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(Reviews) DisneyFest: Wreck-It Ralph, Monsters University, Frozen

Entertainment 150Remember five years ago? It was 2012 back then and we all thought we were going to die in some really weird global cataclysm because the Mayans had deemed it so. Woody Harrelson would go down outside his camper van at Yellowstone, and the only people who would survive are John Cusack and his plucky family. They would sail away on secret generation ships while a lone Tibetan monk sounded the death bell for our civilization…

Or, you know, Disney would continue their revival with a surprisingly great love letter to video games (and villains) while Pixar would go back to a beloved property for the first sequel that didn’t really improve on the original. Wreck-It Ralph is a gorgeous, inventive movie that told its story with heart and flair; Monsters University was better than most remember, but it doesn’t quite capture the magic of its predecesor; and Frozen is one of those movies that would have been so much better if it hadn’t tried SO hard — or gotten quite so big.

This trio of films are super-recent history, meaning that we’re getting close to the end of our DisneyFest reviews. I’m wondering if I should finish up with a ranking of all Disney and Pixar movies from worst to best? If you’re down with the idea, let me know.

Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
Disney’s 52nd animated feature was a leap forward for the animation studio and a strange stamp of legitimacy for video games; building a cartoon world around video game characters while deconstructing the roles those characters tend to inhabit is not something that happens to a medium pop culture continues to view as juvenile or pedestrian. Most importantly, Wreck-It Ralph uses its story as a means to shine a spotlight on the effect of people’s psyches when they’re branded as a villain or an outcast. It’s interesting that this is a theme they would keep coming back to in later movies: but I think this is the first film of the Revival era that really leaned into it.

Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is an eight-foot-tall, six-hundred-pound brute who goes around smashing an apartment building so the game’s hero, Fix-It Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer), can fix it with his father’s magic golden hammer. Felix earns the adoration of the apartment’s residents while Ralph gets thrown off the roof and into the mud — at least, that’s the story of the game. When there’s not a player around, Ralph longs to be accepted by the other characters; he’s big and clumsy, but he’s not evil. After a confrontation, Ralph takes it on himself to get a medal proving that he’s a hero — leaving the game to do it. This is a problem; without Ralph, there’s no destruction for Felix to fix and the game is essentially broken. And broken games get unplugged, which is a version of death here.

Video game characters travel through their power cords to the surge protector, which serves as Grand Central Station. It’s a pretty awesome idea, and once Ralph leaves the pile of bricks that serves as his home the movie really blossoms. After a quick stop in a HALO-like game called Hero’s Duty, Ralph winds up in Sugar Rush, a candy-coated racing game that at long last provides him an opportunity to connect with someone — the glitchy outcast Vanellope Von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman). Ralph and Vanellope drive each other crazy, of course, until they bond over being the outcast in their respective games.

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I’m sorry, I can’t quite get over Clyde (front, far right) trying to look menacing.

What’s most impressive about Wreck-It Ralph is how consistent its world feels, even though most of the characters you spend the most time with are created wholecloth for the film. The background and many scenes are populated with enough recognizable characters to sell the premise, and there are so many sight gags and set pieces that provide Easter eggs to video-game fans. Games with wildly different aesthetics somehow mesh in the same universe, underscoring the idea that no matter who we are or what culture we come from, we want the same things. Both Ralph and Vanellope are scarred by their exclusion, and most of their anti-social traits are really defense mechanisms they use to protect themselves from the hurt they know is coming.

All of the characters, including Felix and hard-nosed future-Marine Sgt. Tamora Calhoun (Jane Lynch), become better people through learning to understand and respect the differences of others in their travels. One scene, where Calhoun’s trauma is triggered by an off-hand comment from Felix, is a perfect representation of an actual PTSD event, and it’s what I use to illustrate how triggers actually work. The best part is Felix’s reaction; though confused, he respects her reaction enough to give her the space she needs. And a brilliant sight gag at the end reinforces the idea that Calhoun is supported, not dismissed, through her trauma.

Besides all of the socially responsible stuff, Wreck-It Ralph is legitimately fun and funny. The cast has a great time playing off one another and the writing is inventive and sharp. King Candy is the character that (I think) gave Alan Tudyk his status as the ‘vocal mascot’ of Disney films, and he’s one of the best antagonists in a Disney film. You can be goofy and also be the perpetrator of harmful social norms at the same time; villains don’t have to be serious or dark to do real harm.

I really love Wreck-It Ralph. It takes a lesson that could have been pat and infuses it with modern shadings, then wraps the whole package in a bright, inventive, nostalgia-inducing world strong enough to sustain itself through the story. The animation is great, the voice-acting is top-notch, and the writing is nuanced and clever. You couldn’t ask for more from a classic Disney film.

Monsters University (2013)
It’s hard to get a read on what people think about Monsters University. It tends to be lumped in with the “dark ages” of Pixar Animation and given as an example of the studio’s focus on inferior sequels as of late. However, I think it gets a bad rep — while the plot of the movie is as pedestrian as it gets, the character work is surprisingly sharp, the set pieces fun and effective, and the third act is really strong, all leading to an ending that brings its themes home perfectly. First-time Pixar director Dan Scanlon doesn’t emotionally connect as well as his predecessor, Pete Docter, but Monsters University is an enjoyable movie that I keep thinking about long after the movie is over.

Monsters U

Oh, NOW I get why Mike doesn’t wear clothes…

Mike Wazowski is a little lime-green bowling ball of a monster who always wanted to be a top Scarer for Monsters, Inc., the most-profitable scaring company in all of Monsteropolis. Children’s screams serve as an energy source here, so Scarers are an essential part of monster life — and they’re also celebrities, with trading cards and legendary stories and everything. Mike works harder than anyone and gets accepted into Monsters University, where it’s his mission to enter the Scarer’s College. Sulley, another freshman, comes from a well-established family of scarers and expects he can coast on his natural talent and family name to get him where he needs to be. Mike, of course, hates Sulley because the big blue monster gets easily what he works so hard to achieve — recognition, respect, the approval of the university’s teachers. But Sulley also has a lack of respect for hard work and an entitled attitude. Their rivalry reaches a boiling point during their final exam for the semester, and they end up breaking Dean Hardscrabble’s prized Scream Can. Of course, this means they fail immediately — rendering them ineligible for the Scarer’s College and getting Sulley disinvited from the school’s premiere fraternity, Roar Omega Roar.

Mike, undeterred, enters the college’s Scare Games to prove himself; if he can find a fraternity to work with AND his fraternity wins, he’ll be allowed to join the Scarer’s College. If he fails, he has to leave the university. Desperate for numbers, the little-respected Oozma Kappa conscripts Sulley into their fold.

Mike and Sulley bond during the Scare Games, though the relationship isn’t built easily. The middle of the film goes about the way you’d expect, with their rivalry getting in the way of their success and blinding them to the unique talents of their fellow Oozma Kappa frat brothers. Slowly, painfully, lessons are learned and OK learns how to function as a team — with Mike and Sulley pushing each other towards the greatness they both had the potential to achieve.

What elevates Monsters University, though, is the wrinkle of Mike’s inherent unscariness. Dean Hardscrabble doesn’t give him a chance because he simply isn’t scary; eventually, Sulley is forced to realize it too. When Mike goes to extreme measures to prove himself, the pair get a “real-world” final exam that forces them to accept where their real talents lie. That sequence is an amazing gut-check; the lowest point for both characters fuels a desperation that forces them to drop their egos and work past their individual limitations. The lesson they learn from that experience is what actually, finally paves the way for their eventual success. Mike and Sulley eventually get what they want — but not in the way they thought they’d have to do it.

It’s such a Millennial lesson; that achieving your dreams will likely require failure after failure, a hard-earned self-awareness, and a route that doesn’t rely on going through the front gate. While each of us imagines that we either have or can develop the traits we admire, for some of us that’s simply not the case — and it would be far better to take stock of who we are and how we can develop our unique traits to become the best version of ourselves we can be. Spinning that hard truth into an inspiring message is a feat, and Monsters University manages it.

The second act is the barrier that prevents it from landing as well as it could, though. Our introductions to Mike and Sulley are quite good, and seeing this different corner of the monster world is filled with enough sight gags and innovations that we happily go along for the ride. Once the Scare Games get going, though, the narrative runs through its paces competently but perfunctorily; it’s a bit harder to get emotionally invested in the stakes because the outcome is a foregone conclusion. We know that Mike and Sulley end up being best friends, and we know they ultimately become a great team. There aren’t any unknowns attached to that in order to build suspense. For a long time, it feels like we’re waiting for the inevitable Oozma Kappa triumph at the Scare Games.

I can’t be too harsh about the middle, because the Scare Game sequences are actually pretty neat. The animation really pops, and it’s great watching Oozma Kappa gel as a team, coming up with unusual solutions to the challenges put before them. But the knowledge of their pre-ordained success robs their victories of the weight they should have; success is expected, and failure is just a stall for time.

But this is a general problem with prequels. It’s hard to find the right conflict for them, especially since so much about the outcome is set in stone. I would put the trouble with the plot down to that and that alone; Monsters University is a fine film that has a lot to recommend it. It’s better than it seems, which is an odd thing to say, and definitely better than most give it credit for.

Frozen (2013)
There’s no easy way for me to say this, so I’ll just rip off the bandage: Frozen is a good, but not great, movie and I am bewildered by the fact it caught fire as much as it did. While watching Tangled made me fall in love with that film all over again, re-watching Frozen exposed a number of things that rub me the wrong way about it. While there are a lot of pretty great things in it, and I truly don’t want to harsh anyone’s good time, Frozen feels like a movie that was engineered to swing for the fences as much and as often as possible. And like a lot of major-league home-run kings, it strikes out about as often as it knocks one out of the park. It would be a lot more consistent, though, if it recognized the value of a good double or triple.

The story is a pretty heavy reworking of the Hans Christian Anderson tale “The Snow Queen”. Elsa is the title character here, a princess ‘gifted’ with ice magic that she has difficulty controlling whenever her emotions get the better of her. After an accident with her sister, Anna, Elsa’s parents decide that the only thing to be done is hide Elsa’s magic and encourage their oldest daughter not to feel anything. Elsa, deathly afraid of hurting anyone else, grows up shut off from the outside world and her younger sister.

After the tragic death of their parents at sea, Elsa must re-open her kingdom’s castle for her coronation as Queen, kicking off a chain of events that leads to the “outing” of her magic and subsequent flight from the kingdom. Anna, who got engaged to a visiting prince she just met, runs off in search of her with the help of a dashing, goofy, anti-social ice harvester named Kristoff and his best reindeer pal, Sven.

There are twists and turns, of course, and the stakes are raised until both of the sisters are in dire peril. The resolution is a really neat twist on the idea of true love breaking a curse, and it’s nice that Disney set aside the typical romantic adventure/comedy thing it does so well to focus on the familial relationship of two sisters. But there’s so much about Frozen that has been done better first in other Disney films, largely because the moments that are telegraphed and overblown here are allowed to land organically and quietly elsewhere.

“Let It Go,” the marquee Oscar-winning song performed by Wicked superstar Idina Menzel, is clearly a fat, juicy fastball thrown right over home plate. And Menzel, as Elsa, crushes it — but it tries too hard to conjure emotion that doesn’t feel earned. As impressive as Elsa’s crystalline palace and newfound sense of self are, neither of them were built on a solid foundation so it feels like a bit of a shortcut that diminishes the accomplishment. Olaf, the animated snowman that serves as comic relief, has a great song for his introduction but leans too hard on the weirdness of his existence for punchlines. And the film’s villain, when they finally show up, undercuts the shock of their revelation by explaining their motivation and plan. For every thing that works — Anna and Kristoff’s banter, Sven’s charming, canine doofiness, and the central relationship between Anna and Elsa — there’s something else that feels off. The rules of Elsa’s magic, for example; or Kristoff’s adopted family; or the way so many big moments call attention to themselves, robbing themselves of emotional impact.

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Olaf’s over-enthusiasm is a perfect metaphor for this movie, by the way

But clearly, there’s a lot that resonated with audiences — otherwise, Frozen would not have been the cultural juggernaut that it was. A lot of my reaction to it is the annoyance that movies I simply like better within the Disney canon being overshadowed by it. Lilo & Stitch also featured a strong central story about two sisters struggling with their relationship in the wake of grief. Tangled featured a female protagonist who also stepped into her own confidence after growing up shut away from the world. The Princess and the Frog, as flawed as it was, also offers a reminder that true love comes in many different forms and we shouldn’t blind ourselves to the storybook version we read about so often. Much of the cultural commentary around Frozen makes it seem like it was the very first film to deal with this stuff, when it simply wasn’t.

Still, Frozen is an achievement in and of itself — the kind of animated blockbuster that Disney hasn’t had since The Lion King. And the animation is astonishing. Wind, snow, and ice play with light and shadow in ways that feel natural but had to have been an absolute beast to render. The character design balances realistic humans with cartoonish reindeer and animated snowmen and trolls. And Arendelle has a delightful Old World aesthetic that calls back to so many other Disney classics. The studio had been trying to adapt “The Snow Queen” for decades, and it’s no small thing to finally hit upon a treatment that the world has responded to so well.

I’m not a big fan of Frozen; it’s fine, but it’s not in my top five, or even top ten. Still, its cultural, critical and commercial impact is undeniable. Just remember that one of the reasons it rises so far above the rest of the Disney animated canon is the fact that it’s standing on the shoulders of quite a few worthy movies that had come before it.

 
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Posted by on June 21, 2017 in DisneyFest, Movies, Reviews

 

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(Review) The Shame Locked Away in Giovanni’s Room

Reading 150The Paris in James Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room is a kind of hell in which desperate men step on each other to climb out of the hole they’re in, never realizing it’s possible to help lift one another out of their predicament. Fear motivates everyone; they’re afraid of anyone finding out who they really are before they can, but they also need somewhere they belong. So they draw people just close enough to be used, and then cut them as soon as that need has been fulfilled. That fulfillment doesn’t last long, though, and it’s not too long before they need something else again — companionship, money, distraction. David, the protagonist, enters this scene as an unrooted American trying to find himself. What he discovers is someone whose fear overrides his capacity to love, with disastrous consequences.

David meets Giovanni, the bartender at a gay bar in Paris, as he’s asking an older acquaintance for money. Jacques hits on the mysterious Italian and strikes out; David manages to strike up a friendly if challenging conversation. Conversations leads to dinner and drinks, which leads to sex; David, with nowhere else to go, moves into the waiter’s small room where they talk and have sex all summer. Eventually, David’s girlfriend Hella announces that she’ll be coming back to Paris after their “trial separation” and he’s faced with a choice — does he fall in with the expected path to adulthood, with marriage and children? Or does he break things off with Hella to continue his relationship with Giovanni? Complicating matters is the fact that Giovanni loses his job in the gay bar where he works after the owner makes one too many passes at him.

Throughout the novel, David sees people as a means to an end; they can provide him with something that buys him more time to figure out what he wants and who he is. Jacques, the old gay man he leans on for money, is someone that David doesn’t like or respect — and he makes it clear that he thinks the feeling is mutual. However, he exploits Jacques’ sense of shame to get the money he needs to remain. His relationship to Giovanni is built on that same impulse. He feels a physical lust and confused attraction that he doesn’t know what to do with; the poor Italian is there to ease that tension, so David uses him. Later, when faced with the prospect of Hella’s return, he hooks up with a distant acquaintance just to prove to himself he’s still attracted to women. His partner, Sue, realizes she’s been used at the same time she makes a few hesitating attempts to actually connect with him. The fear of being responsible for someone else’s happiness is just as much a reason that David distances himself from Giovanni as the fear of committing to an alternative sexuality.

What’s most interesting to me about Giovanni’s Room is how sensitively it deals with David’s bisexuality as one piece of the character’s larger issue — his inability be open and honest with himself. Giovanni isn’t David’s first homosexual encounter; as a kid, he slept with a friend that he then bullied in order to hide his guilt. He also overhears an argument between his father (who is prone to drinking) and his aunt where his dad says that he just wants David to be a “real man”. Unable to work out for himself what that is, David begins drinking himself.

baldwin quoteWe see how things like abuse and neglect are internalized by the victims of it, and how that expresses in a cycle of perpetuation eventually. David was never taught how to be reflective, how to cope with hard truths, how to anticipate and manage consequences. He only knows how to run away from discomfort — into the bottle, or the arms of someone who can make him feel good, or a new city full of distractions.

The culture he falls in with is populated with people who have no idea how to rectify that, because they’re running too. Wealthy, established men run away from the pressures of having a high status in a society that would not accept them for who they really are; their shame is assuaged by one-night stands and brief, tumultuous relationships with broke younger men who need a job or a place to stay. Each partner secretly hates themselves for what they’re doing, and resents the other for taking advantage of their own vulnerabilities; it’s an environment where the basic interpersonal relationship is built on competition, not cooperation. Each partner is looking to get the most out of the relationship while putting in the least amount of work.

This underworld, full of men who want everyone to look at them admiringly but are unable to even look at themselves, encourages the worst impulses in people like David and ruins anyone attempting to be vulnerable and sincere. Even those rare moments of self-reflection are accompanied by a resignation that these men are trapped this way; any attempt to live honestly would likely end with a very long and painful fall.

The tragedy here is that so many people end up being warped and twisted in the most delicate and dangerous periods of their lives. Unable to navigate their own strange feelings, the only community they have shows them that sublimation and distraction is as good as it gets — there’s no reconciliation to be found. Society’s disrespect for their “particular tastes” becomes personal disrespect, and their behavior stems from that. Since everyone in the scene is despicable, it excuses all manner of similar actions.

So many novels about minority experiences in a particular place or time in history share this fundamental trait; the protagonist simply cannot make peace with themselves because society refuses to provide the basic respect needed to see themselves as someone worthy of that stillness. And so many novels project that this fundamental sociological rejection leads to anti-social behavior — murder, sociopathy, bitter solitude, misanthropy. This underscores the need for us to belong somewhere, to have communities that support and enrich us. But it also provides the blueprint for how institutional injustice curdles within the victims who endure it until self-hatred — and selfish, amoral behavior — oozes from our pores.

Giovanni’s Room is another cautionary tale in this vein. The closing moments of the novel find David wandering the streets of southern France all alone, imagining the miserable consequences he feels personally responsible for. We’re left to imagine what David actually does with his experience — does he sink further into despair and escape, or does he take the clarity he’s gained to make the necessary changes? Is that even possible?

I have to believe so. We can each of us unlearn the toxic ways we’ve learned to deal with each other and ourselves. But it requires claiming for ourselves the respect that society feels unable to give us, seeing each of our fellow people as individuals worthy of that same respect, and a keen, painful awareness of the consequences of demanding the things the world is not ready to provide. Living honestly is not easy by any stretch, but it is the way out of the hell people like David put themselves in.

 
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Posted by on June 19, 2017 in Better Living Through Stories, Novels, Reviews

 

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(Reviews) DisneyFest: Cars 2, Winnie the Pooh, Brave

Entertainment 150By 2011, the fortunes of Disney and Pixar were reversing; while the former had finally scored a critical and commercial success with Tangled, the latter was navigating the second phase of its career after moving past its original stories with the final installment of the Toy Story trilogy. Disney released one movie that year — the small-scale, gentle Winnie the Pooh in July — while Pixar served up Cars 2 in June. The next year, they released the troubled production Brave that same month. While none of these films are golden, especially considering the work the studios had done in the recent past, they’re not bad.

Cars 2 (2011)

Cars 2 is better than its predecessor because it feels like Pixar made the choice to be really creative with its universe. Most of the film is baffling — every scene feels like it answers a question about the setting while simultaneously opening up a ton more questions. What qualifies as a sexual characteristic for a car beyond eyelashes and full lips? How do cars get modified, or have their tires changed? Does it hurt? Do they have nerves, or internal organs, or is the body their skin? How does any of this work??

These questions are so much more maddening because the movie is so much more engaging than the first. Pixar uses the opportunity to take its characters to a wide range of different locations, which allows them to play with so many different lighting effects, environments and road conditions. In the original it was a little easier to accept the world because it seemed so small; in the sequel, with Lightning McQueen and crew traveling all around the world, there are so many more opportunities for questions to pop up.

The crew also meets international racing cars with vastly different bodies, stretching the design choices for the characters in interesting ways. There’s even a scene where cars go to an underground mod shop — obviously where rejected early designs are shown off to see exactly why the cars don’t have their eyes on their headlights. Admittedly, it’s pretty creepy-looking; windshield eyes aren’t the obvious choice when you’re thinking about anthropomorphic cars, but fair point, Pixar — it’s the right one.

It’s clear that this renewed emphasis on world-building rides on the back of the story, which isn’t that great. Mater, the best friend of renowned racer Lightning McQueen, basically signs up the race car for the World Grand Prix, a brand-new event meant to introduce the world to the alternative fuel Allinol. However, there’s some kind of sabotage plot going down to discredit the fuel and return the world to fossil fuels, and Mater gets caught up in the espionage investigation to figure out who’s blowing up cars and why. Imagine a John Le Carre novel, only with talking cars and Larry the Cable Guy as your main character.

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Hey, it’s a buddy CAR movie! Har har har

Mater might be the protagonist, but Lightning McQueen is the person (car?) that gets the narrative arc. At first he’s embarrassed by Mater’s uncultured behavior among his high-class international friends, but over time he learns to appreciate the inherent goodness within his unsophisticated friend. While this is definitely a good lesson to learn, it would have been nice to see Mater develop as well; he is, after all, a tow truck that has never been outside of Radiator Springs. Instead of telling us — for the umpteenth time — that country values are just as great as anything else, it would have been nice to see that cultural shift run both ways. There are worthwhile aspects of the urbane mindset, like an appreciation of the new and different, or a sensitivity for different cultures.

Still, it was hard for me to be too upset with the movie. For all of his cringe-worthy goofiness, Mater is basically a good egg with an earnest desire to help at every turn. He’s enthusiastic and friendly, and incredibly accepting. That good-natured soul covers a multitude of sins for me, even though I realize it might not be the same for most people. If Mater grated on you in the first Cars, there’s almost no way you could enjoy Cars 2 — it doubles down on the tow truck, elevating him from sidekick to star.

And if you’re willing to overlook that, Cars 2 might be entertaining in its own right. Obviously kids will love the film, but adults might be driven enjoyably crazy trying to figure out the inner workings of the world or be impressed with the way the studio has improved its animation from the last outing. It’s certainly one of the minor Pixar outings, but that’s still better than most.

Winnie the Pooh (2011)

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Not sure where Eeyore got his stripes, but I don’t want to ask.

Like most rabbits in my age group, I grew up on the truly excellent Saturday-morning Winnie-the-Pooh series and that’s my biggest relationship with the franchise. The adaptation or “package film” from 1977, The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh, was pretty enjoyable, but in a lot of ways it felt like a prototype for the kinds of stories they told through the series. If you’re like me, then the thought of a brand-new hand-drawn Winnie-the-Pooh movie is exciting, a nostalgia bomb waiting to happen. Maybe it’s the attempts to update the format for Pooh, or the largely different voice cast, or the fact that I’VE changed, but this doesn’t feel like the Pooh I grew up with — and that’s neither bad nor good, but it’s there.

One of the strongest features of this attempt to update Pooh for a new audience is the animation. The hand-drawn character work is warm and charming, fluid and polished without seeming too sterile. There are little touches that give all the characters a sense of weight and texture, that deepens our involvement in the world. That solid foundation allows the animators to play around with a few new ideas that mostly work — most of the action takes place within the frame of illustrations for a children’s book, and Pooh and the gang regularly break the fourth wall by interacting with the text of the book itself. It’s an elegant and clever turn that heightens the humor and creativity really well.

The plot is woven by three separate stories adapted from Milne — Pooh running out of honey and heading off in search of it; a wood-wide panic brought about by Chrisopher Robin’s note and the fear of a mysterious creature called the “Backson”; and the gang (especially Tigger) helping Eeyore with his lost tail. The three subplots fade into one another fairly smoothly, but they also require the characters to behave in ways we’re not quite used to seeing them. They’re dimmer, for example, to the point that it feels like they’re forced to be obtuse for the sake of the (admittedly funny) complications that come from misunderstandings. Owl gets significantly more screen-time, relegating folks like Rabbit and Piglet to tag-alongs, while Eeyore and Tigger actually make for an engaging pair.

All in all, though, it’s just strange to see different characters embodying the toys we know so well. It feels like the writers missed some essential je ne sais quoi that makes Pooh so endearing; in updating the characters for a new generation, something gets left out that I can’t quite put my finger on. It was a notable distraction through most of the film’s 70-minute run time, and by the time I’ve settled in to what this movie actually is — it’s over. I suspect that this one is geared towards an even younger audience than I was when I caught the Saturday morning show (eight years old, by the way), so perhaps there’s just less there for me.

If you’re less attached to Winnie-the-Pooh-based nostalgia, this is worth it just for the hand-drawn animation alone. The story is clever and funny, the look is bright and sunny, and overall it’s an enjoyable way to spend an hour. Still, I’m not entirely sure this is a movie for anyone but completionists or true fans, which is a shame. Pooh is great, and it’d be awesome to go back to the Hundred-Acre Wood again.

Brave (2012)

This was announced with the title The Bear and the Bow with great fanfare for Brenda Chapman, the first woman to direct a Pixar film. It took years for the final product to arrive in theatres, with Chapman removed from the project so Mark Andrews could finish the project. Despite being pulled for “creative differences”, Chapman says that the film executed on her vision and she’s proud of the way it turned out. I’m not sure if that’s putting on a good face or what, but I think about this whenever I think about Brave. Even though a lot of Disney and Pixar projects have had troubled productions, this is the first one where it feels like the seams in the story show.

Not that Brave isn’t a good movie; it’s fine. The animation in particular is wonderful to behold — the landscapes of an ancient, mythical Scotland lend the entire film the gorgeous fairy-tale aesthetic it was going for. The characters themselves are more exaggerated but in a way that doesn’t conflict with the more realistic background; it feels like they inhabit this world instead of performing in it. Again, light and water are really impressive here, and one stand-out sequence of Merida fishing with her mother really underscores how far Pixar had come with fur and environmental textures.

Wait, fur? Yeah, Merida’s mother is turned into a bear by accident. And since bears are nature’s perfect creatures, you’d think I’d be all in on this story. There are a lot of good scenes where Chapman and Andrews get comedic mileage out of juxtaposing the prim and proper habits of Queen Elinor with the shaggy, clumsy bulk of being a bear. Mor’du, the legendary demon-bear, is an extraordinarily impressive sight, every bit the terrifying supernatural villain he should be. But there’s something about the film that doesn’t quite add up, that doesn’t really connect Merida to the audience.

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Mother Bear

Merida is forced to choose between the oldest sons of three allied clans for marriage, but she really doesn’t want to. That’s the catalyst for the story; Merida asking an old witch in a hut for a potion that would change her mother into someone who could understand her. The parallel for this is the myth of Mor’du, the jealous eldest son of an ancient king who decided to split his kingdom among all four of his sons. Mor’du decided that he would fight for the kingdom, and asked a witch for the strength of ten men. Naturally, she turned him into a bear. Mindless but terrible, Mor’du stalks the woods with but a shadow of his human intellect.

Merida’s lesson doesn’t quite scan with the tale of Mor’du, though the structure of the story wants us to think it does. Wanting more than your fair share of a kingdom doesn’t equate to not wanting to be forced into marriage, yet Merida has to learn the lesson that giving up her life to prevent war amongst the clans is the way to go. Her mother, Queen Elinor, encourages her to establish her own timetable for marriage instead.

The arc of her lesson undercuts what makes Merida such a worthy addition to Disney’s Princess canon. She is headstrong but kind, passionate and resourceful. Forcing her to temper that willful spirit in order to satisfy societal demands that we’d never agree with anyway feels off; it’s like the movie is gently chastising us for wanting to march to the beat of our own drum. Elinor eventually learns to appreciate and respect her daughter’s wishes, but the movie treats this as a secondary revelation.

Shifting protagonists can be a tricky thing, especially if remnants of the previous narrative arc are kept in the film. I can’t say for sure that’s what happened here, but with the change in directors it feels like there are artifacts of a previous draft inhabiting the skeleton of the story that made it to the screen. Because of that, the journey of Merida and Elinor is muddied and confused more than it should be — and that means we’re never quite sure where we’re supposed to stand with either of them.

That’s a shame, because if it weren’t for that fundamental flaw Brave would be a fun, beautiful movie. As it stands, it’s one that always feels like it’s not quite comfortable with itself — and that means we aren’t able to get comfortable with it either.

 
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Posted by on June 7, 2017 in DisneyFest, Movies, Reviews

 

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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)

emperor-kingdom

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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