The Drawing of the Three: Animated Threequels

For inSing

The Drawing of the Three: animated threequels

Before Cars 3 zooms into theatres, we look at the good, the bad and the okay third instalments in animated film series

By Jedd Jong

Big-budget animated films take a lot of work, and often have longer production periods than live-action films. Even with the latest technological advances, it takes weeks to produce footage that is onscreen for mere seconds. Some concepts gestate and evolve over several years. In the early-2000s, we saw a trend of animated movies receiving low-budget direct-to-DVD sequels. There have also been theatrically-released animated films that did well enough to warrant not only a sequel that also opened in theatres, but a third instalment too.

While Pixar’s Cars films are not nearly as beloved as some of the studio’s other output, they have become a merchandising goldmine, even inspiring the Cars Land section at Disney’s California Adventure theme park. The first film got a lukewarm reception, with Cars 2 receiving a critical drubbing – its 39% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes is the lowest of any Pixar film. The consensus is that Cars 3 is a marked improvement on its immediate predecessor. The film opened in the United States in June, and has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 68%.

In some cases, animated film series show signs of running out of steam at movie #3, but in others, the third instalment breathes new life into the franchise. On the count of three, here is an overview of five threequels in animated film series.

#1: SHREK THE THIRD

2001’s Shrek established DreamWorks Animation as a worthy competitor to Disney and Pixar, even though DreamWorks had butted heads with its powerful rival before. Loosely based on the children’s book by William Stieg, Shrek was energetic, irreverent and contained a resonant message about looking past appearances, and how judging someone on their appearance alone can end up negatively defining them. 2004’s Shrek 2, which introduced the villainous Fairy Godmother and Prince Charming characters as well as sidekick Puss in Boots, was a critical and commercial hit. However, the wheels came off the Shrek train with the third instalment, which was released in 2007.

In Shrek The Third, Shrek (Mike Myers), Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) embark on a road trip in search of Shrek’s nephew-in-law. The would-be heir to the throne is none other than Arthur Pendragon, or “Artie” (Justin Timberlake), who is attending a magical boarding school. The film also starred Monty Python alum Eric Idle as the voice of Merlin, and featured Fiona (Cameron Diaz) leading a posse of princesses voiced by comediennes including Amy Poehler, Amy Sedaris, Maya Rudolph and Cheri Oteri. The film drew a tepid critical reaction, with critics pointed out that it seemed to be working overtime to prove its wit with a smorgasbord of pop culture references, at the expense of the heart displayed in its two predecessors. Shrek the Third was followed by Shrek Forever After in 2010, and a Puss in Boots spinoff in 2011. The property is being ‘resurrected’, but it is not known if the fifth film will be a complete reboot.

#2: ICE AGE: DAWN OF THE DINOSAURS

Blue Sky Studios, which has produced animated films such as Rio, Epic and The Peanuts Movie, made its debut in 2002 with Ice Age. The animated film about an unlikely collection of critters who come across a human baby, who is the target of a Smilodon. Ice Age earned a positive critical reaction and was even nominated for a Best Animated Feature Film Oscar, which it lost to Spirited Away. The film’s break-out star, a sabre-toothed squirrel named Scrat, scuttled his way into the pop culture consciousness. Alas, it seemed that this first entry was destined to be the would-be franchise’s high point, as the four films that followed have received considerably icier receptions.

The first film was followed by 2006’s Ice Age: The Meltdown, with 2009’s Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs as the third entry in the series. In this film, Sid (John Leguizamo) the sloth is pursued by a Tyrannosaurus rex after he unwittingly “adopts” three eggs that hatch into new-born T. rexes. The dinosaurs have survived the extinction event at the end of the Cretaceous period by hiding in a subterranean jungle. The film drew criticism for its tired story, but was praised for the quality of its animation. Disagreeing with the consensus was the late Roger Ebert, who awarded the film 3.5 out of 4 stars and called it the best in the series yet. Two more sequels, 2012’s Ice Age: Continental Drift and 2016’s Ice Age: Collision Course, have been produced.

#3: KUNG FU PANDA 3

DreamWorks Animation introduced the world to the loveable panda Po (Jack Black) in 2008’s Kung Fu Panda. Pretty much the ultimate promoted fanboy, Po goes from playing with action figures of the Furious Five to joining the team of warriors. The Kung Fu Panda films boast one of the glitziest casts DreamWorks, known for hiring A-list names as voice actors, has assembled. Black is joined by Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, David Cross, Jackie Chan, Dustin Hoffman and James Hong.  The three films have been consistently well-regarded by critics, with the first film receiving an 87% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the second scoring 81% and the third getting 87% as well. The series’ use of Chinese culture and traditions as inspiration for its anthropomorphic world and the energy and creativity with which its action scenes are animated have contributed to its praise. The first Kung Fu Panda film also performed well in China, leading to introspection from the Chinese film industry, whose domestically-produced animated films have often been criticised as being poor in quality. China responded with 2011’s Legend of a Rabbit, a.k.a. Legend of Kung Fu Rabbit, a knockoff of Kung Fu Panda.

In 2016’s Kung Fu Panda 3, Po is reunited with his long-lost father Li Shan (Bryan Cranston), who takes Po to a hidden village of pandas. In the meantime, the Furious Five are menaced by Kai (J.K. Simmons), a powerful spirit warrior who has defeated numerous Kung Fu masters and stolen their chi. Kai has Po, the Dragon Warrior himself, in his crosshairs. Po must train his ungainly kin into fighting-fit warriors to defeat Kai, as Shifu (Hoffman) announces his retirement, passing the mantle of teacher on to Po. Mads Mikkelsen was originally cast as Kai, but the character was rewritten and recast with Simmons. Rebel Wilson was also originally cast as Mei Mei, a panda with a crush on Po, but was replaced by Kate Hudson. Scheduling conflicts were cited as the reason, but Wilson has argued that tabloid articles accusing her of lying about her age and upbringing were what led to her being fired from the animated film. DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg has planned the series to have six chapters. A fourth movie is supposedly in development, but a release date and casting hasn’t been announced.

#4: DESPICABLE ME 3

The most recent entry on this list is Despicable Me 3, which was released in June of this year. The first Despicable Me film was released in 2010, and was the debut animated feature film from French studio Mac Guff. Mac Guff has since been acquired by Illumination Entertainment. Thanks largely to the success of the Despicable Me franchise, Illumination has become a major player in the animation scene. It was established as the family entertainment arm of NBCUniversal, and in 2016, NBCUniversal acquired DreamWorks Animation. The Shrek ‘resurrection’ we mentioned earlier? That, and the rest of DreamWorks’ upcoming animated movie slate, is being overseen by Illumination founder Chris Meledandri. The first Despicable Me film was about how the supervillain Gru (Steve Carell) eventually becomes the foster father to three young girls, but the show was stolen by Gru’s army of capsule-shaped assistants, the Minions. The Minions became a merchandising phenomenon, got a spin-off to themselves in 2015, and even have their own ride at Universal Studios theme parks.

Despicable Me 3 sees Gru meet his long-lost twin brother Dru (also Carell), while battling 80s-themed supervillain and washed-up child star Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker). A subplot sees Gru’s wife Lucy (Kristen Wiig) trying to adapt to her new role as foster mother to Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Nev Scharrel). While the lively animation and larger-than-life action sequences were praised, the contrived plot device of a long-lost twin sibling was seen by some critics as a sign that the franchise was running out of ideas. By now, the Minions have become a lightning rod for scorn, with many viewers rolling their eyes at an extended subplot about the Minions mutinying against Gru and getting thrown in prison. Illumination also displayed signs of smugness, taking a hard swipe at Finding Nemo in the film’s opening minutes (Gru’s submersible slams into a clownfish, leaving its father distraught as only its son’s severed fin remains). The franchise shows no signs of slowing down, with Minions 2 set for a 2020 release date.

#5: TOY STORY 3

In 1995, Pixar Animation Studios created the first feature-length computer-generated animated film ever made: Toy Story. An industry game changer, Toy Story was an auspicious feature-length debut for a company that had been tinkering with high-tech animation techniques and showcasing them in short films for some time. Toy Story is about the secret life that the denizens of Andy’s toybox have when he is not around. Andy’s favourite toy has long been the cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks). Woody feels threatened when Andy brings home a new toy, the spacefaring Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), who believes he is an actual space ranger and refuses to accept that he is a toy. Woody attempts to win back Andy’s affections and must begrudgingly cooperate when Woody and Buzz find themselves endangered by Sid, Andy’s neighbour who takes delight in dismantling and reassembling toys.

The Toy Story films are critical darlings – the first film is one of the few in existence to have a perfect 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes. 1999’s Toy Story 2, in which Woody gets stolen by a toy collector and has to be rescued by Buzz and the other toys, also earned a 100% Tomatometer rating. In 2010’s Toy Story 3, the toys confront an uncertain future as Andy, now grown up, prepares to leave for college. In addition to boasting the usual high-quality animation and fine vocal performances that Pixar had become known for, Toy Story 3’s deep meditation on loss, nostalgia and the process of growing up moved many viewers to tears. The film has a 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes – the first negative review counted by the site coming, predictably enough, from infamously contrarian critic Armond White. Other critics gave the film glowing reviews, with the BBC’s Mark Kermode declaring the Toy Story series “the best movie trilogy of all time”. The film also topped filmmaker Quentin Tarantino’s list of favourite films of 2010. While many feel Toy Story 3 works as a beautifully bittersweet note on which to end the series, Toy Story 4 is set for a 2019 release and will be about Woody and Buzz’s search for the lost toy, Bo Peep.

Cars 3 opens in Singapore on 31 August 2017.

Advertisements

Cars 3

For F*** Magazine

CARS 3

Director : Brian Fee
Cast : Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Armie Hammer, Bonnie Hunt, Chris Cooper, Kerry Washington, Lea DeLaria, Tony Shalhoub, Katherine Helmond, Cheech Marin, Paul Dooley, Larry the Cable Guy, Paul Newman
Genre : Animation/Comedy
Run Time : 1h 49m
Opens : 31 August 2017
Rating : PG

Lightning McQueen (Wilson) was once the fastest car alive, but his days at the top of the heap are numbered. In the third instalment of Pixar’s Cars series, Lightning’s status as a seven-time Piston Cup champ is threatened by newcomer Jackson Storm (Hammer), a high-tech, hothead next generation racer. Lightning’s Rust-eze team has been sold by owners Rusty (Ray Magliozzi) and Dusty (Tom Magliozzi) to the wealthy Sterling (Fillion), who has constructed a state-of-the-art training facility. Sterling assigns trainer Cruz Ramirez (Alonso) to Lightning, who resents the implication that he is old and on the brink of retirement. While initially dismissive of Cruz, the two eventually bond as they go in search of Smokey (Cooper), the former mechanic and crew chief of Lightning’s late mentor Doc Hudson (Paul Newman). With his girlfriend Sally (Hunt) and his friends Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), Luigi (Tony Shalhoub), Guido (Guido Quaroni) and Mack (Ratzenberger) in his corner, Lightning gathers the courage to regain the title and beat Jackson.

The Cars series is not viewed as one of Pixar’s crowning achievements, with 2011’s Cars 2 often viewed as the studio’s worst film. Cars 3 is a definite improvement on the second entry, often sincere and never aggressively obnoxious. However, it’s still difficult to get swept up in the story: the basic plot structure of an aging champion threatened by a rookie competitor brings films like Rocky Balboa to mind. It’s no surprise that co-writer Mike Rich is primarily known for penning sports films, including The Rookie, Miracle and Secretariat.

Lightning’s arc in this film isn’t exactly the easiest for kids to readily relate to. The themes of re-evaluating one’s purpose after getting a wake-up call in the form of a younger, faster rival might not resonate as well with the film’s young target audience as Pixar hopes. There’s also a great deal of sentimentality, with the impact that Doc Hudson had on Lightning, and Lightning’s search for inspiration in his late mentor’s wisdom being a crucial plot point. The adults might get a touch misty-eyed, but this might be lost on most kids.

As expected from Pixar, the animation is top-notch. The Cars are easy to buy as actual characters, and the way the characters shift their weight from one wheel to another is amusingly expressive. We get some gorgeously-rendered backgrounds and realistic atmospheric effects such as sparks and dust. However, Cars 3 lacks memorable set pieces. A Demolition Derby sequence is the most exciting the film gets, and even that falls a good distance short of the creatively conceived set pieces in other Pixar films. The bulk of the movie is spent chronicling Lightning’s training, which is good for character development, but isn’t all that exciting.

Wilson’s easy-going charm makes Lightning likeable even when the character gets caught up on his own success. The biggest thing Cars 3 gets right is the new character Cruz Ramirez. Alonso lends the character an upbeat eagerness and she’s set up to be annoying because she’s standing in Lightning’s way, but the character’s motivations are gradually revealed and the relationship between her and Lightning evolves organically. The dynamic between the two characters is sufficiently different from what we usually see in animated films, and to make another comparison to a boxing movie, is a little Million Dollar Baby-esque.

Thankfully, Mater takes a back seat in this one – arguably the biggest mistake the second film made was elevating him to a leading role. Fillion’s performance as billionaire Sterling is coolly sophisticated and just the right amount of condescending. Unused recordings of Newman from the first film are used for the flashbacks featuring Doc, displaying significance reverence for the legendary actor. Orange is the New Black’s Lea DeLaria has plenty of fun as the sadistic monster schoolbus Miss Fritter. As in the previous instalments, real-life racing drivers and sports commentators making vocal cameos: listen out for Lewis Hamilton, Bob Costas, Darrell Waltrip, Junior Johnson, Daniel Suárez and others.

While Cars 3 has its heart (or engine, as it were) in the right place, it’s far from impressive enough to justify its own existence. It surpasses the low expectations generated by its disappointing sequel and showcases surprising depth, but instead of sending heart rates racing, Cars 3 mostly coasts along.

As is customary for Pixar films, Cars 3 is preceded by an animated short. This one is Lou, directed by Dave Mullins, and about a loveable creature who lives in the lost and found box at an elementary school playground. Built on a charming, simple premise and packing a whole lot of emotion into its six minutes, Lou is a fine example of the storytelling power can summon.

Summary: Despite a story that most kids might find challenging to connect to and a dearth of memorable set pieces, there’s enough amiable sweetness to Car 3, making it a marked improvement on its immediate predecessor.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong