RSS

Tag Archives: monsters inc

(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.

wreck-it ralph

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.

frozen

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.

 
Leave a comment

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

 

Tags: , , , , , , ,

(Reviews) DisneyFest: Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Monsters Inc., Lilo & Stitch

Entertainment 150After the surprise success of The Emperor’s New Groove, Disney took a sharp turn towards science-fiction adventure with…mixed success. Meanwhile, Pixar really stepped into it’s own with ambitious and confident storytelling, pushing the limits of what CGI animation could do in every new film. This aesthetic is one they never really got away from, which is what makes them such an excellent animation studio; even if the story sags a bit, there’s at least one thing you’ve never seen before. Monsters Inc. really allowed them to show off how far they’ve come with fur texture; take a look at Sulley, then go back to screenshots of Scud the dog from the original Toy Story six years earlier. It’s astonishing to see the difference.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)

This is the first of a pair of movies Disney produced that married classic adventure fiction with science-fiction touches to bring it into the 21st century, and it’s the inferior effort. It wasn’t for lack of trying, though — Disney brought out the big guns for Atlantis, introducing new and more complicated animation techniques to give the movie a sense of scale; bringing on big names for the main characters like Michael J. Fox, James Garner, Leonard Nimoy, Cree Summer, and Jim Varney in his final role; and drafting Marc Okrand (the father of the Klingon language) to develop the Atlantean language for the movie. What we get is a film whose aspirations are clear on the screen, but misses the basics of storytelling in its reach to be a launching pad for a franchise.

So Milo (Fox) is a cartographer for the Smithsonian who spends all of his professional capital researching the myth of Atlantis; when his bid to search for The Shepherd’s Journal, a book that is claimed to hold the secrets of the lost city, is rejected, he is approached by an eccentric millionaire who promises to fund his expedition. Surprise! The lost city is found. Double surprise! The captain of the ship carrying Milo to the city has ulterior motives, and what follows is a race to discover the secrets of Atlantis so they can either be protected or exploited.

The crew of the Ulysses is a disparate bunch of strong personalities, and while they’re amusing enough they don’t get nearly enough time to make an impression. Instead, the movie focuses on Milo’s journey of self-discovery and the culture of an ancient yet advanced civilization that never quite feels believable. Milo and Kida, the princess of Atlantis and standard love interest, are the least interesting characters in the movie. Of course, they take up the majority of the screen time, which leaves the more interesting and fun characters struggling to push through the cracks of the main plot.

atlantis

Wouldn’t you rather watch a movie with these guys?

Still, the sheer amount of effort put into the film is admirable. It cost $100 million to make, had 350 animators working on it during the peak of its production, and married 2D and 3D animation to an extent Disney had never attempted before. The writers and directors worked hard to build a lost civilization that was completely new, and it shows — I just wish the end result had been more impressive. The blandness of the main characters, the tepid plot and the breezy pacing made the entire movie feel too light to be the epic adventure they were aiming for. The villain Rourke, voiced by James Garner, and the rest of the Ulysses crew were wasted opportunities; they were unlike most Disney characters that had been devised up to that point and they would have made a fascinating ensemble. The studio really wanted the movie to launch a spin-off series called Team Atlantis, and it would have been awesome to watch these characters have their chance to shine given more time.

But alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Atlantis made only $84 million in North America and received tepid reviews from most critics. Ultimately, I think it’ll go down as a “noble failure”, a collection of interesting ideas that never really came together the way anyone had hoped it would.

Monsters, Inc. (2001)

Four or five months after Atlantis disappointed at the box office, Pixar released its fourth animated film — its first not to be directed by Andrew Stanton, no less. Pete Docter (who also directed Up and Inside Out) is well known and rightly celebrated for infusing his stories with a strong emotional hook, and Monsters, Inc. is no exception. The relationship that develops between the film’s titular monster Sulley and the three-year-old child who sneaks into his world is the joyous backbone of the movie; Sulley’s relationship with his best friend Mike is changed by it, and the adjustment to that change provides at least as much conflict as the film’s antagonist does. It’s a beautiful story populated by real, relatable characters — which only makes the technical achievements stand out that much more.

monsters

Children are the worst, am I right??

In the world of monsters, energy is provided by the screams of human children but since that resource is finite and dwindling there’s a shortage. Sulley is the top scarer of one of Monstropolis’ premiere energy companies, but his fierce rivalry with Randall motivates him to do even better. After investigating a closet door left on the workroom floor, Sulley discovers a human child has entered their world — a catastrophe, to be sure, because everyone knows they’re toxic. In his attempts to get “Boo” back to her home, Sulley and Mike uncover Randall’s plot to extract all possible screams out of humans to solve the energy crisis. That would be fine except for the fact that the machine is severely traumatizing. Sulley, after caring for Boo, learns that humans aren’t toxic. They’re even pretty great to be around. However, protecting Boo means blowing up his entire life — how can he scare someone he has such great affection for? How can he allow this terrible device to become part of the system that keeps his society afloat?

The story hinges on Sulley doing the right thing even when it means throwing almost everything he believed for his entire life out of the door. That has drastic consequences — not just for himself, but for his best friend, his company, his entire social order. Even Mike doubts the wisdom of what he’s doing, so if he’s going to change his ways he’ll truly have to do it alone. Even for a monster, that’s intensely scary. The enormity of Sulley’s decisions through the course of the movie didn’t hit me the first time I watched it, but this time it reminded me of so many people who benefit from the status quo coming to a similar realization and standing on a similar precipice. Having to put aside a lifetime of unchecked assumptions is hard enough, but acting on it requires upending a lot of things that have become fundamentally tied into our social fabric. It will cause discomfort for friends, family and colleagues — and there’s no guarantee of reward or even recognition. Doing the right thing, especially when it goes against the direction one’s society is headed in, can be deeply frightening and intensely lonely.

That’s what makes Sulley such a great hero. His ultimate conflict isn’t external — though Randall certainly holds the line for the status quo. He has to put away his misconceptions, as deep as they are, and be the one person (monster) who stands up to challenge the deeply-held misconceptions of others before they lead to the ruin of a vulnerable other. The ending, which ultimately proves Sulley right and solves the city’s energy crisis, allows Sulley to reap the karmic benefits of making the right choice — but in real life, things don’t work so immediately or cleanly. Still, the look on his face at the very end of the movie is simply beautiful, a perfect way to close out the film.

The animation is leaps and bounds over Pixar’s previous films, of course; Monstropolis is populated with a crazy assortment of monsters, and Sulley himself is an eight-foot-tall, fur-bearing hulk that forced the studio to sink or swim with fur texture. But each monster in the film represents a unique challenge — Mike is a short, one-eyed ball that has to emote relatably even though he looks so alien; his girlfriend, Celia Mae, is a gorgon-y monster whose snakes have to be animated separately; Randall is a chameleon-like monster that can walk on just about any surface and can change his scales to blend in with the environment. Each monster moves in a distinct way, and their design informs their personality quite well.

It’s hard to believe that Monsters, Inc. is rarely mentioned in a conversation with Pixar’s best; it would be one of the crowning jewels of any other animation studio. It’s a testament to the longevity and consistent excellence of the brand that this generally falls around the middle of the pack, but don’t let that ranking fool you: Monsters, Inc. is a thoroughly great movie, and it holds up extremely well in the Pixar canon.

Lilo & Stitch (2002)

After a string of four big-budget movies that hadn’t done nearly as well as Disney had hoped, the studio decided to try a film with a more modest budget. Veteran animator Chris Sanders was asked to pitch an idea, and he gave them a character he had made fifteen years earlier in a failed bid for a children’s book. Originally set in Kansas, the setting of his story moved to Hawaii — which had never been the subject of an animated feature before. Throw in an also-new set of indigenous sisters as main characters, and you get Lilo & Stitch, a wonderful movie that’s fun, touching, and quietly revolutionary.

lilo-stitch

A girl and her dog.

Lilo is a young native Hawaiian girl struggling with the recent death of her parents and chafing under the overwhelmed stewardship of her older sister Nani. When an illegal genetic experiment crash-lands on the island after escaping from an intergalactic prison, Lilo adopts him and names him Stitch. Hot on Stitch’s tail is the scientist who created him, Dr. Jumba, and Agent Pleakley, the “Earth expert” for the Galactic Federation. Eventually, fed up with their inability to capture the experiment, the Galactic Federation sends the giant alien Captain Gantu to collect him.

Meanwhile, Stitch upends Lilo’s life as she tries to incorporate him into their broken home. Neither of them realizes that Nani is fighting to retain custody of Lilo after several disastrous visits from their social worker, Cobra Bubbles (voiced with delightful stoicism by Ving Rhames). With so many forces on the island trying to tear them apart, and with Stitch’s “programming” giving him an imperative to destroy whatever is around him, things look bleak for all three of them.

The bad-guy-makes-good story has been told quite a number of times, but the new elements and the confident, emotional storytelling makes Lilo & Stitch wonderfully unique. Besides being the first animated film set in Hawaii, Lilo & Stitch centers on the relationship between two sisters — something that you still don’t see very often in film, animated or live-action. The fact that they’re indigenous Hawaiians, struggling to make ends meet by taking odd jobs to facilitate the island’s tourist culture, is at once a foundational element of the story and in the background. It’s an excellent example of telling stories featuring non-white protagonists; the reality of their lives is never ignored or downplayed, but it’s not exploited to be a Message Movie or poverty tourism. I can’t think of another Disney film that quite deals with the aftermath of losing one’s parents in such a grounded way.

Lilo is a little kid who is undoubtedly messed up by the turns her life have taken, but she’s intellectually and emotionally intelligent enough to recognize the suffering her sister is going through and how much Stitch just needs someone to care for him. She makes a lot of mistakes, doesn’t control her impulses well, and has an incredibly weird sense of humor. But she tries so hard to make her life work, and it’s that effort that forms the backbone of the movie. It’s her sheer force of will that turns Stitch around and keeps her small family together. She’s a freaking hero.

The story deals with the intense, aching loneliness of knowing how different you are and how difficult it makes your life. It also explores how transformative it can be to reach out for connection anyway, especially when it’s difficult. The mantra that no one gets left behind is repeated often, but it’s not an empty slogan; Lilo, Nani and Stitch fight like hell to make sure none of them is alone, and Nani’s friend David is a shining example of how to handle being friend-zoned with grace and compassion.

The watercolored backgrounds pop beautifully, taking advantage of the island setting to the fullest, while the designs of Chris Sanders are endearingly soft, rounded, and just the right amount of off-kilter. Even the science fiction elements fit right in, with spaceships and laser blasters and even aliens that look like they come from an advanced oceanic civilization instead of the far reaches of space.

Lilo & Stitch was Disney’s least-expensive movie since Fantasia 2000, but its biggest domestic and critical success since Tarzan. It just goes to show how you don’t need a whole heap of special effects to tell a story that resonates, and that you can do it with a cast of non-white characters to boot. Even in the post-Renaissance era, Disney could make some stone-cold classics.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on December 9, 2016 in Movies, Reviews

 

Tags: , , , , ,