Obi-Wan Kenobi and the Rise of the Spin-Off Series

It seems we’re living in the age of the spin-off series. Intellectual property (IP) that has proven successful is now seeing a surge of either origin or ‘where-are-they-now’ stories surrounding established characters (Better Call Saul, Young Sheldon, the upcoming That 90s Show etc.), or shows providing more context on the show they are spun-off from (1883, How I Met Your Father etc.). No truer is that than in Disney’s wave of Star Wars limited series.

There’s no question that the Star Wars universe lends itself to this surge of content more than any other property available. That’s not to say that there aren’t other major IP’s that have the same possibilities, with the widely popular Game of Thrones set to see Kit Harrington reprise his role as everyone’s favourite, nothing-knowing Jon Snow.

But in Star Wars, Disney has a well with an endless supply of content, and one that the entertainment behemoth is unlikely to ever to stop drilling. From The Book of Boba Fett to the latest Obi-Wan Kenobi show, the last year has seen Disney already churn out two Star Wars-centric shows for two iconic characters from the franchise. And with a long pipeline of further shows to come —Andor, Ahsoka and Lando, to name a few— it looks like spin-offs are on the menu and Disney is ready to keep serving them.  

Rosario Dawson as Ahsoka

That’s not necessarily a problem though. Even with a minority of fans that would like to see more shows in the vein of The Mandalorian than that of a bounty hunter whose fate was seemingly set in stone almost 40 years ago, there’s still lots of good to come with the bad.

The one big positive is the sheer amount of talent that has been involved in each of the shows. From less renowned directors like Rick Famuyiwa, Kevin Tancharoen and Bryce Dallas Howard, to more established directors like Taika Waititi, Robert Rodriguez and Jon Favreau — the spoils have been shared across the board.

It’s in Obi-Wan Kenobi though, that Disney have managed to return to something so familiar and etched in Star Wars history. By allowing Deborah Chow to direct all six episodes of the show, there is a level of balance restored to the force (as it were) and the franchise. The singular vision of Chow’s Obi-Wan Kenobi is one that goes back to the roots of what made the franchise so iconic in the first place — George Lucas.

That’s not to say that the show is without its faults, as there isn’t much in the way of storytelling beats that you wouldn’t find in The Mandalorian. The premise is really similar to that of The Mandalorian (a hero thrust into the far reaches of the galaxy to escort a child home safely is hardly exciting) albeit that isn’t a fault of Chow’s given she didn’t pen the episodes. But to call this a shortcoming of Obi-Wan Kenobi isn’t a large criticism, given that The Mandalorian has offered the most compelling storytelling of all the current crop of Star Wars shows, so if any other Sci-Fi oriented shows are drawing from it, then more power to them.

Still from The Mandalorian

Unfortunately some of those shows include Paramount’s expensive adaptation of the beloved video game Halo which has had more problems than simply trying to emulate The Mandalorian‘s success. If anything really lets Obi-Wan Kenobi down it’s that it was always sold as a six episode limited series as opposed to something like The Mandalorian which will push three seasons next year.

There’s speculation that a second season of the show could happen, but one can’t help but wonder how much more refined the show could have been if it had stretched out its characterisation and storylines across more episodes. Obi-Wan Kenobi was always going to be a success —after all, it’s ‘Star Wars’, and sees fan-favourites Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen return— so why take a limited series approach? To have people request a second season at the show’s conclusion anyway?

It’s understandable that certain entertainment companies will want to play it safe by taking up a limited series format and waiting for the public reception before greenlighting a further season. But Disney is the biggest entertainment company in the world, and Obi-Wan Kenobi was always going to do well. By limiting the show to only six episodes and cramming everything (including that long awaited battle) into these episodes, there really isn’t a reason to bring Hayden Christensen back for a second season even though he’d love to, and which will probably happen in some capacity anyway. Obi-Wan Kenobi would have benefitted from more episodes to give the character a more refined arc than simply a baby-sitter who finds strength and hope as a result of said babysitting.

Maybe I’m being too harsh as I do feel that Deborah Chow found her groove by being the sole director here, and it was a delight to see Ewan and Hayden put on the jedi-esque robes and Darth Vader suit, respectively. It might be my adulation for a show like Better Call Saul and its extraordinary writing, but if there is to be a second season of Obi-Wan Kenobi, let’s hope that it’s given ample time to develop further and does keep some mystery tucked away for later.

All six episodes of Obi-Wan Kenobi are now streaming on Disney+

Ranking Pixar’s Filmography

27 years ago, Walt Disney Pictures took a massive gamble in distributing Toy Story, the world’s first feature-length film animated entirely with computer technology. Said film has since gone on to become a cultural touchstone, and the Emeryville-based crew that created it has morphed from a humble software firm to an entertainment juggernaut, its name as synonymous with animation as the corporation which acquired it.

The team at Rating Frames has been fortunate enough to witness the meteoric rise of Pixar Animation Studios first-hand – with our eldest writer being only a year older in age than Toy Story, we have never known a world without Pixar’s movies in it. Our earliest cinematic memories have been forged by their releases, which in turn have informed our love of the medium today.

Pixar made a return to theatres this weekend just past with Lightyear, breaking a two-year tradition of its pictures being released exclusively on Disney+. To celebrate this achievement, and his unflinching admiration for the company, our resident animation expert Tom Parry is ranking every prior Pixar feature from worst to best.

25. Cars 2 (2011)

This one’s appearance at the very bottom of our list should come as no surprise to anybody familiar with Emeryville’s filmography. With a nonsensical, chaotic story that makes its originator look passive, and a penchant for violence and destruction, this sequel is the let-down in an otherwise stellar family of high-achievers.

24. The Good Dinosaur (2015)

Despite being undeniably sweet and filled to the brim with gorgeous visuals – particularly those near-realistic landscapes – this seen-it-all-before screenplay squanders any potential by failing to build upon its (admittedly) clever premise. Ordinary by the standards of most; underwhelming by the standards of Pixar.

23. Cars 3 (2017)

Seeking to atone for the mess that was its predecessor, this threequel took the series back to its roots by opting for a more placid approach, and removing the juvenile antics – mostly. Although these changes are welcome, they result in a picture that feels too safe and lacks the magic of its stablemates.

22. Cars (2006)

Barely a nose ahead of the second and third Cars movies is the very product that inspired them. Some elements prove enjoyable, such as the tranquil driving sequences and surprisingly decent soundtrack; others are less so, like the infantile morals it seeks to impart on the viewer.

21. A Bug’s Life (1998)

One of the earlier releases from Pixar that has almost been lost to time, owing to the many quality productions in its wake. Needlessly mean-spirited and possessing a screenplay riddled with clichés, today it looks closer to another studio’s product than an early example of Pixar’s greatness.

20. Brave (2012)

A backward step for the esteemed folk of Emeryville as they follow the route usually taken by their superiors – telling a narrative about a princess in a medieval setting. But it’s saved from mediocrity by the Scottish backdrop, Patrick Doyle’s soundtrack and reasonably engaging conflict between the central protagonist and her mother.

19. Monsters University (2013)

The first and, to date, only prequel from Pixar, utilising the well-worn formula of the college movie and combining it with the ingenious concepts of its originator. Never reaches the emotional or intellectual heights of its contemporaries, but does have some amusing moments and a smart, thoughtful message.

18. Finding Dory (2016)

Andrew Stanton’s return to the deep-blue tugs at the heartstrings without ever reaching the heights of its highly-acclaimed and much-loved precursor. Nonetheless, it’s a delight, and worth watching alone for an utterly wild third-act.

17. Luca (2021)

Riding on an easy-going, carefree tone and possessing anime-inspired visuals, Enrico Casarosa’s Italy-set adventure is the most distinct feature of this bunch. A little too sweet and gentle when compared with its brethren, yet still an absolute charmer – one could almost describe it as catharsis in motion-picture format.

16. Onward (2020)

Nestled in the rich and imaginative world of New Mushroomton is a compelling, witty and warm tale about brotherly love, paired to an epic soundtrack of power ballads. Spoiling the otherwise-pleasing narrative is a trite conflict between siblings that a studio of this calibre should be avoiding at all costs.

15. Toy Story 4 (2019)

The least compelling entry in the Toy Story franchise, for it dispels its fantastic roster of deuteragonists and has rather disparate messaging. Even so, the screenplay is absorbing, the laughs hearty, the new characters likeable, the struggles relatable and the familiar voice-cast a reassuring hug from an old friend.

14. Incredibles 2 (2018)

A long-awaited, much-anticipated sequel that nearly lives up to the hype. Brad Bird’s movie carries over the superhero protagonists and multiple qualities of its predecessor, but forgets one key ingredient: an imposing, inimitable villain.

13. Coco (2017)

While comparisons with another Day of the Dead-themed animated feature, The Book of Life (2014) are inevitable, Pixar’s effort proves enjoyable in its own right due to the astonishing visuals and fabulous soundtrack. Only a hackneyed script hinders it from outright greatness.

12. Toy Story 3 (2010)

Never afraid to wrench a few hearts, Emeryville delivered its biggest tearjerker yet with this stirring threequel about everybody’s favourite playthings. Unfortunately, it’s spoilt by being a touch too dark at times, utilising the same themes as its precursor, and needing knowledge of the two prior films to be fully appreciated.

11. Monsters, Inc. (2001)

The directorial debut of Pete Docter takes a common trope – the belief that monsters terrorise children in their bedrooms at night – and applies its own unique spin to deliver a clever, heartfelt story. The characters are iconic, the dialogue endlessly quotable, the designs creative and the voice-cast peerless, though proceedings do get a bit outlandish.  

10. Finding Nemo (2003)

Andrew Stanton’s ocean-faring debut feature possesses much the same strengths as Docter’s door-hopping tale, such as fantastic characters, quotes and voice-acting; yet Nemo gets the edge over Monsters for being the more grounded conflict. Plus, the blue of the deep sea helps lend a tranquil, serene tone.

9. Toy Story (1995)

After all these years, the movie that started it all remains a solid watch thanks to a timeless narrative and litany of distinctive personalities. If anything sours the experience, it’s the evident limitations of the technology available at the time. That, and the actions of the characters are quite extreme on occasion.

8. Turning Red (2022)

Released only a few months ago, Domee Shi’s coming-of-age comedy is already a certified classic for the studio. It’s also the most individual film of the bunch, containing slick designs, amusing slapstick gags, extroverted protagonists and an exuberance which is absent from most other Pixar movies.

7. Ratatouille (2007)

Its premise is bizarre and brilliant in equal measure – a rodent with a passion for gastronomy becomes a chef at his idol’s restaurant by using a lowly garbage boy as his vessel. But look behind the zaniness, and there will be found an investing conflict, stunning imitations of Parisian streetscapes, playful orchestrations and a monologue in the third-act that one never tires of hearing.

6. The Incredibles (2004)

Well-written protagonists facing a memorable, formidable villain. Detailed, superbly-rendered worlds. Quotes that stand the test of time. A brassy, catchy soundtrack from one of the industry’s all-time great composers. This isn’t just one of the best Pixar films, nor animated features; it’s one of the best superhero blockbusters ever released.

5. Soul (2020)

The least childlike product to emerge from Emeryville, which is no bad thing. Pete Docter’s pensive, adult-minded drama wins viewers over with its clever screenplay and exceptional soundtrack, proving that animation is a medium for all ages. It’s also, quite possibly, the only good thing to come from the year 2020, film or otherwise.

4. Wall-E (2008)

An ambitious, mesmerising piece of cinema that’s loaded with allegories and offers plenty of commentary of modern consumerism, yet at its basest level is a touching, charming tale about a tiny, lonesome robot who seeks a greater purpose in life. Visuals, music, sound editing and writing are all stellar.

3. Toy Story 2 (1999)

The first of many sequels and spin-offs from this company that set a very high benchmark for every production since. Aspects improved upon over the first Toy Story include better rendering, a more nuanced antagonist and some insightful ruminations on purpose and mortality, while the only irksome element is the pacing – it leans a tad toward the fast side.

2. Inside Out (2015)

Until the release of Soul, this was the most profound, mature and resonant feature in Pixar’s relatively short history. Don’t be fooled by the simplistic premise, loud colours and cartoonish designs of the main characters, for they mask a screenplay that’s clever and moving in the most unexpected of ways.

1. Up (2009)

The 2000s well and truly witnessed the peak of Pixar Animation Studios – it’s the decade that bore Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Wall-E, five of the features which have drawn universal acclaim and come to define the company almost as much as the Toy Story franchise has. And at the very end of that decade came the picture that would top them all: Pete Docter’s Up.

The film has it all – a melodic orchestral soundtrack from Michael Giacchino; an emotion-filled montage of married life; endearing characters, both human and non-human; outstanding voice-acting from all involved; and a script that deftly fuses adventure, comedy, romance, fantasy and thrills. It is, quite simply, perfection in animated form, and deserves to be seen by everybody young and old.

Turning Red is a Bold, Welcome Deviation

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Critics are fast running out of superlatives to describe the filmography of Pixar Animation Studios. Every release by the company, especially of late, has possessed a rousing soundtrack, heartfelt screenplay, top-notch voice-acting and of course, computer-generated illustrations beyond compare, almost to the point of conformity. That all changes with this production, and for the better.

Toronto resident Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang) is on the verge of adolescence, lusting after boys she ordinarily wouldn’t and engaging in activities that draw the disapproval of her otherwise doting mother, Ming (Sandra Oh). But puberty is not the only drastic change the youngster is having to contend with – now that she’s a teenager, Mei finds herself transforming into a giant red panda whenever her emotions are heightened, a source of embarrassment greater than any other in her life.

The driving force behind Turning Red (2022) is writer-director Domee Shi who, just like Mei, is a proud Torontonian with Chinese heritage. Shi’s career trajectory is more interesting than most, having joined Pixar as an intern before garnering widespread acclaim with her allegorical short film Bao (2018). After this success, Shi was promoted to Pixar’s “Brain Trust” and given the opportunity to craft her own feature-length production; in turn, the film-maker has concocted the most energetic, inimitable Pixar film yet.

The most distinguishing element of Turning Red is the art-style. While there are shades of Pixar’s influence in the design of the characters and settings, the look of the film is distinct from any of the studio’s previous feature-length productions, a change that is most welcome. Soft colours dominate the architecture of Toronto, and clothing of those who inhabit its surroundings; humans of all sizes and body types interact with one-another, while their faces are adorned with large teeth and pupils that comically dilate or contract depending on their mood.

The animation, too, is a point of difference from other Pixar films. Where in the past, a character would move smoothly and gracefully (one could even say “realistically”), in Turning Red, the movement of the protagonists is quick and frenzied, welcomely leading to some well-timed physical gags that border on slapstick. Adding to this witty and frantic vibe is the editing, which occasionally employs some Edgar Wright-style quick cuts to further discern the picture from its contemporaries. Yet the differences go even deeper than that.

Ming Lee and daughter Meilin are often at odds in Turning Red.

Further distinctions are found in the screenwriting, which matches the vibrancy of Turning Red’s visuals. The plot is narrated in the first-person by a self-aware figure who frequently breaks the fourth wall and wears her geekiness with pride, forgoing the usual stereotype of an introverted, awkward teenager. Likewise, her friends are eccentric, outgoing and unashamedly nerdy, offering the perfect social and moral support – another rarity in coming-of-age tales. Additionally, it’s a tale that feels quite timeless, despite the film’s early-2000s setting.

Yet for all the freshness this script provides, it is stymied by the occasional flaw. One such example is the antagonistic Tyler (Tristan Allerick Chen), who is underwritten and poorly developed – efforts made by the film to complexify and soften his character are tame at best and confusing at worst. Another letdown is the third act, relinquishing the vim and momentum present elsewhere in Turning Red, slowing events to an underwhelming conclusion, and providing a left-field revelation about Tyler that bears no relevance to the conflict.

The one upside to these blemishes is that they aren’t a common sight in Pixar’s filmography, offering further proof that the team at Emeryville are no longer adhering to a formula or norm. Between this flick and Luca (2021), it looks as though Pixar is shying away from being a safe, comfortable brand and instead following the route of its fellow CGI powerhouses, DreamWorks and Sony in taking risks -– they’re hiring new people, toying with different art-styles and telling more diverse stories.

Turning Red heralds a promising future for Pixar Animation Studios, providing the medium with a fresh and distinctive voice in Domee Shi. Viewers will find themselves drawn to the quirky characters, original story, lively animation and bright illustrations of a stylised Toronto, making for an entertaining and resonant experience regardless of one’s background.

Turning Red is now available on home-video and on-demand services, and streaming on Disney+.

Disney’s Jungle Cruise is a Ride to Be Forgotten

There’s a prestige and heritage to the Disney brand that other studios can only envy – it’s a fact the corporation itself recognises, having produced a new picture that plays to its traditions. An initial glance suggests that said picture is primed for success; one viewing is enough to prove otherwise.

At the height of the First World War, Dr Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) is venturing to the Amazonian rainforests of South America, where she hopes to locate a rare flower with fabled healing properties in the name of science. Upon arrival, she engages the services of tour guide Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson), who offers to pilot Lily – and her accompanying, neurotic brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) – in his own boat along the Amazon’s many tributaries.

Their journey is one that will be fraught with the deadliest of dangers, including carnivorous beasts, turbulent rapids, and native tribespeople who are unwelcoming to outsiders; yet the greatest threat of all is a pursuing German officer, Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) who seeks the flower for his own warped, egocentric benefit as much as his beloved Vaterland.

Jungle Cruise is the latest blockbuster to be adapted from a Disneyland attraction, joining the likes of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, as well as less popular efforts such as The Haunted Mansion and Tomorrowland. Of these releases, it’s the Pirates franchise that Jungle Cruise most closely aligns with, hoping to emulate the former’s box-office success – a feat that looks unlikely, not just because of recent outbreaks of a certain strain of virus, but also the sheer mediocrity of the picture.

One advantage that Jungle Cruise does possess is a talented cast, including two leads who are familiar to the Disney faithful. Emily Blunt is the top-billed female, having previously fronted the cameras for Into the Woods and Mary Poppins Returns, albeit with more singing; her male counterpart, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is no stranger to the studio either, with starring roles in The Game Plan, Race to Witch Mountain and Moana.

Undoubtedly, Blunt and Johnson’s historic involvement with Disney is what endeared them to the producers, and perhaps why both actors perform with a laidback confidence – their respective characters seem more an extension of their own charming selves than a transformation. This is particularly evident when the two personalities share the screen, demonstrating the kind of chemistry that is usually found in more seasoned duos, not a pair who are sharing their first credit together.

The villainous Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) as seen in Jungle Cruise

One performer who has taken the transformative approach, and played against type in the process, is Jesse Plemons. Where in other roles he would be understated with only a hint of menace, here Plemons gleefully portrays the antagonistic Prince Joachim with a fitting level of camp, eccentricity and accented speech. It’s yet another delightful performance from Plemons, who by now is well on his way to conquering Hollywood.

Sadly, that praise does not extend to the secondary villains of Jungle Cruise: a group of zombified Spanish conquistadors who are clearly inspired by Captain Barbossa’s crew. Despite their unique appearances – the men take their physical form with the help of rainforest features such as vines, snakes and hornets – there’s nothing remotely interesting nor memorable about these foes, who lack the personality and wickedness necessary for this kind of role.

Matters are made worse by the substandard visual effects, which look as though they were rendered two decades ago; the comedic elements, which barely incite so much as a chuckle; and the underwhelming soundtrack from James Newton Howard, which lacks a rousing theme a la the Pirates movies. Yet these problems are minor when compared to the biggest issue of all: the confusing action sequences.

By most measures, the thrills of Jungle Cruise are pretty serviceable, with decent choreography and stunt-work; but they are made difficult to appreciate due to the shaky camerawork and frantic editing. Such techniques have been utilised by many a Hollywood blockbuster in recent times, proving just as annoying here as they do elsewhere – it’s high time producers learned that they don’t make the action any more exciting.

It’s baffling to think that a film with six producers and the backing of the world’s largest studio could be so mediocre. Despite having some gifted actors at its disposal, Jungle Cruise serves only as a passing distraction, with most of its other attributes being adequate at best. If this film is to herald a new Disney franchise, it’s not a promising start.

Jungle Cruise is screening in cinemas nationally where open, and available for streaming with Premium Access on Disney+.

Pixar’s Luca is The Beachside Getaway We All Need

The medium of animation has advanced greatly in the past few years, having gifted audiences with mature, compelling stories that put their live-action counterparts to shame. Pixar Animation Studios has long been at the forefront of this movement; here though, they’ve reneged on their recent form and produced a picture that’s decidedly lowkey, yet palatable all the same. 

On the sea floor, not far from the coast of Italy lives a family of amphibious monsters, among them the bright, curious Luca (Jacob Tremblay) who longs to know what lies above. Luca’s inquisitive nature eventually gets the better of him, as he joins a fellow creature of the marine, Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) in venturing to the surface, there discovering that his colourful, scaly body can morph into that of a human being.

Luca and Alberto make the most of their land-based forms, journeying to the coastal village of Portorosso where they befriend Giulia (Emma Berman), the daughter of a local fisherman, Massimo (Marco Barricelli). With Giulia’s guidance, the two ocean-farers interact with the town’s residents, sample Italian delicacies, and learn about the world beyond; yet they also face many perils, including teenage bullies, a cantankerous feline, and the populace’s unyielding prejudice against aquatic lifeforms.

As with Soul, Pixar’s previous feature-length film, Luca has shunned a “traditional” cinema-first release to appear exclusively on the Disney+ streaming service. Some have viewed this move as a devaluing of the Pixar brand; others still consider it to be undermining the theatrical experience. Whatever the case, it’s a decision that showed great foresight on Disney’s part, since a surge of coronavirus cases and lockdowns here in Australia means that theatrical releases are now untenable, leaving streaming as the only viable option.

Protagonists Luca (left) and Alberto in the town of Portorosso

Just as well too, because Luca is ideally suited for the kind of escapism that everybody so desperately craves right now. Like every Pixar release, the animation and rendering are flawless, with a quaintness to the designs of Portorosso, and its surrounds looking particularly beautiful. More mesmerising still are the scenes of Alberto and Luca enjoying typical seaside activities, with their cliff-jumping and swims in the ocean being fun and surprisingly cathartic – it’s almost like being on holiday.

That easy-going nature is present throughout, for Luca is unusually succinct, breezy and straightforward for a Pixar film; the screenplay lacks complexity, the conflict between the protagonists is rather trite, the main antagonist is little more than a cliché, and the stakes are quite low for all involved. Mundane though this approach is, it does allow Luca to be a sweet, gentle alternative to the rest of Emeryville’s output, offering a respite from the existential discussions that viewers may well be fatigued by.

The atypical nature of Luca extends to the designs and illustrations, which again are unlike any other Pixar production – note the characters with their bulbous heads, and round eyes with wide irises. According to director Enrico Casarosa, the visuals are wholly inspired by the works of Hayao Miyazaki, a fact which is most evident when seeing Giulia’s cat Machiavelli, who certainly wouldn’t look out-of-place in a Studio Ghibli film. It’s a welcome change from the norm, and one that hopefully finds its way into future releases from Pixar.

Although light on story and innovation, Luca is a warm, joyous excursion that refreshingly breaks free of the Pixar mould. Enrico Casarosa’s feature endears through its distinctive visuals, mellow tone and sense of adventure, proving an ideal escape for viewers of all ages – and the perfect film for pandemic viewing.

Luca is streaming worldwide now on Disney+.