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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: Fantasia 2000, Dinosaur, The Emperor’s New Groove

Entertainment 150Between classes, my day job and the crushing despair of the election, I haven’t had a lot of energy to write. I’ve been wanting to step back into the writing projects that have kept me anchored when the rest of my life is flying apart, and that starts with this blog. There is an awful lot on my mind, as you might imagine, but given that most of the people who would read this are more than likely in Chicago at a convention and I wanted to ease back into things, I thought I would start with a few Disney reviews.

We’re out of the Disney Renaissance now, and into that short, troubled period where Pixar was ascendant, DreamWorks Animation was the hot new kid on the block, and Disney Animation was struggling to keep its voice and remain relevant. A lot of the movies in this period aren’t as bad as you might expect, though there are a number of clunkers. For now, though, the scattershot approach yields mixed results as Fantasia 2000, Dinosaur, and The Emperor’s New Groove were released in the year 2000.

Fantasia 2000 (2000)

fantasia2000

Sixty years after the release of the original Fantasia, Disney Animation finally produced a follow-up that was booked as an exclusive IMAX engagement starting in January 2000. The wide release came a bit later in June, but by then most of its money had been made — nearly $65M of its ultimate $91M total came from the IMAX screening. Just like its predecessor, Fantasia 2000 blended various animation styles and techniques with a wide range of classical music. The end result is consistently entertaining, but it lacks a truly iconic sequence — the ambition of the animators is admirable but rarely met.

The crown jewel this time out is “Rhapsody in Blue”, featuring the wonderful jazz instrumental from Ira Gershwin played against characters inspired by the artist Al Hirschfeld. The music is a natural fit for the chaos of New York City as we follow various residents caught between their dreams and the reality of their lives and responsibilities. There’s a black construction worker who longs to be a jazz musician; a hen-pecked little man who wants to break the monotonous dignity of his one-percenter life to do something fun instead; and a little girl who just wants to be with her successful, busy parents. That first trill of the clarinet gets us off to the races, and the chaos never stops from there. It’s genuinely delightful, and the one sequence that really strikes its mark.

Donald Duck stars in “Pomp and Circumstance,” which is another solid entry that offers another seamless marriage of music and classic animation. The stately, driving beat that serves as the backbone of the music anchors the action here, lending a good sense of rhythmic momentum that moves Donald’s simple, funny, and surprisingly touching story from its set-up to its climax. There are a number of visual gags that work really well here, and it’s nice to see the studio finding new ways to stretch out its stable of iconic characters.

How you feel about the other six shorts depends on your interests. Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” scores an animist fight between a Forest Spirit and a Volcano God that’s surprisingly polished for its time; Resphigi’s “Pines of Rome” serves as a soundtrack to a truly surreal short cartoon featuring arctic, flying whales; “The Carnival of the Animals, Finale” by Camille Saint-Saens is a great companion to a silly tale about dancing flamingos and one yo-yo obsessed bird. Each piece tries to blend traditional animation with computer effects; while a lot of them hold up really well, the limitations of the art show in more than a few others.

Fantasia 2000 might be Disney’s best package film, though it was widely regarded as a flop at the time of its release. That’s unfortunate, because the inventive, challenging nature of these shorts really help keep Disney’s animators trying new things. I think there’s worth in updating this series every decade or so; it serves as something of a time-capsule for the state of the venerable House of Mouse, and that’s a great thing for any Disney fan. It looks like we’ll have to wait until 2040, though, for someone to complete the trilogy.

Dinosaur (2000)dinosaur

Disney’s first computer-animated film was a creative disappointment but a box-office success, making nearly $350 million worldwide. While it was a fairly big technical achievement at the time I guess, the story is plodding and the characters aren’t distinctive or memorable. The visual splendor of the movie is front-loaded; once the characters are established and the first act ends, there’s little more than post-apocalyptic wasteland as a backdrop. Dinosaur is ultimately kind of a boring movie, with bland characters impressively rendered against live-action environments that still somehow look bleak and colorless.

Aladar is an Iguanadon adopted into a family of lemurs after his egg is carried far away by a Pterodon. While he’s accepted as a part of the tribe, his huge size and the fact that there are no other dinosaurs on their island means he’s unlikely to find a place where he truly fits in. All of that changes when a meteor strikes the planet, causing a cataclysmic upheaval that destroys the lemurs’ home and forces them to travel far to find another place to live. Eventually, they find a caravan of dinosaurs searching for a mythical “Nesting Ground” that promises food, water, and safety. Aladar must earn his place among his own kind by acting on the lessons he learned as an adopted lemur, which of course isn’t easy.

The characters are more archetypes than fully-realized beings, and they behave the way they do mostly because the story demands it. Aladar is the uncertain young idealist who always does the right thing; the leader of the dinosaur caravan, Kron, is a straight-up Darwinist who believes that only the strong should survive; Kron’s sister, Neera, is torn between dutiful obedience to her brother and her growing feelings for Aladar. The band of misfits that serve as Aladar’s allies feel like a grab bag of character traits — there’s the huge but prim brachiosaur Baylene; the elderly, wise triceratops Eema; the fun-loving, wise-cracking lemur Zini. There isn’t much sense of who these creatures are beyond their service to the story, and since the story is your basic “keep your morality in the face of disaster” fable, it isn’t strong enough on its own to keep our interest.

The scene of the meteor strike is intense, though. The action is chaotic but well-choreographed, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the devastation of an event like that rendered so realistically, especially from ground level. Knowing that this is likely the extinction-level event that ultimately wiped out the dinosaurs, it’s a little strange spending the rest of the movie watching the desperate survivors search for a safe haven that either doesn’t exist or will quickly dry up. This being a Disney movie, though, they gloss over that bit for the happy ending the tale demands.

That dissonance might be why the movie is ultimately so disappointing. The struggle for survival isn’t quite bleak enough to make Aladar’s morality and optimism feel like the beacon it’s meant to be, but the situation itself demands a gravity that means the story can’t be much lighter than it already is. In the hands of a better storyteller, Dinosaur could have been something special. As it is, though, it feels like a missed opportunity that still did well enough to be counted as a commercial success.

The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)

emperor-kingdom

The Emperor’s New Groove was once an entirely different movie called Kingdom of the Sun; it was supposed to be a more serious movie that borrowed elements from The Prince and the Pauper, Incan mythology and romantic adventures. Then Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame didn’t do so well, production fell pretty far behind, and executives threatened to shut the whole thing down. Out of the chaos, a minor miracle happened — the film was completely overhauled into a road-trip buddy comedy that was better than it had any right to be. Even though The Emperor’s New Groove is a relatively minor film in the Disney animated canon, its sheer comedic energy, creativity and brisk, confident attitude makes it a pleasant, if somewhat dated, surprise.

The film has voice talent that feels firmly planted in the late 90s. David Spade is Kuzco, a spoiled Incan emperor who plans to bulldoze an entire herding village to make room for his summer palace. John Goodman is Pasha, the poor villager whose home is slated to be destroyed. Little does Kuzco know, however, that his adviser Yzma (Eartha Kitt) is planning to kill him and take the throne; her plan hits an unexpected wrinkle when her good-hearted but bumbling assistant Kronk (Patrick Warburton, because of course) mixes up a dose of poison with a potion that turns the emperor into a llama. Now, Kuzco has to team up with Pasha to get back to the palace before Yzma takes over the kingdom.

It’s a much better film than it has any right to be. David Spade strikes the right balance between his usual smarm and the demands of his character’s arc, while John Goodman is a wonderful grounding influence as the straight man. Eartha Kitt and Patrick Warburton make for a great comic duo; Kronk walks away with the movie as a supernaturally capable yet mismatched villain’s henchman. Everyone seems game for the movie’s breakneck pace, quipping like they’ve been doing this forever and knowing when to slow down enough to make sure the story’s emotional beats land with the weight they need. The proceedings are cartoonish in the best way — inventive and self-aware, but with perfect timing and pacing.

I’m not sure that the movie has aged so well in fifteen years, though. When it was first released, I loved it enough to watch it several times over. This is my first rewatch in a very long time, and a lot of the comic set-pieces come across as a bit more thread-worn and old-fashioned. It’s a small disappointment that the surprise of the film’s quality has dimmed somewhat; even though it holds up fairly well, it’s not the kind of movie that can stand a whole lot of repeat viewings.

That being said, this is a really strong blend between the traditional Disney storytelling model and a post-modern irreverence that was really big among animated features of the day. The chaotic, nearly disastrous production process for The Emperor’s New Groove may have been the best thing for it; the desperation to get the movie into theatres forced the studio to scrap so much of its initial plans for it and improvise. That al-dente, anything-goes style of storytelling infects every frame of the movie, and it’s kind of amazing that the high-wire act is more or less a success.

 
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Posted by on December 2, 2016 in Movies, Reviews

 

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(Movie Reviews) A Hunchback, a Demigod and an Only Child Walk Into a Bar…

Entertainment 150Ryan and I are coming up on the back half of the Disney Renaissance, which reminds me a lot of the risks the animation studio took during the “Dark Ages” of the 70s and early 80s. The storytellers in place at the time were concerned with telling different kinds of stories that were a little darker, a little more complicated. The reason the experiment failed in the 70s and 80s while it (largely) succeeded in the late 90s is absolutely the production quality; while they had to cut corners at almost every opportunity with Robin Hood and The Black Cauldron, their previous successes allowed them to do some really amazing stuff with their animation in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Mulan. That, combined with great stories passionately told, mark a string of underappreciated gems from Disney in the late 90s. They are absolutely worth another look if you’ve been sleeping on them.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
This one is a legitimate surprise. Continuing the maturation of the storytelling that started with Pocahontas, Walt Disney Studios adapted Victor Hugo’s classic novel as a G-rated musical adventure. The fact that a movie dealing with the concepts of lust, sin, damnation and religious hypocrisy received a G Rating from the MPAA might be the only proof you need that the ratings board doesn’t know what it’s doing. Still, this turned out to be one of my favorite Disney animated movies — it’s that good.

Quasimodo is the titular hunchback, a deformed young man whose mother was a gypsy killed by a severe judge named Frollo on the steps of Notre Dame. Caught by a priest as he was about to throw the young child down a well, Frollo agrees to “care for” Quasimodo as penance for killing someone on church grounds. In this case, caring for means locking him away inside the church’s bell tower and emotionally manipulating him into fearing the world he so desperately wants to be a part of.

Both Quasimodo and Frollo are legitimately fascinating characters. Quasimodo wants nothing more than to be a part of the world he observes and loves passionately; he adores the people that he sees and wants to be out among them. Frollo, on the other hand, only sees wickedness and sin wherever he looks at the world. They are perfect foils for each other, and perfect examples of the old adage that “you will only see in the world what you see within yourself”.

Frollo’s mission to hunt down and pretty much eradicate gypsies in Paris runs smack into conflict with his feelings for Esmerelda, a homeless dancer who befriends Quasimodo once he sneaks out during a Festival of Fools. The poor hunchback learns some very hard lessons about the world when he finally gets the chance to be out in it, and for a moment it seems that Frollo was right. But his desire to love and be loved overrides his cynicism, and the sheer power of his yearning is at once inspiring and relatable. Even though he is quite possibly the most unusual-looking hero in the Disney canon, Quasimodo is the one that I’ve felt the strongest emotional connection with.

And perhaps that’s because Frollo is so horrific. His “villain’s song” is one of the most intense and disturbing in a Disney movie, wonderfully exposing the warring impulses within him. When he lays himself bare, you sympathize with his fear of falling away from God. You’re still horrified by how that fear has curdled within him, turning him into something far worse than an imperfect man. Frollo’s fear of his own baser nature makes him cruel and intolerant of imperfections in the people around him. That’s frightening because it’s so common in our world.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame might be the most nakedly religious of all Disney films as well. The cathedral is such an outsized influence not only in the city at the time, but also in the lives of all its characters; you see how their belief in God is reflected in their actions and desires. Esmerelda’s song, “God Help The Outcasts,” is a gut-check against the self-involved and materialistic in the Church. In a lot of ways, the movie is not only concerned with the influence of religion in the inner world of its characters, but also how that translates into social action. Hunchback tackled themes of social justice decades before Zootopia came on the scene.

Musically, this might be some of the strongest work for long-time Disney composer Alan Mencken and his writing partner Stephen Schwartz. “The Bells of Notre Dame” is a haunting, tight prologue that serves as a mini-story setting up the board for the film; “Out There” is an amazing “I want” song that establishes Quasimodo as a wonderful hero while also introducing us to Frollo’s awful emotional abuse and its effect on his charge; “Hellfire” is nothing short of an epic villain’s war with the forces raging within himself. Each song heightens the emotional narrative superbly, planting its character’s motivations so that we know exactly why they do the things they do.

The animation is similarly ambitious. Notre Dame is as much a character as anyone else, and watching the characters interact with it reveals their inner thoughts while also allowing us to see how it shapes their external world. Seeing Quasimodo scamper and swing across the rooftops is thrilling; when he does his thing, he’s every bit as graceful as Tarzan swinging on the vine. The character design is pitch-perfect as well. Quasimodo is at once grotesque and endearing; Esmerelda is truly bewitching; Frollo is severe and terrible. Even the sidekicks and comic relief are a wonderful mixture of adorable and setting-appropriate. Everything works.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame might just be the most underrated film of the Disney Renaissance. It is an amazing film, even though it doesn’t stick just so to its source material. Disney works with themes that it hasn’t really delved into before or since, and threads the needle with a sensitive, passionate morality tale that challenges its audience as well as it inspires.

Hercules (1997)
After catching so much heat for being too dark with The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Disney swung the pendulum the other way for 1997’s Hercules. This is another risk, especially for the family-friendly studio — basing a crowd-pleasing comedy on ancient Greek myth? Anyone with a passing familiarity with the source material might have trouble explaining the real legend to their children. They ended up going off-script a bit more than usual here, creating what’s essentially a mythological superhero-origin story.

Like Quasimodo, Hercules is an outcast in his society — but for an entirely different reason. He doesn’t know it, but he is a demi-god born to Zeus and Hera; his divinity was (mostly) removed by Hades in order to make sure that the hostile takeover of Olympus went according to plan. However, because he wasn’t given every drop of the poison meant to make him mortal, he retained his godly strength. He just doesn’t have the wisdom or finesse to wield it properly.

When Hercules learns that he is in fact the son of Zeus, he decides to become a hero in order to prove himself worthy of the gods and admission into Olympus. Of course, being heroic is a lot more than fighting monsters and saving innocents, and the movie pushes him towards learning that lesson.

Compared to the wonderful visuals of The Lion King, Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the stylized animation of Hercules is a big departure that doesn’t come off all that well. Disney nails the style that it wanted, but there’s something missing in the backgrounds and the setting; it doesn’t quite come across as iconic or interesting. The Underworld is the most interesting place, visually, and we don’t spend so much time there. Most of the time, it feels like we’re in the world of the centaurs, fauns and dryads from Fantasia by way of modern recreation of Greek art.

The story is fairly straight-forward; Hercules has to learn how to use his strengths first, then overcome his weaknesses before he can truly claim the title of hero. It’s certainly enjoyable, lightened by the gospel-infused Chorus, the cynical and wise Philoctetes and the big goofy Pegasus. Meg serves as the femme fatale here fairly well, but it’s a foregone conclusion how her arc will play out.

I think that’s the ultimate disappointment with Hercules as a film, really — most of Disney’s films are predictable when you get right down to it, but there’s almost always an emotional hook that invests you in the character journey anyway. For just a little while, you allow yourself to forget that good will triumph over evil every time, and you really want the protagonist to succeed while not being sure he will. Or, at least, that he will without paying a fairly high price.

And that’s what Hercules is missing. He literally has the King of the Gods on his side; even when the Titans are unleashed in the third act, they don’t seem like a legitimate threat. And even though Hercules is a fine and studly hero, there isn’t that vulnerability that makes him relatable. You don’t root for him because he’s an exceptional specimen who just won’t fail. Here, he’s a Greecian Superman, and it’s always hard to write really great stories about the Man of Steel.

Maybe Hercules is simply a victim of proximity. It tells the story of a social outcast who desperately wants to find a place he belongs, but must dig deep within himself to overcome the forces keeping him apart and earn not only acceptance from others, but acceptance of himself. While the battle between Hades and Zeus is fun (and Hades does make for a pretty neat villain), it pales in comparison to the battle between Quasimodo, Frollo and God. Hercules simply hits too many of the notes that Hunchback does, and Hunchback did it better.

Still, this is a pretty good movie — there’s certainly nothing wrong with it. But it doesn’t have the same ambition or fire that characterizes the other movies in the Disney Renaissance. It aims to be an enjoyable movie, and while it succeeds that’s all it really is.

Mulan (1998)
This movie is gorgeously photographed, plain and simple. The staging of the shots, the environments that the characters move through, the way the action plays out on screen — it all comes together to produce a visually distinctive movie that calls to mind epic historical war dramas as well as intimate character meditations.

Mulan is the daughter of a revered Chinese war hero; as the only child, she carries the burden of preserving the honor of her family by being the perfect maiden, then wife. Of course she chafes at this; she simply doesn’t fit the rigidly-defined role that her society has made for her. When the Huns clamber over the Great Wall and lay waste to villages, the Emperor calls for one man from every family to fight for their homeland. Making sure her wounded father doesn’t have to go, Mulan steals his sword and armor to fight in his stead. She’s accompanied by Mushu, a tiny dragon fallen from grace as a protector of the family; and Cri-Kee, a “lucky cricket” who serves as Mushu’s sidekick.

Mulan’s problems are very relatable, especially to those of us who don’t fit into the rigid gender roles set out for us by our cultures. She is a woman who doesn’t want to be demure and quiet; she’s smart, she has opinions and she wants to be active in a place that equates femininity with passivity. What’s interesting is how Disney doesn’t pass judgement on this cultural expectation; it merely forms the backdrop for her character struggle. Again, I’m impressed by Disney’s careful handling of other cultures and translating specific influences or attitudes into something universal.

The story isn’t perfect, of course. This was just a couple of years after The Birdcage, and alternate sexualities and gender expressions were still one of those things that were played broad. While masquerading as a man, Mulan indulges in the easiest stereotypes about men vs. women when it really doesn’t need to. Once the film establishes its characters, the best humor actually comes from their specific viewpoints. And the movie is filled with rich and interesting secondary characters that you really come to love over time.

But the animation is the real star of the show here. Disney creates a mythic China filtered through the lens of a spaghetti Western, knowing exactly when to pull back to show off the scale of a battlefield or the bright, vivid perfection of a homestead and when to tighten focus on a character’s facial expressions. One of my absolute favorite transitions is the one out of the raucous “A Girl Worth Fighting For”. It’s a wonderful swerve that makes what comes afterward that much more haunting.

The third act is a wonderful set-piece that’s both intimate, chaotic and simply great storytelling. The arcs of Mulan, Mushu and Captain Li Shang come to a wonderful conclusion here, and there’s just enough room for the denouement to punctuate the way everyone’s changed by their experience.

Mulan is a beautiful, compassionate, well-framed film that’s only occasionally marred by the broad comedic sensibilities of the 90s. I think it’s another one of those overlooked gems that people would really dig if they went back for another look.

 
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Posted by on June 29, 2016 in Movies, Reviews

 

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(Reviews) The Circle of Life, The Colors of the Wind, The Virtue of Playing Nice

Entertainment 150Ryan and I are holding a weekly film festival where we watch the entire Disney animated canon in chronological order, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs all the way to Zootopia. Currently, we’re up to the latter half of the studio’s first Renaissance. Here are my reviews of the latest batch of movies!

The Lion King (1994)
I held a poll on my Twitter account a little earlier this spring about which movie people considered to be the best in the Disney Renaissance, and this one won by a landslide. At first, I thought the results were slightly skewed because so many of my followers are furries, but then I watched this movie again and HOLY CRAP YOU GUYS THIS IS THE BEST MOVIE OF THE DISNEY RENAISSANCE.

Little Simba is the prince of his pride; his father Mufasa and mother Nala serve as King and Queen of the Pridelands. Before his father can teach him everything there is to know about being royalty, Simba is framed for the murder of Mufasa by his scheming uncle Scar and runs away to avoid the punishment. Even though he’s embraced a more carefree and irresponsible way of life, destiny comes calling to right the wrongs of his people. Can he heed the call?

Even now, more than 20 years later, the ambition and imagination of this movie is staggering. The opening alone, featuring a newborn Simba being presented to the beasts of the Pridelands for the first time, still gives me goosebumps when I watch it. The prologue sequence makes a statement about the scope and ambition of this movie, and they do their best to deliver with just about every song, every action scene, every introduction of a new character.

I was continually surprised by the musical numbers. Remember the fascist overtones of Scar’s “Be Prepared”? I’ve seen this movie a dozen times, and it almost always shocks me whenever I see it. The playful inventiveness of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” is enough for me to forgive it for being a relatively weak song; and “Hakuna Matata” is one of those songs that’s fun, catchy and sneaks the pivot of Simba’s plot from exiled youth to carefree young adult effortlessly.

The movie is exquisitely choreographed and tightly plotted. Scenes move with a Swiss-watch precision, forming a new link in a chain that depends on what’s come before. When it’s job is done, it’s time to move on. The Lion King also bounces between the kid-friendly broad humor of Timon and Puumba and the surprisingly dark scenes with Scar and his hyenas really well. It’s ability to juggle so many disparate characters is perhaps its most impressive feat.

This is a prominent gem in the crown that marks Disney as the king of American animation studios. When they’re at the top of their game, there’s simply no one better.
Pocahontas (1995)
Pocahontas is smack-dab in the middle of the Renaissance; it’s the last Disney movie before Pixar burst onto the scene with Toy Story (more on that later), and signals a pivot away from the really traditional fairy-tale adventure that marked the first half of their resurgence. In a lot of ways, it feels like the studio went back to the riskier stuff that didn’t work out so well in the 70s and 80s; this time, however, the studio is a lot more confident in its vision and far more proficient at pushing itself to new feats of movie-making.

The reputation of Pocahontas is a curious one; most Disney fans don’t talk so much about it, and critics largely sniffed on its release. Fair enough — when Disney is coming off the run that it had in the last six years, expectations for its next film had to be monstrous.

But with the passage of time, it’s easier to see Pocahontas as an ambitious movie in its own way. The story alone is a bit of a hard sell. A young Native American woman is at a crossroads in her life; she’s come to the age where she has to stop seeking an adventurous future and accept her place among her people. This means marrying one of her tribe’s strongest hunters and upholding the traditions and expectations of her culture. However, when she meets a European who comes to this strange “new world” for riches (and partly to kill any Native Americans who cause trouble), she falls head over heels for him. Their relationship makes both of their positions complicated, especially as the natives and Europeans circle ever closer to war.

The environments and settings are the real stars of this movie; they’re simply wonderful, expansive and gorgeous. It really stings when John Smith and his crew — headed by the villainous Governor Ratcliffe — cut down the trees to build a fort and dig up the land in the hopes of finding gold. Pocahontas and her tribe are clearly people of the land, and the movie does such a great job of framing her within that context; everywhere she goes, she blends into the trees, the hills, the rivers. By contrast, the Europeans are frequently the focus of their scenes; nature only exists as far as it’s useful.

What’s impressive about Pocahontas is the clear care that the storytellers used to present the native way of life before America had been settled by the Europeans. It would have been really easy for Disney to fall into the noble savage trope, or to give in to the mystic othering of Native Americans. For the most part, though, they keep it grounded; the supernatural touches within the film are mostly low-key. The one botch is the idea of allowing their heroine to learn English simply by listening to her heart or some such thing. It’s a narrative shortcut that felt lazy, but at the same time I can’t think of a more elegant solution to the problem of getting Pocahontas and John Smith into a dialogue sooner rather than later.

Other than that, the movie mostly sticks the landing. Pocahontas is a wonderful character with a rich inner life; she stands up for herself when she feels disrespected; she sticks her neck out for the the things she believes in. It might not be as loud as The Lion King or as spellbinding as Beauty and the Beast, but Pocahontas is a worthy film that belongs with the rest from this period.
Toy Story (1995)
The cultural impact of this movie is huge — it almost single-handedly killed traditional animation in movie theatres. That’s not something you could fault Pixar for, of course, but man, it really blew the roof off the industry when it dropped this.

Not only is Toy Story the first feature-length animated film rendered entirely in CGI, it’s also a surprisingly good tale. While the visuals haven’t aged that well in the two decades since the film’s release, the strength of the writing, inventive character design and wonderful vocal performance keep the movie from being one of those culturally-important films that really isn’t that enjoyable.

Woody is Andy’s favorite toy, and that makes him the leader of all the playthings in Andy’s room. He runs a tight ship, but he’s a benevolent dictator — as long as his authority is recognized, things go well. That’s a good thing; Andy’s family is moving to another house very soon, and Woody is in charge of making sure no toy gets left behind.

However, all that gets upended when Andy is gifted a Buzz Lightyear toy for his birthday. Woody is cast aside in that way all kids discard their old toys for the latest and greatest; what’s worse, the other toys have taken to Buzz as well. Woody’s jealousy sparks a chain of events that finds him and Buzz forced out of Andy’s home, desperate to make their way back before he leaves forever. Can they make it?

Tom Hanks and Tim Allen are the voices of Woody and Buzz, respectively; their chemistry carries the entire film. The world of Toy Story is really strange, unlike anything anyone had seen up to that point; hard green Army men move out on reconnaissance missions, able to see through solid plastic binoculars; Mr. Potato Head lives a nightmare existence where his facial features and body parts are just one jostle away from flying off; an Etch-A-Sketch communicates solely by drawing pictures. The setting is incredibly inventive, but it needs its protagonists to ground the action to something relatable. That’s what the two stars do here wonderfully.

Even though the animation is showing its age, the cinematography is actually really impressive. The opening credits offer a toy’s-eye-view of playtime, and at their scale an ordinary house is this tremendous, varied environment. The next door neighbor’s house is practically a world away, and I think it really captures how the world feels to young children. The visual storytelling is subtle but really impressive.

What’s scary to think about is that for all of its strengths, this is actually one of the weaker films in Pixar’s catalogue. Toy Story 2 and 3 are both streets ahead of this one, even though it’s a solid movie that just so happens to feature game-changing animation. When they could have hung their hat on their technology, Pixar stepped up to do so much more. And that’s why they’ve pretty much conquered animation in the years since.

 
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Posted by on June 22, 2016 in Movies, Reviews

 

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(Movie Review) Mice in Australia, A Bookworm and Her Monster, and a Djinn with ADD

Entertainment 150The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
Remember that hot second in the 90s when Australia was the coolest thing ever? It was a strange moment in pop culture — all of a sudden, Paul Hogan was awesome again, and boomerangs were a fad, and Yahoo Serious was unleashed on the world. I’m still not sure why Aussie fever overtook the States for a few glorious years, but I am pretty sure that it was a major formative experience for me.

Part of the Australian wave was The Rescuers Down Under, the very first sequel ever produced as part of the animated Disney canon. Made 13 years after the first installment, it continues the adventures of mice Bernard and Bianca — two of the best members of the Rescue Aid Society. It’s sort of a United Nations of rodents dedicated to helping children and animals whenever they’re in need. This is such an amazing idea, and just typing it makes me fervently wish for a third Rescuers movie.

Cody is a young Australian boy who has the ability to talk to animals; he spends most of his days in the Outback befriending the local wildlife and saving them from dangers they face. He saves an enormous eagle named Marahute, which doesn’t sit well with a poacher named Percival McLeach (a seriously underrated villain in the Disney canon if you ask me). McLeach kidnaps Cody in order to force the location of the eagle out of him, and that’s when the Rescue Aid Society gets involved.

Bernard really wants to propose to Bianca, but it never seems to be the right time. When they meet dashing Australian kangaroo rat Jake, Bernard has to basically prove his worth against this rough and tumble tour guide. Because this is a Disney movie, of course he does — he saves the day, proposes to Bianca and Jake approves with no hard feelings. It’s a breezy little film that has a few really breathtaking action sequences, and even though the stakes feel relatively light in comparison to other Disney films you never feel bored or resentful of the investment the movie asks to make of you. The movie is populated with adorable, well-designed characters and Marahute is a stand-out; an eagle the size of a roc, with that sort of alien and almost goofy look that almost — almost — makes you forget how dangerous such an immense creature would be.

The world of the Rescuers is the true joy of the movie, though. I couldn’t handle the montage of Cody’s distress signal being transmitted by a team of dedicated mice, and the thoroughly sadistic doctor mouse and his team of eager nun nurses were wonderful interludes between action set-pieces. Jake is definitely one character who deserves more attention, and both Bernard and Bianca feel like old friends.

The Rescuers Down Under was the least-successful of the films of the Disney Renaissance; it was released on the same weekend as Home Alone, came in fourth for the domestic box office during its debut and had all of its advertising pulled soon afterward. It’s also the only Renaissance movie that doesn’t feature musical sequences, so there aren’t any instant classic songs to keep it fresh in our memories. All of this makes it a bit of an odd duck in the Disney animated canon, but it’s not any less enjoyable for it. In fact, if you’re an Australophile it might just be one of your surprise favorites.
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
The 30th film in the Disney animated canon is a landmark for the studio; it was nominated for six Academy Awards (including Best Picture) and four Golden Globes (winning Best Picture – Musical or Comedy), the third-highest-grossing movie of the year (behind Terminator 2 and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) and man, did it inspire a whole generation of furries who were sorely disappointed by the “happy ending”. It was the film that restored Disney to greatness after its stock had diminished through the 70s and 80s and proved The Little Mermaid was no fluke. The cultural impact of this film is staggering.

Belle is the beauty, a lovely girl who would rather read books than be more “traditional”; she takes after her father, Maurice, a crackpot inventor who moved to this provincial town in France only recently. She’s pursued by the handsome but arrogant Gaston but would rather have someone (or do something) more interesting; her suitor’s constant wooing is rejected as she hopes that she can live a more exciting life.

Enter the Beast, a prince cursed to be a monster for refusing hospitality to an old witch. If he can find someone who will love him despite his fearsome appearance by his 21st year, the curse will be broken; if not, he’ll have to live as a beast forever. When Maurice seeks shelter after being attacked by wolves, the Beast takes him prisoner until Belle offers to remain within his castle instead. And we pretty much know where it goes from here.

When you aren’t dazzled by the truly amazing songs and score, the wonderful environments and the distracting, er, qualities of the Beast, you start to notice how truly insane this story is. An enchantress goes around disguised as an old beggar woman for…what purpose, exactly? And she punishes a prince who is pretty much at the worst age possible for a test of compassion and hospitality instead of his parents? And every single servant in the castle is also cursed to be furniture, silverware and various tools because their lives weren’t hard enough? And the nearby town has completely forgotten that there used to be a king in a castle before his son was cursed just ten years ago? And….

I know it sounds like I’m ragging on the story, and I’m not. (Well, only a little.) Despite the very questionable details within the story, Beauty and the Beast holds up as well as it ever has. The songs by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken are outstanding; the musical sequences are amazingly animated, and the character design is Disney at its most creative. Gaston is a villain for the ages, all bluster and noise, and Belle is a well-drawn heroine in her own right. The Beast is a unique and awesome creation, and the way both he and Belle are changed through their deepening relationship is wonderful to see.

Despite the strangeness of the underlying story, there’s almost nothing that doesn’t work well here. There are a few minor quibbles with how the Beast and his servants move from frame to frame, but their designs are so unusual it’s hard to fault the animators for not having the character models totally consistent. Belle, Beast and Gaston are all-time great characters, and the supporting cast is populated with wonderful, colorful personalities. There’s so much here to like, and there is nothing that makes you question the good will the movie earns.

So yes, Beauty and the Beast is a top-five all-time great in the Disney animated canon, no question. I’m really pleased that it’s aged as well as it has. It’s an easy movie to love, warts and all.
Aladdin (1992)
I hate to speak ill of the dead, especially when the person in question succumbed to an illness that personally affects me. But I was quite surprised by how little I enjoyed Aladdin, and most of that comes down to Robin Williams’ manic performance of the Genie. When I thought back on the movie, he was the biggest deal in it — and I think that’s true for almost everyone. But the Genie’s schtick simply hasn’t aged well and sucks all the oxygen out of the room. There’s not much energy left for the rest of the story to breathe.

Jasmine is a princess subject to that time-honored tradition of movie royals; she must marry a prince within a certain time frame or consequences will happen. Jafar, the Sultan’s trusted advisor, has been searching for a treasure hidden within the Cave of Wonders in order to simply take over the Sultanate of Agrabah, but can’t seem to find the right rube — the diamond in the rough — to be allowed entrance and snatch it up. That’s where street rat with a heart of gold Aladdin steps in; he’s manipulated into stealing the treasure for Jafar (in disguise as an old man), but ends up getting it instead.

It turns out to be a genie’s lamp, and the Genie fulfills his wish to become a prince so he can have a shot with Jasmine — the mysterious princess he met before when she attempted to escape the castle. Aladdin’s courtship is rocky at best, mostly because he tries to keep up the charade far longer than he should, and eventually his deceit yields disastrous consequences.

What’s interesting is the main characters — Aladdin, Jasmine and the villain Jafar — are all engaging, well-drawn and relatable. The fantastic elements of the story elevate the movie’s themes (the danger of pretending to be something/one you’re not) really well, and hyper-extends the consequences of the conflict while still making it understandable. I really like the writing in the story; the plot is tight and well-paced, the dialogue (especially between Aladdin and Jasmine) is brisk and natural, and the animation is fluid, smooth and imaginative.

And that’s why it’s such a surprise to me that Aladdin is my least-favorite film so far in the Disney Renaissance. But the Genie is a real problem; his constant barrage of hyper-kinetic joking and impressions is so distracting you’re left wondering what on Earth he’s talking about half the time. Maybe it’s that his joking is so topical that it’s this glaring time-stamp on what would otherwise be a timeless tale, or maybe it’s a sign that my sensibilities are aging enough that I’m just not into what comes off as aggressive, almost desperate whimsy. (I know how that sounds, considering the life-long struggle Williams had with depression; maybe that knowledge is even shading my perspective of his performance.) But the Genie tends to work best when he serves as the oversized conscience of Aladdin, his shape-shifting served to illustrate or punctuate a point. Less is certainly more in this case, and Genie’s presence feels so out of place with the rest of the movie’s tone it’s legitimately jarring.

Your mileage may vary, of course, but Genie takes this movie down a peg or two, and I wish it weren’t so. Disney’s strength in storytelling is its ability to walk a tightrope with tones, themes and ideas so that everything is executed carefully and with balance. One of the few times it allows itself to give in to excess earned it way more short-term gain at the cost of long-term enjoyment.

 
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Posted by on May 13, 2016 in Movies, Reviews

 

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(Review) A Leprechaun, a Mermaid, and a Greaser

Entertainment 150Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959)
Darby O’Gill is a walking cliche, that “drunken” old Irishman you find in every pub telling tall tales about his escapades with leprechauns and other Fair Folk. What’s different is Darby doesn’t drink and his stories are all true; so when he is finally sacked by Lord Fitzpatrick, the land-owner whose estate he’s supposed to be tending, his frienemy King Brian steals him away to the innards of Fairy Mountain, where he will naturally live out the rest of his days. Darby, who has a daughter he cares for more than anything else in the world, isn’t having that. So what’s a wily old man to do?

I wasn’t expecting to like this movie as much as I did, which is to say not much at all. When you hear about a live-action Disney film from the 1950s, you naturally think of the corniest all-ages entertainment you can think of — at least, I do. And while Darby O’Gill and the Little People is definitely a G-rated movie, it’s also surprisingly engrossing. The film exists so comfortably in its own skin that if you take it on its own terms you might just find yourself having a pretty good time.

What makes the movie work is how well they’re able to capture the rhythm and flow of a good faerie tale. Sometimes Brian — the King of the Leprechauns — is a friend and confidant, and other times he’s a dangerous adversary with powerful magic who must be outwitted. Darby O’Gill is sometimes a clever old man who tricks leprechauns as easy as breathing, and sometimes he’s a poor mortal wretch so far out of his depth you can’t imagine how he’ll get out of trouble. The dynamics of power and emotional investment are always changing, and even by the end of the movie you’re not entirely sure his experience with the fae is ultimately positive. It’s fun to watch the stakes shift as much as they do.

A pre-007 Sean Connery is the romantic interest here, and he’s so young he doesn’t have any of that urgency or gravitas that we’ve come to know him for. But he does make for a good crooner, and it’s fun to watch him drift in and out of Darby’s narrative. It’s also neat to live in a setting where everyone knows the rules of magic better than you do; their reactions tell you everything you need to know about what’s going on, even though the finer details are missing.

Still, if you haven’t quite gotten into the movies of old Hollywood, chances are this isn’t the movie that’s going to sway you. If you’re more comfortable with the rhythm of old cinema storytelling, this works well. Darby O’Gill and the Little People is an old-fashioned story, but it’s still well told.
Cry-Baby (1990)
John Waters made this film right after the unexpected success of Hairspray, when movie studios were practically beating down his door in order to work with him. The fact that he made this wonderfully insane ode to trash and 50s teen idol musicals just makes me love him more.

Here, Johnny Depp is playing around with his teen-idol image in ways that are actually more effective than burying it under a ton of pancake make-up. He plays the leader of a “drape” gang named “Cry-Baby” Walker; he earned the nickname by squeezing out only a single tear when something upsets him. Cry-Baby is backed up by his perpetually-pregnant sister, Pepper; “Hatchet Face,” a legit crazy woman who steals every scene she’s in; Milton, Hatchet Face’s devoted boyfriend; and Wanda Woodward, a sexpot played by none other notorious porn actress Traci Lords.

Cry-Baby falls in love with a “square,” a good girl being groomed by the stuck-up parents in charge of 1950s Baltimore society. Allison falls for his rock-and-roll singing as well as his single tear trick, and ends up forsaking her clan for the chance to live with the drapes for a while. That’s the basic story, though there are all kinds of detours through it that are surprising and hilarious.

No matter what your expectations coming into this film, Waters manages to upend them. The characters are varied and expertly-drawn, so idiosyncratic that you know who they are by the end of the film’s prologue and opening credits. The fact that their backstories are still surprising when they’re revealed is impressive.

I can’t think of another director who delights in his own weirdness as much as John Waters, and that’s what ultimately makes Cry-Baby so fun. Walker’s gang of drapes are undeniably insane and fundamentally broken, but there is such a passionate and loving bond between them you can’t help but see them as good people. Waters has been the champion of loving weirdness throughout his career, and the fact that he made one of his weirdest and most passionate films as the major studio release here shows a dedication to that vision that’s been simply unwavering.

The third act of the film falls apart a little bit, but it’s still a lot of fun and really engaging. Well-drawn characters are sacrificed to get the “everything and the kitchen sink” finish that Waters wanted, but it doesn’t eat up too much of the goodwill the movie earns. If you’re an neophyte in the ways of Waters, I’d say Cry-Baby is an excellent film to cut your teeth on — if you hate it, then it’s highly unlikely you’ll love anything else he’s written or directed.
The Little Mermaid (1989)
The 70s and 80s were rough on Disney animation; after The Jungle Book, there weren’t too many films that were looked upon fondly before this one. Even though I liked quite a number of the animated films of that period, there is simply no question that The Little Mermaid raised the bar for the company and began a creative high period that would take them through most of the 1990s.

Ariel is the title character, a mermaid princess who is fascinated by the human world above the surface of the oceans. Her father, King Triton, knows the cruelty that man is capable of and wants to protect his daughter from being hurt — his isolationist demands runs counter to her curiosity and optimism. When the terrible sea witch Ursula grants Ariel’s fondest wish — to be human so she can marry a prince she’s fallen in love with, the fate of two kingdoms is suddenly hanging in the balance.

The songs in this movie are some of the greatest in any Disney musical ever. “Part of Your World” is a fantastic, ideal “I want” song; “Kiss The Girl” is the most romantic song that I can think of in a Disney film; and “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is so delightful that it almost gets you on Ursula’s side for a hot second. The animation has to be better just to be worthy of the words, and Disney steps it up in wonderful ways here. Taking fish, crabs and other sea-creatures into anthropomorphic territory is not easy. Sebastian scuttles nervously, and you at once recognize he’s a crab (ew!) and that he has these intense emotional desires (aw!) that endear you to him. Flotsam and Jetsam, Ursula’s hench-eels, are creepy, predatory, yet hypnotic. It’s easy to imagine how naive Ariel could be pulled under their sway.

There are some problems. This time around I found Ariel’s character design a little weird; her head feels really long, accentuating the forehead in this distracting way. And Prince Eric is kind of a terrible character, this wishy-washy dude who seems to be mostly defined by his love of alto voices. Even when Ariel gets Eric in the end, you get the feeling that she could do so much better; the humans in the story are more bland than sadistic, so what was King Triton even worried about there?

The stakes are supplanted by the battle between Ariel and Ursula in the third act, and even then Prince Eric effectively kill-steals the encounter. What did Ariel actually learn through this? How will she be a bit more discerning and a bit less reckless in the future? How did she earn her happy ending?

The argument could be made that this is not that kind of children’s movie, and you might be right. But Ariel’s flaw — the thing that gets her into trouble — is never really identified and addressed through the course of the story. The happy ending feels just a little lessened because of this, even though the rest of the movie is nothing short of delightful.

Still, if it’s been a while since you’ve seen The Little Mermaid, it is definitely worth another look. The songs are amazing, the environments and (most of) the character designs are fantastic, and its ambition is really something to admire. After the long dark time of Disney’s lesser canon, it’s a great example of how you can take Walt’s original passion for telling great stories and update it for modern audiences.

 
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Posted by on March 23, 2016 in Movies, Reviews

 

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(Movies) My Last 3: The Pyramid, The Book Thief, The Sacrament

Entertainment 150The Pyramid (2014)
This is a minor found-footage horror movie that I had been interested in mainly because I thought (mistakenly) that it was directed by Alexandre Aja. He’s a horror director I’ve really come to like after watching High Tension, the remake of The Hills Have Eyes, and Horns. It turns out he only produced it, which is a real shame. Under the hands of some better filmmakers, this could have been really good.

The Pyramid is a faux documentary set during the Egyptian uprising of 2013 about a group of archaeologists uncovering an ancient structure that appears to have been built and then buried underground. After unearthing the apex of the pyramid, they find a way inside — and a series of events lead them further and further into the byzantine hallways. It doesn’t take long before they discover a malevolent force trying to keep them there, and kill them one by one.

The set-up and a lot of the action is actually fairly well-done here. I was impressed by the plotting; in a lot of found-footage movies, the characters have to contort themselves to have a reason to keep filming, or to go deeper into a horrible situation. Here, I thought it was fairly well-handled if a bit obvious that they were expositing. Once the scientists make it inside the pyramid and the proceedings get underway, the atmosphere changes dramatically and the sense of peril mounts really well.

Still, a lot of the dialogue is just clunky, and Denis O’Hare (hi, Russell Edgington!) is the biggest name and best actor there but you wouldn’t know it. The ending and the revelations about the true nature of the pyramid might work or it might not, depending on your tolerance for warped Egyptian mythology and low-budget (for a feature film) CGI. Even though the archaeologists and documentary crew are really put through the ringer, it doesn’t quite feel like torture porn because there are clear stakes and a hope — however small — that these hapless men and women will survive.

If you’re a found-footage enthusiast (like me) and are looking for a decent B-grade horror movie that’s slightly left-of-center, you could do worse than The Pyramid. It’s not astonishing, but I thought it was solid enough.

The Book Thief (2013)
A little girl is given up for adoption to a poor but lively German couple, right around the time the Nazi party is coming to power. After her new father discovers she can’t read, he teaches her and through that process instills in her a love of books and stories. As Hitler’s grip on Germany tightens, their Jewish and progressive neighbors are rounded up and disappeared. The community changes. And the son of the father’s wartime friend (himself a Jew) comes to their door seeking sanctuary.
The Book Thief is an adaptation of an Australian novel written by Markus Zusak, and it’s pretty obviously one of those movies that come out during Oscar season as a prestige picture. The cinematography is beautiful, the direction is measured and restrained, and the acting has that stiff, important quality — for the most part.

Here, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson and newcomer Sophie Nelisse make up the family that binds together through the onset of World War II, and they actually do a pretty wonderful job. Rush is breezily amiable as the cool, engaged dad; Watson is unrecognizable as a muttering, severe house-frau. Nelisse is an effortless actress, moving through the story with whatever is required of her. It’s quite impressive to watch these three, especially as the hard exterior of Watson’s housewife cracks and you see the effect that the war and the political situation has on her.

And yet, the story itself doesn’t quite land with the weight it’s clearly trying to. It meanders from subject to subject with the expansive air of a biography but it doesn’t quite leave you with anything you can take with you. The framing narration — the voice of Death talks about the proceedings with a bemused, detached air that’s really grating — isn’t as clever or thought-provoking as it thinks it is. And honestly, the ending is a bit of a let-down in its obviousness. Instead of being emotionally affecting, it feels manipulative instead.

Still, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that explores the lives of ordinary Germans during the Nazi regime, and for that alone it’s worth a look. The performances are solid enough to keep you engaged even as you roll your eyes whenever the movie tries to prey on your sympathies. The only Oscar nomination it managed to earn was Best Score, and the music from John Williams is quite well done. I just wish that it was in service to a movie that had been more artful in what it wanted to do.

The Sacrament (2013)
More found-footage horror! This time, a documentary crew from Vice magazine travels to Bolivia after one of their fashion photographers receives a letter from his estrange sister inviting them to a religious commune that’s been started there. Upon arrival, they’re more than a little freaked out by the vibe they get from the followers of “Father”, and just when they’re about to shrug and say “different strokes for different folks” the movie takes its turn.

What follows is an updated and fictionalized account of Jonestown, one of the biggest mass suicides in American history. Directed by Ti West, this move maintains a great sense of tension throughout; he really knows how to mine the vague unease one would feel among an isolated group of fanatics. As events unfold and escalate, it becomes increasingly clear that the documentary crew are in over their heads, and that discovery is appropriately terrifying.

The main reporter, Sam, is distractingly stiff and unconvincing as the narrator of the documentary. As things unravel and it becomes harder to justify the decision to keep filming, the framing of the found-footage format begins to suffer; you’re not sure why the camerman would keep documenting an increasingly desperate situation. A lot of the dialogue rings hollow, especially the stuff surrounding Father — the actor portraying him has a off-beat charisma all his own, so he makes it work regardless.

Ultimately, this is a great movie for found-footage and Ti West fans, but I’m not sure it’s a must-see film. If you’re in the dark on a Friday night and are looking for something to get the blood pumping, this is certainly a good choice.

 
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Posted by on November 18, 2015 in Movies, Reviews, Uncategorized

 

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