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(Reviews) DisneyFest: The Princess and the Frog, Toy Story 3, Tangled

Disney Animation delivered a genuine surprise near Christmas of 2009 with The Princess and The Frog, a return to traditional animation that celebrated the culture of New Orleans in an adaptation of The Frog Prince. In the summer of 2010, Lee Unkrich completed Pixar’s first trilogy to near-universal praise with Toy Story 3, closing the chapter on Andy’s childhood and introducing us to the little girl the baton of imagination had been passed to. Later on around Thanksgiving, Disney scored big with Tangled, a retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale that perfected their house style of CGI animation and announced the Revival of the House of Mouse. We’re out of the doldrums with Disney at long last, while Pixar continues its unrivaled run of excellence.

The Princess and the Frog (2009)
Ron Clements and John Musker — the directors of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Treasure Planet — were enticed back to Disney by being offered the chance to helm the film the way they wanted, with either traditional or CG animation. They chose the former, making a musical comedy that updated an old fairy tale in a new setting — a classic Disney move. Instead of getting Alan Mencken they tapped Randy Newman for the music, and they combined two competing treatments of The Frog Prince that both Walt Disney Animation and Pixar Studios had been working on. They chose New Orleans as a setting for its unique American history, inherent magical qualities, and the fact that it was Lasseter’s favorite. Hey, a little playing to the judge never hurt anyone.

The film follows Tiana, a hard-working black woman who strives to carry on her father’s dream — a restaurant that would connect everyone in the neighborhood through good cooking. The problem is she’s so focused on getting enough money together to buy a place that she doesn’t have any time to actually connect with the people all around her. Prince Naveen of Maldonia is a carefree playboy who flits from good time to good time without being tied down either; his parents have threatened to cut him off from the family fortune unless he marries a good woman and settles down. The prince is transformed into a frog by the dastardly Doctor Facilier, an old-school voodoo man who then changes Naveen’s valet into the prince’s doppleganger so that they both can take power. The valet, according to the bargain, will finally get the respect he feels he’s owed; Facilier can finally pay back the dark spirits he owes souls in exchange for his power.

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The gang’s all here! …even that stupid firefly.

Tiana agrees to kiss Naveen only if he agrees to help her get her restaurant, but instead of helping him she’s changed into a frog instead! Now they’re stuck together with a few friendly swamp creatures, searching for another voodoo priest who can break the curse before the false Naveen can marry someone else and New Orleans is doomed. Along the way, both Naveen and Tiana learn the worth of bonding to the people around you and why community is such a special thing.

This is the first Disney movie to feature a Black princess, and it’s about damn time. Tiana, though, ends up taking a curious back seat to her own story; her character arc doesn’t quite drive the plot, and overcoming her flaw doesn’t allow her to make the choice that resolves the big complication. In a lot of ways, Tiana does just about everything right; she believes that while miracles CAN happen, good things generally happen through a lot of hard work. Everything she does is in service to a good end, and while she helps other people whenever she can, her disdain for the lazy Prince Naveen doesn’t necessarily cause her situation to be more complicated than it would be otherwise. It’s interesting to see how Tiana is not the hero of her own story, and that Naveen actually has the stronger arc; but then, that’s the point of The Frog Prince, right? It feels like Tiana is the main supporting character and we just happen to be in her POV.

Story problems aside, this is a really fun movie. The music is wonderfully lively and does a great job of advancing the story, adding emotional depth to the characters and celebrating the different styles of artistry there is down in New Orleans. The Princess and the Frog is black in a way that feels natural. Tiana has to work twice as hard just to have a shot at the things her best friend — a white socialite and daughter of a local businessman — takes for granted. Her best friend isn’t malicious or evil, just oblivious to her privilege and the effect of her life on the world around her. The villain — Doctor Facilier — works because he’s all about taking shortcuts; this makes a great foil for Tiana, but Prince Naveen is far more susceptible to his charms. The doctor also shows us all the different ways people justify taking those shortcuts for themselves, and his ultimate fate shows us what happens when the cost of those shortcuts come due.

The Princess and the Frog is a decent film that can’t shake the air of disappointment that hangs around it. For the first Disney film about a black Princess, you just wish it was…more. For the film that marks Disney’s return to traditional animation, you really want it to give us a reason to celebrate the art. But it isn’t and it doesn’t. It’s a well-crafted movie with a few character problems; given what the animation studio was climbing out of at the time, that’s a really solid result. Still, it would have been really nice to hit a home run with it.

Toy Story 3 (2010)
Released 11 years after Toy Story 2 and a full 15 after Pixar’s first feature-length animated film, Toy Story 3 represents the end of an era for the animation studio. Like Andy, it had grown up admirably, ready to move on to its future as uncertain as it may be. Checking in with Woody, Buzz and the gang for one last adventure feels like an appropriate way to celebrate their progress and provide a bit of closure for these characters. Of course, it also helps that Toy Story 3 is a near-perfect movie that shows us how to move on without letting loss or change make us fearful and bitter.

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Ugh, that freaking baby doll. Ugh. D: D:

On the eve of Andy going away to college, the toys are struggling to get him to notice them, much less play. Now that he’s moving out of the house, they’re faced with a pair of fairly unattractive options — either they’re about to be put in a box up in the attic or thrown out in the garbage. Obviously the attic is the more attractive option here, even though it makes them sad to think they’ll be collecting dust and going untouched for who knows how many years. A big misunderstanding leads most of the toys to think that Andy was going to throw them away, but Woody knows different; they were going to be put in the attic. Instead, they end up going to Sunnyside Day Care, which feels like a much better place. Kids will play with them until they age out of day care, when a whole new crop of kids will replace them!

While the rest of the toys try to make the best of their new situation, Woody is adamant about returning to Andy’s home and the attic. It’s soon discovered that the residents of Sunnyside are in something of a totalitarian society, with Lotso-Huggin’ Bear the dictator of the scene. Woody and pals have to escape, change the regime or learn to deal with an incredibly unpleasant situation.

What I love about this movie is how it uses personal experience and perspective to inform the choices we make about the kind of society we want. Woody is Andy’s favorite toy, and it’s his belief that as toys they should do whatever their owner thinks is best — even if it’s not best for them. The other toys in Andy’s play room view their long relationship as something of a transaction that’s been completed; they’re sad that it’s over, obviously, but now it’s time to move on to what’s next. If they’re not needed by Andy any more, why not move on to someone who will need them? The Sunnyside toys remind me of revolutionaries after they’ve won; they may genuinely believe that they fought for equality and freedom, but after the dust has settled the policies in place are really geared towards them never having to be put in a position of subservience again. That fear of being controlled leads to the necessity of controlling others ruthlessly.

For a movie about sentient toys, the feeling of loss and death permeates Toy Story 3. Every character is dealing with it in some way, and it’s truly interesting watching how that struggles translates into action and interaction. The climax of the movie is a truly beautiful moment, as the toys of Andy’s playroom decide to deal with the situation in which they find themselves the only way they know how — together. The payoff for that scene is a wonderful affirmation of relatively minor characters in the other two movies, and comes the closest to advocating the worth of religious belief that I’ve ever seen in a Pixar movie.

Like Cars 2, Toy Story 3 plays with the rules of the universe in inventive ways that makes the world of toys that much more fun and that much more aggressively weird. Big Baby is straight-up nightmare fuel, and so is the musical monkey, and so is all the admittedly cool things they do with the Potato Head family. That kind of “adult” creativity, where the child-like spirit of play is infused with grown-up sensibilities, is my jam.

The epilogue is nearly pitch-perfect, but director Lee Unkrich goes for one last heartstring-tugging moment that deflates the whole affair. Still, even that overreach is forgivable; sending off Woody, Buzz and the gang is the one place where I think Pixar is allowed to be a little self-indulgent. Toy Story 3 is a great victory lap for Pixar that doubles as a celebration and affirmation for the animation studio as well as great final chapter for the story that originally made them.

Tangled (2010)
This is perhaps my favorite modern Disney movie. Almost everything in Tangled works; the separate character arcs for Rapunzel and Flynn and how they lead to each other; the underlying moral beneath the challenge presented by the villainous Mother Gothel; the character design and animation, which feels like the culmination of Disney’s CG “house style”; all of the side characters, who are delightful one and all; the music and songs, which carry the emotional heartbeat of the film and also happen to be some of the best in a Disney musical ever. Tangled is so good it actually makes me annoyed that Frozen became the blockbuster success it did. I’m not knocking Elsa and her crew or anything, but Tangled is just streets ahead of Frozen in almost every possible way.

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It’s hard to tell if Rapunzel or the horse has better hair…

Rapunzel is the beneficiary of sun magic that saved her mother in childbirth. Stroking her hair and singing a song activates the magic and heals the recipient to the point that it practically reverses aging. Mother Gothel, a witch of fairly decent power, steals Rapunzel away from the King and Queen, traps her in a tower and emotionally manipulates her into never wanting to leave. Despite this, Rapunzel grows up into an amazing, curious, happy young woman who never stops dreaming about the wonders the world holds for her.

Flynn Rider is a two-bit thief on the run from the Crown’s guards for stealing the princess’ crown; unbeknownst to both him and Rapunzel he delivers it to the long-lost princess when he hides in her tower. In exchange for the crown’s safe return, Flynn must guide Rapunzel to the Festival of Lanterns, an event where the kingdom releases floating lanterns into the sky hoping that it will bring the lost princess back to them. On their trail, of course, are the Stabbington Bros — criminals that Flynn betrayed to take the crown for himself — and Maximus, one of the royal guard’s horses who is also a dashingly handsome, Lawful Good hero.

Rapunzel is one of the best Disney princesses ever. She is noble and good, but also an unmitigated geek who is unafraid about being open with her passions. She is not afraid to try something scary if it gets her closer to what she wants, and over the course of the film she comes to believe in her own strength and judgement. Her confrontation with Mother Gothel isn’t physical, but the screenplay from Dan Fogelman (creator of the excellent Galavant, by the way) does a stupendous job of making the emotional stakes high and clear. Her moral compass and easy vulnerability eventually shakes something loose within the cynical Flynn, catalyzing his own awakening into a hero who genuinely cares about other people. “I See The Light” is a perfect sequence, bringing the arcs of Rapunzel and Flynn together right in the perfect spot for the plot. It truly is a feat.

Maximus, the horse, even gets an arc that forces him to choose between his feverish adherence to the law and the clear need to break it in order to do the right thing. Gothel is such a wonderful and unique villain; instead of power or magic, she simply uses words to keep Rapunzel under her spell. She needs her adopted daughter far more than Rapunzel needs her, but in order to keep her from realizing that she subtly tries to sap the princess’ confidence at every turn. By getting Rapunzel to believe that the world is a cruel place she’s not capable enough to handle, she uses fear to turn people away from their better nature. She’s so ordinary, and she does what she does for clear and relatable reasons. But that makes her actions more despicable. We know people like her, and we see how they affect the people trapped in relationships with them all the time. What makes Rapunzel so admirable is not overcoming Gothel at the end; it’s being open and vulnerable despite the abuse she endured.

I had wondered how Tangled aged in the short time since it premiered, and if anything I’ve only come to like it more in the intervening years. It’s definitely a crown jewel in the Disney animated canon, and despite the oodles of praise and money it received during its theatrical run it’s curiously underrated.

 
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Posted by on March 1, 2017 in DisneyFest, Movies, Reviews

 

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(Reviews) DisneyFest: WALL-E, Bolt, Up

Entertainment 150In 2008 and 2009, both Walt Disney and Pixar Animation were entering a new era. Disney Animation was under the control of Pixar executives Edwin Catmull and John Lassater, who set about trying to turn around the studio. They rehired a lot of the “new guard” who had left the studio years earlier, changed the development model to put more power and control in the hands of filmmakers instead of executives, and story meetings were more a gathering of equals rather than a series of notes handed down from on high. Meet The Robinsons was the first movie to benefit from this new development process, and the follow-up film Bolt was nearly completely retooled by it.

Meanwhile, Pixar stalwarts Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter were guiding Pixar into its future; WALL-E was billed as the last of the ideas the original brain trust had come up with at the beginning of the studio, and Up seamlessly carried the tradition of emotional story-telling, iconic visuals and engaging characters forward. Revisiting these films less than a decade after their release is a bit of a trip; even though computer animation has come a long way since then, they both hold up as excellent examples of their craft.

WALL-E (2008)
WALL-E is about one tiny trash compacting robot faced with the Sisyphusean task of cleaning up an Earth that has been completely covered in garbage. We’re not quite sure how long it’s been doing this job, but we can assume it’s been an awfully long while; entire buildings have been coated with cubes of condensed junk, but there is still so much refuse all over the place. Other robots of its model have broken down in service, and WALL-E scavenges their corpses for replacement parts. The humans who would have serviced it disappeared a long time ago, leaving behind their refuse as the only clues it has about who its masters are and what they were like. This little robot has been at the job for so long it has developed a fascination with the things it finds, a love of old musicals, and a friendly relationship with a cockroach.

The first act is a bleak setting made bright by the sheer personality of its protagonist. While I was watching it, I don’t think I quite appreciated how awful and desolate an existence that would be. Like WALL-E, I was too fascinated with all the things it loved and why. Even though it was carrying out its basic programming, its experience had built a distinct personality over years, perhaps decades, perhaps centuries. We spent over 20 minutes learning about its character, how it behaved when there was no one around to interact with. It was a strangely intimate view of the apocalypse, beautiful and lonely.

EVE, an advanced robot, breaks the monotony of this existence and kickstarts the story into motion. The two robots learn about each other as WALL-E guides EVE through the dangers and wonders of this desolate Earth, and just when it shows the newcomer its most cherished secret, EVE takes the tiny, fragile plant WALL-E found and goes into some kind of sleep mode. Confused and sad, WALL-E nonetheless continues to interact and protect EVE in the hope that it will wake up one day. Its diligence is rewarded by an unexpected trip to the Axiom, the luxury spaceship that the remnants of humanity live on, completely oblivious to anything but short-term pleasure. It’s here that WALL-E reawakens humanity to its better qualities, simply by being itself.

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Love is patient.

There’s so much going on with this movie it feels wrong to give it such an encapsulated review, but WALL-E is truly an incredible film — one of Pixar’s absolute best in fact. It tells a beautiful story in service to a theme that pushes us towards being better human beings. It’s mass entertainment that takes the responsibility of its power seriously, by asking us to take a look at our societal values and consider if that’s really what we want to champion. Rampant, unchecked consumerism, a lack of consideration for our environment or the consequences of our actions, and a misplaced optimism in the idea of easy answers could lead us to a point where we’ve effectively junked the planet, and by that time even the destruction of our home might not be a big enough wake-up call.

Even though WALL-E has some serious and heavy things to say, it says them elegantly, gently, and with utmost care. It’s just a movie about a robot who finds love, whose affection catalyzes a sea change in a future civilization that’s lost its way. But it’s also a cautionary tale about what we’re doing to ourselves and our world, a caring reminder of the things that make us great and makes life worth living. The fact that it can be both things without sacrificing the integrity of its other layers is a testament to the storytelling of director Andrew Stanton and co-writers Jim Reardon and Pete Docter. It feels something like the holy grail of responsible fiction, of socially-minded pop-art. We don’t have many movies like WALL-E in this day and age, and that’s a shame. It’s even more of a shame that we don’t have many movies that even TRY to be WALL-E.

Bolt (2008)
It was a long time in the wilderness for Walt Disney Animation. It had been six long years since their last financially successful and critically-acclaimed movie (Lilo & Stitch), and in that time they had come up with some truly terrible films. After John Lassater took over the studio and made some much-needed changes in its development culture, we began to see some improvement. Bolt, despite its rocky road to release, is the film where everything starts to turn around and the new guard of animators start to realize their potential.

Originally, Bolt was American Dog — the second film to be directed by Lilo & Stitch director Chris Sanders. The story was roughly the same; a dog traveled across the country in search of his home with two strange animal companions, all the while believing he’s still living out a TV show he stars in. However, Sanders was removed from the project after resisting changes requested by Lassater and other colleagues. He bolted for DreamWorks and How To Train Your Dragon, so…at least he landed well. Chris Williams (who went on to co-direct Big Hero 6 and Moana) and Byron Howard (co-director of Tangled and Zootopia) stepped in to take over, and made a genuinely good movie in a much shortened development cycle.

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RIDICULOUSLY cute.

Bolt is the star of the eponymous action TV show; he’s an adorable white German Shepherd who has been trained to believe he actually has super-powers and needs to protect Penny, the daughter of a world-famous scientist who’s been kidnapped by the evil Dr. Calico. A misadventure finds Bolt knocked unconscious and shipped across the country to New York City, where he quickly conscripts an alley cat to help him make his way back to his owner. Along the way, he discovers that he doesn’t actually have superpowers but he doesn’t really need them; determination and resourcefulness are amazing enough.

I was really excited for Chris Sanders’ version of this story, because I loved his work on Lilo & Stitch and heard that one of the animal companions would be a giant mutant rabbit whose family lived near nuclear test sites. It was disappointing to hear he was taken off the project, and I was pretty skeptical about the details that were coming out of its development. Seeing the final product won me over, though — the character work is excellent, and the action set pieces are incredibly well-realized. Each one provides the characters with an opportunity to advance their arc, so the lessons they absorb in their downtime frequently translate into action that illustrates how far they’ve come. Bolt, the poor dog, has to realize that the world is nothing like the way he thought it was — but that it’s also just as amazing, and he can be the hero he’s always believed himself to be. Mittens, the toughened alley cat, has to learn that her previous experiences aren’t a predictor of what other people will be like, and that’s it OK to be vulnerable enough to trust people.

Together with Rhino, the extremely excitable hamster-in-a-ball, they make the perilous journey across the country to get Bolt back to Penny. The movie moves briskly but organically, with the story doing a wonderful job introducing secondary and colorful tertiary characters, building tension, releasing it with crazy action, and settling the characters into a new equilibrium they must struggle to reconcile with. Bolt, Rhino, and even Mittens in her own way, are all amazingly cute; it’s really interesting that Disney settled on a more rounded and softer house style for their computer animated movies, but I think Bolt is the movie where that really solidified.

It did really well when it came out, making $310 million worldwide against a $150 million budget and scoring 89% on Rotten Tomatoes. Yet, as Disney moved on to more ambitious and more successful projects, it got a bit lost in the crowd when we talk about the studio’s Revival era. Bolt may not have the passionate fan-base of Tangled and Frozen, but it deserves a second look — it’s a solid movie that marked Disney’s welcome return to form.

Up (2009)
Everyone remembers the prologue to this film — and rightfully so, because it’s amazing. What a pleasant surprise it was, then, to rediscover how great the rest of the film is as well! One of the great things about this project is remembering movies you had forgotten about for various reasons, or making new connections that you hadn’t noticed before. For example, now I realize that my favorite Pixar director isn’t Brad Bird; it’s Pete Docter. He has a keen eye for wonderful characterization and emotional detail that is practically unrivaled at the studio. While he’s had his hands in most Pixar productions to date, it’s the ones that he has guided as director — Monsters Inc, Up, and Inside Out — that prove his mettle.

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You know you want this for a wallpaper. YOU KNOW.

Carl Fredricksen, a nine-year-old boy who idolizes renowned explorer Charles Muntz, meets Ellie, a loud and confusing girl who all but forces him into a friendship. That friendship blossoms into romance, is preserved with marriage, and the two have a happy life together. However, Ellie falls ill before the couple is able to live out their dream of traveling the world. When she dies, Carl retreats into the museum of the home they renovated, surrounded by her memory while his neighborhood changes all around him.

Fed up with the pressure to adapt to the changing times, Carl decides to simply “steal” his house by tying thousands of balloons to the roof and sailing for the spectacular jungle waterfall he and Ellie had always wanted to go to. His impromptu trip is complicated by a stowaway — Russell, an eager Wilderness Explorer who just wants to help Carl so he can get his final merit badge for assisting the elderly. A dog outfitted with a device that allows him to speak English and an extremely rare jungle bird round out the motley crew as they discover that adventure always carries with it a number of surprises.

At its heart, Up is about the importance of moving through the entirety of the grieving process so that you can move on with fulfilling the rest of your life. But it’s also about how the connections we make help us to do that. Carl lost his whole world with Ellie; even though his desire to finally fulfill the dream they had together causes him to take action, he was also using it as an escape to further retreat from the world. It was only after meeting Russell, and Dug (the dog), and Kevin (the bird), that he rediscovered his spirit of adventure. It feels weird to keep plot details hidden, especially after all these years, but the conflict that arises when the group arrives in the jungle serves as a cautionary tale. This is what happens if you disengage from people; this is what happens when you decide that it’s just too hard to work in tandem with others who are different.

Beyond the prologue, Up is filled with amazing visual moments. The Fredrickson house is simultaneously setting, metaphor and additional character, a refuge and a fragile thing that needs to be defended. Almost every scene it features prominently in is amazing, and what’s best is that Carl’s balloon-assisted flight isn’t even the most unlikely or wondrous thing in the movie. Docter does an excellent job of taking these high concepts and grounding them with real emotional weight. Even when things get silly or unlikely, we’re completely taken in because we understand what’s at stake for all of these characters.

When Up was released, it received near-unanimous praise; it won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Score, while being nominated for three more awards including Best Picture. It is a crown jewel in Pixar’s animated canon, and rightfully so — it continues their dedication to telling wonderful stories that simultaneously teach us how to be better people. Docter’s touch with showing the value of being in touch with our emotions and each other is invaluable, and Up is one of the best examples of the magic he can weave if given the chance.

 

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(Reviews) DisneyFest: Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Monsters Inc., Lilo & Stitch

Entertainment 150After the surprise success of The Emperor’s New Groove, Disney took a sharp turn towards science-fiction adventure with…mixed success. Meanwhile, Pixar really stepped into it’s own with ambitious and confident storytelling, pushing the limits of what CGI animation could do in every new film. This aesthetic is one they never really got away from, which is what makes them such an excellent animation studio; even if the story sags a bit, there’s at least one thing you’ve never seen before. Monsters Inc. really allowed them to show off how far they’ve come with fur texture; take a look at Sulley, then go back to screenshots of Scud the dog from the original Toy Story six years earlier. It’s astonishing to see the difference.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)

This is the first of a pair of movies Disney produced that married classic adventure fiction with science-fiction touches to bring it into the 21st century, and it’s the inferior effort. It wasn’t for lack of trying, though — Disney brought out the big guns for Atlantis, introducing new and more complicated animation techniques to give the movie a sense of scale; bringing on big names for the main characters like Michael J. Fox, James Garner, Leonard Nimoy, Cree Summer, and Jim Varney in his final role; and drafting Marc Okrand (the father of the Klingon language) to develop the Atlantean language for the movie. What we get is a film whose aspirations are clear on the screen, but misses the basics of storytelling in its reach to be a launching pad for a franchise.

So Milo (Fox) is a cartographer for the Smithsonian who spends all of his professional capital researching the myth of Atlantis; when his bid to search for The Shepherd’s Journal, a book that is claimed to hold the secrets of the lost city, is rejected, he is approached by an eccentric millionaire who promises to fund his expedition. Surprise! The lost city is found. Double surprise! The captain of the ship carrying Milo to the city has ulterior motives, and what follows is a race to discover the secrets of Atlantis so they can either be protected or exploited.

The crew of the Ulysses is a disparate bunch of strong personalities, and while they’re amusing enough they don’t get nearly enough time to make an impression. Instead, the movie focuses on Milo’s journey of self-discovery and the culture of an ancient yet advanced civilization that never quite feels believable. Milo and Kida, the princess of Atlantis and standard love interest, are the least interesting characters in the movie. Of course, they take up the majority of the screen time, which leaves the more interesting and fun characters struggling to push through the cracks of the main plot.

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Wouldn’t you rather watch a movie with these guys?

Still, the sheer amount of effort put into the film is admirable. It cost $100 million to make, had 350 animators working on it during the peak of its production, and married 2D and 3D animation to an extent Disney had never attempted before. The writers and directors worked hard to build a lost civilization that was completely new, and it shows — I just wish the end result had been more impressive. The blandness of the main characters, the tepid plot and the breezy pacing made the entire movie feel too light to be the epic adventure they were aiming for. The villain Rourke, voiced by James Garner, and the rest of the Ulysses crew were wasted opportunities; they were unlike most Disney characters that had been devised up to that point and they would have made a fascinating ensemble. The studio really wanted the movie to launch a spin-off series called Team Atlantis, and it would have been awesome to watch these characters have their chance to shine given more time.

But alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Atlantis made only $84 million in North America and received tepid reviews from most critics. Ultimately, I think it’ll go down as a “noble failure”, a collection of interesting ideas that never really came together the way anyone had hoped it would.

Monsters, Inc. (2001)

Four or five months after Atlantis disappointed at the box office, Pixar released its fourth animated film — its first not to be directed by Andrew Stanton, no less. Pete Docter (who also directed Up and Inside Out) is well known and rightly celebrated for infusing his stories with a strong emotional hook, and Monsters, Inc. is no exception. The relationship that develops between the film’s titular monster Sulley and the three-year-old child who sneaks into his world is the joyous backbone of the movie; Sulley’s relationship with his best friend Mike is changed by it, and the adjustment to that change provides at least as much conflict as the film’s antagonist does. It’s a beautiful story populated by real, relatable characters — which only makes the technical achievements stand out that much more.

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Children are the worst, am I right??

In the world of monsters, energy is provided by the screams of human children but since that resource is finite and dwindling there’s a shortage. Sulley is the top scarer of one of Monstropolis’ premiere energy companies, but his fierce rivalry with Randall motivates him to do even better. After investigating a closet door left on the workroom floor, Sulley discovers a human child has entered their world — a catastrophe, to be sure, because everyone knows they’re toxic. In his attempts to get “Boo” back to her home, Sulley and Mike uncover Randall’s plot to extract all possible screams out of humans to solve the energy crisis. That would be fine except for the fact that the machine is severely traumatizing. Sulley, after caring for Boo, learns that humans aren’t toxic. They’re even pretty great to be around. However, protecting Boo means blowing up his entire life — how can he scare someone he has such great affection for? How can he allow this terrible device to become part of the system that keeps his society afloat?

The story hinges on Sulley doing the right thing even when it means throwing almost everything he believed for his entire life out of the door. That has drastic consequences — not just for himself, but for his best friend, his company, his entire social order. Even Mike doubts the wisdom of what he’s doing, so if he’s going to change his ways he’ll truly have to do it alone. Even for a monster, that’s intensely scary. The enormity of Sulley’s decisions through the course of the movie didn’t hit me the first time I watched it, but this time it reminded me of so many people who benefit from the status quo coming to a similar realization and standing on a similar precipice. Having to put aside a lifetime of unchecked assumptions is hard enough, but acting on it requires upending a lot of things that have become fundamentally tied into our social fabric. It will cause discomfort for friends, family and colleagues — and there’s no guarantee of reward or even recognition. Doing the right thing, especially when it goes against the direction one’s society is headed in, can be deeply frightening and intensely lonely.

That’s what makes Sulley such a great hero. His ultimate conflict isn’t external — though Randall certainly holds the line for the status quo. He has to put away his misconceptions, as deep as they are, and be the one person (monster) who stands up to challenge the deeply-held misconceptions of others before they lead to the ruin of a vulnerable other. The ending, which ultimately proves Sulley right and solves the city’s energy crisis, allows Sulley to reap the karmic benefits of making the right choice — but in real life, things don’t work so immediately or cleanly. Still, the look on his face at the very end of the movie is simply beautiful, a perfect way to close out the film.

The animation is leaps and bounds over Pixar’s previous films, of course; Monstropolis is populated with a crazy assortment of monsters, and Sulley himself is an eight-foot-tall, fur-bearing hulk that forced the studio to sink or swim with fur texture. But each monster in the film represents a unique challenge — Mike is a short, one-eyed ball that has to emote relatably even though he looks so alien; his girlfriend, Celia Mae, is a gorgon-y monster whose snakes have to be animated separately; Randall is a chameleon-like monster that can walk on just about any surface and can change his scales to blend in with the environment. Each monster moves in a distinct way, and their design informs their personality quite well.

It’s hard to believe that Monsters, Inc. is rarely mentioned in a conversation with Pixar’s best; it would be one of the crowning jewels of any other animation studio. It’s a testament to the longevity and consistent excellence of the brand that this generally falls around the middle of the pack, but don’t let that ranking fool you: Monsters, Inc. is a thoroughly great movie, and it holds up extremely well in the Pixar canon.

Lilo & Stitch (2002)

After a string of four big-budget movies that hadn’t done nearly as well as Disney had hoped, the studio decided to try a film with a more modest budget. Veteran animator Chris Sanders was asked to pitch an idea, and he gave them a character he had made fifteen years earlier in a failed bid for a children’s book. Originally set in Kansas, the setting of his story moved to Hawaii — which had never been the subject of an animated feature before. Throw in an also-new set of indigenous sisters as main characters, and you get Lilo & Stitch, a wonderful movie that’s fun, touching, and quietly revolutionary.

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A girl and her dog.

Lilo is a young native Hawaiian girl struggling with the recent death of her parents and chafing under the overwhelmed stewardship of her older sister Nani. When an illegal genetic experiment crash-lands on the island after escaping from an intergalactic prison, Lilo adopts him and names him Stitch. Hot on Stitch’s tail is the scientist who created him, Dr. Jumba, and Agent Pleakley, the “Earth expert” for the Galactic Federation. Eventually, fed up with their inability to capture the experiment, the Galactic Federation sends the giant alien Captain Gantu to collect him.

Meanwhile, Stitch upends Lilo’s life as she tries to incorporate him into their broken home. Neither of them realizes that Nani is fighting to retain custody of Lilo after several disastrous visits from their social worker, Cobra Bubbles (voiced with delightful stoicism by Ving Rhames). With so many forces on the island trying to tear them apart, and with Stitch’s “programming” giving him an imperative to destroy whatever is around him, things look bleak for all three of them.

The bad-guy-makes-good story has been told quite a number of times, but the new elements and the confident, emotional storytelling makes Lilo & Stitch wonderfully unique. Besides being the first animated film set in Hawaii, Lilo & Stitch centers on the relationship between two sisters — something that you still don’t see very often in film, animated or live-action. The fact that they’re indigenous Hawaiians, struggling to make ends meet by taking odd jobs to facilitate the island’s tourist culture, is at once a foundational element of the story and in the background. It’s an excellent example of telling stories featuring non-white protagonists; the reality of their lives is never ignored or downplayed, but it’s not exploited to be a Message Movie or poverty tourism. I can’t think of another Disney film that quite deals with the aftermath of losing one’s parents in such a grounded way.

Lilo is a little kid who is undoubtedly messed up by the turns her life have taken, but she’s intellectually and emotionally intelligent enough to recognize the suffering her sister is going through and how much Stitch just needs someone to care for him. She makes a lot of mistakes, doesn’t control her impulses well, and has an incredibly weird sense of humor. But she tries so hard to make her life work, and it’s that effort that forms the backbone of the movie. It’s her sheer force of will that turns Stitch around and keeps her small family together. She’s a freaking hero.

The story deals with the intense, aching loneliness of knowing how different you are and how difficult it makes your life. It also explores how transformative it can be to reach out for connection anyway, especially when it’s difficult. The mantra that no one gets left behind is repeated often, but it’s not an empty slogan; Lilo, Nani and Stitch fight like hell to make sure none of them is alone, and Nani’s friend David is a shining example of how to handle being friend-zoned with grace and compassion.

The watercolored backgrounds pop beautifully, taking advantage of the island setting to the fullest, while the designs of Chris Sanders are endearingly soft, rounded, and just the right amount of off-kilter. Even the science fiction elements fit right in, with spaceships and laser blasters and even aliens that look like they come from an advanced oceanic civilization instead of the far reaches of space.

Lilo & Stitch was Disney’s least-expensive movie since Fantasia 2000, but its biggest domestic and critical success since Tarzan. It just goes to show how you don’t need a whole heap of special effects to tell a story that resonates, and that you can do it with a cast of non-white characters to boot. Even in the post-Renaissance era, Disney could make some stone-cold classics.

 
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Posted by on December 9, 2016 in Movies, Reviews

 

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(Reviews) DisneyFest: Fantasia 2000, Dinosaur, The Emperor’s New Groove

Entertainment 150Between classes, my day job and the crushing despair of the election, I haven’t had a lot of energy to write. I’ve been wanting to step back into the writing projects that have kept me anchored when the rest of my life is flying apart, and that starts with this blog. There is an awful lot on my mind, as you might imagine, but given that most of the people who would read this are more than likely in Chicago at a convention and I wanted to ease back into things, I thought I would start with a few Disney reviews.

We’re out of the Disney Renaissance now, and into that short, troubled period where Pixar was ascendant, DreamWorks Animation was the hot new kid on the block, and Disney Animation was struggling to keep its voice and remain relevant. A lot of the movies in this period aren’t as bad as you might expect, though there are a number of clunkers. For now, though, the scattershot approach yields mixed results as Fantasia 2000, Dinosaur, and The Emperor’s New Groove were released in the year 2000.

Fantasia 2000 (2000)

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Sixty years after the release of the original Fantasia, Disney Animation finally produced a follow-up that was booked as an exclusive IMAX engagement starting in January 2000. The wide release came a bit later in June, but by then most of its money had been made — nearly $65M of its ultimate $91M total came from the IMAX screening. Just like its predecessor, Fantasia 2000 blended various animation styles and techniques with a wide range of classical music. The end result is consistently entertaining, but it lacks a truly iconic sequence — the ambition of the animators is admirable but rarely met.

The crown jewel this time out is “Rhapsody in Blue”, featuring the wonderful jazz instrumental from Ira Gershwin played against characters inspired by the artist Al Hirschfeld. The music is a natural fit for the chaos of New York City as we follow various residents caught between their dreams and the reality of their lives and responsibilities. There’s a black construction worker who longs to be a jazz musician; a hen-pecked little man who wants to break the monotonous dignity of his one-percenter life to do something fun instead; and a little girl who just wants to be with her successful, busy parents. That first trill of the clarinet gets us off to the races, and the chaos never stops from there. It’s genuinely delightful, and the one sequence that really strikes its mark.

Donald Duck stars in “Pomp and Circumstance,” which is another solid entry that offers another seamless marriage of music and classic animation. The stately, driving beat that serves as the backbone of the music anchors the action here, lending a good sense of rhythmic momentum that moves Donald’s simple, funny, and surprisingly touching story from its set-up to its climax. There are a number of visual gags that work really well here, and it’s nice to see the studio finding new ways to stretch out its stable of iconic characters.

How you feel about the other six shorts depends on your interests. Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” scores an animist fight between a Forest Spirit and a Volcano God that’s surprisingly polished for its time; Resphigi’s “Pines of Rome” serves as a soundtrack to a truly surreal short cartoon featuring arctic, flying whales; “The Carnival of the Animals, Finale” by Camille Saint-Saens is a great companion to a silly tale about dancing flamingos and one yo-yo obsessed bird. Each piece tries to blend traditional animation with computer effects; while a lot of them hold up really well, the limitations of the art show in more than a few others.

Fantasia 2000 might be Disney’s best package film, though it was widely regarded as a flop at the time of its release. That’s unfortunate, because the inventive, challenging nature of these shorts really help keep Disney’s animators trying new things. I think there’s worth in updating this series every decade or so; it serves as something of a time-capsule for the state of the venerable House of Mouse, and that’s a great thing for any Disney fan. It looks like we’ll have to wait until 2040, though, for someone to complete the trilogy.

Dinosaur (2000)dinosaur

Disney’s first computer-animated film was a creative disappointment but a box-office success, making nearly $350 million worldwide. While it was a fairly big technical achievement at the time I guess, the story is plodding and the characters aren’t distinctive or memorable. The visual splendor of the movie is front-loaded; once the characters are established and the first act ends, there’s little more than post-apocalyptic wasteland as a backdrop. Dinosaur is ultimately kind of a boring movie, with bland characters impressively rendered against live-action environments that still somehow look bleak and colorless.

Aladar is an Iguanadon adopted into a family of lemurs after his egg is carried far away by a Pterodon. While he’s accepted as a part of the tribe, his huge size and the fact that there are no other dinosaurs on their island means he’s unlikely to find a place where he truly fits in. All of that changes when a meteor strikes the planet, causing a cataclysmic upheaval that destroys the lemurs’ home and forces them to travel far to find another place to live. Eventually, they find a caravan of dinosaurs searching for a mythical “Nesting Ground” that promises food, water, and safety. Aladar must earn his place among his own kind by acting on the lessons he learned as an adopted lemur, which of course isn’t easy.

The characters are more archetypes than fully-realized beings, and they behave the way they do mostly because the story demands it. Aladar is the uncertain young idealist who always does the right thing; the leader of the dinosaur caravan, Kron, is a straight-up Darwinist who believes that only the strong should survive; Kron’s sister, Neera, is torn between dutiful obedience to her brother and her growing feelings for Aladar. The band of misfits that serve as Aladar’s allies feel like a grab bag of character traits — there’s the huge but prim brachiosaur Baylene; the elderly, wise triceratops Eema; the fun-loving, wise-cracking lemur Zini. There isn’t much sense of who these creatures are beyond their service to the story, and since the story is your basic “keep your morality in the face of disaster” fable, it isn’t strong enough on its own to keep our interest.

The scene of the meteor strike is intense, though. The action is chaotic but well-choreographed, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the devastation of an event like that rendered so realistically, especially from ground level. Knowing that this is likely the extinction-level event that ultimately wiped out the dinosaurs, it’s a little strange spending the rest of the movie watching the desperate survivors search for a safe haven that either doesn’t exist or will quickly dry up. This being a Disney movie, though, they gloss over that bit for the happy ending the tale demands.

That dissonance might be why the movie is ultimately so disappointing. The struggle for survival isn’t quite bleak enough to make Aladar’s morality and optimism feel like the beacon it’s meant to be, but the situation itself demands a gravity that means the story can’t be much lighter than it already is. In the hands of a better storyteller, Dinosaur could have been something special. As it is, though, it feels like a missed opportunity that still did well enough to be counted as a commercial success.

The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)

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The Emperor’s New Groove was once an entirely different movie called Kingdom of the Sun; it was supposed to be a more serious movie that borrowed elements from The Prince and the Pauper, Incan mythology and romantic adventures. Then Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame didn’t do so well, production fell pretty far behind, and executives threatened to shut the whole thing down. Out of the chaos, a minor miracle happened — the film was completely overhauled into a road-trip buddy comedy that was better than it had any right to be. Even though The Emperor’s New Groove is a relatively minor film in the Disney animated canon, its sheer comedic energy, creativity and brisk, confident attitude makes it a pleasant, if somewhat dated, surprise.

The film has voice talent that feels firmly planted in the late 90s. David Spade is Kuzco, a spoiled Incan emperor who plans to bulldoze an entire herding village to make room for his summer palace. John Goodman is Pasha, the poor villager whose home is slated to be destroyed. Little does Kuzco know, however, that his adviser Yzma (Eartha Kitt) is planning to kill him and take the throne; her plan hits an unexpected wrinkle when her good-hearted but bumbling assistant Kronk (Patrick Warburton, because of course) mixes up a dose of poison with a potion that turns the emperor into a llama. Now, Kuzco has to team up with Pasha to get back to the palace before Yzma takes over the kingdom.

It’s a much better film than it has any right to be. David Spade strikes the right balance between his usual smarm and the demands of his character’s arc, while John Goodman is a wonderful grounding influence as the straight man. Eartha Kitt and Patrick Warburton make for a great comic duo; Kronk walks away with the movie as a supernaturally capable yet mismatched villain’s henchman. Everyone seems game for the movie’s breakneck pace, quipping like they’ve been doing this forever and knowing when to slow down enough to make sure the story’s emotional beats land with the weight they need. The proceedings are cartoonish in the best way — inventive and self-aware, but with perfect timing and pacing.

I’m not sure that the movie has aged so well in fifteen years, though. When it was first released, I loved it enough to watch it several times over. This is my first rewatch in a very long time, and a lot of the comic set-pieces come across as a bit more thread-worn and old-fashioned. It’s a small disappointment that the surprise of the film’s quality has dimmed somewhat; even though it holds up fairly well, it’s not the kind of movie that can stand a whole lot of repeat viewings.

That being said, this is a really strong blend between the traditional Disney storytelling model and a post-modern irreverence that was really big among animated features of the day. The chaotic, nearly disastrous production process for The Emperor’s New Groove may have been the best thing for it; the desperation to get the movie into theatres forced the studio to scrap so much of its initial plans for it and improvise. That al-dente, anything-goes style of storytelling infects every frame of the movie, and it’s kind of amazing that the high-wire act is more or less a success.

 
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Posted by on December 2, 2016 in Movies, Reviews

 

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(Reviews) A Pixar-Disney Sandwich

At this point in the Disney animated canon, Walt Disney Studios is coming to the end of their Renaissance while a young upstart CGI studio named Pixar is on the rise. The House of Mouse put a lot of their effort into adapting a really tricky Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp-adventure, while the boys in Emeryville continued to push their engines with really impressive lighting and texture effects for a story about an outsider ant and their very first sequel. What results is a trio of stories that have epic action but very personal stakes. They prove that you don’t need an apocalypse to provide a reason for the audience to be invested in what happens to your characters.

A Bug’s Life (1998)
Pixar’s second feature-length movie is about Flik, a young dreamer of an ant who just wants to help his colony gather enough food for the winter. In addition to tending to their needs, the colony is also under a tremendous strain providing an offering to a gang of huge, violent grasshoppers. When one of Flik’s inventions accidentally sets the colony back weeks, he’s exiled. Determined to find a way to drive off the grasshoppers, he recruits a group of hapless circus insects to fight them. Secrets and misunderstandings pile up until the whole operation collapses — or does it? This is a children’s movie, so you know how these things go.

A Bug’s Life is surprisingly charming; even though it’s one of the lesser efforts in Pixar’s stable, I think that speaks to the overall quality of the studio more than any fault of this film. Flik is kind of vanilla as a protagonist, but his earnestness wins you over at some point and you find yourself rooting for the little guy. Hopper the grasshopper is an uncomplicated villain; just a jerk and a bully who uses superior size to get his way. In this context, it works — this is a basic story that’s told well, and that’s all it tries to be.

The secondary characters flesh out the world with just enough personality to make them fun and relatable. I have a soft spot for Slim, the extremely-tall but erudite walking stick played by David Hyde Pierce but you’re almost bound to come away with a favorite of your own. The voice cast is populated with sitcom actors who know their way around busy scenes — the dialogue purrs with precision timing and expert delivery.

The animation may not have aged wonderfully, but when you look back on the improvements made over Toy Story you can’t help but be impressed. The world of A Bug’s Life is well-rendered; sunlight filters through grass and leaves in these wonderful ways, and the sense of scale suffuses every scene and new location in imaginative touches that just subtle enough that you don’t consciously notice them. I think the most impressive thing about A Bug’s Life is the attention to detail. Even with relatively pedestrian fare like this, Pixar didn’t sleepwalk through the worldbuilding process. It’s this devotion to concept that’s made them one of the most-celebrated animation studios in history, and it’s evident even here.

Tarzan (1999)
Did you know that at the time of its release, Tarzan was the most expensive animated film ever? It cost $130 million to make, and looking at the finished product you can see where the money most likely went. The title character is — according to Wikipedia — the first animated Disney character to display working muscles accurately. He does this while running, leaping and sliding through a three-dimensional environment that feels like a mixture of labyrinth and roller coaster. The movement and physicality on display is a genuine surprise. Tarzan has some of the most impressive action sequences I’ve seen in a Disney film, and I never thought I would say that.

The movie is a loose adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulp novel, removing the racism in the text and changing the third act so that Tarzan doesn’t go to England. He didn’t need to. His meeting of Jane, the charmingly eccentric but adaptable explorer, leads him to address his humanity in a way he never had before. Meanwhile, Clayton the guide serves as a memorable villain; the hunter of Tarzan’s gorilla tribe, he forces the makeshift family to heal their fractures in a way they never would have managed otherwise. Tarzan’s navigation through the tension between his wild upbringing and “civilized” nature becomes a thoroughly engaging arc. When he comes into his own as leader and protector, it’s a thrill.

But the real selling point is the animation. It’s shockingly under-appreciated in its ambition and scope; as Tarzan moves through the environment, it’s hard to tell what’s more impressive — the gorgeous background as it flies by, or the pitch-perfect physicality he displays. The jungle is lush and deep, almost a character in its own right. When you step back to consider how firmly integrated the characters are in their environment, you have to wonder how in the world they managed to animate a world that looks like so much more than a hand-drawn foreground character moving over a painted cel background. It’s the most three-dimensional traditionally animated world I’ve ever seen.

The care that was used to animate Tarzan is evident in every move he makes. He carries himself like his primate brethren, even though the proportions are all wrong. Far from making him look deformed, his posture and movement is supremely functional; he looks just like a human who has been raised by apes would look, all sinew and grace. It’s a strange mixture of brutish, wild strength and a dancer’s poise that shouldn’t work but totally does.

Tarzan’s friends — the female gorilla Turk and the nervous elephant Tantor — are fine. Rosie O’Donnell and Wayne Knight work well together, but more often than not I feel they’re distractions rather than enhancements. Maybe I’m less tolerant of comic relief characters in my old age.

Still, if you haven’t seen Tarzan in a while, it’s definitely worth a second look. The animation is truly a work of art, and the Phil Collins soundtrack isn’t as bad as I remembered.

Toy Story 2 (1999)
After the success of A Bug’s Life, Pixar returned to Woody and Buzz for Toy Story 2. While sequels are usually at best interesting failures, this one cemented the studio’s status as a major player in animation and remains one of the most well-regarded movies of all time — and for good reason.

After Woody is broken right before Andy was meant to take him to summer camp, he is accidentally sold to a collector looking for the crown jewel of a complete — and incredibly rare — Woody’s Round-Up toy set. Facing the inevitability of abandonment as Andy grow up, Woody at first relishes his newfound superstar status. Meanwhile, the rest of the toys in Andy’s room mount a desperate rescue operation to get Woody back before Andy gets home.

Toy Story 2 expands and deepens the theme and premise of its predecessor in an organic but surprising way. A toy’s entire purpose in life is to bring joy to the child that owns it, but eventually the kid will grow up and become interested in other things. That’s just a part of growing up. Where does that leave the toy, though? It’s a relatively ageless thing, and for it nothing has changed. That bond can’t simply be erased. When a seemingly permanent love suddenly becomes unrequited, the effects are devastating. How do we deal with the grief of impermanence? How do we balance our personal needs with the needs of friends and fellows?

It’s surprisingly adult talk for a children’s movie to have, and while Toy Story 2 is funnier and more inventive than the original it’s also a series of body blows emotionally speaking. Jessie — a spunky cowgirl who’s been trapped in storage waiting for Woody to complete their collection — has a backstory that chokes me up just thinking about it. “When She Loved Me” is a song so full of ache and longing it’s impossible not to be touched.

Both Jessie and Stinky Pete are unable to deal with their isolation and the frustration of their unfulfilled purpose. Even as it causes them to lash out in these troubling ways, it’s understandable. You can’t help but feel sympathy for them. And ultimately, the movie seems to say that we must each find our own way to deal with these very real and difficult realities of life. What works for one may not work for everyone, and it only compounds our trouble if we try to force others to follow the same solution.

Alternately, respecting and helping one another with those struggles is the best way to deal with our own. The bonds we form doing this allows us to bear the burden of life; it doesn’t make it any easier, but it does make it worthwhile. It’s a bittersweet lesson, but a welcome one. I think it’s one of the first children’s movies I’ve seen to address such an existential problem in a manner that doesn’t feel facile or condescending. And that’s nothing short of amazing.

 
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Posted by on September 12, 2016 in Movies, Reviews

 

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(Comic Review) The Totally Awesome Hulk #1-4

Reading 150The Hulk has been one of those characters where it’s been impossible for him to settle down for very long. Every writer has a wild idea with him that they’d like to try out, and that means over the past several years he’s had wildly different status quos. After Greg Pak’s legendary run with Planet Hulk and World War Hulk, Bruce Banner has been imprisoned and replaced as the Hulk by his nemesis, Thunderbolt Ross (Hulk by Jeph Loeb); separated from the Hulk as payment for services rendered to Doctor Doom (Jason Aaron); remerged and used as a “tactical nuke” for the worst case scenarios (Mark Waid); underwent a moral inversion to become the villainous Kluh (AXIS); and finally managed to remain the physical Hulk with Banner’s intellect intact, intent on depowering every gamma-irradiated hero or villain in the Marvel universe.

After Secret Wars destroyed the old Marvel multiverse and replaced it with…something else, it was time for another big status quo shift. As part of Marvel’s ongoing initiative to replace its A-list superheroes with more diverse legacy characters, it was revealed that Amadeus Cho — teen super-genius — would be the new Hulk in the All-New, All-Different Marvel. Better yet, Greg Pak would return to write the series and the character he created, while Frank Cho would be the regular artist. I’m not entirely sure, but this is the first time one of the Big Two publishers have had an Asian superhero written and drawn by Asian creators. It’s kind of a big deal.

So…how is Amadeus Cho doing as the new, totally-awesome Hulk? Not bad! I don’t know an awful lot about Amadeus before now, but he’s considered the eighth (?) smartest person in the world and has been the sidekick of both Banner and the “god” Hercules. Amadeus was convinced that if he had the power of the Hulk, he could remain in control and be the “best Hulk ever”. Under mysterious circumstances that unfold over the course of the first arc, he gets his chance.

TAHCompared to Bruce, Amadeus is remarkably well-adjusted. He’s a happy-go-lucky kid that seems to relish the chance to be a superhero, and with his sister Maddy there to keep him focused and level-headed he might actually have a shot at sticking the landing. What’s clear in this first batch of issues, though, is that he’s got a few blind spots that are going to bite him pretty hard in due time.

His first set of missions sees him finding and capturing giant, powerful monsters before they can wreak havoc in populated centers. This puts him at cross purposes with Lady Hellbender, who wants to collect the monsters for an intergalactic reserve where they can run and play and be monsters to their heart’s content. I think folks would like Hellbender’s civilization, which sees insane power as something to be respected, almost idealized; though Amadeus thinks this is a good idea, Maddy and others think it might not be the best thing.

Once Amadeus “proves” his might by defeating Fin Fang Foom, Lady Hellbender then tries to take him as Earth’s ultimate monster. Which, you know, probably doesn’t go very well for anyone involved, right?

What’s interesting about the comic so far is how character-focused it is. Amadeus is a vastly different person than Bruce Banner, so his Hulk is triggered by a different set of emotions. It’s not his anger that you have to watch out for — it’s his youthful inexperience, his arrogance, his irresponsibility. Now that Amadeus has achieved the great power side of the equation, the consequences of not mastering the other side has risen to unacceptable levels. What happens when he makes his first major mistake?

This being a Hulk comic, there’s still plenty of smashing to be had. Frank Cho — he of Liberty Meadows fame — is one of the absolute best superhero artists out there right now, so it’s a thrill to see him taking on this monthly comic. Each character is excellently-designed and wonderfully detailed, and he has a particularly good eye for the feminine figure. He can draw women as powerful, dynamic people while not necessarily pushing them into objectified figures for the male gaze. It’s a tricky balance to strike, and I think he does it well. That might be me unable to spot his excesses in an industry where women-as-sexual-objects are more or less the norm, though.

tah2

Even though sales figures for The Totally Awesome Hulk aren’t stellar, they’re solid enough that I’m not really worried about the series being cancelled. With Cho taking part in Marvel’s big summer event — Civil War II — and being promoted as part of the Champions (a sort of “Young Avengers” who have different ideas about superheroics), it’s clear he’s not going anywhere soon. It’ll be interesting to see what Pak and Cho have in store for Amadeus after the dust settles from the latest superhero dust-up. For now, though, his solo series is a solid spin on the traditional Hulk tale, and a worthy update for a new generation.

 

 
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Posted by on July 13, 2016 in Comic Books, Reviews, Uncategorized

 

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(Movie Reviews) A Hunchback, a Demigod and an Only Child Walk Into a Bar…

Entertainment 150Ryan and I are coming up on the back half of the Disney Renaissance, which reminds me a lot of the risks the animation studio took during the “Dark Ages” of the 70s and early 80s. The storytellers in place at the time were concerned with telling different kinds of stories that were a little darker, a little more complicated. The reason the experiment failed in the 70s and 80s while it (largely) succeeded in the late 90s is absolutely the production quality; while they had to cut corners at almost every opportunity with Robin Hood and The Black Cauldron, their previous successes allowed them to do some really amazing stuff with their animation in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Mulan. That, combined with great stories passionately told, mark a string of underappreciated gems from Disney in the late 90s. They are absolutely worth another look if you’ve been sleeping on them.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
This one is a legitimate surprise. Continuing the maturation of the storytelling that started with Pocahontas, Walt Disney Studios adapted Victor Hugo’s classic novel as a G-rated musical adventure. The fact that a movie dealing with the concepts of lust, sin, damnation and religious hypocrisy received a G Rating from the MPAA might be the only proof you need that the ratings board doesn’t know what it’s doing. Still, this turned out to be one of my favorite Disney animated movies — it’s that good.

Quasimodo is the titular hunchback, a deformed young man whose mother was a gypsy killed by a severe judge named Frollo on the steps of Notre Dame. Caught by a priest as he was about to throw the young child down a well, Frollo agrees to “care for” Quasimodo as penance for killing someone on church grounds. In this case, caring for means locking him away inside the church’s bell tower and emotionally manipulating him into fearing the world he so desperately wants to be a part of.

Both Quasimodo and Frollo are legitimately fascinating characters. Quasimodo wants nothing more than to be a part of the world he observes and loves passionately; he adores the people that he sees and wants to be out among them. Frollo, on the other hand, only sees wickedness and sin wherever he looks at the world. They are perfect foils for each other, and perfect examples of the old adage that “you will only see in the world what you see within yourself”.

Frollo’s mission to hunt down and pretty much eradicate gypsies in Paris runs smack into conflict with his feelings for Esmerelda, a homeless dancer who befriends Quasimodo once he sneaks out during a Festival of Fools. The poor hunchback learns some very hard lessons about the world when he finally gets the chance to be out in it, and for a moment it seems that Frollo was right. But his desire to love and be loved overrides his cynicism, and the sheer power of his yearning is at once inspiring and relatable. Even though he is quite possibly the most unusual-looking hero in the Disney canon, Quasimodo is the one that I’ve felt the strongest emotional connection with.

And perhaps that’s because Frollo is so horrific. His “villain’s song” is one of the most intense and disturbing in a Disney movie, wonderfully exposing the warring impulses within him. When he lays himself bare, you sympathize with his fear of falling away from God. You’re still horrified by how that fear has curdled within him, turning him into something far worse than an imperfect man. Frollo’s fear of his own baser nature makes him cruel and intolerant of imperfections in the people around him. That’s frightening because it’s so common in our world.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame might be the most nakedly religious of all Disney films as well. The cathedral is such an outsized influence not only in the city at the time, but also in the lives of all its characters; you see how their belief in God is reflected in their actions and desires. Esmerelda’s song, “God Help The Outcasts,” is a gut-check against the self-involved and materialistic in the Church. In a lot of ways, the movie is not only concerned with the influence of religion in the inner world of its characters, but also how that translates into social action. Hunchback tackled themes of social justice decades before Zootopia came on the scene.

Musically, this might be some of the strongest work for long-time Disney composer Alan Mencken and his writing partner Stephen Schwartz. “The Bells of Notre Dame” is a haunting, tight prologue that serves as a mini-story setting up the board for the film; “Out There” is an amazing “I want” song that establishes Quasimodo as a wonderful hero while also introducing us to Frollo’s awful emotional abuse and its effect on his charge; “Hellfire” is nothing short of an epic villain’s war with the forces raging within himself. Each song heightens the emotional narrative superbly, planting its character’s motivations so that we know exactly why they do the things they do.

The animation is similarly ambitious. Notre Dame is as much a character as anyone else, and watching the characters interact with it reveals their inner thoughts while also allowing us to see how it shapes their external world. Seeing Quasimodo scamper and swing across the rooftops is thrilling; when he does his thing, he’s every bit as graceful as Tarzan swinging on the vine. The character design is pitch-perfect as well. Quasimodo is at once grotesque and endearing; Esmerelda is truly bewitching; Frollo is severe and terrible. Even the sidekicks and comic relief are a wonderful mixture of adorable and setting-appropriate. Everything works.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame might just be the most underrated film of the Disney Renaissance. It is an amazing film, even though it doesn’t stick just so to its source material. Disney works with themes that it hasn’t really delved into before or since, and threads the needle with a sensitive, passionate morality tale that challenges its audience as well as it inspires.

Hercules (1997)
After catching so much heat for being too dark with The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Disney swung the pendulum the other way for 1997’s Hercules. This is another risk, especially for the family-friendly studio — basing a crowd-pleasing comedy on ancient Greek myth? Anyone with a passing familiarity with the source material might have trouble explaining the real legend to their children. They ended up going off-script a bit more than usual here, creating what’s essentially a mythological superhero-origin story.

Like Quasimodo, Hercules is an outcast in his society — but for an entirely different reason. He doesn’t know it, but he is a demi-god born to Zeus and Hera; his divinity was (mostly) removed by Hades in order to make sure that the hostile takeover of Olympus went according to plan. However, because he wasn’t given every drop of the poison meant to make him mortal, he retained his godly strength. He just doesn’t have the wisdom or finesse to wield it properly.

When Hercules learns that he is in fact the son of Zeus, he decides to become a hero in order to prove himself worthy of the gods and admission into Olympus. Of course, being heroic is a lot more than fighting monsters and saving innocents, and the movie pushes him towards learning that lesson.

Compared to the wonderful visuals of The Lion King, Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the stylized animation of Hercules is a big departure that doesn’t come off all that well. Disney nails the style that it wanted, but there’s something missing in the backgrounds and the setting; it doesn’t quite come across as iconic or interesting. The Underworld is the most interesting place, visually, and we don’t spend so much time there. Most of the time, it feels like we’re in the world of the centaurs, fauns and dryads from Fantasia by way of modern recreation of Greek art.

The story is fairly straight-forward; Hercules has to learn how to use his strengths first, then overcome his weaknesses before he can truly claim the title of hero. It’s certainly enjoyable, lightened by the gospel-infused Chorus, the cynical and wise Philoctetes and the big goofy Pegasus. Meg serves as the femme fatale here fairly well, but it’s a foregone conclusion how her arc will play out.

I think that’s the ultimate disappointment with Hercules as a film, really — most of Disney’s films are predictable when you get right down to it, but there’s almost always an emotional hook that invests you in the character journey anyway. For just a little while, you allow yourself to forget that good will triumph over evil every time, and you really want the protagonist to succeed while not being sure he will. Or, at least, that he will without paying a fairly high price.

And that’s what Hercules is missing. He literally has the King of the Gods on his side; even when the Titans are unleashed in the third act, they don’t seem like a legitimate threat. And even though Hercules is a fine and studly hero, there isn’t that vulnerability that makes him relatable. You don’t root for him because he’s an exceptional specimen who just won’t fail. Here, he’s a Greecian Superman, and it’s always hard to write really great stories about the Man of Steel.

Maybe Hercules is simply a victim of proximity. It tells the story of a social outcast who desperately wants to find a place he belongs, but must dig deep within himself to overcome the forces keeping him apart and earn not only acceptance from others, but acceptance of himself. While the battle between Hades and Zeus is fun (and Hades does make for a pretty neat villain), it pales in comparison to the battle between Quasimodo, Frollo and God. Hercules simply hits too many of the notes that Hunchback does, and Hunchback did it better.

Still, this is a pretty good movie — there’s certainly nothing wrong with it. But it doesn’t have the same ambition or fire that characterizes the other movies in the Disney Renaissance. It aims to be an enjoyable movie, and while it succeeds that’s all it really is.

Mulan (1998)
This movie is gorgeously photographed, plain and simple. The staging of the shots, the environments that the characters move through, the way the action plays out on screen — it all comes together to produce a visually distinctive movie that calls to mind epic historical war dramas as well as intimate character meditations.

Mulan is the daughter of a revered Chinese war hero; as the only child, she carries the burden of preserving the honor of her family by being the perfect maiden, then wife. Of course she chafes at this; she simply doesn’t fit the rigidly-defined role that her society has made for her. When the Huns clamber over the Great Wall and lay waste to villages, the Emperor calls for one man from every family to fight for their homeland. Making sure her wounded father doesn’t have to go, Mulan steals his sword and armor to fight in his stead. She’s accompanied by Mushu, a tiny dragon fallen from grace as a protector of the family; and Cri-Kee, a “lucky cricket” who serves as Mushu’s sidekick.

Mulan’s problems are very relatable, especially to those of us who don’t fit into the rigid gender roles set out for us by our cultures. She is a woman who doesn’t want to be demure and quiet; she’s smart, she has opinions and she wants to be active in a place that equates femininity with passivity. What’s interesting is how Disney doesn’t pass judgement on this cultural expectation; it merely forms the backdrop for her character struggle. Again, I’m impressed by Disney’s careful handling of other cultures and translating specific influences or attitudes into something universal.

The story isn’t perfect, of course. This was just a couple of years after The Birdcage, and alternate sexualities and gender expressions were still one of those things that were played broad. While masquerading as a man, Mulan indulges in the easiest stereotypes about men vs. women when it really doesn’t need to. Once the film establishes its characters, the best humor actually comes from their specific viewpoints. And the movie is filled with rich and interesting secondary characters that you really come to love over time.

But the animation is the real star of the show here. Disney creates a mythic China filtered through the lens of a spaghetti Western, knowing exactly when to pull back to show off the scale of a battlefield or the bright, vivid perfection of a homestead and when to tighten focus on a character’s facial expressions. One of my absolute favorite transitions is the one out of the raucous “A Girl Worth Fighting For”. It’s a wonderful swerve that makes what comes afterward that much more haunting.

The third act is a wonderful set-piece that’s both intimate, chaotic and simply great storytelling. The arcs of Mulan, Mushu and Captain Li Shang come to a wonderful conclusion here, and there’s just enough room for the denouement to punctuate the way everyone’s changed by their experience.

Mulan is a beautiful, compassionate, well-framed film that’s only occasionally marred by the broad comedic sensibilities of the 90s. I think it’s another one of those overlooked gems that people would really dig if they went back for another look.

 
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Posted by on June 29, 2016 in Movies, Reviews

 

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