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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 Movies, Pop Culture

 

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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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