Stockwell: Trio of Pixar gems awaits family movie nights

With our summer in full swing, but limitations on where we can go, it might be a fun idea to have a good, old-fashioned family movie night.

Of course, what to watch is always up for debate (especially if you have young children), so I thought I would offer some options. I looked for films that may have been forgotten or overshadowed by their more modern counterparts. So, the following films remarkably fulfill family movie night criteria, as well as entertain a diverse audience. They might be found in your movie collection, but certainly with a Disney Plus subscription.

We’ll go in chronological order.

“A Bug’s Life” (1998)

The second installment of the Pixar canon is often overlooked because it is sandwiched between the first two “Toy Story” films. Conceived over a lunchtime discussion by the founding fathers of Pixar, “A Bug’s Life” (like many Disney efforts) was based off an earlier work and a fable, “The Ant and the Grasshopper.”

It is without question, however, a hidden gem.

Audiences are treated to a miniature world of insects, in which we follow an ant colony being terrorized by a group of grasshoppers. The loveable, yet accident-prone Flick (voiced by the talented David Foley) causes an incident that leads to a hysterical series of events with a group of characters that are not only unique, but fun and unquestionably quotable – “Someday, I’ll be a beautiful butterfly.”

Taking a page from “Toy Story,” the story is rich and follows these characters through their adventure, full of hi-jinks and misunderstandings. Again, as with the first film, the casting is excellent. Joining Foley, we have Kevin Spacey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Phyllis Diller and the great Madeline Kahn in her last role, along with stunning animation. The creativity is endless, either on Ant Island, The City (with a cameo of the famous Pizza Planet truck) or at the Summer Sombrero.

Young kids will love the colors and softened features of the bugs, adults will love the banter between the characters (the circus bugs will have you rolling on the floor), and the 95-minute run time mixed with Randy Newman’s Oscar-nominated music will keep everyone entertained.

“Monsters, Inc.” (2001)

“Toy Story 2” closed out the decade of the ‘90s, and “Finding Nemo” splashed into the box office in May 2003, but in between was the fourth film in Pixar’s library, the often forgotten “Monsters, Inc.”

As with prior Pixar efforts, the story examines what happens when humans are not around. We are exposed to the world of monsters, which runs parallel to ours. After setting the stage with who these monsters are and what they do (“they scare because they care”) and the tight security of not allowing humans into their lives, the door is literally opened and we have an inter-dimensional alien (OK, a young girl nicknamed “Boo”) causing a ruckus. This causes the story to run at a full gallop for the remaining portion of the 92-minute film.

Of course, the film is made for children and the monsters are not nearly as scary as one has been led to believe (at least not all of them). Pixar does a fantastic job softening them up, making them likable and engaging. With their typically excellent voice casting (greats John Goodman and Billy Crystal, along with Steve Buscemi, Jennifer Tilly, the late James Coburn as Mr. Waternoose, and Pixar mainstays Bonnie Hunt and John Ratzenberger), they creatively develop Monstropolis as a New York counterpart.

Like “A Bug’s Life,” the animation is nothing short of spectacular, and children will enjoy the cast of characters, whereas the adults will laugh at the combination of dialog and situations. Yes, the Pizza Planet truck makes an appearance, and the Easter egg where it is parked will remind you of the earlier film in this article.

“Cars” (2006)

Lastly, John Lasseter’s masterpiece “Cars” is a must-see for any fan of the animation studio. It would be the last film produced by the company before it officially was purchased by Disney, and the last film home-released on VHS and the first on Blu-Ray.

In an entire world made up of vehicles (cars, planes, trains), we focus on a hotshot rookie race car, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), and the recreated magic of Old Route 66.

The story (which I always point out in my film class is vital in any fictional film) is much more in-depth. With past efforts, Pixar was focused on the adventure or the return to home, this time we see true growth in the main character as he learns the value of friendship and the importance of a team.

That’s not to say the film is stodgy or stuffy. In fact, it is an exciting two-hour adrenaline rush (the film is about cars after all), and the fun comes from the unique personalities of the various vehicles in the movie. The ensemble cast includes Ratzenberger and Hunt, but Cheech Marin, Katherine Helmond and Michael Keaton also show their versatility. Paul Newman and George Carlin (who have since left us) give us Doc Hudson and Fillmore, respectively. Richard Petty, Bob Costas, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Michael Schumacher and Mario Andretti give us a racing flavor, but it is Larry the Cable Guy who steals the show with his loveable Mater (ya know, like TaMater … without the Ta).

With 11 years of research since its first feature film, Pixar’s cinematography is astounding, and the Oscar-nominated music is truly fantastic, including a rare version of Chuck Berry’s “Route 66.” It also is filled with references to Pixar, auto racing and other films. So while children will wonder about the lives of cars, adults will be deeply entertained by all the Easter eggs … and yes, the Pizza Planet truck makes not one appearance, but two (and bonus points if you figure out its name without looking it up on the Google).

So there you have it, three films that can make family movie night fun, exciting and enjoyable. Good for rainy evenings or just a break from the world around us. Go pop some popcorn, get into comfy pajamas, and enjoy the entertaining stories … no matter how old you are.

• Jim Stockwell is a tenured instructor at McHenry County College. He looks forward to resuming the role of host for the Second Monday Film Series at Classic Cinemas in Woodstock.

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