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Coco •••••

Starring: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt
Director: Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina
Screenplay: Lee Unkrich, Jason Katz
Animation/Adventure/Comedy, Rated: PG
Running Time: 105 minutes
Release Date: November 21, 2017



(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Finally, Greg, a movie about hot chocolate.

No, Scott. It’s the story of a Mexican boy, his great-grandmother, and the love of music. Let’s recap:

We meet 12-year-old Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), who lives with a multi-generational family in Mexico. We learn that Miguel’s great-great grandfather was a musician who abandoned his wife Imelda (Alanna Ubach) and daughter Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía) to pursue a career in music. As a result, the family has banned all music and even the mention of music. It turns out that Miguel loves music, especially that of the famous Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt).

Miguel figures out that he is the great-great-grandson of de la Cruz and on the Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos) young Miguel decides to steal the late Ernesto’s guitar and play in the talent show. But when he does, he is transported to the Land of the Dead where the skeletons of passed relatives try to gain entrance to Earth on this one day to visit their living relatives.

Miguel befriends Hector (Gael García Bernal), a ne’er-do-well spirit who wants to visit his daughter one last time before she forgets him – causing him to disappear forever. Together, the two try to get the late Ernesto’s blessing so that Miguel can return to Earth and play the guitar. But they must hurry, because if they don’t succeed before sunrise, Miguel turns into a skeleton and will be trapped forever in the Land of the Dead.

Greg, Coco is a true delight and gives us one of the most emotionally satisfying movies of 2017. We don’t get much better hero stories than this one, and curiously it is a hero’s journey turned sideways. Usually, it is the hero who is missing some important quality, but in this film everyone except our hero has a missing quality, namely, an appreciation for music. It turns out that music is the key that unlocks the secret of Miguel’s great-great grandfather’s true identity. More importantly, it is music that brings Coco to life and jogs her memory about her true love: Hector.

Our hero Miguel turns out to be a change-agent hero inasmuch as everyone in his family lacks an appreciation for music and it is up to Miguel to instill in them a respect for musicianship as a career choice. This is not to say that Miguel is a hero without a flaw at the beginning of his journey. He lacks a clear understanding of his true family tree, and of the true evil nature of de la Cruz. The hero’s journey is always a search for one’s true special identity. Coco is no exception to this rule in its focus on Miguel’s quest to understand his place in his very tangled family tree.

I was prepared to dislike this movie because I don’t see how you can have skeletons at Christmas. I’m no fan of Nightmare before Christmas with all of its macabre overtones. Skeletons are creepy. Skeletons are scary. But after watching Coco skeletons became family. They were warm and loving and characters I wanted to be around. Pixar is relentless in the creation of stories that hit the viewer at their emotional core. And Coco is a resounding success in that regard.

And it is a success in every other way as well. The animation in this film is so exact that I forgot that I was watching an animation. That is to say, when I compare this to the CGI in Justice League, the pixels vanished. Every image was smooth and vibrant. The facial expressions were real and expressive. The characters emoted with energy and authenticity. I never wanted to look away. Coco is a rare delight.

You’re right, Greg. The computer animation was off-the-charts extraordinary. Just when you think Pixar’s design team can’t possibly up the ante any further, they produce something as magnificent as Coco. There are two scenes that show a stunning panoramic view of the Land of the Dead. The level of detail here is jaw-dropping, adding the kind of production value to the film that are on par with the spectacular mountain scenes in The Revenant. A generation ago, it would be unimaginable for a cartoon to rival images from real life in power, scope, and impact. But Coco delivers.

There are transformations a-plenty in this film. Miguel changes from hiding his talent to brandishing it with pride. De la Cruz falls from a hero on a pedestal to an evil villain. Hector is redeemed as a lost father to a cherished great-grandfather. And all of Miguel’s family transform from music haters to music lovers. It’s a wonderful change for practically the entire cast. As you mention, it is Miguel who is the catalyst for these changes. It’s his heart and drive that makes the change possible.

Coco is yet another triumph for Pixar and is perhaps the most emotionally fulfilling movie of the year. This film is proof that it is possible to shed a tear during a cartoon movie. I don’t know how anyone wouldn’t be deeply moved by Coco springing to life at the conclusion of this story. Besides great storytelling, Coco features some of the most remarkable CGI cartoon imagery the movie world has ever seen. This cinematic achievement earns the full 5 Reels out of 5.

Miguel’s hero’s journey is a bit unconventional but still contains all the classic elements of Joseph Campbell’s hero monomyth. Our hero is separated from his familiar world, receives help from friends, escapes from the proverbial belly of the whale, and acquires insight into his true identity. He also forever changes his family, too. I give our hero 5 Hero points out of 5. And because he transforms personally and also transforms others as well, I might as well award him 5 transformative Deltas out of 5, also.

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Coco is a delight for adults and children alike. Filled with complex characters who each have a distinct desire, this film has a plot that drives forward from beginning to end. It avoids being macabre even though the majority of the action takes place in the netherworld. I give Coco 5 out of 5 Reels.

Miguel is a wonderful hero filled with ambition, hope, and naivete. We all want him to succeed in becoming the musician we know he can be. And his love of music both captivates and infects those around him making Miguel a catalytic hero. He helps to transform all his family and save his father from a fate worse than death. I give Miguel 5 out of 5 Heroes and Coco 5 out of 5 Deltas.

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Moana ••••1/2

moana_teaser_posterStarring: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House
Director: Ron Clements, Don Hall
Screenplay: Jared Bush, Ron Clements
Animation/Adventure/Comedy, Rated: PG
Running Time: 103 minutes
Release Date: November 23, 2016


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Well it looks like we’re going to review the latest Disney princess movie.

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

No reason to piss and moana about it. Let’s just get to it.

We’re introduced to young Moana (Auli’i Cravalho). She’s an eight-year-old girl living in the Peloponnesian islands. Her father is the chief and she’s the heir to the throne. Daddy wants her and her people to stay on the island where it’s safe. But Moana wants to journey out past the reef. Her father keeps her at bay until one day the islanders find that their island is dying.

Moana’s grandmother Tala (Rachel House) encourages Moana to follow her heart and shows the young girl a secret cave containing large seafaring vessels that their ancestors used to explore the vastness of the ocean. Tala gives Moana the heart of Te Fiti to which was stolen by Maui (Dwayne Johnson), and Moana’s calling is to replace the heart to restore life to the dying islands.

Moana was a surprise. I expected a pretty typical Disney princess damsel in distress movie. But Moana is a strong female hero with a mission to save her people. She’s not someone to be saved, but someone to save everyone else. The movie knows it is an atypical story because Moana repeats at least twice “I’m no princess.”

This film surprised me, too, Gregger. What a delight it is. I felt like I visited a set of Polynesian islands and mingled with the indigenous people. The craftsmanship of this movie is unparalleled, with ocean waves and vegetation springing to life in vivid detail. Most importantly, Moana raises several timeless themes of human existence, most notably the theme of the importance of maintaining a connection with nature and the theme of discovering one’s true identity. The film’s treatment of these themes is creative, original, and inspiring.

As you point out, our hero Moana is a wonderful character with whom both girls and boys can identify. She is drawn to the sea and becomes obsessed with the idea of venturing beyond the safe confines of the island lagoon. This movie challenges us all to look within our hearts to discern our true calling in life — a theme of heroism that is explored at length in the recently released Handbook of Heroism and Heroic Leadership. What impresses me is how Moana encourages us not only to discover our true individual calling, but to also discover the calling of an entire community of people. Who are we and what are we meant to do with our lives? This film dares to ask such big questions.

Moana is aided in her quest by the demigod Maui. Maui also has a goal – to find his magic fish hook. He believes it is what gives him his power. But in fact, he already has his power within him. Maui shows Moana how to pilot a canoe, how to navigate the waters, and how to be a voyager. It’s his guidance that ultimately allows Moana to save the islands and restore the goddess to her rightful place.

Yes, Moana’s two main mentors are her grandmother Tala and then, later, Maui. Tala helps her discover her mission, whereas Maui helps her execute it. Interestingly, Maui himself is mentored in a unique way by one of his tattoo images, which reveals to Maui what the “right” choice is in any given situation. Moana’s dad plays an interesting role in discouraging his young daughter from following her heart. I wouldn’t call her dad a dark mentor, but his tendencies toward “playing it safe” suggest an anti-mentoring role for him.

The father plays the role of the oppositional force, or antagonist. Not quite the villain, but he’s the voice in Moana’s head who keeps her back. He’s not a bad guy. He wants to protect her and his people. But his energies are misdirected. So, I wouldn’t call him the dark mentor, but he does offer the initial resistance that the hero needs.

I enjoyed Moana much more than I expected. After a string of successes that include The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, directors Clements & Musker have created a new kind of hero that boys and girls both can admire and aspire to. I give Moana 4 out of 5 Reels.

Moana has everything going for her. She’s smart, brave, adventurous, virtuous, and beautiful. She starts out uncertain in herself and grows to find the voyager within her. I do have a problem with Moana – she’s too perfect. A little darkness in a hero is a good thing. It’s a force to overcome and control. I give Moana 4 out of 5 Heroes.

Finally, the mentoring in this film was just wonderful. Her first mentor is her grandmother who helps Moana discover who she can be and sets her on her journey. Then Moana trades up to Maui who is in need of some assistance himself. Maui shows Moana how to be voyager she was born to be and ultimately to be the leader her people need. I give these mentors 5 out of 5 Mentor points.

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Moana is one of the best movies of 2016. The film explores grand, sweeping themes of human yearning, and is equally grand and sweeping in its visual effects. We learn from watching this film that playing it safe in life is not an option as it only leads to death and decay. This is an especially important message for young girls in the audience who historically have not had as many worthy role models in the movies as boys have had. This movie will become a classic “must see” film for generations to come and thus earns the full 5 Reels out of 5.

Our hero Moana is an inspiring character and terrific hero in every sense of the word. I don’t see her as being too perfect, Greg. She is naive about the world and thus needs mentoring from her grandmother. She lacks seafaring skills and thus needs help from Maui. Her arduous journey compels her to acquire courage and resilience, and she not only transforms personally, she also transforms her people. Moana’s great heroism merits the full 5 Heroes out of 5.

The mentorship of the hero is exemplary, as we’ve both pointed out. Everything in this film is pretty much textbook, including these helpers and guides who shepherd our hero through life, assisting her in her mission to discover her identity and save her island. These mentors easily earn the full 5 Mentor points out of 5.

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Finding Dory •••

Finding_DoryStarring: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O’Neill
Director: Andrew Stanton, Angus MacLane
Screenplay: Andrew Stanton
Animation/Adventure/Comedy, Rated: PG
Running Time: 97 minutes
Release Date: June 17, 2016


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Well it looks like we’re back in the ocean looking for another disabled fish.

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Finding Dory has definitely whet my appetite. But not for seafood. Let’s recap.

We meet Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), a blue tang fish who lacks short termed memory. It’s been a year since she helped find Nemo and we flash forward to the present. Dory keeps introducing herself to other fish as if they had met for the first time. Then she has a flashback where she remembers her parents trying to teach her (as a young fish) how to find her way home. They are very understanding and patient fish and are teaching Dory coping mechanisms for her memory problems.

Dory is captured by the Marine Life Institute, where she is tagged and thrown into the quarantine section. There she meets a grumpy octopus named Hank (Ed O’Neill), who wants Dory’s tag so that he can be sent to a permanent aquarium. To get the tag, he agrees to help Dory find her parents. Soon she meets an old childhood friend a shark named Destiny (Kaitlin Olson) and a whale named Bailey (Ty Burrell), who both play a role in helping Dory.


It’s been a long time since I saw the prequel Finding Nemo. I think both of these films feature young fish with a disability. And the thrust of the film is how to deal with the challenges life throws at you regardless of your abilities. This is a wonderful message for young children who always feel powerless in a world of adult giants.

Dory is just as adorable as her voice actor – America’s sweetheart Ellen Degeneres. The only problem I had with the film and Dory is that she suffers from selective memory. She appears to remember things just in time for the plot points.

I’m torn in my evaluation because on the one hand this is a children’s film. And Pixar delivers. But there are leaps and gaps in logic (Dory happens to go down the same drain as her parents did two years ago. And they’re still in the same location waiting for Dory to come home. Lucky). This film will entertain children for years to come. But Pixar has a reputation for appealing to both the child and adult markets, and I think they missed the mark for adults.

I was thinking the same thing, Greg. This is a kids movie, pure and simple. I found myself in the unfamiliar position of being bored — an unheard of place for me to be during a Pixar film. All these characters are quite lovable and appealing, but there isn’t much depth or substance in the characters or in the situations they encounter (with one notable exception which I’ll get to shortly). Much is made of all the different places, rooms, and bodies of water that the fish find themselves in, and I suppose there is some cleverness in how they are transported to those places. But again, these kinds of action sequences appeal to children.

So let’s talk about the one exceptional feature of Finding Dory that was very clever and sophisticated. It is her short-term memory problem that you mention, Greg. Typically the hero is missing an important quality and the hero’s journey forces the hero to develop this quality. In Dory’s case, her memory problem cannot be fixed, and so this movie teaches us that even when we face permanent deficits, we can draw on our other strengths to compensate for these deficits. Dory spends her hero’s journey discovering hidden strengths that others do not possess — strengths which more than make up for her memory issues. This is a nice twist on the conventional hero’s journey and I really appreciated it.

Finding Dory is a nice sequel to Finding Nemo. We see similar themes in how to deal with disabilities. The word ‘nice’ comes to mind quite frequently. It’s a nice little story. Dory is a nice character. The parents were nice and patient. And I had a nice time. But there wasn’t a lot of the drama that made Finding Nemo compelling to all ages. Dory merely moves from place to place – each place adding a piece to the puzzle that is her memory. I can only muster 3 out of 5 Reels for Finding Dory.

Dory as the hero does really well here. As you point out, Scott, she has a missing inner quality of a missing memory. But she also has the missing inner quality of not belonging. She suddenly realizes that she’s missed her parents and needs to find them. So her quest to find her parents propels the story forward and her ultimate reunion with them resolves her inner hurt. I liked Dory and I give her 4 out of 5 Heroes.

Dory as several mentors in this film. Her parents act as her early mentors – teaching her how to survive despite her memory problems by drawing on her other gifts. The “septapus” xxx is her guide through the special world of the Marine Habitat. And Dory herself acts as a “by example” mentor to Nemo’s dad xxx. He learns to act in the moment and do “what Dory would do” when the need arises. I give them 3 out of 5 Mentors.

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I think you’ve summed up Finding Dory quite nicely, Greg. Children under the age of 14 should enjoy this movie, and adults will either enjoy it or at least find it palatable. The characters are all adorable and movie captures quite well the time-honored theme of finding home. Finding Dory will never been known as one of Pixar’s finest offerings but it’s still worthy entertainment. I also award it 3 Reels out of 5.

Delivering a strong hero’s journey is Pixar’s strength, and this film is no exception. All the classic elements of the hero’s quest are here in full form, beginning with the departure from home, the encounter with allies to help with the mission, the presence of ominous oppositional forces, and the hero’s meaningful transformation as a result of the journey. I agree that this hero deserves a rating of 4 Heroes out of 5.

There are plenty of mentors, as you point out, Greg. Dory’s strength is remaining open to learning from them all. She also teaches these mentors a thing or two about showing determination and solving problems. I think I’ll bump up the mentor rating a notch from yours and give these mentors a rating of 4 out of 5.

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Inside Out •••••

Inside_Out_(2015_film)_posterStarring: Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Lewis Black
Director: Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen
Screenplay: Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen
Animation/Comedy/Drama, Rated: PG
Running Time: 94 minutes
Release Date: June 19, 2015


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(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Well, Greg, it’s time to review the heroes in Pixar’s latest release, Inside Out.

I’m turned inside out with anticipation. Let’s recap.

We meet Riley Anderson (Kaitlyn Dias), an 11-year-old girl whose family is moving from Minnesota to San Francisco. We also meet various components of Riley’s internal emotional state. There is Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling).

We’re shown around the landscape that is her brain. There are the core islands of family, friends, goofiness, and her favorite pastime – hockey. Each memory is a tiny orb that is colored by whatever emotion Riley was feeling when the memory happens. Joy is the predominant emotion and basically runs the show. But Sadness wants to take over when Riley is having trouble in her new situation. Riley misses her friends and house back in Minnesota.

So, Sadness gets into all the memories and starts to color them blue. Joy wants Riley’s memories to be happy so she attempts to stop Sadness and they are both whisked away from “head” quarters into Riley’s memory storage bank leaving Fear, Anger, and Disgust to fend for themselves and color all of Riley’s memories. Now it’s up to Joy to return the core memories to Riley’s frontal cortex and restore Riley’s happy feelings.

Greg, Pixar has done it again. This film studio’s ability to craft wonderful and moving hero stories that appeal to audiences of all ages is unmatched in the movie industry. With Inside Out, Pixar has especially grabbed my attention because it portrays the conflicting psychological makeup of the average human being. As a psychologist, I believe that Pixar’s rendition of people’s psyche rings true. We are presented with five conflicting emotional states that compete with long-term memories, imaginary friends, dream states, trains of thought, and executive functioning.

The visual depictions of all these mental processes are innovative and amusing. Moreover, the resolution of Riley’s internal conflict is deeply moving and reveals some fundamental truths about how we deal with life’s ups and downs. Inside Out tells a simple story about average people encountering a common situation. Yet the simplicity of the movie’s premise belies its intelligent handling of the way we struggle to resolve our human pain and difficulty.

As a military brat who moved on average every 18 months, I empathized with Riley’s emotions over moving away from a home she loved. Writer and director Peter Docter didn’t miss a beat. The story moves along at a rapid pace and exposes a lot of the inner workings of our minds. The conflict between the different emotions was hilarious not only for the excellent voice acting, but also because it was so relatable for anyone who was eleven years old at some time.

I was struck by the diversity of the ensemble cast featuring different emotional elements bouncing off each other in a manner reminiscent of John Hughes’ Breakfast Club. Yet the hero story focuses on Riley as a lone hero engaged in an inner war with herself. Imbedded within this lone hero journey is a buddy hero story involving Joy and Sadness. As with most buddy duos, Joy and Sadness do not get along at first. Soon they realize that they need each other and forge an unshakable bond that is essential for Riley to grow in her maturity. In total, we have a complex hero story with at least three layers, and Pixar masterfully manages to weave these layers together into a beautiful, coherent whole.

I agree Scott. One thing I noticed about this ensemble is that there is a clear leader. Joy is not quite the protagonist, but she is the mastermind of this group. We also get a glimpse into the minds of other characters. They also had the same five-emotional ensemble, but different emotions would be the leader.

There is a wonderful cast of supporting players. There’s Bing Bong – the part cat, part elephant, part cotton candy imaginary friend who cries hard candies. And the cleaning crew who dispose of unused memories. We meet the guards of the unconscious who aren’t too bright. And there was a wonderful use of the “Reality Distortion Lens” (an homage to Steve Jobs) by the minions who managed Riley’s dreams.

Inside Out is one of the year’s best films. We are treated to a unique and clever glimpse into the inner workings of the human psyche, bolstered by an entertaining dialogue, creative visuals, and an intelligent view of how human growth occurs. I laughed, I cried, and I heartily recommend that this movie be nominated to our Reel Heroes Hall of Fame. Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), I award Inside Out a rating of 5 Reels out of 5.

The hero story was a complex tale of a child’s lone journey represented by her internal mental turmoil, particularly her two primary emotions of Joy and Sadness in battle (and in ultimate union) with each other. I’ve never seen a more psychologically rich and interesting hero’s journey. Our primary emotional hero mastermind, Joy, receives crucial mentoring from Bing Bong and her parents. There is a rewarding transformation in Riley, made possible by inner-struggle, perseverance, and assistance from others. So many of the elements of the classic hero’s journey are represented well here. Again, my rating is a full 5 Heroes out of 5.

Greg, you captured the strength of the supporting cast very effectively. All the characters are impeccably drawn and know their place within the structure of the story. Riley’s family, her emotional elements, and the other minor characters all produce a movie experience that dazzles and shines in every possible way. I award the cast a full 5 out of 5 rating points.

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As much as I hate the phrase, Inside Out is an instant classic. At Agile Writers the first step in writing a novel is defining the demographic the story is aimed at. Pixar obviously aims its movies at children, but creates a tapestry rich enough to engage viewers of all ages. That’s no mean feat. Inside Out hits it mark on so many levels. This is a story of a young girl ripped away from an ideal life and how she handles it. But it’s also a coming of age story. We watch her internal world crumble as she leaves behind childish things and takes a big step towards adulthood. I give Inside Out 5 out of 5 Reels.

When Pixar announced this project a few years back, I was skeptical. The idea that you could tell a story about something as amorphous as emotions is fraught with peril. But Pete Docter pulled it off. By limiting the scope to 5 primary emotions, with one of them as the leader, Docter reigned in what could have been an overwhelming project. Joy is wonderful as the leader of this ensemble. Aside from being ever-optimistic, she’s also a leader. It’s wonderful to see a hero for young women who takes charge (and isn’t labeled as ‘bossy’). I give Joy and her troupe 5 out of 5 Heroes.

The supporting players were so varied and entertaining as well. Although the parents play a small role in the film, they were loving and supportive. The mentor/sidekick character of Bing Bong helped Joy maneuver the special world of the brain’s memory system. The other secondary characters were more than mere walk-ons. They were clearly defined with specific roles in the functioning of Riley’s thoughts. I give the supporting cast 5 out of 5 Cast points.

I second your nomination for this film to enter our Reel Heroes Hall of Fame. It’s been a long time since we allowed a film in. And for good reason. A filmmaker has to really hit one out of the park to set itself above all the others. And Inside Out definitely cleared the fence of quality.

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Toy Story •••••

Toy_StoryStarring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles
Director: John Lasseter
Screenplay: John Lasseter & Pete Docter
Animation/Adventure/Comedy, Rated: G
Running Time: 81 minutes
Release Date: November 22, 1995


As part of a special series, we will be reviewing the first 5 movies released by Pixar studios. Keep your eyes peeled for our upcoming mini-book on the heroes of Pixar!

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(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, it’s time we review Toy Story, one of the groundbreaking animated films of the 1990s.

It’s one of those animations that appeals to both adults and children. Let’s recap:

We meet a small pullstring cowboy doll named Woody (Tom Hanks), who belongs to a small boy named Andy (John Morris). Woody is one of many toys owned by Andy, and all the toys act like inanimate objects when humans are present but spring to life when humans are absent. Woody is Andy’s favorite toy, but a birthday gift to Andy contains a new toy that becomes Andy’s new favorite: Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), an astronaut action figure.

Woody is filled with jealousy as Andy begins to favor Buzz over him. Woody attempts to push Buzz behind a dresser and accidentally pushes him out the window. The other toys turn on Woody blaming him for Buzz’s demise. Meanwhile, Andy’s mom takes him to Planet Pizza and Andy takes Woody along for the ride. Buzz jumps into the moving car. When the car stops for gas, the two toys get out and have an argument – but the car leaves them at the gas station. Woody and Buzz jump into a Pizza Planet delivery truck. Now their goal is to find Andy and return home before the sun rises – because tomorrow Andy is moving to a new house.

Greg, Toy Story’s arrival on the Big Screen in 1995 marked a revolution in computer-animated feature films. I remember at the time being enthralled by the exquisite realism and detailing of the visuals. And the movie also manages to tell a great hero story that carries meaning for audiences of all ages. No wonder Toy Story was inducted into the National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

In our first Reel Heroes book, we describe “buddy heroes” as a common type of social unit of movie hero. Woody and Buzz are buddy heroes because their relationship follows the typical buddy arc: they first dislike each other, then go on a journey together, and eventually grow into friends. A great strength of this film is that Woody and Buzz are each missing different inner qualities and thus undergo separate personal transformations. Woody is wracked with jealousy and must learn humility along with the need to place the good of the greater community ahead of his own selfish interests. Buzz is ignorant of his true status as a toy and must learn to accept his authentic identity.

Pixar tells a story like no one else. They have a deep understanding of the importance of the hero in a narrative. Woody suffers from jealousy. He feels like he is getting nudged out of his rightful place as Andy’s favorite toy. So, when a new, flashy, Buzz Lightyear shows up, Woody wonders how he, as an ordinary cowboy toy, can compare. But in Woody we see a strong sense of loyalty to his boy. Woody recognizes his importance as a quality toy in Andy’s life and acts as the leader of all the lesser toys. He constantly strives to make sure Andy is happy. Woody has the rare qualities of giving and selflessness.

Buzz on the other hand is full of himself. He doesn’t recognize that his role is to be Andy’s toy – to make sure that Andy is happy. Buzz is constantly worried about returning to Star Command and talks boastfully of his importance to the universe in defense of the evil Emperor Zurg. It’s not until the two toys are stranded that they create an alliance. It is their joint goal to return to Andy that ultimately turns this into a buddy film.

Buzz has a revelation that he is in fact merely a child’s toy when he sees a commercial for a Buzz Lightyear action figure on television. He goes into a deep depression as he finally understands that he is not the actual Buzz Lightyear. It is Woody who convinces Buzz that the ultimate purpose in his life is to make Andy happy by being a great toy. Woody even confesses to Buzz that he admires Buzz’s flashing lights and futuristic sounds. This bonding moment is the “convergence” that you and I look for, Scott, when we review the buddy story.

Toy Story may be an animated adventure but it’s densely packed with many elements of the hero journey. Included among these elements are a few villainous forces that attempt to thwart Woody and Buzz from achieving their aims. Chief among the villains is the rather disturbing neighbor boy Sid. We’ve all known kids like Sid; he’s nasty and physically mutilates toys for no reason other than because he can. Sid’s plan to blow-up Buzz is necessary to provide Woody with an opportunity for redemption.

Also appearing to get in the way of Woody’s rescue of Buzz is the collection of misfit toys that Sid has created in macabre fashion. I’m guessing that these disturbing toys are writer Joss Whedon’s handiwork. Toy Story wisely reveals these toys to be Woody’s allies instead of foes. Ironically, Woody’s toy friends in Andy’s bedroom are outraged at Woody’s mistreatment of Buzz, and they inadvertently foil Woody’s rescue plans, too. Even Buzz himself, disconsolate about his true identity, hampers Woody’s efforts. In all, it’s a fun yet complicated set of oppositional forces that Woody faces.

What’s interesting about Sid as a villain is that he is transformed in the end. Woody and the mutilated toys come to life in an effort to scare Sid straight. And they are apparently successful. In all the villains we’ve analyzed in the past year, Scott, I don’t think we’ve seen one example of a villain who gave up his villainous ways. This is a great example of how heroes transform those around them.

I’m glad you brought up the support characters, Scott. Andy’s toys are all clean and well taken care of. Sid’s, on the other hand are in various states of disrepair. And, as you point out, we think Sid’s toys are going to be evil because they are ugly. But it turns out that they are benevolent and willing to help Woody in his plan to save Buzz. While none of Sid’s toys takes on a personality (as each of Andy’s toys does), as a group they are helpers in Woody’s plan to save Buzz – and to divert Sid in his evil ways.

Another thing I want to point out is the divergence from the hero’s journey that we are accustomed to. In Toy Story there is a climax which is resolved by saving Buzz from Sid’s demonic attempt to blow him up. Once that climax is resolved, we would expect the story to slide into the resolution phase. But instead, there is a new conflict as Andy and his mother are driving off to Andy’s new home. Woody makes it to the car and is about to leave with Andy when he realizes that Buzz is stuck in the fence. Woody then gives up his chance to return to Andy’s ordinary world and goes back to lend assistance to Buzz. This then results in a new climactic event as Woody and Buzz chase Andy’s car across town to find Andy. It’s a thrilling chase scene and delivers a dual climax at the end of the story.

Toy Story comes as close to representing the perfect animated movie as one can get. At the level of story, the plot is sweet and simple, yet deceptively rich in incorporating all the elements of a good hero story. At the level of writing, the screenplay is impeccably crafted with witty dialogue sure to appeal to people of all ages. At the level of animation, Pixar’s revolutionary CGI effects are both superb and timeless. In terms of characters, we’re introduced to unforgettable characters who move us and teach us something important about the human condition. The rating here is a no-brainer: 5 full Reels out of 5.  And I nominate this film to occupy a worthy space in our Reel Heroes Hall of Fame.

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You’re so right, Scott. Toy Story is very well-crafted. The technology that created the movie creates a complete and believable world. The voice acting is delightful and engaging. The storytelling is intelligent and comical. And the hero’s journey is complete. While the film is aimed at children, the writers don’t condescend. I agree, 5 Reels out of 5. I second your nomination to the Reel Heroes Hall of Fame.

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Woody and Buzz are classic, unforgettable buddy heroes. I can’t tell you how impressive it is that a children’s film can so effortlessly portray the evolution of an unlikely friendship along with the development of two individually separate hero journeys. This is textbook stuff here and done to near perfection. Again, I happily assign this duo 5 Heroes out of 5 here.

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They are definitely Buddy Heroes, alright. They start out as adversaries and end up as good friends. However, I see them as starting out on different paths and then joining up to have the same goal by the end of the story: that of making Andy happy by being great toys. Woody and Buzz each go through their own transformation. Woody gets over his jealousy and Buzz realizes his place in Andy’s world. It’s a wonderful hero’s journey and I award Woody and Buzz 5 out of 5 Heroes.

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The villain Sid is an effective foe for Woody and Buzz to contend with, but I can’t use the same superlatives to describe Sid’s development as a character. Yes, you are correct, Greg, that there are hints to Sid’s redemption at the end, but we don’t learn much about Sid’s backstory nor much else about the darkness of his nature. His character exists merely to provide roadblocks for our heroes, and that’s certainly sufficient for this movie. In all, I award 3 Villains out of 5 here.

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I liked Sid more than you did, Scott. I felt he offered a great contrast to good-kid Andy. Sid was evil and calculating. And, if left unchecked, would probably have gone on from mangling innocent toys to insects and animals. I was impressed with the “Villain’s Journey” in this story. And while I have to agree with you that there wasn’t any backstory to Sid that explains his vicious actions, I still give Sid 4 out of 5 Villains.

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And now let’s rate the supporting cast. This includes the other toys in Andy’s room, Andy himself, and Sid’s misfit toys. These characters, especially Andy’s toys, are all marvelously constructed. They are distinct, quirky, funny, charming, loving, and loyal. We get to know them and cherish them the way Andy must love and cherish them. Interestingly, as you note, Greg, Sid’s toys are a monolithic bunch but that’s okay — they serve their purpose. Conspicuously absent is a mentor figure for Woody, but his pangs of conscience serve this role and inform his choices throughout the story. It’s a very strong supporting cast and I award the Supporting Cast 4 Casts out of 5.

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I have to agree, Scott. The supporting cast of Slinky, Mr. Potato Head, T-Rex, and the others, were given a distinct set of personalities. They did a great job of playing up Woody and Buzz’s characters. Interestingly, Sid’s toys could not speak. That tended to give them less dimension than Andy’s toys. I noticed a number of missing archetypes in Toy Story including the gatekeeper, the herald, and as you mentioned, the mentor. I wasn’t as impressed with these characters as you were, I give them just 3 out of 5 for Supporting Cast.

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Epic ••½

Epic_(2013_film)_posterStarring the voice talents of: Colin Farrell, Josh Hutcherson, Beyonce Knowles
Director: Chris Wedge
Screenplay James Hart, William Joyce, Daniel Shere, Tom Astle, Matt Ember
Children/Animation/Fantasy, Rated: PG
Running Time: 102 minutes


(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, we just saw Epic, the new computer animated fantasy-adventure film based on William Joyce’s book.

Indeed we did, and I’d say it was neither a good Epic nor a good fantasy. Let’s recap.

The movie begins with a young woman, Mary Katherine (Amanda Seyfried), visiting her eccentric father who lives and works deep in a remote forest. We learn that Mary Katherine (who prefers the initials MK) has a rocky relationship with her dad, whose obsession with finding a civilization of tiny creatures in the forest caused his marriage to fail and his family relationships to suffer. One day MK ventures into the forest and inadvertently stumbles upon Queen Tara (Beyonce Knowles), the tiny monarch of all life in the woodlands. Tara has been mortally wounded but lives long enough to shrink MK down to size and assign MK the task of bringing a magic pod to a showy glowworm named Nim Galuu (Steven Tyler).

MK is aided by brash young Nod (Josh Hutcherson) who is one of the soldiers of the Leaf Brigade. He suffers from being too independent. He is unable to follow orders given by troop leader Ronin (Colin Farrell) and marches to his own drum. This makes Nod a bit untrustworthy. Also, along for the ride, are Mub and Grub (Aziz Ansari, Chris O’Dowd), two slugs who offer comic relief. Together they must battle the forces of decay (the Boggans) who are constantly trying to kill off all living vegetation. Their goal is to prevent MK and friends from delivering the magic pod to Nim Galuu who will then use the pod to select a new queen and usher in another 100 years of bountiful forest living.

Well, Greg, based on what you said at the outset of this review, I’m almost afraid to say, without ducking for cover, that I thought this movie was good. Now keep in mind I make this positive assessment knowing that the film is intended for a young audience. I would say the target audience is roughly 5 to 12-year-olds. Is this a movie for adults? Probably not, but adults can certainly enjoy the absolutely stunning animations.

Scott, I’ll give you the visuals. Producers Blue Sky Studios (of Ice Age fame) did a great job of creating a spectacular forest and articulated characters of all sorts. If all you want is a pretty picture, then you won’t be disappointed by Epic. However, as you say, this is a film for youngsters and as such it glosses over some important story elements. For example, the story doesn’t explain what happened to MK’s mother or Nod’s father. But as adults we know that they have died. I am OK with glossing over these details for younger children. However, many scenes in this movie are very scary, dark and deal with death directly. Characters are killed off right before our eyes. Hiding off-screen parental death but showing on-screen death is an incongruity that I can’t reconcile.

Greg, this incongruity didn’t bother me, perhaps because I didn’t see much of one. Yes, the screenwriters omit the details of the death of MK’s mom and Nod’s dad. It’s a kids movie and we don’t need to get too nitty gritty there. And you’re right that many of the bad guys are pierced by flying arrows, but these deaths are shown antiseptically with no sign of pain or blood. (Strangely enough, the good guys never seem to die or get hurt, with the exception of Queen Tara). So I think it’s largely a non-issue. I stand by my opinion that the movie, overall, offers up an exemplary hero story.

Consider the character of MK, the film’s hero. She is strong, courageous female lead character who serves as a great role model to boys and girls alike. She displays nearly all of the characteristics of a great hero – courage, intelligence, resilience, selflessness, kindness, and inspiration. As you know, female heroes are rare in the movies and so I truly welcome this film’s portrayal of her as a heroic figure.

I’ll grant you that MK is a good hero, but I wish she were less of a damsel in distress. Most of the action scenes are stolen by the men doing the fighting and MK clutching the magic pod. Compare MK to Mirada from last year’s Brave. Mirada did the actual fighting in that film. MK by contrast appears to be the custodian of a magical pod – I’ll let you read the metaphor there.

I also had trouble with the basic premise of good and evil in this film. Apparently the forest is the battlefield of the constant struggle between the forces of decay and the forces of life. That is, the forces of decay (the Boggans) are constantly trying to kill off the forces of life (the Leaf People). Fairy tales and myth are stories that explain the world we live in – as metaphor. I could follow the life-giving characters in the story. But I didn’t recognize the Boggans as elements of decay. You can easily point to the forces of life (trees, grass, birds, insects) but I just don’t understand where a child might go into the forest and point to the forces of decay.

It seemed to me that the filmmakers were attempting to anthropomorphize the time-honored struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. And because we’re in a forest setting, this struggle is portrayed as the battle between those seeking to preserve lush green plantlife versus those seeking to destroy it. I’m not sure why, but I did buy into the fantasy.

I will concede to you that MK is portrayed, at times, as dependent on the Leaf Men for protection. But there are also plenty of scenes where she performs impressive physical feats to escape trouble, and let’s not forget the clever clue that she leaves her father which ultimately saves the world. MK rocks as a hero.

One of the delights of Epic is its large array of colorful supporting characters. There is the father, the love interest, the queen, the magic seer, the leader of the Leaf Men, and a bevy of sidekicks including a couple of lovable bi-optic slugs. There are also the villainous Boggans, led by the evil Mandrake (Christoph Waltz) and his own nefarious sidekick. Most of these characters really grew on me — although I confess that the slugs wore out their welcome rather quickly.

We agree on that last point. The slugs were poor comic relief. I found myself wishing for the likes of Timone and Pumba from Disney’s The Lion King.

I was very disappointed in this film. It has been advertised for nearly a year at our local theater and I was expecting good things. I felt it was too violent and dark for younger viewers. I didn’t like the struggle between decay and life. I feel that Epic is the Fern Gully for a new generation – without the political overtones. I can only give it 2 Reels out of 5. While the hero characters are mythic (including a nice “atonement with the father“) I don’t think they were the focus of the film – the artistry seemed to be central here. I give Epic 3 out of 5 Heroes.

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Epic achieves its goal of providing 100 minutes of solid entertainment for children. It does so by serving up a classic and fun-filled hero story that features nearly all of the elements of the hero’s journey, such as the hero’s call to adventure, her entry into a dangerous new world, her search for something missing in her life, her encounter with helpers along the way plus a love interest, her recovery of what was missing, and her return to her original world.

These key hero elements, plus the remarkable animations, earn the film 3 Reels out of 5. (I would give it 4 Reels if I were a child). From my perspective, the outstanding story of a young woman setting out to develop a relationship with her father earns the movie 4 Heroes out of 5.

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The Croods ••••

The_Croods_posterStarring: (the voice talents of) Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Cloris Leachman
Director: Kirk De Micco, Chris Sanders
Screenplay: Chris Sanders, Kirk De Micco, John Cleese
Animated/Action/Comedy, Rated: PG
Running Time: 98 minutes


(Greg Smith, Founder of Agile Writers of Richmond, VA)

Scott, The Croods is a new animated feature from Dreamworks animation. They’re the crew who brought us all those Madagascar movies, and Shrek. I haven’t been impressed with much that they’ve done since Shrek, but The Croods is a rocking good time.

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

The Croods didn’t disappoint. I was initially a little worried that this movie would be The Flintstones set in a darker universe. But it delivered meatier fare than anything Fred and Barney could.

We’re introduced to Grug Crood (Nicholas Cage) who is a classic Cro-Magnon. He’s big, burly and keeps his family safe by hiding them in a cave. Anything out of the ordinary is bad. Everything good is in the cave. The family only ventures out to forage for food. And when they do, it’s a team event with everyone in the family doing their part. But they must hurry back to the cave before the sun sets or become food for whatever roams the night. Grug’s teen-age daughter, Eep (Emma Stone) has a different idea about what is good. She loves the sun and the outdoors and anything new. She sneaks out one night and meets a young Homo-Sapien named Guy (Ryan Reynolds). Guy is everything new. He wears boots, a belt, has mastered fire, and brings a tale of impending doom – the earth as they know it is collapsing!

It had better be collapsing! We can’t have a hero story in a stable, familiar world, now can we? Grug notices that Eep is missing and frantically searches for her. Meanwhile, Guy leaves Eep to venture to safer terrain. After Grug and his family find Eep, massive earthquakes destroy their cave, sending them fleeing toward a land that is a far cry from their bland rocky desert. This new world is a lush jungle teeming with color and all sorts of new peril. Greg, to me this shift in worlds was reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz.

That’s an apt comparison. The first thing that occurred to me in this movie was how closely it matches Moxnes’ Deep Roles Model. In it Moxnes describes how archetypal characters are based on the family structure. There’s the Father, the Mother, the Crown Prince, the Princess, the Wise Man and the Hero. The Croods fit this model closely with father Grug, mother Ugga (Catherine Keener), brother Thunk (Clark Duke), daughter Eep, and grandmother Gran (Cloris Leachman) as the wise mentor. The boy Guy plays the Hero character. Usually in this model the Hero is transformed through the experience. But the main character who goes through transformation is Grug, the father. He starts out clinging to the old, safe ways. But he gradually learns that the old ways don’t work in a world full of strange plants and animals.

Glad you brought in Moxnes’ model, Greg. It fits like a glove here. This movie is interesting in that it starts out giving the impression that Eep is the hero. She leaves the safety of her cave to explore a forbidden world. But as you say, it’s Grug who must change his ways in response to a rapidly changing world. He can’t stop his daughter from growing up, and he can’t prevent earthquakes from transforming the landscape. I would say that Grug is the main hero and that the mentor is Guy, not the rather uninteresting Grandma character. It was Guy who encouraged new ways of thinking and who brought about Grug’s transformation.

That’s a good qualification, Scott. I really respected the Dreamworks animators for not coloring Eep in perfect female form. She’s a cute character, but unlike so many Disney princesses, not a classic beauty. She has very broad shoulders and thick legs. Her hair is a controlled cinnamon brillo pad. She has a sunny face and great enthusiasm. I’m reminded of Shrek (another Dreamworks film) and how the princess in that story turned into an ugly green ogre at the end of the story. The Disney model requires that good characters be (or become) beautiful. (Take for example, the Beast in Beauty and the Beast who transforms from an evil beast to a good, handsome prince). All too often, both in cinema and in life, we equate beauty with virtue. It’s good to see a film that takes the risk of making their virtuous characters look less than perfect.

Eep is definitely a non-traditional woman. She’s smarter and more intellectually curious than just about every character, and she runs circles around most of the men in this story. She’s even physically stronger than Guy. If there’s a sequel to The Croods, she’s the one character I’d want to learn more about.

Greg, the movie’s only flaw, if you could call it that, was the ending. The filmmakers here got greedy and tried to make the hero just a little too superhuman. I won’t give away the ending scene, but let’s just say that the screenplay writers underestimated the audience, who would have left the theater quite satisfied with all the growth and transformation that our hero underwent. But no, we’re presented with a truly unrealistic scene at the end that wrapped everything up in a far too-perfect bow.

I see your point. However, remember this is a children’s movie rated PG. One element that was especially endearing to me was the presence of “story” in the movie. Grug often tells stories and illustrates them on the walls of the cave. I just loved the idea that the earliest people were as much in love with telling a story as we are today.

You’re right. We had stories within the story. And those stories had to change for the main story to work. Overall, it’s a classic hero tale with all the essential elements in place. The animated cinematography was amazing, especially in the early egg-chasing scenes. There was clever humor — witness the Croods’ first reactions to fire with references to fire babies and fire-biting. While Grug emerges as the main hero, in a way the entire Croods family displays heroism in their combined efforts to survive their radically changing world. Like Shrek, The Croods has memorable characters and classic themes that appeal to people of all ages. I’m giving the movie 4 Reels out of 5, and the hero 4 Heroes out of 5.

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I was delightfully surprised. This is a very layered film: the merging ideas of early man with modern familial problems, the coming of age for a young girl, the feeling of loss for a father losing his daughter to a young man, the passing of brute strength in favor of intellect, and a man standing still while the world literally passes him by. I really can’t find any faults with the story except that it was a bit too saccharine so as to appeal to the sensibilities of young children. I’d like to give this 5 Reels, but the ending fell a bit flat so I can only give it 4. I was a bit confused about who the hero of the story was. The story starts focused on Eep as the element of change. Then switches to Guy, the young boy. And finally settled on Grug as the transformed hero. I prefer a more clear hero structure and so give only 3 Heroes out of 5 for The Croods
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