The Buzz: Animated Films and O.J.

Welcome back to an action packed week of The Buzz. This week, we will look at an animated sequel that is good on its own merits but pales in comparison to other films released by the same studio. We will use that opportunity to discuss sequels and productions studios as auteurs. Then we will look at an epic 5-part documentary by ESPN that is as much about the O.J. Simpson trial as it is about race in America. In our rewind section we look back at the seminal true crime documentary that was instrumental in getting a man out of prison. In addition we look at a soon to be released film that is an early front runner for next year’s Oscars.

Film: Finding Dory: Good sequels are hard to come by. That’s because there is an inherent quality in all sequels that make them feel like they are a cash grab opportunity. If an audience liked the explosions of an action movie, expect more explosions in the sequel. If it was the physical prat falls of a comedy that connected with the audiences, there will be more in the sequel. This year there has already been a slew of ill-advised sequels that have crash and burned at the box office due to a lack of quality and more importantly, a lack of interest. What usually lacks is the connective tissue that made the original so fun to begin with.

When Finding Nemo came out in 2003, Pixar had not yet established itself as the intelligent fare that is just as fun for adults as it were for the children they were designed for. Sure, all their films were critical and box office successes beforehand but their name was not synonymous with quality just yet. Finding Nemo was the first film in the Pixar canon that sparked off a series of films that expanded the modern audiences’ notion of what American animated films could be. These films, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall-E and more, were not just great animated films but were great American films.

Since then, Pixar has had to live up to the incredibly high standards that they had set for themselves and in the past 5 years have been hit or miss. Finding Dory, the sequel to Finding Nemo, is indicative of the recent string of Pixar films. There are moments of that Pixar magic, yet it never reaches the high of the films from its “golden age.”

The original director of Finding Nemo, Andrew Stanton, is back for this installment with co-director Angus MacLane, a veteran Pixar animator who have directed several Pixar short films in the past. As the title would suggest, the film now follows Dory, the forgetfully optimistic blue tang fish. Dory, voiced once again perfectly by Ellen DeGeneres, finally remembers something in her hazy memory. She has been on the quest to be reunited with her parents (voiced by Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton).

The film begins with a flashback of the aw-inducing adorableness of baby Dory as her parents try to guide her through her short term memory problems. Unfortunately, forgetting her parents’ warning, Dory is swept up by a wave separating her from her parents ultimately leading her to the events of the first film in which she meets Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence replacing Alexander Gould who had aged out of the part).   

Dory, through her dreams, begins to remember where her parents might be. The three set off on a madcap adventure that ends up in a Marine Life Institute off the coast of California (originally the film was set in a SeaWorld type setting but the documentary Blackfish about the organization’s troubling treatment of some of its animals smartly put a kibosh on an aquatic amusement part as a setting). It is when our main characters reach the Marine Life Institute when Finding Dory begins to find its stride. Pixar are master world builders and the Marine Life Institute with its wonderful set pieces gave the animators room to have creatively explore.

Stanton, and Pixar for that matter, are interested in exploring ideas for children that are not always thought of as ideas that are supposed to be for children. It’s the lack of pandering to the familiar clichés of what is expected out of a children’s film is what made Pixar exciting in the first place. Finding Dory is no different with themes explicitly pointing towards mental disabilities. Dory short term memory loss is at the forefront of this film. It is the driving action of the plot and is never hidden for what it is. It’s the universality of what Dory has to go through with her disability that makes it feel resonant, not just to children but to adults as well. And I must admit, the whole auditorium’s eyes got dusty during certain moments of Dory’s perseverance.

Yet, Finding Dory cannot be placed on the pantheon of Pixar films and falls to the disappointing category of just being a good film by Pixar standards. But, is that a fair comparison for a film? The level of scrutiny an animated film that is released by Dreamworks or Illumination is at a much lower bar than any of those released by Pixar. And the answer is yes. At a certain point for an auteur, their movies are not compared to other films but the films in their filmography. The newest Martin Scorsese movie is not just compared to the movies it is released with but by other Scorsese movies. And Pixar is an auteur studio as there is a Pixar style with Pixar themes.

It speaks to level of standard that Pixar has reached that anybody watching the film has to compare it to its previous films. Finding Dory has its magical moments but by too much of it felt too familiar. At a certain point in watching 20 years of Pixar making a film a year that it begins to look like a formula. Every moment of emotional weight feels like it is pandering to what is expected by fans of these films. Linda Holmes of Pop Culture Happy Hour once said of Pixar films that they are judged by the ratio of magical moments to derivative moments. If that ratio is high, then it becomes a Pixar classic. Finding Dory with its chase scene of a third act is still a good film but ultimately feels disappointing.

Yet, in 20 years, Pixar has not made a terrible film (with the possible exception of Cars 2). The expectations are just so high that is almost impossible to reach. However, like Dory, the studio will continue to keep swimming and producing films of high quality.

 

Television: O.J.: Made in America: This year has seen two O.J. Simpson murder trial related pop culture event. There was American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, a ten-part mini-series event that scored high rating and high critical value. Last week, as part of ESPN 30 for 30 series, ESPN released a five-part miniseries documentary about the rise and fall of O.J. Simpson reaching eight hours in length and it is absolutely amazing. So, the question is, why are we still fascinated by this case?

Ezra Edelman’s eight-hour documentary is about that phenomenon. The film is as much a sociological documentary about the race issues of Los Angeles, and subsequently the United States, as it is about O.J. Simpson. More importantly, the trial of O.J. is a seminal moment in pop culture. Millions of people tuned into the initial white Bronco car chase and the trial was a phenomenon. How often does defense lawyers such as Johnnie Cochrane and prosecutors like Marcia Clark become household names and celebrities. This is the dawning of celebrity culture in which Americans become fascinated by the deeds of people that have been exalted. Soon, although The Real World has already premiered, reality television will become an integral part of television culture.

There is still a titillating joy the trial brings. Everyone knows the name O.J. Simpson and everyone knows the superficial details of the trial. Yet, as time goes on, the trial and what O.J. means have become a caricature. People who did not live through the celebrity trial (someone like me) did not know the importance of O.J. Simpson, not only for culture but for African American culture. What is often forgotten is how big of a celebrity O.J. Simpson was yet how far removed he was from the African American community. But, during a time of Rodney King, the LA riots and the deaths of Latisha Harlins and Eula Love (names that are not nearly as famous of tragic racial violence as it should be), this trial was indicative of race relations.

As many of the interviewees point out, if the system cannot work for an African American millionaire who has assembled a dream team of attorneys, then how can it possibly work for those who do not have those resources like a Rodney King (whose police beating is a focal point in the documentary in the instigation of racial violence).

This documentary is epically revelatory in the way race relations worked 20 years ago and continuously work today. O.J. at his height was not African American; he was O.J. That is until a crime is committed and suddenly he is back to being African American and embracing that community. The last part of the series is about O.J. post-trial in which it shows how once he has been targeted as a black figure (his defense relies heavily on racial discrimination) he began to embrace all the negative parts of the culture, blowing money on strip clubs and drugs, becoming the tragic stereotype placed upon African Americans by bigots.

Race, especially for a minority, is always an issue, no matter how deep it is buried by all those around it. When O.J. makes a Hertz commercial, there must be a white person who says, “Go O.J. go,” in order to give him the credibility amongst white people. Was his trial a black and white issue; yes and no. A person was murdered and that is not black or white. But, everything surrounding the trial, with the result for better or worse, is a racialized issue because race cannot be excluded.

Ezra Edelman’s documentary is an epic of a film that touches on those topics that warrants its length. Although think pieces about its overlooking the significance of spousal abuse and the African American female perspective is warranted, there is no film this year that is as attuned with the state of race relations as this film. It’s ironic that it is about a celebrity who tried to run away from being associated with as being African American.

 

Rewind: The Thin Blue Line: Speaking of true crime documentaries, this allows me to bring up the granddaddy of the genre; Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line. In 1988, Morris released this landmark documentary about the murder of police officer Robert Wood in 1976. Randall Adams was convicted of the crime but through a series of retellings and reenactments the film implicated David Ray Harris as the murderer and Adams as simply a fall guy. The legacy of the film will always be that it got an innocent man out of jail but The Thin Blue Line is most concerned about truth. Every true crime documentary from Making a Murderer to anything you see on the True Crime Files is indebted to this film. Morris is a master storyteller and this is the ultimate example of it.

The Thin Blue Line is available to stream on Netflix and Hulu Plus.

 

Coming Soon: The Birth of a Nation: While the #Oscarssowhite controversy was happening in mid-January, The Sundance Film Festival was going crazy for a new film that deals with slavery and race. Nate Parker’s passion project, The Birth of a Nation, has been called the African American Braveheart story about the famed African American slave Nat Turner who led a series of revolts on plantations. The film won the award Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, two of the festival’s most prestigious prizes. It will be interesting to see if this is the film that gets nominated for an Oscar. This film without a doubt has all the hallmarks of one of those films but in the dialogue about the Awards it is a lose-lose situation. If the film does get nominated but no other films about minorities do, it continues the narrative that the only way an African American film can be nominated is if it follows a narrative of overcoming struggle. It the film doesn’t then there will be a third year of #Oscarssowhite. Hopefully this narrative does not overtake the film’s release. And if anything, you have to applaud the audacity of Nate Parker to name the film the way he did co-opting the hundredth-anniversary of the release of the troubling racist masterpiece, DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.  

The Birth of a Nation is scheduled to be release October 7, 2016.