reviewed it on the playground).
Toy Story introduces us to a little boy named Andy and his most beloved toy, a cowboy with a pull-string and a snake in his boot but no gun in his holster named Woody. Woody is the natural leader of Andy’s toys, of which there are many: an etch-a-sketch, a Mr. Potato Head, a dinosaur named Rex, a slinky dog, Little Bo Peep, a pig-shaped piggy bank named Hamm, green army guys galore. But Woody is Andy’s absolute favouritest toy, and we see them at play in Andy’s cloud-wallpapered room, and tucked into bed together at night, under a Sheriff Woody duvet. But Andy’s birthday brings a plethora of new toys as birthdays often do, but only one toy competes for Andy’s prime affection: a space ranger named Buzz Lightyear. The interesting thing about Buzz, other than his quest to save the universe from Emperor Zurg, is that Buzz doesn’t know he’s a toy. He believes he’s the actual hero, and that the galaxy depends on him.
Woody, who up until now has assured all the other toys that just being Andy’s toy is an honour, is of course insanely jealous. And when he is kinda sorta responsible for Buzz “falling” out a window into the sadistic neighbour’s yard, the other toys are naturally upset with their old pal Woody and mount a rescue mission for new friend Buzz. In actuality, Buzz has all but saved himself, but our two heroes end up outside, essentially “lost toys” in the world, and they’ll have to rely on each other to get home safely. Andy’s family is moving in just 2 days so there’s no time to waste!
Toy Story was the first animated film to earn an Oscar nomination for its screenplay, and it’s well-deserved [It lost to The Usual Suspects. It also lost best original musical or comedy score to Pocahontas. There was no best animated film category in 1995, that didn’t happen until 2002, but John Lasseter was given a special achievement Oscar to commemorate the film’s ground-breaking success. Those are pretty rare; the only other one handed out in the past 25 years was in 2017 to Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for his contribution to VR film Flesh and Sand.]
The characters are wonderful because the toys all manage to feel timeless. Buzz and Woody are created especially for the film and each is meant to be a character on a hit TV show (though Woody seems to be a relic, perhaps a toy handed down from Andy’s mom or dad). Buzz is newer, all plastic and flashing lights and fancy buttons compared to Woody’s stuffing and low-fi technology. But Andy’s other toys may be more recognizable. In fact, slinky dogs and potato heads and telephones saw a resurgence in popularity after each of the Toy Story films were released. The wonderful voice actors of course go a long way to help bring these toys to life. Tom Hanks (Woody) was drawn to the project because he too had as a child wondered what his toys were up to when he wasn’t looking. Tim Allen (Buzz) was drawn because his comedy idol, Chevy Chase, had been offered the role and turned it down (so had Billy Crystal, who was wise enough to regret it – when Lasseter came calling again, for 2001’s Monsters Inc, Crystal said yes before Lasseter got a single word out). Hanks recorded his lines in the early 90s, while filming Sleepless in Seattle and A League of Their Own – he wanted the voicework wrapped up before he started in on Philadelphia or Forrest Gump as he felt he’d be in the wrong frame of mind. Little Bo Peep is voiced by Annie Potts, but Bo almost didn’t make the film. Initially, Pixar had planned for her to be a Barbie, but Mattel was sure this movie would be a disaster and declined the role, rather fooolishly in hindsight. Similarly, Pixar was not able to use G.I. Joe’s name either; they rewrote the character as ‘Combat Carl.’ Rex the dinosaur, voiced to perfection by Wallace Shawn, is a particular favourite of mine because the idea of a neurotic dinosaur who suffers from self-esteem issues and extreme anxiety turns out to be a whole lotta fun. He’s got an inferiority complex and doesn’t do well with conflict, at odds with him being the biggest of the toys, and depicting a classically scary character. Hamm the piggy bank is voiced by Pixar fixture John Ratzenberger. He’s a board game enthusiast and seems to know the most about the outside world. His frequent board game opponent and best friend is Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles), who covers his loneliness with sarcastic wise-cracking but he prays every birthday for a Mrs. Potato Head. Like all good dogs, Slink (Jim Varney) is very loyal to his pal Woody; he often manages to have a hang-dog look about him that’s incredibly sympathetic.
Toy Story was the world’s first computer-animated feature film, and it changed animation forever. To be honest, this film still looks good today because they were careful to avoid things they weren’t quite up to animating convincingly yet, like long hair and water droplets. Pixar has continuously astonished us with increasingly intricately-animated films, and by that standard, Toy Story is its worst. What a marvelous, beautiful worst.
All these toys work together to evoke childhood and warm feelings. Toy Story tickled our imaginations, reinvigorated the field of animation, and established Pixar as a giant in the genre.
Merida may be a princess, but she’s no lady. After reluctantly performing her royal duties, she’s happiest riding her horse and shooting her bow and arrow – not feminine pursuits, according to her mother, but Merida is a daddy’s girl, and he indulges her. But even the King can’t save her when it’s time for each of Scotland’s clans to send forth a suitor to compete for her hand in marriage. It strikes Merida as almost as barbaric as it does you and I, but Merida’s mother has some very convincing myths to back up the obligation, and anyway, nobody really has any choice – for crown, for country, for glory and all that.
Anyway, Merida’s father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly) is a big beast of a man, who loves to tell the story of how he lost his leg fighting Mor’du the bear at a family picnic, protecting his wife and baby daughter. The Queen, Elinor (Emma Thompson) tolerates his boastful storytelling, and only rolls her eyes a little when Merida (Kelly Macdonald) embellishes right along. But Elinor knows that this betrothal stuff is serious business.
And Pixar knows that to Disney, this princess stuff is serious business. Still, they challenge the notion of what a princess should be, with Merida mucking out a horse’s stall herself, her fiery, unruly hair streaming behind her, big ideas broiling in that red head of hers. When it comes time to compete, Merida competes for her own hand in marriage, ripping the seams of her dress in order to win the day. Does her mother find this an ingenious solution? She does not. Still, Merida is Disney’s first princess without a love interest (but not its last – hello, Elsa!). Anyway, mother and teenage daughter fight, predictably, only Merida has something most teenage daughters luckily do not: access to a witch (Julie Walters). She conjures up a special potion which, when fed to her mother, will “change her fate.” And indeed it does. By turning her mother into a bear.
Pixar, as always, gets a lot right: Merida’s hair is gloriously animated (they had to invent new software to properly render it), the sun dappling is gorgeous, and there’s this moment of goofy pride on the mother bear’s face that just warms the haggis in my heart. If we must life in a world full of princesses, may they be more like Merida – brave enough to stand up for themselves, to stand on their own, to pursue their own ends.
This week Sean and I are at Disney World with my sister and her husband and her two sweetie pie boys, who are probably running through the parks like adorable hooligans, leaving us adults gasping for breath. If we have a spare moment, we might even meet Merida herself. Aside from appearing with other characters from the film in one of Disney’s many parades, she meets and greets wee lads and lassies inside Fairytale Garden, where you can also try your hand at archery, colour your own tapestry, or a picture of her horse, Angus.
Brave came out before either, or in fact any, of my nephews was born, so I’m not sure if we’ll stop to get a picture with her – although the pair are armed with autograph books, so who knows. When a “cast member” of the Disney parks becomes a princess, one of her most important duties is practicing her distinct signature. Merida’s looks appropriately auld. There might be dozens of women who play Merida at Disney World, but they will all sign her name exactly this way. Disney is rather strict about its magic.
Nemo first appeared as a stuffed toy in Boo’s room in Monsters, Inc. (2001). Finding Nemo went on to tease two more future Pixar films: A kid in the dentist’s office is reading a Mr. Incredible comic book, and Luigi the little Fiat who runs Luigi’s Casa Della Tires in Cars drives by outside. But most of all, Finding Nemo gave us reason to love clown fish again. Marlin is a neurotic widower and overprotective single dad. His young son Nemo has a fin deformity thanks to a childhood accident but isn’t nearly as crippled by it as Marlin’s panic would indicate. Still, when Nemo is kidnapped by a dentist and hauled off to a fish tank in Australia, it’s kind of not great. Marlin has to confront his fears by navigating an entire ocean in order to save his son, and his only help is a forgetful sidekick named Dory.
You may have heard that Sean and I are at Disney World this week, with our two young nephews, Brady, age 7, and Jack, who will turn 5 while we’re there. The last and only other time I’ve visited the park, we were with Brady, aged just 18 months; Jack, though it’s hard to imagine life without him, wasn’t more than a twinkle. Finding Nemo was already wholeheartedly represented in the park. There’s an excellent 40 minute musical in Animal Kingdom, where large puppets are manipulated onstage. Epcot has a 5.7 million gallon saltwater aquarium filled with live sea creatures and Finding Nemo’s real-life counterparts. You ride a clam-mobile, and the ride simulates the animated characters swimming alongside the real fish, searching for Nemo, who really should know better by now. They’ve also got Turtle Talk With Crush, which is a big hit with kids. Crush is the really cool sea turtle brimming with surfer dude wisdom. Kids see him animated on screen, and by the magic of Disney, he’s able to speak to them directly. Some guy behind a one-way mirror provides a live, interactive experience. It’s thrilling for kids when Crush says “Hey little girl in the green dress – I like your pigtails, dude!”
There’s a similar experience over in the Tomorrowland section of Magic Kingdom. It’s called Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor, and like Turtle Talk with Crush, it’s digital puppetry, with live actors performing voices behind a large digital screen, while computer-rendered monsters appear with the actors’ voices. Mike Wazowski hosts a stand-up comedy routine. You may remember in the movie, Mike and Sully are a team working for a factory where monsters sneak into children’s bedrooms to scare them, and collect their screams for power. By the end of the movie, the monsters have made friends with a child, and it is discovered that laughter yields ten times more power than screams ever did. Hence, a comedy club, where monsters are brilliantly using Disney World patrons to collect their laughs. When Sean and I were there 5 years ago, I was the audience patsy. I somehow got roped into the show, and there was some light roasting in my direction, but the actors behind the screen kept calling back to me throughout the show, much to Sean’s (and my brother-in-law’s) amusement. These are pretty cool attractions – the interactivity means they have to be manned (or peopled, or monstered) by some well-trained talent round the clock. These people have to be good at improv, but they also have to stay in character, and work the crowd, and keep in mind they’re turning over audiences every 10 minutes.
Disney does such a great job preserving our favourite films, and bringing them to life via not just rides, but all kinds of wonderful small detail in the park – check out these Finding Nemo candy apples, or this Monsters-inspired dress, which okay, spoiler alert: I am wearing. And the matching Mike Wazowski purse that I am probably right this very minute weakly resisting buying. And even more exciting, check out these themed rooms available at Disney’s Animation resort. We’re staying in a Cars suite with the boys, because it’s their absolute favourite. Everything at Disney is kicked up to 11.