Sunday, December 11, 2011

#51: Winnie the Pooh (2011)

So here's the latest film, and the last review for a long lone while (Disney's next "Reboot Ralph" opens November 2012). When I first heard tell of this movie being the next 2D film after "Princess and the Frog," I couldn't help but feel a bit disappointed. First they make a movie basically in the same vein of their previous princess musical classics, and now we have another rerun of their already exacerbated Pooh franchise. But when I watched "The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh," I really warmed up to these characters, and embraced the idea a little more. Too bad not many other people did. But then again, Disney had the brilliant idea of releasing it against the final Harry Potter film, which every single person on the planet wanted to see. Every demographic was accountable, except... babies. Which I guess is who saw it. But between its merchandising, their "Book of Pooh" series, Disney basically relegated Pooh Bear to exclusively toddlers on their own, so they screwed themselves. "Winnie the Pooh" is actually a lot of fun, and extremely entertaining and enjoyable, and a movie that I think any person would like if they opened up to it.

The film contains many elements of the original shorts, like showcasing that the story takes place within an actual book and having characters interact with the letters and narrator. We also get a glimpse of the original stuffed animals, based on the drawings from the A. A. Miline books. The story itself is... well, there's really not much of a concrete story, more like multiple plots that sort of cross paths. It starts with Eeyore having lost his tail and the gang trying to come up with a substitute. Later on, Pooh finds a mysterious note on Christopher Robin's door, which he brings to Owl to decipher. A simple note of "Back Soon" is quickly misconstrued, with the gang believing their dear friend has been captured by a hideous creature, the "Backson," so they attempt to capture him in a pit rigged with bait. All the while, Pooh finds himself distracted by his perpetually unsatisfied tummy, which yearns for some sweet, sweet honey, and in the end, must choose between satisfying his appetite and helping his dear friend. Which do you think he chose? And does he get to have his cake and eat it too? Of course.

The animation is absolutely superb, every character is filled with energy and life. The small scale nature of the story allows for many great moments of characters just engaging each other, like Owl dictating to Pooh and Eeyore of what they should do about the missing tail, or a fantastic back-and-forth about not being about to knot ("Knot those pieces?" "Not these pieces?") The performances are great too, those there is some variance. Tom Kenny and Craig Ferguson give their own takes on Rabbit and Owl, but while they're not sound alikes of their original forms, they definitely capture the spirit and personality of the characters, whilst adding some new shades. Rabbit becomes the commander of the rescue mission, with bits of him making quirk, jerky body language orders which none of the gang can understand. Meanwhile, Owl's wise nature is turned into an almost cocky arrogance, nothing really out of malice though... mostly. I like it though. Jim Cummings takes over for two main characters Pooh and Tigger; his Pooh is absolutely spot-on, his Tigger's a little wavery (at times he sounds a bit like Pete), but I still enjoyed his performance. Pixar alum Bud Luckey is also fabulous as Eeyore.

Even with its simple story, the film is still incredibly engaging, with its characters and visual style. The watercolored backgrounds, and some of the different set pieces are amazing, like the Backson number all depicted on a chalkboard, and Pooh's extravagant honey daydream. The sequence of him getting taken up in a honey wave is spectacular... the way it's textured and shimmers makes it almost seem CG, but it's all traditional (well, it is computer assisted, but not three dimensional). I don't know to what effect I can dissect a movie like this; it's got so many small nuances to it. It's actually really funny, filled with a lot of clever bits and sometimes out-of-left-field jokes, like Pooh's oblivious abuse toward an eternally loyal Piglet. The songs by Zooey Deschanel, including her cover of the theme, fit perfectly with the tone. I also love the end credits, featuring the stuffed animals recreating scenes from the movie, and then the credits themselves featuring bits of animation, and the post-credit scene featuring the Backson himself, actually sort of a nice guy. With credits, the film barely clocks in at an hour, which really does seem like the right length. Never did the movie feel like it was dragging, but you wouldn't want it to be any longer. It's perfect as it is.

Verdict? A spectacular little film that I enjoyed a lot more than I thought I would. Visually gorgeous, unusually sharp and clever, and filled with a lot of great character performance and animation. It proved these characters could still be used to engage a wide audience, appealing to everyone if they'd give it a chance. And though I wish it had gotten more promotion, I kind of liked how this was treated a bit more low-key. I think one of Disney's problems was its revving up their newest canon's film as an epic film of incredibly amazing awesomeness. They could easily have larger scale movies, but also complement them with ones like this, that are more grounded, smaller stories that are perfect for what they are.

And, looks like that's it. Took almost two years to bring this thing up to date, but there it is.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

#50: Tangled (2010)

Guess it's finally time to bring this thing up to date with the latest two Disney films. Truth be told I hesitated on reviewing Tangled when I first saw it in theaters because I wasn't sure what to make of it. I was truly thankful that it was absolutely nothing like the horrifying teaser trailer, but I didn't find myself completely on board while I was watching. That compounded with everyone on the Internet losing their shit over the movie, I knew it warranted a second watch. So I finally did, and have a better appreciation for it. To burn through the plot quickly, Rapunzel is a girl locked away in a tower deep within the woods, raised by Mother Gothel. Unbeknownst to her, she's actually descended from royalty, but stolen as an infant by Gothel to selfishly utilize the magical power of her hair, which keeps her eternally young. As such, she is forbidden from leaving the tower. Things shake up when a criminal rogue Flynn Rider comes across the tower as a hideout and encounters Rapunzel, who barters a deal with him: to get back his stolen goods, he must escort her to the source of a phenomenon that's puzzled her for years: a bevy of golden lights that appear in the sky every night on her birthday, which in actuality are lanterns let loose by the king and queen and their subjects, hoping their daughter will return home.

The prologue sets the stage pretty well, and certainly gets the vibe of a classic Grimm fairy tale going (though it of course differs slightly from the original story). Interesting right off is the nature of the villain; unlike most other Disney films where there's a clear and acknowledged villain for the hero to fight, Mother Gothel seems to be an entirely different breed. The number "Mother Knows Best" perfectly illustrates her character and role in the story, an undeniably selfish and cruel woman who's committed psychological torture and scare tactics to keep Rapunzel terrified of the outside world and into her arms, all under the guise of motherly concern. It's an entirely different take of parental rebellion than, say, "Little Mermaid," where the force in spunky Rapunzel's way is actually our villain. Donna Murphy is fantastic in her scenes as Gothel, who treads the line of playfully abusing Rapunzel, but never feeling too brutal that we'd hate her that much, or that Rapunzel would as well. She's very much under her thumb, but still loves and respects her as her provider. It's a believable abusive relationship, and boy I never thought I'd write that in context of a Disney movie.

Anyway, Rapunzel is down-trodden only in her not wanting to disobey her mother, but still appears very competent and resourceful. As evidenced in her opening number "When Will My Life Begin?," we see she's managed to perfect many a craft in her extended lock down in the tower. Her only failing is her complete ignorance and innocence regarding the real world, which makes sense since she's never been. So when Flynn breaks into the tower, she freaks, and is very hesitant and cautious about dealing with him at first. I like these first scenes of two, with Rapunzel attempting to play cool and collected in negotiating a deal with Flynn alternating from bewildered to just patronizing. I guess I should talk about Flynn too... he's not the cocky smug quipster asshole I feared he would be. He's brazen and a bit arrogant, but most of it works and makes sense for the story. He attempts to manipulate Rapunzel into changing her mind, but over time finds him stuck with her, and the bond the two begin to share over the course of their adventure actually feels believable, at least moreso than Tiana and Naveen from "Frog." The reveal of Flynn's past, a scrappy orphan boy adapting the persona of a heroic bravado, also fits with his behavior.

I can't tell if I've grown more analytical after reviewing 130+ Simpsons episodes, or I'm just rambling. The movie shines most in its interactions between the characters and the world itself, like Rapunzel's mouth agape at the street fair and their earlier scuffle at the bar, which soon turns into another song. On that note, musically the film is quite strong, as every song fits a theme in the story; in this case "I've Got a Dream" basically deflates Rapunzel's fears of a big bad world that were instilled in her from "Mother Knows Best," and "I've Seen the Light" reflects Rapunzel's finally literally seeing the lights, and also of the new world she's experienced, and Flynn's newly opened eyes to his own. The vocal performances are pretty great too; at first I was rather annoyed that Mandy Moore had replaced the originally cast Kristen Chenoweth as Rapunzel, but she gives such an adorably feisty performance that I can't imagine her with any other voice. Zachary Levi is also great as Flynn, handling the comedic and serious parts with equal competence.

Visually, the movie looks fabulous; the world is crafted with such care, and all the environments feel incredibly rich and unique. As for the character animation, it's absolutely astounding. I remember watching the first time, there's this bit where Gothol is looking in the mirror at her newly acquired wrinkles, and the movements are so minor and nuanced that it really freaked me out how real it felt. The fluidity of these characters is pretty fantastic, and in spite of the traditionally Disney designs, it's some of the most visually engaging animation I've seen in a while. The true stand-out character is Maximus the horse, who has the most exaggerated cartoony movement, in his no-nonsense stride and quick reflexive movements in his undying quest to stomp Flynn out. Equally as memorizing is Rapunzel's hair, which I'm sure was a total bitch to rig properly, which is called on to act as integral props in many scenes, as a pulley, a rope, what-have-you, but still has the look and feeling of free-flowing hair.

Verdict? Yeah, so I ended up liking this one a lot, certainly one of the company's strongest efforts of late. Disney said following this film they'd be putting the kabosh on fairy tales, and I think that's a good move. Films like this and "Frog" so desperately attempted to harken to their earlier years, which they did, but you know what? To me, personally, they're not incredibly impacting. I dunno, I think after watching all of those movies over a year ago, I'm just not cut out to be a Disney fan boy. As much as I liked a fair majority of the movies a lot, there's just something about them that don't hold with me as much as the films of Pixar or other studios do. The ones that stick out most to me, like "Emperor's New Groove" and "Lilo & Stitch" are films that so wildly strayed from the traditional Disney formula. In the future I hope Disney will be able to get bolder with their movies and tread new ground like they did way back in their heyday. But for now, if we're stuck with movies like this, I have no problem; nothing revolutionary, but still damn fine entertainment, and a lovely sight to behold.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

#49: The Princess and the Frog (2009)

So we've reached the end, and what an end. Once he headed up at Disney, John Lasseter insisted the company return to traditional animation, and traditional story telling, so here we have "The Princess and the Frog," an fairy tale musical akin to the Disney Renaissance format, but also hearkening back to the look and formulas of the classic films. It's also the first Disney film to use an African-American cast, but I won't even try to get into discussing the seemingly never-ending "controversy" there. Our story is of a young woman Tiana, who has been working day in and day out down in 1920s New Orleans, saving up money to buy her own restaurant to fulfill her childhood dream. Meanwhile, Prince Naveen of Maldonia has come into town, and is bamboozled by a charismatic witch doctor Dr. Facilier, who turns him into a frog. Taking a page (literally) from a classic story, Naveen convinces Tiana to kiss him to make him human again, but unfortunately it just turns Tiana into a frog too. The two end up getting lost in the bayou and find out about someone who can help: an old voo-doo queen Mama Odie. They venture to seek her out, along with an enthusiastic trumpet-playing gator Louis and a Cajun firefly Ray.
It's very clear those at the Disney studios went all out on this one, giving all they could to make this one shine and prove traditional animation's worth. Let me tell you, they went above and beyond: this film is fucking gorgeous. I do enjoy the design and care that goes into making CG animated films, but really, nothing can hold a candle to good old 2D; the artistry is so much stronger, and there's always the knowledge in the back of my head that these are all drawn pictures that are amazingly moving that makes it like magic (which for Disney, makes sense). Everything in this whole damn movie is eye candy: the city of New Orleans, the Le Bouff estate, Facilier's shop, the lush bayou, everything is done with such care and attention to detail. Disney's traditional animation department was cut off too soon, I think: they had dealt with ways to use computer animation to best assist them with their last few films, but it was all experimental and things looked a bit shifty. But here, they've only better improved the traditional look using very subtle computer enhancements, the few there are to begin with.
The character animation is also very strong. Our characters are traditionally designed, yet still feel fresh-faced. Some of the animation here is truly unbelievable, when I first saw it there were several times I was just absolutely floored, particularly with Dr. Facilier, Charlotte and Louis. Some of their scenes have movements so fluid and full of expression, I am utterly convinced they were animated by phantoms, because no human could accomplish such wizardry. That being said, a lot of the characters are truly a joy to WATCH, which is something that's been lost by Disney for a while. I could turn off the sound through a lot of this film and still be very amused. The script also shouldn't be ignored: very focused and on-point, free of most superfluous dialogue, and above all is quite funny and charming. The humor comes organically from the story and the characters, and bits also intertwine the humorous with the heartwarming, like Ray's amorous affections toward a shining star, his Evangeline.
So our story is pretty solid: surprising for Disney that Tiana is actually very firmly established in the very beginning as a girl who knows what she wants and is working hard to get it. Conversely, Prince Naveen is a rich layabout, who enters the film as a guy who's very aloof, but light-hearted and fun. However, we only see him for a brief period before he's turned into a frog, and when that happens, he seems a tad different. His cocky Lothario side is played up a bit more, which doesn't seem to match what we've seen of him previously. Maybe if he'd had one more scene for better establish his character, it would have meshed better. Suffice to say though, frog Naveen's animation is spectacular, the most cartoony Disney character we've seen in a while, almost alluding to a Chuck Jones-esque design. Frog Tiana, however, looks a tad strange to me... I dunno, the design isn't quite as strong as Naveen's.
I also do want to sing the praises of our villain Dr. Facilier, what a fantastic and engrossing character. So manipulative and debonair, he's got to be one of my favorite Disney villains, and I love how they didn't sugarcoat his quite creepy shadow creatures, as well as his absolutely awesome final demise. Despite all this, I wish his motives were made a bit clearer: he sweet-talks Naveen's ever-suffering assistant to go along with his scheme to physically impersonate Naveen to marry the rich Charlotte Le Boeff. Then, Facilier will use his voo doo magic to kill her father, then horn in on his riches and take over New Orlenas, and offer the citizens' souls to his friends on the other side. Phew. I will admit it made more sense to me the second time around, but something about his whole scheme felt kinda odd, almost distant from our heroes' plight. Tiana eventually does Facilier in, but they never really had any animosity. But the scene where Facilier tempts her to help him in exchange for making her dreams come true is so friggin' awesome that I could care less.

Verdict? I am so very sad. This film didn't exactly break the box office, it did alright, meanwhile that horrid Chipmunks sequel scored two hundred mill... it's unbelievable. But "Little Mermaid" wasn't exactly a great success initially, and look where that led. "Frog" is nothing short of a triumph, a true indicator at what Disney can do in terms of dazzling visuals, a well-plotted script, and phenomenal character animation. While I hope they try more dynamic stories than fall back on fairy tales in the future, the folks at Disney have demonstrated in the best possible way that traditional animation is far from dead.

#48: Bolt (2008)

Third up from Disney's CG department is "Bolt," which features the super-powered exploits of the eponymous dog as he works with his owner Penny to rescue her father from the clutches of the diabolical Green-Eyed Man. One small detail here though, it's all just the high-concept premise for a popular (and EXTREMELY elaborate) TV show, helmed by a director who wants to keep the dog's method acting by making him believe it's all real. Trouble arises when Bolt ends up released off the set and half-way across the country. Naive and deluded, Bolt is no match in the real world by himself, so he enlists the help of a reluctant cat Mittens, who he drags along in his venture back to California. Along their way they also meet Rhino, an energetic little hamster who is Bolt's #1 fan. It's then that Mittens figures out why Bolt thinks he's a superdog, and must convince him otherwise if they have any hope of surviving the journey.
These last three movies are very indicative of the progressing regime changes behind the scenes at Disney. With "Little," it was the bottom of the barrel, low, pandering, following the crowd. After that, Disney acquired Pixar and head John Lasseter came on board at Disney Animation. He worked hard in retooling "Robinsons," which felt a bit more grounded and structural. Now we have "Bolt," which plays out a solid, heartfelt story almost in the fashion of a Pixar film (which I guess makes sense). Speaking of, Disney's CG designs are starting to get more and more Pixar-esque, with the humans looking like they could very well fit in a film like "The Incredibles." Most of the film features technically proficient, but basic, serviceable visuals. In terms of a filmatic story though, "Bolt" is pretty sound, with an ever-prevalent emotional core between Bolt and Penny amidst the traditional adventure home story... but with animals, of course. Almost like an animated "Homeward Bound."
The worst thing I can say about "Bolt" is that it feels very ordinary once you get passed the thrilling TV show segments. The exploits of this poorly deluded dog out in the real world doesn't grab me as greatly as it should. It kind of reminds me of Buzz in "Toy Story," except notice how the filmmakers knew it perhaps wasn't wise to leave him as the primary focus. Now while the film's heart and structured story begs to emulate Pixar, though with everything else it still seems to be going after the works of competing studies, with its overuse of dialogue and quirky characters. Quite a few of the jokes do hit their marks, be it the New York pigeons or some of Rhino's manic delusions, but a lot of the snappy, overwritten dialogue between Bolt and Mittens kind of just lies there. I also feel a whole lot more could have been done with the TV show backdrop, playing off the entertainment industry, but apart from an admittedly amusing heartless Hollywood agent, most of the beginning portion is played fairly straight.
Yeah, so "Bolt" does feel very basic and doesn't necessarily reach for great heights in terms of originality or innovation. But that doesn't make it bad. The familiar story beats and humor still work, and many came off fresh enough to keep me entertaining. A few exciting scene like breaking Mittens out of the animal shelter peppered throughout didn't hurt my interest either. The film's emotional undercurrent also helped support most of the film's weight, especially for me: the movie could have been garbage and I still would have teared up seeing that dog reunited with his owner. That being said, they could have relied on audiences' automatic reaction to such schmaltz, but instead developed Bolt and Penny enough to make us actually give a shit whether these two specific characters finally make it in the end.
Verdict? As I said, "Bolt" really feels like a movie on autopilot, and it's one we'll probably forget about in a few year's time, but on all accounts it's an enjoyable film with just enough story, heart and humor to keep one going for ninety minutes time. It's no triumph, but it ain't bad. It's a lukewarm 'pretty good.'

Friday, February 26, 2010

#47: Meet the Robinsons (2007)

Following the festering abortion known as "Chicken Little" is Disney's next CG excursion, "Meet the Robinsons." Louis is a teenage orphan with a knack for inventing, who is pretty bummed that no one wants to adopt him. Rationalizing that the only person that ever cared about him was his birth mother, he begins work on a memory scanning device so he can enter his subconscious and find what she looks like. His efforts are interrupted by a strange kid Wilbur, who tells him his invention is going to be stolen by a guy wearing a bowler hat from the future. To prove his story, Wilbur takes Louis into the future, where he is amazed by the advancements of technology, and especially weirded out by his quirky extended family. Meanwhile, the Bowler Hat Guy does indeed attempt to steal Louis' invention and pass it off as his own, thanks in particular to his sentient headwear DOR-15. When the motives for his grudge against him are made clear, Louis is the only one who can re-establish the flow of time the way it's supposed to be.
I'm surprised that a film that hinges on such a complicated (and occasionally flawed) time travel schematic ended up going through by Disney. It certainly makes the story a lot more interesting. Before we get to all that we must sit through the set-up of Louis' pathetic position in life, though, which is not entirely unbearable, but still feels a bit cloying. But we do connect with Louis' struggles, see his mission in life and hope he succeeds, even if he does have a bit of an annoying voice. Wilbur is a harder character to pin down, he's very spastic, slightly on edge but still maintaining to keep his cool. This may all be understandable, since I'd be a bit skittish about going back to the past and conversing with my own father as a kid, and his role in the story is more of a harbinger of future events than an actual character. Our focus is always Louis, be it his possible future or his actions in the present. Or past. Whatever, this is getting confusing already...
The future segments are pretty neat; nothing so revolutionary in terms of a vision of the future, but this film's just trying to be light and fun. I especially love the shot of Space Mountain and the Astro Orbitors from Disneyland, complete with a giant "TODAYLAND" sign. This middle section where Louis meets his family of the future is incredibly hectic, where we meet wacky character after wacky character, be it the old grandfather who dresses backwards, a superhero-pizzaman voiced by Adam West, a man married to an overbearing hand puppet, identical twins who live in pots by the front door beckoning those near to ring their respective doorbells, and Rat Pack-esque lounge singing frogs. While the togetherness apart from the weirdness of this strange family unit serve to entice Louis to this family he never had, this whole portion is very slap-dash, throwing up a lot of fast-paced visual puns, most of which fall flat, like an extended sequence parodying badly-dubbed Japanese kung-fu movies. Also at times a lot of the family members flip-flop from being delightfully quirky and needing to be committed; there's only so much craziness one can take, you know.
The second act plot detour is made up for in the third act, where the twists become apparent, conundrums need to be resolved, and of course, time needs to be traveled once more. We also learn the true identity of the Bowler Hat Guy, which is a very intriguing revelation, and a good parallel at what Louis could become if he doesn't change his perceptions. Speaking of, the Bowler Hat Guy is a very interesting character, brutally vindictive, but still clueless. He also is a flip-flopping character, though purposefully, going from being a threat to being dumb. Sometimes they pushed the dumbness too far though, as I liked the moments where he was semi-competent, at least well-intentioned... for his own purposes, anyway. His stupidity is contrasted by "Doris," his super-intelligent, super-evil hat, with a torrid back story of its own. It's a cool little character as well, and they're a pretty amusing evil team. Bowler Hat Guy is also proof positive great performances can come from non-actors, as he's voiced by the director.
Verdict? The mantra of the film is "Keep Moving Forward," and the closing shot is a quote to that effect said by Walt Disney. While some have attributed this theme to Disney attempting to justify its switch to CG, I think it shows hope for the company. This movie is certainly proof of that: while it's no masterpiece, it's a goofy, light-hearted time-travel-lite story with some amusing bits, pretty cool animation and a coherent-enough story. Being weird as hell doesn't hurt either.