Who doesn’t like Pixar? Sorry – who doesn’t love Pixar? Their films are custom made to stir up strong emotions, not just mere likeability, amongst the children in the audiences and the inner children of their parents. They succeed – they really do – with an admirably high hit rate: the Toy Story trilogy, Up, and Ratatouille would be my desert island choices, but it could be just about any of the other films that personally resonate with you, beyond last year’s flimsy (and flimsily titled) The Good Dinosaur. The company’s very name has become synonymous with quality, both for the technical bravado of its animation and the richness of its scripts and characterisations – no other studio can come close to boasting the same consistency. Therefore I’m pleased to inform you that Finding Dory is very much a Pixar film, through and through.
Actually that seems to be concerning some people: there are murmurings on the internet that this film is just too much like other Pixar films, particularly Finding Nemo, with worries that the plot is way too similar. I’m unsure why they’ve chosen this point in time to complain – after all, the Pixar package has been the same for many, many years now. They’re certainly right that, just like the first one, this is also a film about the search for a fish that has become separated from its parents. But a dramatic separation from loved ones, combined with a quest to return home, happens to describe the narrative of just about every other Pixar film as well. That is, I believe, a large part of what has made the studio so popular: the comfort of repetition is a natural human instinct, because we all fear change – children and adults alike. We don’t want the Pixar formula to evolve, just as we don’t want Andy to go off to college at the end of Toy Story 3. Familiarity is comforting, even if there will always be cynics to criticise that comfort, labelling it as an act of ‘conformity’ or ‘selling out’ or the like, a common accusation against sequels.
But why would you want to quibble with a formula that is so enjoyable? I am all for Pixar maintaining their thematic and narrative repetitiveness, so long as they also sustain their quality control. Thankfully, in Finding Dory the quality is fairly high: Dory is an irrepressibly joyous character and the journey to find her parents and overcome that famous short-term memory loss of hers is invigorating because of the gutsy determination to do it all by herself. Which is not to say that she doesn’t get a helping hand (or seven) along the way, from Hank the octo/septopus, an amusing new sidekick who can usefully disguise himself in any surroundings, and several other cute animals (including, bizarrely, Sigourney Weaver) along the way – all of which children will love. Unfortunately, Nemo and Marlon do get somewhat sidelined in this adventure, tagging along as it is their duty to do in such a sequel, but sadly given little dramatic heft. And the emotional payoff, when it comes as it always must, tugs a little too hard on the tear ducts, with flashbacks to baby Dory’s bulbous eyes and cutesy voice virtually begging you to feel nostalgic for the lost innocence of childhood.
But hey, sentimentalism is yet another staple of the Pixar package, and even if it’s done with more subtlety in some of their other films, I’m willing to put up with it in this one because Ellen DeGeneres is so engaging as Dory, the sea life is so exquisitely detailed and brought to life by the animators, a majority of the jokes hit home (I’d say a 70% hit rate amongst the audience), and the climactic action scenes are some of the most outrageous in Pixar’s history – and therefore the most fun.
Make sure to stick around for the credits – Sia’s cover of the old standard ‘Unforgettable’ is one of the best gags in the film (think of the significance of the title), plus there are a couple more nods to Nemo for those with the patience to wait it out until the very end.
Teens of Denial – Car Seat Headrest
One of the great coups of rock n’ roll music, and one of the many reasons why I love it so much, is that it has always catered, right from the very beginning, for the youth market that is typically abandoned by other musical genres: Chuck Berry was singing and playing directly to teens struggling with the perennial turmoils of adolescence whilst offering them consolation and assurance of a better future through his cocky, fun-loving guitar chops – that was the message of ‘Johnny B. Goode’ and all of those countless other classics.
Will Toledo, singer/songwriter extraordinaire of Car Seat Headrest, also speaks directly to teens in the great rock tradition, but his alter-ego is a world away from the cocksure guitar hero of Chuck’s Johnny B. – it takes the form of a schmuck named Joe, a youngster struggling with depression brought about by the fear of entering the adult world: ‘how was I supposed to know how to make dinner for myself?’ is just one of the many complaints he issues on Teens of Denial. Joe can feel his life careening out of control, much like ‘Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales’, the subjects of one song, or the captain of the Costa Concordia (remember that cruise ship which infamously sank off the coast of Italy in 2012?), the subject of another: ‘how was I supposed to know how to steer this ship?’
Fear, doubt, anxiety, depression: these don’t sound like the ingredients that make for a great album, they sound like the makings of a non-stop pity party – and then you find out the damn thing’s 70 minutes long. Yet like Morrissey before him, Will Toledo manages to pull it off thanks to a humane and sympathetic voice that reaches out to the troubled souls of the universe and takes their problems at face value. But he also pulls it off thanks to generous dollops of humour that help keep the album grounded: ‘Last Friday I took acid and mushrooms/I did not transcend, I felt like a walking piece of shit’ he reveals to us in a typically funny-sad moment from the album’s best-titled song. Toledo, like many of the best artists, keeps us guessing at to the extent to which Joe, the narrator, encompasses his own personal feelings and experiences, and this keeps things engaging and interesting upon repeated listens.
And believe me, repeated listening is most certainly worth doing with this album, with the music unravelling welcomingly and revealing catchy hooks and fascinating sonic details every time you spin it. Toledo is a true indie auteur, recording hundreds of songs throughout his teenage years in the back of a family car (hence the band’s name), honing his craft and becoming a hero on Bandcamp, before signing with Matador Records and releasing a compilation of the best songs from this era, Teens of Style, which was unfortunately patchy at best but paved the way for the grandly ambitious release of this entirely new collection of songs. His musical touchstones on Teens of Denial are clearly the noise-rock bands of the late 80s/early 90s (Pixies, Sonic Youth, Mudhoney, Guided by Voices etc.), deploying generous feedback, squeals and squalls on his guitar to capture the chaotic energy of youth, carefully avoiding standard verse-chorus-verse structures in favour of a more liquid approach to songwriting in which melodies appear and disappear with startling frequency, and using dynamic soft-loud contrasts to punch home the turbulent messages in some of the more disturbing episodes (particularly ‘Cosmic Hero’). It is, in all, a powerful, thrilling spectacle, with unexpectedly charming moments in the form of catchy singalong choruses, even if Toledo can’t resist cynically matching them to lines such as ‘I give up’ or the deliciously sarcastic ‘Drugs are better, drugs are better with/Friends are better, friends are better with/Drugs are… etc.’
What a treat this is! An album for those teens and young adults struggling to adjust not just to the actuality but even to the idea of growing up, and angry at themselves for not being able to cope with more ease. This is a generation being told by their superiors that they’re a bunch of lazy slackers – that they should quit moaning, get off their asses and get a damn job. Toledo is self-deprecating and honest enough to recognise that there may be some truth in these accusations, particularly regarding himself. But it doesn’t make him any less fearful for those Teens of Denial in the world who are still trying to figure out what the hell they’re going to do with their life, youths whom he knows will often turn to music for a measure of assuredness and comfort.
I happen to be one of those people.