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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: Cars, Meet The Robinsons, Ratatouille

Entertainment 150It’s strange to think that we’re now in the recent history of Disney and Pixar. Cars was the last production on Pixar’s original contract; negotiations were tense, but ultimately resulted in Disney buying the studio and merging it with its own. In 2007, Disney was beginning to come out of its nadir with Meet The Robinsons, an overlooked film that feels like it was dismissed by association. Pixar released Ratatouille just three months later, dashing any hopes for recognition Disney’s cartoon might have made. The three films are a little strange, reflecting two animation studios struggling to reconcile their relationship with each other and pushing the borders of subject matter for kids’ movies in general.

Cars (2006)
This is one weird movie. Cars is set in a universe of anthropomorphic vehicles where busses, trains, ships and planes are living beings. This raises all kinds of questions that the movie nimbly dodges; it just asks you not to think about the rules too hard and have a good time. On the other hand, there are a lot of jokes and set pieces that practically beg further explanation, like how vehicles can fill the role of people AND animals at the same time. Trying to think through the ramifications of the tractor-tipping scene is really difficult.

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Seriously, is this some kind of post-apocalyptic world, or…?

So, superstar-racer Lightning McQueen is a young up-and-comer on the international racing circuit. His flashy driving (running?) and catch-phrase has captured the imagination of the race-car world and earned him a shot at the season’s championship with two other cars, the veteran Strip Weathers and eternal second-place finisher Chick Hicks. In order to get there in time, Lightning orders his friend (and big-rig pack mule) Mac to drive all night; this ends in disaster, separating the two and stranding McQueen in the dying Route 66 town of Radiator Springs. Lightning has to learn how to slow down long enough to make things right while also winning the big race. Can he do it?

Despite the fact that this movie is straight-up baffling, it has a charm that wears better than I remember it before. The plot is pretty thin but well-told, and Cars is populated with a garage-full of characters that you don’t mind spending 90 minutes with. The production team went out of their way to stock the movie with a wide variety of car models, from super-fast coupes to puttery, sagging Volkswagens. What’s really interesting is how the animators actually imbue each vehicle with a distinct personality that feels organic to their form; you can tell what kind of “people” these are on sight, and the way they move (drive?) reveals a lot about how they see the world and interact with it.

Cars somehow managed to get all kinds of people for their voice cast; Owen Wilson serves as the primadonna Lightning McQueen, with Larry the Cable Guy as his sidekick (and breakout star) Mater. Paul Newman (in his last dramatic role), Bonnie Hunt, Tony Shalhoub, Cheech Marin, George Carlin, Michael Keaton and Jeremy Piven all lend their talents to the movie as well. Race car drivers and car aficionados even make cameos! It’s strange, in hindsight, that so much talent threw in with this movie. By then, the Pixar brand was golden, so I guess everyone wanted to be part of it.

It was Pixar’s lowest-reviewed film at that point, but critics still liked it; it opened well, made a ton of money at the box office and absolutely slayed with merchandise. To this day, the reputation of Cars is something of a debate with Disney fans. Some people dismiss it as juvenile fluff, while others see it as an underappreciated, or at least misunderstood, film.

I’m somewhere in between the two. It’s not as shallow or empty as its detractors make it out to be, but next to other Pixar films it’s dwarfed by its simple story and straight-forward performances. The animation feats are largely hidden, but can we just talk about how hard it is to build an entire world around anthropomorphic cars? And also, how hard it is to take CARS — inanimate objects that are gigantic and heavy — and make them move, speak and have their own body language in a way we could recognize? It’s kind of mind-blowing to think about that alone; the character design is an even bigger feat than the undersea denizens of Finding Nemo.

All of that is in service to a movie that I’m not sure merits that much work. However, considering the scads of money Pixar has made off the movie and its related merchandise, I’m sure the animation studio would disagree.

Meet The Robinsons (2007)
For Disney, getting it right with computer animation was a bit of a process. With Dinosaur, the lush environments were blown up at the end of Act 1 and replaced with drab, beige backgrounds for the characters to trudge through. In Chicken Little, all of their creative energy went to designing the title character and everything else (including plot, dialogue and supporting character design) was an afterthought. With 2007’s Meet The Robinsons, though, they get it mostly right — the animation is sunny and appealing, the plot carries a great message with sure-footed ambition, and most of the characters are people you like spending the time with.

Lewis is a precocious and smart 90s child right out of central casting in a situation you almost never see in children’s movies. He has the messy blond hair, the oversized geek glasses, and the bright smile — but he also lives in an orphanage with a pale, strange kid who loves to play baseball even though he’s terrible at it. Lewis and “Goob” are old hands; between Lewis’ inventions and Goob’s general oddity, they’re having a hard time getting placed in a home. This causes something of a personal crisis for him, and so his latest invention is a memory scanner that he hopes will unlock the only clue to her identity — his infant memories. At the school science fair, a kid claiming to be a cop from the future and a long, lanky man in a bowler hat both try to steal Lewis’ invention and the chase takes them all the way through traveling in time.

It’s exceedingly rare to see a children’s movie tackle the idea of adoption as an important aspect of its plot — at least in the relatively grounded way it comes across here. As an adopted child myself, I really appreciated that aspect of it; the ultimate lesson taken from the film offers a reason for hope in difficult circumstances, and it’s a hell of a lot fun getting there.

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Bowler Hat Guy for President!

That’s because the plot is a bit twistier than most you’ll find in Disney movies of the era. Adding the time travel element will complicate any story, but it’s well-served in Meet The Robinsons; even if you guess a couple of the surprises along the way, chances are good that there are more you won’t see coming. Even though Lewis does a lot of unwise things that complicate the plot, it’s easy to give him a pass — he’s a 12-year-old boy who’s just learned time travel is a reality, and that’s not something one just plays safe. The villain, Bowler Hat Guy, is the real star of the movie; he is a straight-up vaudeville villain, all waxed moustache and overwrought theatricality. He is so deeply weird and revels in it so much that you almost root for him. Every scene with him somehow made me like him that much more, which is a feat in and of itself.

The titular Robinson family doesn’t come off quite as well. They’re a huge and eccentric clan, full of inventors and free spirits, but the whimsy of their lives comes off a little strained. We don’t spend as much time with them as we do with Lewis, his “future-cop” friend Wilbur, or Bowler Hat Guy, so they’re painted with broad strokes that still feel too flat to be engaging.

Once all the cards are on the table, though, the movie wraps up with a surprisingly effective resolution that’s incredibly sweet. Lewis learns how to look for validation within himself, and that self-confidence promises to propel him into a great life. He also learns how to benefit from his mistakes, improving on each attempt until he eventually succeeds in what he’s trying to do. In many ways, it’s a metaphor for Disney’s CG animation; they learned from Dinosaur and Chicken Little to get to a place that mostly works. The mistakes they made here are simply data points for them to build on with their next feature.

Ratatouille (2007)
Ratatouille was the third film written and directed by the amazing Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles) and Pixar’s 8th studio film — its first after being bought by Walt Disney. Set in the romanticized and insular world of Parisian high-cuisine, it pulls together so many disparate elements to create something truly unique. Like every Pixar film that came before it, the animators set out to crack an enormous task just to make the film work; this time, it was figuring out how to animate food in a believable and appetizing way. The creation of Ratatouille, like many of the incredible dishes featured within it, required a small army of specialists at the top of their game to produce an experience that would be truly memorable despite being part of one of the most common activities we partake in, watching movies.

Remy is a rat who is a true artist when it comes to food. He has an incredible nose that allows him to detect subtle spices, whether food has rotted, or if something has been treated with rat poison. Unlike the other rodents in his clan, he chooses to walk on two feet instead of four so he can “taste the food, not everywhere he’s been”. And his mind creates connections that produce a symphony of flavors that most wouldn’t even think possible. His inspiration is celebrated Paris chef Auguste Gusteau, who believed that anyone can cook, no matter what. When the food critic Anton Ego eviscerated Gusteau’s restaurant in a review, it lost a star — and the death of its head chef knocked off another star after that. Since then, the establishment has been trying to stay afloat on the Gusteau name.

Coming in to this situation is a kid named Alfredo Linguini, hoping to get a job in Gusteau’s kitchen — he’s signed on as a trash boy. Remy and Linguini become unlikely friends and partners after the rat salvages a pot of soup and Linguini gets the credit for it. They discover an even more unlikely way to keep the charade going; Remy hides under Linguini’s chef’s hat and controls him like a giant marionette by pulling his hair. As the restaurant’s stock rises and Linguini is subjected to increasing pressure to perform, both rat and man must find a way to achieve success in a way that’s true to themselves.

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Oh my God, you guys, I forgot about that tiny rat omelette ❤

Brad’s specialty is creating characters who somehow remain underdogs while still being uncommonly excellent. Remy is no exception; he can be pretentious and demanding, but his passion and love of cooking is evident in everything he does. Linguini is a kid in over his head, but with a good heart and a strong moral compass. The kitchen of Gusteau’s restaurant is stocked with a wonderful set of supporting characters, from Colette Tatou (the rotisseur and love interest) to Horst, the German sous chef. The space itself feels like another character, full of life and danger, depending on whether you’re seeing it from Remy’s or Linguini’s point of view. Even mean old Anton Ego, the dour critic who relishes the destruction of restaurants, is charismatic in his own terrifying way.

There are so many things in this movie that impress me regarding its animation. The textures of the rats, the people, the clothes and the food are incredibly well-rendered, giving the world a reality and weight that really immerses you in it. The camera navigates the same scenes from the POV of both protagonists, drastically changing the feel of each; the contrast helps us to understand the wide gulf that exists between the lives of Remy and Linguini in a way that feels remarkably organic. The writing is incredibly smart and earnest, but also allows room for physical comedy; Linguini under the control of Remy is a wonderful thing to behold.

Of course, the thing that makes Pixar’s best movies so special is the story. Remy’s dream forces him to break down a barrier that no one on either side wants to be pulled down; he not only has to fight personal and physical limitations, but deeply-entrenched social ones as well. It’s this willingness to forsake everything he’s ever known to pursue his passion that makes us care about him. He’s not blind to the sacrifice and work it will take to do what he loves, and he’s not afraid of it. He plunges ahead.

The film ends with a wonderful epilogue that feels miraculous yet ordinary. On one small block within the middle of Paris, there is a restaurant that stands as a testament to what is possible with enough dedication and willpower. It is modest, perhaps, but everything it is has been earned through hard work and perseverance. Those who appreciate it know it’s much more than just a place to eat — it’s a small example of the way the world could be, the way it should be. It’s a wondrous note to end on, because it tells us that while following our passions may make our own lives better, it undoubtedly makes the entire world better as well.

 
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Posted by on January 30, 2017 in Movies

 

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(Movies) DisneyFest: Home On The Range, The Incredibles, Chicken Little

Entertainment 1502004 – 2006 was a really rough time for Disney. With the diminishing returns on their traditionally-animated movie, they decided to move into computer animation full-time while being walloped by Pixar, DreamWorks and critics for mining their rich history to make a series of terrible direct-to-video sequels. While they were bringing their CG animation studio up to speed, they agreed to distribute a few cartoons from other houses — this is when they dropped Valiant (remember that movie with Ewan MacGregor as an earnest WWII pigeon?) and The Wild (with Keifer Sutherland and Jim Belushi as best-bud lion and squirrel, respectively). Neither one of them did very well in theatres.

In the meantime, Pixar was nearing the end of their original contract but still pushing the envelope of computer animation the entire time. The Incredibles, helmed by Brad Bird (The Iron Giant), was the first film directed by someone outside of the company. The gamble paid off — it won two Academy Awards, the Annie Award for Best Animated Feature, and became the first cartoon to win a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. While Finding Nemo was the obvious crowd-pleaser (making over $830M worldwide), The Incredibles was the critical darling that still earned its stripes as a bona-fide blockbuster.

Home On The Range (2004)
This is a strange and frustrating movie, mostly because it almost works. Roseanne Barr stars as Maggie, a prize-winning cow who is forced to relocated to a tiny farm called Patch O’ Heaven after all of her fellow cattle were stolen and her previous owner was bankrupted by the theft. With the help of fellow bovines Mrs. Caloway (Judi Dench) and Grace (Jennifer Tilly), she uncovers the plot to buy up all of the land for nefarious purposes and saves her newfound home. It’s a neat little story that aims for a certain Americana charm — and almost achieves it.

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Look at the rabbit! He’s so awesome!

There’s a lot to like about Home On The Range, actually. Both the prim and proper Mrs. Caloway and the air-headed Grace are really fun to watch as they bicker their way through the story, and the movie is filled with supporting characters who are actually awesome. There’s Buck, the vain stallion frienemy of the cows; Alameda Slim, whose method of stealing the cows is a true highlight; his henchmen, three dull triplets who can’t understand Slim’s schemes for the life of them; and Lucky Jack, a three-legged rabbit who serves as half crazy guide, half old coot. A couple of sequences embrace the madcap Saturday morning cartoon aesthetic, and this is when things work best; there’s a wonderfully crazy energy that’s infectiously funny.

But Barr’s Maggie just can’t carry the movie on her ample back. A lot of the dialogue meant to establish her character or endear us to her just falls flat, one pun or one-liner after the other. When a joke actually lands, the script hammers it home enough to kill the cleverness of it. And more than once, characterization is sacrificed for plot with one or more of the three heroines doing something weird just because a beat needs to happen at a particular spot.

It’s a shame, really. I’m not too familiar with the behind-the-scenes conditions surrounding the making of the movie, but the writing was already on the wall by the time Home On The Range was being promoted — I remember it being touted as the last traditionally-animated film from Disney Studios. With a little more time and polish (and perhaps a recast of the lead), it could have been a decent if minor entry into the animated canon. Instead, it’s a trivial footnote in Disney’s history and widely regarded as one of their absolute worst films.

Still, I’m not sure it quite deserves the reputation it’s gotten over the years. It’s inoffensive, perhaps forgettable, but not a complete failure. There are worse ways to spend your time, which is damning with faint praise, I realize.

The Incredibles (2004)
Seven months after Disney bombed with Home On The Range, Pixar dropped The Incredibles. Just like every release before it, this movie took a major leap forward in computer animation technology — this time giving us the best-realized human characters we’ve ever seen, animating clothes of varying materials and realistic hair wonderfully. Since Brad Bird had come from a traditional animation background, it also represented a fruitful marriage of the old and new; Bird brought in several animators who had worked with him on The Iron Giant and tried to incorporate lessons from Disney’s Nine Old Men into the Pixar production model.

Bob Parr is an insurance agent and a retired superhero who used to go by Mr. Incredible. Public opinion had turned against supers some years before, forcing them to give up costumed crime-fighting and disappear into private life. Frustrated by his lack of purpose and forced deference to broader social conventions, he’s approached by a mysterious woman named Mirage for “freelance” superhero work. Bob leaps at the chance to become Mr. Incredible again, but he gets more than he bargained for and finds his entire family quickly embroiled in a fight against evil borne from past mistakes.

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A fantastic four

For a long time, this was my absolute favorite Pixar movie; while its ranking has fallen on subsequent viewings it’s not because it’s not as good as I thought it was — other movies are just that much better. Even still, The Incredibles is truly a feat of animation; the character and setting design establishes a world that’s both relatably contemporary and retro-futuristic; the themes are well-baked into the plot, which is driven by the characters instead of the other way around; the dialogue is brisk, clever and profound enough that character motivations are discovered in different places on subsequent viewings. Every member of the Parr family gets a moment to shine, and it’s especially great to watch the young children grow into their legacy as super-powered individuals. Just about everything works here, even though the movie is complex and intricate. Writer and director Brad Bird had a distinct vision for what the film should be, and achieved it nearly flawlessly.

In retrospect, though, the themes of The Incredibles have problematic implications. One of the central ideas is that extraordinary people should be allowed to be the best they can be, and that’s a compelling argument. But the way it’s presented doesn’t quite address the feelings of the normal people who have been relegated to bystander status in these god-like struggles. Syndrome because a super-villain because he was roundly rejected by Mr. Incredible, having no powers of his own and being just a kid. While Bob and his wife Helen relate better to children many years later (there’s a particularly great scene where Helen lays out the stakes for her son and daughter, telling them that these people will try to kill them), they also never acknowledge their part in creating the situation they’ve found themselves in. Syndrome oversteps his bounds in typical supervillain fashion, but the kernel of the point he’s trying to make is…actually sound.

But here’s the thing: the fact that The Incredibles raises these concerns and invites these kinds of arguments speaks to the calibre of its story. Really great superhero stories often get us thinking about the individual’s role in society and explore the tension between the freedom to be who we are and the responsibility each of us owes to our fellow man. This movie belongs in the pantheon; The Incredibles isn’t just a great animated film, or a great Pixar movie — it’s a great superhero story, too. It really is something special.

Chicken Little (2005)
This is the worst film Walt Disney Animation has ever made. The character design (with the exception of the protagonist and a few others) is generally awful, the dialogue is groan-inducing, the story is nonsense — though the twist almost works, and almost every decision made is a mistake that takes the entire production further from where it needs to be. You get the feeling that Chicken Little was Disney’s attempt to get with the times, but it really never understood why people gravitated towards DreamWorks’ brand of pop-culture-skewering, post-modern humor. It is the film equivalent of Steve Buscemi in a backwards hat and skateboard.

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Chicken Little is a tiny little chick with a big imagination. In the prologue, he causes a panic by saying that the sky is falling, only for his “evidence” to disappear once the townsfolk gather around. He’s been living down the embarrassment — and trying to make his father proud of him — ever since. At school, he’s bullied by the star athlete, a vixen named Foxy Loxy, and supported by three misfit friends. Despite Foxy being the breakout player of the season, Chicken Little hits a home run during the championship game and is hailed as a hero and receives all he ever wanted. Which is just about the right time for the sky to fall again.

There are the makings of a good story here. There’s nothing wrong with telling a fable about learning to believe in yourself, even when you are forced to take action alone. The slow, awkward way that Chicken Little and his father learn to connect through the course of the movie could be emotionally resonant for a lot of families in the audience. And with a lighter touch, the movie’s self-referential humor could have been mildly clever. The big twist — the sky is falling because it’s an elaborate camouflage constructed by space aliens — could have been a bonkers development that spins the story off into great and unexplored territory that also forces the protagonists to complete their arcs and deal with the situation. But none of that happens, and none of that is true. It just stinks.

The worst part (and thanks to My Husband, The Dragon for pointing this out) is what happens to Foxy Loxy. Even though she’s set up to be a clear secondary antagonist and she’s kind of bitchy to Chicken Little, she also works really hard to be good at baseball and busts through gender stereotypes to follow her passion. She’s living the life that Chicken Little is afraid to because he’s chasing external validation instead. During the alien invasion, her brain is scrambled so that instead of being an exuberant, kind of jerky tomboy she becomes a petticoat-wearing belle who loves singing old pop songs that are cheap to buy usage fees for — just like Little ally Runt (an enormous, nervous pig). When the aliens offer to change her back, Runt says “No, she’s PERFECT this way.” And then they LEAVE HER LIKE THAT.

It’s one thing to make a movie that fails on so many levels, but it’s quite another to send the message that girls who are driven and athletic would be so much happier being the constructed fantasy of a misunderstood boy. It’s astonishing that no one in the writer’s room (there were twelve of them in total) caught the message this sends and thought the better of it. This is what puts it over the top, beyond merely “bad” and into “fucking terrible”.

Of the 56 (so far) Disney animated features, Chicken Little is the one that you can skip and be perfectly fine missing. Don’t see this movie. It even features the worst song of the Barenaked Ladies.

 
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Posted by on January 18, 2017 in Pop Culture, Movies

 

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(Movies) DisneyFest: Treasure Planet, Finding Nemo, Brother Bear

Entertainment 150In the 2000s, Disney animation seemed to be flailing. Their flagship movies weren’t connecting with audiences nearly as well as Pixar’s projects and they were farming out sequels to a lot of their most popular franchises at this point. DisneyToons would release Return to NeverLand, The Jungle Book 2 and Piglet’s Big Movie around this time and the less said about these, the better.

Still, a lot of the movies in the animated canon during this time are worth a second look if you haven’t gone back to them in a while. Treasure Planet is a diamond in the rough, while Brother Bear is just about the furriest movie you could ask for — until Zootopia came along, that is.

Treasure Planet (2002)
Treasure Planet is an almost perfect movie that is nearly ruined by the comic relief character. I don’t mind them as a rule, especially if they reveal an unexpected depth or they’re used in a way that deepens the story. That’s just not the case, here; while it’s true that BEN ultimately provides the last piece of the puzzle for our heroes, it’s also true that he contributes nothing to the story and in almost every instance makes things worse. That’s really too bad, because the rest of Treasure Planet is one of the best father-son relationship stories that Disney has ever produced.

Ron Clements and John Musker (you know, the guys who also directed Moana) co-directed this remake of an Italian reimagining of Treasure Island, moving the action from the high seas to outer space. It’s actually not as hokey as it sounds; the production design is a surprisingly seamless blend of high-tech future and Victorian aesthetic populated, of course, by vaguely animalistic aliens.

Jim Hawkins is a troubled kid raised by his single mother in an inn that sees travelers come in from all over the galaxy. He longs for adventure, but that yearning all too often translates into a talent for getting into trouble. Adventure literally comes crashing through his door in the form of a huge spaceship; Jim’s given a map, told to beware the cyborg, and is immediately chased out of his entire life. Eventually he and his bumbling mentor, Dr. Doppler, commission a ship to search for the fabled Treasure Planet.

The writing for this movie is top-notch — for the most part. The exposition is obvious but well-handled, and the character moments are all extremely well-realized. When the tenuous relationship between Jim and the cyborg Long John Silver crystallizes into a surrogate father-son bond, the film really takes off. The sequence set to “I’m Still Here” is a master-class in animated storytelling, if you ask me. Their relationship forms the backbone of the movie, and even though you generally know how it’ll play out (it is, after all, Treasure Island) the emotional beats are still incredibly effective.

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A really strange fishing trip

Once the crew arrives on Treasure Planet, they meet BEN the robot. From there, your tolerance of Martin Short channeling the worst impulses of Robin Williams will likely determine how much you’re able to enjoy the movie. As I said before, BEN is almost aggressive in his awfulness; he provides a series of needless complications that the far more competent heroes have to dig themselves out of, and the ultimate justification for his existence is…well, it’s not worth it. He’s just terrible and he sucks the joy out of nearly every scene he’s in. It’s such a bizarre misstep in a movie that had been deftly handling the high-wire act of its premise before then.

Still, don’t let BEN scare you off; Treasure Planet is a great movie that really should be appreciated more than it is. It failed badly at the box office, unable to make back its budget in theatres; critics were mildly impressed with it, but not enough to recommend rediscovering it on DVD. I think it’s underrated, but flawed, like so many of the Disney movies in the animated canon that people consider “lesser” works. The passion and creativity on display is impressive, even if there are one or two disastrous moves.

Finding Nemo (2003)

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Motherfucking heroes

After cracking fur in 2001’s Monsters Inc., Pixar decided that they were going to sink or swim with animating water by setting an entire movie in the Pacific Ocean. The gamble paid off big time; the technical merit of Finding Nemo is almost immediately obvious, but the storytelling is really what made the movie such a smash hit. Finding Nemo takes the parent’s searching for his lost child story and crafts a parable about fear, courage, accepting and overcoming our limitations. It’s a fable that bakes its message so thoroughly into its story that learning it is part of the entertainment.

Marlin is a clownfish who lost his entire family — his wife, Coral and the clutch of eggs they were protecting — in a predator attack, except for one egg he named Nemo. The attack left Nemo with an under-developed fin, and Marlin with such an intense fear of anything dangerous that he nearly smothers his son with worry. When Nemo’s act of rebellion gets him taken by divers, Marlin is broken out of anxious paralysis to travel across the ocean and save his son. He’s joined by Dory, a blue tang with memory loss, and together they meet the strange and motley inhabitants of a world much, much bigger and wilder than they imagined.

The parallel experiences of Marlin and Nemo — who helps rescue the fish trapped inside the dentist’s aquarium he ends up in — show how capable any of us are when we push ourselves with proper motivation. Marlin learns that he needs to let go of that crippling fear in order to hold on to the one thing that matters most to him; Nemo learns that even though things might be more difficult for him because of his disability, he shouldn’t let that stop him from dreaming as big as he dares. The film doesn’t treat Nemo’s fin as a non-factor; he does have to learn how to achieve risky and dangerous things while working through a very real physical disability. However, the story doesn’t treat Nemo as incapable just because of it. He’s smart, brave and resourceful; he accepts his fin as part of who he is, but he also comes to realize he’s so much more than his disability.

It’s amazing to me that we haven’t come further with disability in stories in the 14 years since this film; that Finding Nemo still feels like a story we desperately need but rarely see is troubling. But it’s a testament to Andrew Stanton’s great skill as a storyteller that this feels like a shining example of how to get it right. Both Nemo and Dory — and Marlin for the matter; his anxiety could be viewed as a disability as well — learn how to navigate the world through their issues to become the best versions of themselves they could be. By travelling with Dory, Marlin learns that it is possible for Nemo to do great things and face danger, coming through the other side with important lessons. He also learns the depths of his resolve, and it’s a beautiful thing to see this little fish have that personal awakening.

The animation, of course, is breath-taking even after all this time. The colors are bright and engaging, the character design is gorgeous (how in the world do you make fish, with their alien physiology designed for sea life, recognizably, relatably human?), and the water effects are astonishing in an understated way. There are so many set pieces where you get swept up in the story as it unfolds, but only later you appreciate the sheer technical expertise needed to pull it off. Marlin and Dory navigate a shark-chase through a sunken submarine; an underwater mine field with really impressive explosions; and being swallowed by a whale. The fact that the animation moves so fluidly without calling attention to itself through all of this is a pretty big deal.

Pixar really has set the standard for CGI animation in this generation, and Finding Nemo is another example why. The marriage of top-notch storytelling and technical ability is rare, and it’s even more so when a studio manages to bake it into their culture so thoroughly they can consistently churn out instant classics. This is only their fifth movie in their eighth year of feature-film animation; it’s an astonishing run that no one other than Disney has ever managed.

Brother Bear (2003)
Brother Bear, perhaps unsurprisingly, began development after the surprise and run-away success of The Lion King. Michael Eisner wanted to make more animal-based pictures, and asked for one to be set in North America. Originally, they wanted to do a retelling of King Lear, which meant that the “king of the forest” would be a natural fit for the species to tell the story through. In an effort to make the film more charming, elements of the story were removed or replaced and in the end we get Brother Bear — a gently sweet film where the animation is streets ahead of the story, which actually isn’t that bad.

Kenai is the youngest of three brothers in a Native American village just recovering from the Ice Age. After being disappointed by his long-awaited totem (the bear of love), Kenai and his brothers hunt down a bear that had stolen their salmon catch. The hunt goes disastrously, and his oldest brother sacrifices himself to save his siblings; Kenai is thought to be lost as well sometime later, and the middle brother Denahi swears revenge on the bear who took his brothers. In reality, the spirits have turned Kenai into a bear so he can learn a lesson about the perspective of the other.

The film becomes a road-trip buddy comedy. Kenai picks up Koda, an orphaned cub trying to make it to the annual salmon run, which is like a big family reunion for bears. Along the way, the bears meet a lot of different forest animals and save each other from various natural hazards. Just when Koda and Kenai click, Kenai realizes that he’s responsible for the death of Koda’s mother; not only does he have to make amends for what he’s done, he also has to find a way to keep his brother Denahi from killing him and his new-found friends.

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Family of weirdoes

Brother Bear is incredibly earnest, and that’s not a bad thing. I really like its message, even if it’s not particularly subtle or woven through the story with much of the skill we’ve gotten used to in Pixar films. The humor is pretty juvenile, though, so it feels made for a younger audience as opposed to being a true family film. As a huge fan of bears, I’m willing to handle that — especially considering that Kenai chooses to remain a bear at the end of the film. The animation and character design are great, and the nifty storytelling trick of changing the aspect ratio along with Kenai’s form is perhaps the most clever way they bake the premise of the story (learning to see things from a different perspective) into the form of the story itself.

Still, there’s a lot that doesn’t work. Phil Collins writes and performs music for his second Disney animated film here, but the songs aren’t nearly as catchy as they were in Tarzan and they’re mostly unwelcome intrusions into emotional scenes. Just when things are starting to come together and you feel yourself getting emotionally invested, here comes Phil to really hammer the theme home. A lighter, defter touch would have gone a long way here and allowed the movie to stand beyond the pleasure of its premise and visuals.

Brother Bear really is one of the lesser movies of the Disney animated canon, and that’s largely due to the flaws in its storytelling. The look and feel of the world it creates is great; you really want to spend time there. But the way the story is told prevents us from falling into it completely; we’re reminded way too often of the construction of it when we really don’t want to notice the seams. Unlike Finding Nemo, Brother Bear calls attention to itself, asking you to be impressed with the effort instead of allowing you to be dazzled on your own.

 
 

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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.

monsters

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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