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(Reviews) DisneyFest: Zootopia, Finding Dory, Moana

Entertainment 1502016 was the best year for Disney animation in a very long time, and it pleases me to no end that I’m able to say that. Walt Disney Animation began the year giving furries their new generation-defining obsession in Zootopia, which was also an all-around excellent film; in June, Pixar Animation rebounded with their best sequel since Toy Story 2; and in November Walt Disney dropped Moana, a celebration of Pacific Island culture loaded with an infectious soundtrack of great songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda. After losing their way a little bit with the ascendancy of Pixar, Walt Disney is in a great state of creative flow right now; their current brain trust has proven that the studio is in excellent hands.

Zootopia (2016)

zootopia

Good lord, SO furry

When I write about the things I really love I have a tendency to gush; I’ll try not to do that too much here, but seriously you guys Zootopia is one of my absolute favorite movies in the last 15 years or so. It hits just about every sweet spot I can think of: there’s an adorable, inspiring rabbit protagonist; the theme of the story tackles issues of prejudice both inherent and hidden directly and responsibly; the world-building is so strong it’s incredibly easy to fall in love with what’s presented and imagine what life is like outside of the story; and the size difference is baked into the setting in ways that are just incredible. It’s the total package, and joins Robin Hood (1973) and The Lion King (1994) as the Disney film that serves as an entry point for a whole generation of folks in the fandom.

What Zootopia has over the previous two, however, is a story that bakes in the themes of tolerance and community building right from the jump. Judy Hopps, our intrepid heroine, dreams of living in Zootopia — where anyone can be anything — and joining the police force. Being a police officer is a fairly dangerous job, and it’s typically reserved for the largest animals, but Judy is determined to be the first rabbit officer in the city’s history. She works incredibly hard, and makes the force! However, that victory is short-lived; she’s given parking duty even though she knows she’s capable of so much more.

Judy takes on the case of missing otter Emmitt Otterton against the wishes of her superior officer, Chief Bogo, and her line of questioning pairs her up with Nick Wilde, a street-hustling fox who can navigate the many different strata the city encompasses. Both Nick and Judy need to solve the mystery to prevent their lives from being turned upside down; if Judy doesn’t do so, she’ll lose her job, and Nick will be reported to the Zootopian equivalent of the IRS if he doesn’t help her. Over time, of course, they learn to appreciate and support one another, even though it’s an incredibly rough road to get there.

What makes Zootopia so exciting is that it’s a perfect marriage of plot, character, and setting. You could not tell the story the same way if the setting were different, or without Judy and Nick specifically. Judy Hopps is one of the all-time-great Disney protagonists; she’s Leslie Knope as a purple-eyed rabbit. Nick Wilde is a character I personally identify with — carnivores are a minority in this world, and foxes in particular aren’t well-trusted due to the stereotype. His early dream of being a Cub Scout was dashed by a heartbreaking encounter with bullies, and his idealism was beaten out of him right then and there. Where Judy learned to persevere against the social forces pushing against her, Nick shrugged and fell into the box society pushed him into. While you’d think that Nick would have the bigger arc of learning to believe in himself and make good, Judy’s upbringing as an herbivore gives her blind spots that she has to confront and overcome as well.

How Judy handles her mistake and its consequences is what really elevates the character and the story of Zootopia, and provides one of its most inspiring moments. In fact, there are numerous instances where characters are checked for social faux pas; both the way they’re alerted to the transgression and their responses are wonderful examples of how these interactions should go in an ideal world. Zootopia isn’t perfect, but most of the animals genuinely try to get along. In both their successes and failures, there are real-world parallels that we can readily recognize.

The movie, of course, is simply gorgeous. The world of Zootopia is one of the best-realized furry societies ever created, with a wide variety of animals living in a number of different biomes and in buildings designed for a dizzying array of sizes — from mice and shrews just a few inches tall to giant multi-ton elephants and 20-foot giraffes. What’s interesting is how natural the society seems, even when they’re playing with the distinctive problems that would arise with such vast size differences. Each species feels unique but part of a cohesive whole.

The plot, ultimately, hinges on the warring impulses within each of us to accept and celebrate our differences or give in to fear and alienation. Both Nick and Judy want to be the heroes in their own story, and both of them are faced with a society that doesn’t want to let them do that for various reasons. Judy, not just through her beliefs, but through her actions, convinces everyone around her to try to be better. It’s such a simple, yet difficult, thing, but she proves that it’s a worthwhile endeavor.

Zootopia is an incredibly furry movie, but it’s also not a shallow one. The presentation of a furry society is a near-perfect modern fable that we can apply to our own lives and social realities, and the fact that the character design and world-building are both incredibly appealing doesn’t hurt either. This is a quintessential Disney movie, a perfect example of what the House of Mouse can do when it’s at its best.

Finding Dory (2016)
I was fairly ambivalent about Finding Dory when it was first announced. Pixar had been dipping into the sequel well fairly often by that time, and a bit of the shine had come off the company. While Monsters University was decent, it wasn’t essential; going back to the world of Finding Nemo could retroactively tarnish the legacy of the first film. When Finding Dory was finally released in the summer of 2016, it was received really well; to this date, it’s got a 94% certified fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and boasts the biggest opening and highest gross ever for a Pixar film. Andrew Stanton was very gunshy about a sequel; he wanted to be sure he had the perfect story before moving ahead. Finding Dory was well worth the wait.

The movie takes place one year after the events of Finding Nemo, and while life on the reef is more or less back to normal there are a few issues that need to be worked out. Marlin still struggles to deal with Dory, though Nemo has a much better rapport with her. During a school field trip, Dory has a flashback that reminds her she has parents; desperate to find them, she enlists the help of Marlin and Nemo to travel across the sea to California. They manage to make it all the way to their destination before they’re separated; Dory has to find her way back to her family on her own, while Marlin and Nemo have to find her.

Finding Dory handles interactions with people with disabilities the same way Zootopia handles interactions between people of different backgrounds. Dory’s parents are unfailingly patient and supportive, though they worry about how Dory is going to fare out in the world without them. Marlin’s neurotic need for safety and certainty proves to be a hindrance, not just for Dory but for Nemo as well; watching his father’s reaction to Dory makes him think his dad feels the same way about his limitations. The lesson, as difficult as it can be to learn, is that people with disabilities — even mental ones — navigate the world in a different way. While that can cause difficulties, it’s not impossible to manage. It just takes careful attention and sustained effort to learn how to interact in a way that works for everyone.

Dory meets a host of characters who have disabilities or ailments that makes the world feel like a hard place to succeed in. There’s an octopus whose introversion has curdled into misanthropy; a near-sighted whale shark who keeps bumping into things; a beluga whale who believes his sonar is broken; and a very special bird you’re never quite sure is capable of understanding what you’re saying. Each of them learns how to deal with themselves through Dory’s influence; Dory herself has to trust in herself (and the lessons she can remember) in order to find her way back to anything familiar.

finding dory

The animation for Finding Dory is simply beautiful; it’s astonishing to think how far Pixar has come with water, fur, wet and dry textures, even lighting effects in such a short time. All that technical wizardry is in service to the story, which provides an incredible visual theme to reflect the mental state of the characters. Open water as a metaphor for their internal life comes back again and again, and each appearance is more powerful.

The writing in the film is breathtaking; dialogue is sharp and witty, but also resonant. Everything said influences the characters who hear them, and lines are weighted with double and triple meanings. What we take from Finding Dory is that what we say to one another matters more than we might ever understand; a kind word or off-handed put-down can lodge in someone’s brain, ready to be recalled in moments of crisis. Our encouragement or dismissal can be the thing that tips someone towards success or failure.

It underscores the necessity of kindness, of considerate speech, of encouragement and support — especially for those of us who have disabilities or illnesses. Finding Dory is a movie that could actually change the mindset of the young audience who views it, teaching them empathy and the consequences of cruelty in a way very few children’s films even attempt. Dory’s adventure, and the lessons everyone involved learn along the way, elevates both this film and its prequel. That’s an exceedingly rare thing.

It’s possible that of the three movies Pixar and Disney released last year, Finding Dory might end up being the one that’s overlooked. But I hope not. This is one of the best Pixar films to date, period; even though the decade of dominance looks to be over, they’ve still got it.

Moana (2016)
Hats off to Ron Clements and John Musker for creating such a wonderful film that highlights the culture of Pacific Islanders without exploiting them. Well, for the most part. Moana is a wonderful film that features Pacific Island mythology, talent, language and culture. The voice talent is loaded with Pacific Islanders, the songs are written in English, Samoan and Tokelauan, and Taika Waititi (a Maori New Zealander) wrote the first draft of the screenplay. Even as Clements and Musker took over story duties (the writing credit eventually went to Jared Bush), they took care to run almost every decision through an Oceanic Story Trust to make sure they were being sensitive. The result is a great movie that is truly unique in animation, a popular entertainment that features only people of color.

Moana is the headstrong princess of an island nation; her father is grooming her for rulership of her people, but there’s something about the open ocean that keeps calling to her. When a blight threatens the food supply for the island, she disobeys her father’s forbiddance and takes a ship to find Maui the demi-god so she can force him to restore the heart of Te Fiti and cure the damage he caused. Maui, being the trickster he is, would much rather steal Moana’s boat to escape the island where he’s been exiled. Forces align to push them together, however, so off they go!

The music for Moana is incredibly catchy, inspiring and beautiful — no surprise, when it was written and arranged in part by the great Lin-Manuel Miranda. The soundtrack peaked at number 2 on the Billboard 200, which doesn’t happen that often for movies these days. “How Far I’ll Go” is such an excellent song for Moana, full of longing, hope and determination; those themes ripple through the rest of the movie, underpinning her entire character arc. Music propels much of the action, providing characters with truly memorable introductions and anchoring set pieces amazingly well. The soundtrack really is Moana‘s secret weapon; it allows us to connect to the action on the screen with ease.

moana

The story itself is a mythic hero’s journey with Pacific Island trappings, told with sure-footed pacing and a joyous, colorful style. What’s impressive is that Moana and Maui must battle their own worst impulses as much as the monsters and gods that seek their failure; the internal struggle is every bit as important as the outsized beings they run up against. Again, themes of self-respect and support are essential to these characters, but they take on a heightened poignancy thanks to today’s political climate. There is almost no popular fiction celebrating women of color or providing them a role model to emulate, so the fact that Moana drives so much of the journey through sheer will is quietly revolutionary.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson kills it as Maui, of course, and now that I’m thinking about the voice talent there isn’t a false note anywhere. Jermaine Clement makes a memorable turn as a giant crab, and The Rock can belt out a tune when called upon to do so. It’s the best surprise, and I’ll always cheer loudly when people of color are allowed to show just how excellent they can be when given the platform to do so.

I’ve talked a lot about how important Moana is for its cultural context, but honestly it’s just a fantastic movie — Moana belongs in the Princess pantheon right alongside Belle, Elsa and Tiana. Disney’s focus on proactive, inspiring women in their stories is a very welcome trend, and Moana is the latest example of how telling great tales with diverse casts should be done.

 

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(Reviews) DisneyFest: Big Hero 6, Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur

2014 was a bit light for Walt Disney Animation and Pixar Studios. Between the two of them, they released only Big Hero 6, which turned out to be enough — it was that year’s highest-grossing animated film and won the Best Animated Feature Oscar. It also just so happened to be an excellent movie. Pixar followed up in 2015 with two features, the Oscar-winning Inside Out and the truly strange, less well-received The Good Dinosaur. While the studio proved it could still tell surprising, complex, highly-emotional stories, it also proved that not every high concept would come together the way it needs to.

Big Hero 6 (2014)
This movie is loosely based on the Marvel Comics limited series created by Man of Action (the same brain trust that spawned Ben 10 and Generator Rex), but essentially takes the character templates and little else. While the comic is sort of an Avengers of Japan, Disney decided to set the story in San Fransokyo, a wonderful mash-up of East and West. Hiro Hamada, the 14-year-old prodigy who helps develop Baymax, is the leader right from the jump, while just about every other member of the fledgling superhero team is really different. Fred isn’t an Inu person who can create a kaiju “aura” to fight with; he’s a total fanboy with surprisingly unlimited wealth. Baymax isn’t a dragon-transforming robot with the brain waves of Hiro’s slain father; he’s a “soft” robot designed to provide instant health care to anyone nearby.

I’ve never read the comic, I’ll admit that right now, so I don’t have any attachments that would make me judge Big Hero 6 against its source material. But the movie we get is a wonder, a love letter to superhero origin stories, Eastern sci-fi, and Asian influences on American pop culture. Hiro is one of those quietly revolutionary protagonists, a true, honest-to-goodness Asian-American who isn’t shoehorned into a stereotype or forced to carry the cultural weight of his ancestry — he’s allowed to be a kid figuring out hard lessons on his own.

Hiro’s brother Tadashi is a student at the research lab of San Fransokyo Tech, a cutting-edge facility that pushes the boundaries of applied robotics. Tadashi wants Hiro to do something worthwhile with his genius for automation instead of making robots to fight in…underground battlebot arenas, so he introduces his little brother to the other students and his crowning achievement: Baymax. Meeting Baymax and the other students totally works. Inspired, Hiro works hard to develop a revolutionary microbot technology. His ticket into the university is assured.

However, a fire at the research lab takes the life of Hiro’s brother and the head of the robotics research lab in one fell swoop. Depressed, Hiro shuts himself away from the world and Tadashi’s friends until Baymax is activated, forcing Hiro into action once they discover that one of his microbots is being called to a specific location. That opens the door to a mystery that tests Hiro’s innermost desires, forces him to confront his loss and brings together San Fransokyo’s resident super-hero team, Big Hero 6!

big hero 6
The film looks totally unique thanks to the design of both San Fransokyo and Baymax. The environments and background are undoubtedly San Francisco, but with Japanese influences that make the city pop that much more. Eucalyptus trees are replaced with cherry blossoms; downtown is a hyper-dense cluster of futuristic skyscrapers; the iconic Golden Gate Bridge features torii gates over its span. The city is effortlessly diverse, a number of different people from all kind of backgrounds coming together to live and work. It’s really, really awesome.

The characters are stone-cold awesome, too; Baymax is a robot for the ages, while Hiro is sympathetic, a little smug, and believably brash all at once. They make an excellent pair, with Baymax serving as the observant, considerate brake to Hiro’s tightly-focused drive. Hiro, like most of us, has trouble seeing the world outside of himself. It’s Baymax, who was programmed only to help others as his primary concern, who teaches him what made Tadashi so special and how he can live up to his brother’s legacy.

The other team members who round out the cast — bubbly geek girl Honey Lemon, big scaredy-cat Wasabi, tough speedster GoGo, and slacker fan-boy Fred — are pretty great in the limited roles they have. Mostly this is Hiro’s story, so they support his narrative arc without getting much of one on their own. The inevitable sequel, and the upcoming TV series, should dive into their lives quite a bit more. Honestly, I’m super-excited to visit San Fransokyo again and learn more about all of these characters. Maybe Fred will actually get kaiju powers somewhere along the way!

Big Hero 6 is Walt Disney really embracing the storytelling aesthetic of Pixar while forging ahead to create their own identity for the 21st century. I know how weird it is to say that when it’s an adaptation of a comic from a company they’ve only recently come to own, but it’s also true. Disney has developed a real knack for taking stories that might be half-baked or problematic and smoothing out the rough edges until it shines, and this movie is the best proof of why that’s a good thing.

Inside Out (2015)
Folks joke that Inside Out is peak Pixar, the logical extreme of the “What if x had emotions?” byline that underpins so many of their movies. And OK, fair cop. But if this is where that kind of storytelling leads, I’m totally fine with them running that concept into the ground. Inside Out gives the coming-of-age story an insightful twist by wrapping it around the mismatched-buddy road-trip tale that takes place entirely inside a teenager’s mind.

Young Riley is a girl with a loving mom and dad, a great group of friends, and hobbies that excite and engage her. That’s all upended when her father moves them all in a (let’s be charitable) fixer-upper rowhouse in San Francisco. Losing her friends to distance, her parents to stress, and her hobbies taxes her ability to cope, forcing severe and irrevocable changes that usher in a new stage of her life.

Inside Riley’s head, Joy tries very hard to help Riley make the best of it with her fellow emotions at the controls — Anger, Disgust, Fear, and Sadness. When Sadness, the one emotion Joy can’t figure out a reason for, begins to color Riley’s memories it sparks a chain of events that takes both of them out of “Central Control”, and into the labyrinthine landscape of Riley’s brain. They have to work together to find their way back before Fear, Anger and Disgust cause a complete shutdown.

Inside Out
Inside Out is most impressive in the way it spins a story from the complicated process of a little girl battling the depression that comes with an intensely difficult life change. Using these simple concepts as actual characters, we get a frame of reference for what it’s like when joy has left the building and what happens to us when we grow up. Riley’s entire internal landscape changes, and that upheaval is traumatic and frightening and awful; in that vacuum where we try to rebuild ourselves, it’s all too easy to fall into despair over the losses that accumulate through those experiences.

It’s here that we see the magic of Sadness and the value of allowing ourselves to mourn the things we lose. The ability to empathize with the pain of other people, to share that burden and let them know they’re not alone, is tremendous. It allows us to mark the end of an experience, then move on to the next one. It also allows us to realize that we can hold more than one emotion at a time; it’s rare that something we experience is only one thing or another, and sometimes we can even remember a situation as both sad AND joyful.

Each one of the set pieces through the film teach us something new about how our brain works and how we process our emotions. While it might look like Joy is the only “positive” emotion in the bunch, we come to appreciate the utility of Disgust, Fear, Anger and even Sadness as we move through Riley’s journey. Every scene ends with another change to Riley’s internal psyche, and because we’ve each had experiences like hers we can feel the impact of those changes right along with her.

It’s a beautiful movie with writing that works with incredible precision on multiple layers. The film was co-written and directed by Pete Docter, the same guy who directed Monsters, Inc. and Up — two of Pixar’s most emotionally-earnest stories. Docter’s ability to take a concept and ground it strong, universal experiences is a particularly strong gift of his, and out of all the folks in the Pixar Brain Trust I think it’s his stories that I love best.

Inside Out is absolutely one of the best Pixar movies ever. Even though it was universally-beloved when it was released, won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, and was the second-highest-grossing animated film of 2015 (behind Minions), it feels like one of those films that could easily be overlooked for some reason. I’ll gladly be an evangelist for it, though; it’s far too great a film to not be a part of “best animated films of all-time” conversation.

The Good Dinosaur (2015)
The Good Dinosaur isn’t a bad movie, but it could have been so much better. A story set in an alternate world where an asteroid never smashed into the planet, allowing those huge and terrible thunder-lizards to evolve into sapient, tool-using creatures is one rich with possibility, but The Good Dinosaur doesn’t do very much with it beyond its central twist. It feels like the film is reaching for a throwback to those frontier coming-of-age stories featuring a boy and his dog leaving innocence behind over a summer, only with the dinosaur as the boy and the human as his dog. It doesn’t quite get there, mainly because it feels like the movie really doesn’t have a single vision.

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Arlo is the runt of his litter in a family of apatosaurs, who grow crops of corn to make sure they have enough to eat through the harsh winter. Nobby-kneed and clumsy, he frustrates his huge older brother Nash and confounds his patient and exasperated parents Henry and Ida. An accident plunges Arlo into a river at the edge of the property, where he’s swept by a raging current that takes him far from home. Out in the wilderness, Arlo befriends a little human corn thief he names “Spot”; together, they traverse the frontier as Arlo tries to make his way back home.

The environments are absolutely breathtaking, I have to say. An astonishing variety of landscapes are presented with loving, careful detail — mountain peaks, dense forests, wide-open plains, the modest cultivated plot of a farmstead. It’s odd, then, that this technical wizardry doesn’t extend to Arlo and the other dinosaurs we meet along the way; he is distractingly cartoonish, such an odd collection of shapes that don’t quite fit together we can’t ever really buy him as a living, breathing creature.

That visual contradiction extends to the story as well. At its heart, The Good Dinosaur is a gentle fable about what to do with fear and how Arlo learns to be brave and resourceful on his way back home. But the episodic nature of the film doesn’t let us see Arlo developing much; scenes revolve around strange characters or intense experiences that are amusing or impressive, but we never get a sense of narrative momentum. Arlo and Spot grow closer as a pair and the way each changes through that relationship is sweet, but it’s a different thing entirely from Arlo’s central arc. Most of the time, this results in a feeling that the stakes aren’t clearly set; there’s a vague understanding that things will be bad if Arlo fails, but there’s not enough emotional clarity for things to really land.

A lot of the set pieces are pretty neat, though; Arlo meets a really strange Styracosaurus who provides a home of sort for various forest mammals, gets a hold of some fermented berries that leads to a truly weird drunken interlude, and helps a family of cattle-rustling Tyrannosaurs recover their longhorns. These scenes are too short to have a lot of impact, though, and just by the time they’ve piqued our interest it’s time for Arlo and Spot to move on.

The end of the film doesn’t land the way it needs to, either. The resolution of Arlo and Spot’s relationship doesn’t feel true to either character, and it would have been nice to provide the young Apatosaur with a situation that allows him to coalesce his newfound knowledge into concrete action that proves he’s worthy of the reward he’s wanted all along. Things just…end, with almost everything that had been upended at the beginning of the film set right.

Bob Peterson, who co-directed Up for Pixar previously, was famously removed from the project due to the usual “creative differences”. According to executives at the studio, the story just wasn’t where it needed to be and Peterson couldn’t get it there. So they brought in Peter Sohn, another animator, for his first directing credit. From there the story was changed fairly drastically, and it shows; it feels like Pixar could have used a lot more time to let the elements they were using settle, but at that point they were locked into a release date that had already been pushed back once. The result? Something half-baked, but with the faint whiff of greatness it could have had if it had been allowed to cook a little longer.

I don’t know if The Good Dinosaur is Pixar’s worst movie, but it might the most disappointing one. The story is OK and the animation is amazing, but I still couldn’t recommend it for anyone except Pixar completionists. Still, it’s streets ahead of most Ice Age movies, that’s for sure.

 
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Posted by on July 5, 2017 in DisneyFest, Movies, Reviews

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monsters U

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Cars 2 (2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winnie the Pooh (2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brave (2012)

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

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

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

brave

Mother Bear

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Love is patient.

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

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

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

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

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RIDICULOUSLY cute.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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