Category Archives: Animated film

Coco (2017), directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina

One of my children was recently visiting me in Israel and I decided to peruse with him some old photo albums to review our family history. In the albums were images of family members, close and distant relatives, and friends from different communities in which we lived.

Much to my surprise, I could not identify many people in the pictures. Out of sight for a long time, they were also out of mind. I could not remember them; it was as if they no longer existed. The theme of memory is central to Coco, an animated feature about a young boy whose memory of the past provides a gateway to understanding his future.

Miguel is a 12-year-old Mexican boy and a budding musician. For some unknown reason, his family has placed a ban on all music, which conflicts with his desire to make a career out of music. Things come to a head when, through a serendipitous event, Miguel is magically transported to the Land of the Dead, a place where the dead continue to live if they are still remembered by the living. Here Miguel can meet his musical idol Ernesto de la Cruz and discover for himself the reason for his family’s ban on music.

In the Land of the Dead, Miguel meets Hector, a skeleton with musical talents, who will assist Miguel in his search for his family’s secrets. Hector takes the job as Miguel’s guide when Miguel promises to take his photo back to the Land of the Living to give to his daughter so that he can, in some mystical way, be reconnected to his daughter and prevent her from forgetting him. He implores Miguel to carry out this mission so that his daughter’s love for him will survive eternally: “When there’s no one left in the living world who remembers you, you disappear from this world. We call it the Final Death.”

Along the way, Miguel learns that Imelda Rivera, his great grandmother, was abandoned by her husband who left her and her 3-year old child Coco to pursue a career in music. Music was the root cause of the family’s disintegration and Imelda opened a shoe-making business to enable her family to survive financially. These memories animate the past and create a living legacy for Miguel, who finally discovers secrets and misunderstandings that led to his family’s ban on music. Hector reminds him: “Our memories, they have to be passed down by those who knew us in life, in the stories they tell about us.”

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, reflects on the purpose of memory: “Forgetfulness leads to exile while remembrance is the secret of redemption.” Jews on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, recite the Yizkor prayer, the memorial liturgy for those who are no longer with us in this life. Its recital evokes in our minds and hearts the memories of all those family members who were close to us and who now dwell in the uncharted beyond. By preserving their memory, we can emulate their positive behaviors and incorporate their attributes into our own lives. Saying Yizkor reminds us that the good deeds a person performed when he was a vibrant human being have a ripple effect on those who remain alive after his death. Yizkor, indeed, opens a door leading to eternity, a link between generations.

Coco is more than a typical animated feature. It is a meditation on death and on the connections between the living and the dead that survive and transcend the end of life. Miguel keeps the memory of his ancestors alive, and in so doing creates a happy future for himself, a future grounded in the rich history of the past.

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Loving Vincent (2017), directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman

loving vincentMany years ago, I saw Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life, a cinematic biography of Vincent van Gogh, based on the novel by Irving Stone. In recent years I visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Both experiences gave me an appreciation for the unique artistry and power of Van Gogh’s paintings.

Loving Vincent is an unusual motion picture. An animated film, it uses the style of Van’s Gogh’s art to tell its story. The film recounts hypothetically the last years of Vincent Van Gogh’s life. Did he commit suicide? Was he murdered? Was he depressed for a significant length of time? What may have contributed to his despondency?

The narrative begins one year after he died. Joseph Roulin, Vincent’s postman, requests his son Armond to deliver Vincent’s last letter to his brother Theo. The postman does not understand why Van Gogh chose to end his life when he seemed a well-adjusted man only a few weeks earlier. He shares his ambivalent feeling about Vincent’s death with his son, who reluctantly takes the letter to Paris.

Once in Paris, Armond learns that Theo died six months after Vincent. He then travels to the home of Dr. Paul Gachet, the physician who housed Van Gogh during a time of his artistic development and who shared his artistic sensibilities. Vincent’s relationship with his doctor is complicated and Armond leaves with more questions than he had before he met him.

All roads of inquiry finally lead to Theo’s widow, who happily reads Vincent’s last letter. The missive testifies to the strong love of the brothers for one another. It is signed “Your Loving Vincent.”

The mystery surrounding his death remains, but we sense that Van Gogh’s paintings show both the agony and ecstasy of his troubled life. He writes: “What am I in the eyes of most people – a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person – somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then – even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart.”

In his letters, Vincent reveals the purpose of his art: “I want to touch people with my art. I want them to say ‘he feels deeply, he feels tenderly’. I don’t know anything with certainty, but seeing the stars makes me dream.”

Van Gogh is an artist for whom details are important. Indeed, that is the nature of art, to be concerned about details and how they come together to create enduring works of art. Emuna Braverman, a Jewish educator, writes: “Look closely at a masterpiece painting and see how it is composed of many small brushstrokes. If we were able to approach the artist – Rembrandt or Monet for example – and ask them, ‘Did you really need that brushstroke of blue in the bottom left corner or that dab of red in the upper right?’ they would be appalled. It’s only through the combination of all those brushstrokes that you get the full beautiful picture, the masterpiece.” The little details affect the whole picture.

This notion that details are important is embedded in all of Judaism, and is not limited to art. Braverman connects Orthodox Sabbath observance with a concern for the detail of Jewish law, which expresses the very essence of the day. There are many laws about the Sabbath that, if observed, enable one to make, as Braverman says, a “spiritual masterpiece” of the day.

Loving Vincent gives us an opportunity to look at the work of a great master. It also reminds us that behind the artistry is often a life of turmoil and disappointment, in which the artist is plagued by lack of self-esteem. It is difficult to earn a living when the product the artist is selling is so idiosyncratic. Van Gogh rarely received kind words for his artistic renditions, but over time he became a celebrated artistic innovator. His work reminds us that God is in the details.

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Life, Animated (2016), directed by Roger Ross Williams

life animatedAs a young married man, I do not recall ever praying to have a boy or a girl, but I do remember praying for a healthy child. My parents had a Downs Syndrome child and I understood viscerally what that means to parents. It changes their lives forever. Every decision made has to factor in what the consequences are for the special needs child. Life is no longer “business as usual.”

I was reminded of this as I watched Life, Animated, a fascinating look at Owen Suskind, an autistic child, and his parents Ron and Cornelia who confront a challenge when Owen develops autism at the age of three. Owen becomes anti-social, withdraws from human connection, and ceases to talk. The symptoms are ultimately diagnosed as a form of autism.

Faced with the prospect of having a child with whom they will be unable to communicate, Ron and Cornelia begin to lose hope for the future until one day they discover that Owen is learning about life and how to speak from watching animated Disney movies. It is an “aha” moment for the parents who suddenly see light at the end of the therapeutic tunnel.

Owen begins to speak, to read, and eventually to write by learning the dialogue in all of Disney’s animated movies. Watching the films even gives him a way to interpret the behavior of other people. He can deduce appropriate human responses to social situations by reading the visual cues present in the normal conversation of cartoon characters and, by extension, in real human beings. What becomes clear through therapy is that the stories and characters of Disney cartoon features stay the same, and this gives Owen a sense of security. Watching Disney movies is not a cure for autism; rather, it is one idiosyncratic avenue of therapy that works for Owen and perhaps others.

The notion that sameness and routine can be therapeutic is one way to view Jewish ritual. Beverly Jacobson, a special needs school head in London, writes: “Jewish ritual has a beneficial role to play in treating autism sufferers. The structure of the religion itself has a very powerful positive effect on children with autism. The rituals create a huge sense of security around them.”

Benay Josselson, a parent of an autistic child, decided to send her child to a Jewish day school, and in her instance, it worked out well. Part of the reason was the school’s positive attitude towards inclusion of its special needs population. Moreover, the school’s teaching of Jewish rituals provided a stable and comfortable environment for his learning. Daily prayer and observance of Jewish holy days also served to embed religious behaviors in its special needs students who appreciated the positive results of daily routines.

Life, Animated is an unusual film, giving the viewer a taste of what it is like to have a family member with autism. There are no easy panaceas, but the movie clearly indicates that solutions of some kind may be found within the confines of a loving family willing to think out of the box for answers.

Owen’s parents, Ron and Cornelia, never give up on Owen. They obtain the necessary help to navigate Owen’s life as a young man and they continue that support as he attains manhood. Sensing their own mortality and inability to support him when they are no longer here, they try their best to enable him to live independently.

That is the endgame of parenting for all parents who want to see their children thrive and manage life on their own. In their eyes, Owen leads a meaningful life, even it is not conventional. One of characters in the film asks: “who decides what a meaningful life is?” The answer is not the same for everyone. It depends on who we are, what are our God-given talents, and the support we have from family and friends.

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The Incredibles (2004), directed by Brad Bird

incredibles posterMy oldest son, Rabbi Daniel, has recently written a book entitled What Will They Say About You When You Are Gone: Creating a Life of Legacy. Much of the book emerges from eulogies that he has delivered during the past 25 years as a synagogue rabbi. A consistent theme over the years is the good that people do anonymously, without any recognition or fanfare. Such good deeds done, below the societal radar, testify to the essential goodness of the deceased. Doing good without being recognized for it is at the heart of The Incredibles, an imaginative animated film that deals with superheroes who want to do good without receiving accolades. They just want to be helpful and do the right thing.

The main superheroes in the film are Mr. Incredible, who possesses super strength, Elastigirl, who can stretch her body like flexible rubber, and Frozone, who has the ability to create ice instantly. The opening scenes depict the heroes in a series of events where they are called upon to use their superpowers to catch criminals. They are almost entirely successful except in one case when they are foiled by Buddy, an enthusiastic fan of Mr. Incredible, who wants to be his ward like Batman’s Robin. It is his interruption that prevents Mr. Incredible from capturing the culprit.

After the excitement, the superheroes return to their alter egos and lead normal lives. Mr. Incredible is Robert Parr, Elastigirl is is Helen Parr, Robert’s wife, and Frozone is Lucius Best, Parr’s close friend.

Their lives are turned upside down when an avalanche of lawsuits are filed against the superheroes because of civilian injuries and collateral damage. Eventually, the superheroes conclude that they have to turn in their super suits and live normal lives away from the limelight, and assume their secret identities permanently. The Superhero Relocation Program provides ex-superheroes with new jobs and homes and amnesty for past actions.

The narrative continues 15 years later with Robert working for an insurance company, leading a life focused on his wife and children. However, he still dreams of his superhero years when he saved many people from disaster.

Soon an opportunity arises for him to return to his calling as a superhero. For a hefty sum, he is asked by Mirage, a mysterious woman, to destroy a rogue robot who is wreaking havoc on the residents of a remote island. However, Mr. Incredible soon discovers that his job is a ruse simply to get him to the island where Mirage’s anonymous employer terminates the lives of all the existing superheroes. The race to save himself and other superheroes makes for a tense and exciting denouement, in which Elastigirl, Frozone, and Mr. Incredible’s children play key roles.

A character trait that stands out among all three superheroes is their lack of interest in public acclaim. None of them is seeking recognition of any kind. They only want to help other people. This is a Jewish sensibility. In The Ethics of the Fathers, Jews are instructed to serve God, to do the right thing, without any intention of receiving reward. Moreover, Maimonides, in describing the eight levels of charity, writes that giving anonymously is one of the highest forms of charity.

It is significant to note that Mr. Incredible’s adversary is motivated primarily by a strong desire for recognition. He purposely destabilizes the world so that he can arrive on the scene and put it back together again in front of a large audience. He is a villain who thrives on the aphrodisiac of fame. The Incredibles reminds us that doing good things is more enduring than transient fame.

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Horton Hears a Who! (2008), directed by Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino

Horton Hears a Who posterA friend of mine believes in the efficacy of conventional medicine. No matter what ails him, he refuses to consider holistic medical practices. He recently was having severe leg pain and I suggested that he consider acupuncture or chiropractic. He rejected both approaches categorically and continued to suffer, looking forward to his appointment with an orthopedic physician.

I was not certain that alternate therapies would work for my friend’s leg problem, but I was disturbed that he ruled them out without seriously considering the possibility that they might help. This dogmatic approach to problem solving is reflected in Horton Hears a Who, in which members of society reject the possibility of seeing things from another’s perspective.

This is the narrative crux of Horton Hears a Who, an animated version of the famous Dr. Seuss story of Horton, an elephant who hears voices of little creatures that no one else can hear. Everyone in the jungle of Nool dismisses these small voices, but Horton does not. He sees things differently, shifts his paradigm, and takes these voices seriously. He understands that it is possible to see things from another vantage point.

Horton discovers that the small voices are the voices of the residents of Who-ville, microscopic beings living on a speck of dust. A Who-ville scientist, Dr. Larue, tells the Mayor that Who-ville is in danger of extinction unless Horton finds a safer home for its citizens. And so begins Horton’s journey to Mt. Nool to provide safe haven for the residents of Who-ville. Along the way, he is harassed by many, especially the Sour Kangaroo, who feel Horton is out of his mind and hallucinating. Moreover, they feel his insistence on the reality of a microscopic Who-ville is dangerous educationally for it suggests to the children the existence of an alternate reality different from their own. Horton perseveres, however, repeating his motto “A person is a person, no matter how small.” In other words, opinions can have merit even if they express a minority view.

As Horton travels to Mt. Nool, he encounters life-threatening dangers. He almost falls off a bamboo bridge into a roaring river and he is attacked by a ferocious buzzard named Vlad, who almost kills him. In spite of these challenges and a hostile population that regards him as a liar and rebel, Horton continues to work on behalf of the citizens of Who-ville, whose perspective counts and who are relevant in spite of their miniscule dimensions.

Things come to a crisis because no one but Horton actually hears the citizens of Who-ville. But then the Mayor encourages everyone to shout “we are here” in the hope of letting the outside world know of their existence. In spite of their diminutive size, they still exist and want to live, albeit in their tiny universe.

In Jewish tradition, debate is good. The Talmud is filled with arguments expressing alternate points of view. Jewish law is decided by the majority of the Sages, but the minority view is still valued and preserved in the text. Why is this so? The Bible tells us that everyone is created in God’s image. This does not refer to a physical image, but rather to matters of the mind and spirit. Just as God is unique, so too is every human being. There is respect for differences and there is no expectation that everyone will think alike or look alike.

That is the essential message of Horton Hears a Who. Horton lives in his own world, but does not deny the reality of other worlds. He may talk to himself but he hears the voices of others. It is good to fit in and be normal, but it is also good to listen to others, to understand that your perceptions of reality are not the exclusive ones. Listening to others, understanding their worlds makes you a more sensitive and complete human being.

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Antz (1998), directed by Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson

antz posterIn high school, everybody wanted to look the same. Elvis was the fashion icon, and we all grew sideburns and dressed to look cool. Many years later, I was at an Orthodox Chassidic wedding, and I realized I was the only person there with a grey hat and suit. Everyone else was dressed in a black suit and wore a black hat. They all looked the same just as my buddies from high school looked the same with their pompadours and pegged pants. The common thread: similar dress indicated similar mindset. To be different branded one as an outsider looking in. Individuality was suspicious.

Confirming to the majority is the challenge facing “Z,” the hero of Antz, a hilarious animated feature, which deals with expressing one’s individuality in a world where conformity is the ideal. The narrative begins in an ant colony in Central Park in New York where Z-4195, also known as “Z”, longs for the chance to express himself as an individual. He is depressed over living in a totalitarian society that frowns upon and, in most cases, forbids veering from the norm. Into his world enters Princess Bala who meets Z at a bar to which she has escaped from her suffocating life at the palace.

Their union is aborted when the princess suddenly has to leave. However, Z, mesmerized by her, is undaunted by their different positions in society. He gladly exchanges his worker ant status with a friendly soldier ant to seek an opportunity to see Bala again and pursue their relationship.

Crisis arrives when the soldiers are sent into battle by General Mandible, the power-hungry leader of the army of ants. Z barely escapes with his life and resolves to seek a better world where individuality is valued. Mandible and Z represent two conflicting ideologies: conformity versus individuality. The worker ants have to choose between the two, or learn to strike some kind of balance between the two.

Jewish tradition offers such a balance. Jewish law requires conformity in practices related to rituals and moral behavior. Everyone who is with the program possesses a belief in God and in the divinity of sacred text. Once those basic principles are accepted, then there is room for individual expression.

Although everyone is created in God’s image, which means that everyone is unique and possesses infinite value, it is good that not everyone is exactly the same. We should appreciate the differences once common core principles are accepted. The classic model is the Talmudic discussion that takes place between Sages who may see the same reality but use different eyeglasses to arrive at different conclusions.

Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo, in an intriguing article praising non-conformity and rebellion within Jewish education, observes that the Torah itself was the first text of rebellion to appear in world history. Abraham challenged existing beliefs and protested the status quo. The goal of the Bible was to be the catalyst for a “rebel movement of cosmic proportions.” Furthermore, Rabbi Cardozo writes that the Torah “protests against complacency, self-satisfaction, and negation of the spirit. It calls for radical thinking and drastic action without compromise, even when it means standing alone, being condemned and ridiculed.”

This is exactly what happens to Z when he foments revolution among the worker ants. The powers that be mock him, but Z does not despair. He is convinced that individuality is to be celebrated even when society operates with a totalitarian vision. The key is balance.

Antz is a wildly imaginative movie with lots of laughs, especially since Z is voiced by Woody Allen, articulating the neurotic pessimism that characterizes his humor. Beneath the surface, however, is a serious statement about preserving the integrity of the individual voice even when the majority wants to drown it out.

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Toy Story 3 (2010), directed by Lee Unkrich

Many years ago, I hired what I thought was a star teacher. He gave an excellent model lesson, had good references, and even played the guitar. Yet I soon discovered a serious flaw. He never wanted to deal with parents. It seems that, once long ago, he was abused verbally and emotionally by an insensitive school parent. The repercussions of that event still lingered and colored his approach to all parents. He was still angry with them, for they were the enemy. Ultimately, I had to let him go because our school welcomed parent engagement and did not see parents as adversaries.

The experience reminded me that sometimes we can let a bad experience define how we behave in the future. In truth, it is a great tragedy if we cannot move beyond a hurtful experience, if we permit anger and ill will towards others to dominate our lives.

Toy Story 3, an animated film that is a parable of human relationships, provides one classic example of this in the character of Lotso, the chief toy in a day care center full of dysfunctional and malevolent toys that lord over the new recruits who come to Sunnyside Day Care. Lotso has allowed a bad experience in his youth to forever taint his relationships with anyone he meets. The back story reveals that Lotso also was once a treasured toy, but his owner abandoned him, or so Lotso thought. In truth, she lost him and did not deliberately abandon him. Lotso, however, lived on the false myth of his abandonment and made that bad experience the seminal one in his life. Anger was what drove him and defined him.

Into Lotso’s monstrous world enter a group of naïve toys, who fear obsolescence when their owner, now grown up, departs for college. They fear abandonment, but take heart in the possibility of finding a warm and friendly environment of a local day care center. From a distance it looks attractive. But a closer look reveals that the ownerless day care toys are not only used but abused. The kids at the day care do not feel any emotional connection to the toys. The children play with the toys and then toss them away. In contrast, the new recruits, accustomed to an owner who had invested in a relationship with them, want in some way to replicate that situation. They want to feel valued, emotionally connected, and respected. The toys are truly us.

Their first impression of Lotso is positive. He is soft spoken and huggable on the outside, but they do not realize he is an angry monster on the inside. His past anger has determined his future.

Jewish tradition tells us that anger is one of the worst traits to possess. In fact, the Talmud compares it to idol worship. When one is angry, it is a manifestation of a lack of belief in God’s providential supervision of the universe. After all, how can one be angry if God is in charge of things? It is a Jewish mode of sensibility to presume that from the aspect of eternity, everything ultimately will make sense because God is orchestrating events in a hidden way which our finite minds cannot comprehend at the moment.

Lotso, whose life is defined by anger, reminds us not to allow negative memory tapes of the past to determine our present or future. It is a bad thing when anger lives rent-free in our brains and influences our present relationships.

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