Remember 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.