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.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

#46: Chicken Little (2005)

"Chicken Little," more than any other Disney film, reminds me that the company truly is a business first, for many reasons. As you should know, it's the first CG film by the company; after a string of traditionally animated failures, Disney decided to trade in paper for PC, following the trend of the more lucrative films of DreamWorks, Blue Sky, and their very own Pixar. Speaking of Pixar, Disney was in danger of losing their ties with the company, whose contract was nearly up and sour relations between the two left Pixar with many other companies vying to do business. This was Disney's shot to show that they could be just as big a heavy-hitter in the CG film market as Pixar, and the relationship between the two companies was at a stand-still during "Little"'s release. And to top it all off, of course, this film acted as a marketing machine: loads of merchandise, ads popping up everywhere, a cameo in 'Kingdom Hearts II' far in advance, and a Macy's parade balloon: Chicken Little was everywhere. Disney was pushing as hard as it could to assure their efforts not be in vain. And the result? ...not bad. The film grossed more than their previous 2D efforts, but failed to reach the high numbers Pixar normally raked in, which lead Disney to eventually buy Pixar for themselves, and making Pixar head John Lasseter a Disney animation head. So what about the film? Sure it may be a film heavily influenced by commercial viability and industry standards. It could still be good, right? ...right?
Chicken Little, a meek, awkward middle-school chicken thing, claims a piece of the sky hit him on the head, but nobody believe him, making him the laughing stock of the entire town. Little is crest-fallen, and is determined to prove himself as worthy, particularly to his dad, whom he's not exactly too close to. Ignoring the advice of his friend Abby (the ugly duckling) to talk to his dad straight out, Little tries out for the baseball team, which does manage to get him back into his dad's good graces for the time being. It's then when another piece of the sky hits Little, a hexagonal shape that he and his friends find is actually camouflage for an alien ship. What follows is a full-on alien invasion on the town, but Little knows exactly what the aliens are after, and it's up to him to stop them.
"Chicken Little" is a very painful movie, for all the reasons I mentioned above, which all fall under one simple fact: it made Disney a follower. Seventy years ago Walt defied all who laughed at him about making a full-length animated film, but he did it. "Fantasia" sounded laughable, but he did that too. Even though I'm not a huge fan of the Disney Renaissance, it was new and different at the time, and has since been heavily copied and parodied. Disney, for better or for worse, was always a company that set the bar for the competition, but now with "Little" they had been reduced to following the crowd, not only with converting to CG, but through the film's content as well. Taking a cue from films like "Shrek," this movie is filled with every single horrible element that plagues modern animation today: pop culture references (a lot of them dated), old 70s songs and dance numbers, scatological humor, LOTS of superfluous and meaningless dialogue, tired sight gags, gimmicky characters, and humor aiming for the lowest possible targets. There's really no reason why I need to discuss WHY these things are bad, because really all I have to do is mention a few of these so-called jokes: characters sing Spice Girls karaoke, have a long-winded exchange listing euphemisms for urine, make elaborate references of the likes of "King Kong" and "Indiana Jones" with no relevance to the plot, and lift a lot of the final invasion scenes and spectacle from "War of the Worlds." All of this is supposed to be clever and funny... but couldn't be further from approaching either.
There's nothing I can think of that could even possibly have saved this picture. There's no real story here, with the alien plot feeling like a simplistic and overly pathetic attempt to modernize the old fable and make it more hip. Plus there's so much padding, the entire baseball "subplot" could basically have been cut out with no effect on the story, which would end up making the movie about forty-five minutes long. Regardless of the length, this thing just drags and drags; moments that are meant to be silly and madcap end up getting bogged down with excessive dialogue, and when the movie feels it needs to slow down for drama between father and son, you can literally hear tires screeching to a halt as we are graced with more scenes building us to our tired and boring moral center. Everything about the film feels like it was picked through with a fine-toothed comb by executives, lifting material for more popular films, testing demographics, and focus groups to create a highly lucrative property, rather than a film, leaving all creatively involved in the project to just sit back and take orders. There's nothing here that feels like a director's vision, or a cartoonist's personal touch; it's all processed, cold and sterile. And not funny. Did I mention that?
Verdict? It's all just very sad... I could go on complaining, but what more is there to say. "Chicken Little" is a movie made for business reasons only: a CG bonanza less concerned with being an entertaining movie than recycling the elements of the more lucrative films of the time, leaving you with a hollow entity of what seems to resemble a Disney film. It's crude, ugly, tired, cloying, pathetic, derivative, and above all... depressing. Pandering to the lowest common denominator, the only positive I can see from this is that the company couldn't possibly stoop any lower with their feature films. And luckily... they didn't.

#45: Home on the Range (2004)

So this was it. By all accounts it looked like Disney was going to abandon traditional animation all together, and "Home on the Range" was to be the last one out the gate. With films from Pixar, DreamWorks and Blue Sky raking in so much bank, what other reason could it be other than audiences choosing 3D over 2D? (a theory I'm sadly considering may have some merit). As was expected, "Range" underperformed, but it's been said that the film was set up to fail, if only to make the gross of their first CG film the following year seem that much more impressive. An off-season (April) release date and limited marketing support this theory pretty well. The film was also stalled with story problems, resulting in it switching with "Brother Bear," but perhaps they pushed the production schedule along on PURPOSE. It's all a big conspiracy!
Out in the old west is a nice little farm named Patch of Heaven, who is about to have a new addition: a brazen and snarky show-cow named Maggie. This doesn't sit too well with the prim and proper Mrs. Calloway, but the eternally naive Grace doesn't seem to mind. The owner of the farm is in dire financial straights, as most of the area's farms are, due to a stealthy cattle rustler Alameda Slim. With only three days to pay off the farm's debt, the trio of cows set out into town to see if they can negotiate with the sheriff's horse, a cocky would-be fighter Buck. There they find the ransom for Slim's capture just so happens to be the exact amount of money they need, leaving the cows with only one option: kill... I mean, bring Alameda Slim to justice.
The film's tone and relatively simplistic and gimmicky story makes this one of Disney's lighter movies, hardly the bang one would hope traditional animation could go out on. However, I do like the look of this movie: nice, warm and natural color scheme, but still with fantastical elements, like the color-coding of the cows. The character designs are also very neat, more constructed with sharp edges and angular forms than the more realistic looking characters we usually get from Disney. It almost seems lifted from Tex Avery cartoons of the 50s. So while the designs are great, the character animation still feels decidedly Disney, and the two conflicting styles is a mixed bag, with some expressions quite effective and others seem quite basic. Despite the film's more simple look, there's also a few CG elements here, and a lot of them feel decidedly out of place in this barren western area, especially very unnecessary computer rendered shots of the farm. A final chase scene through a mine shaft and a giant locomotive are also CG designs, as are the endless herds of cattle Slim has rustled, all of which vary in terms of how well they integrate within the style.
So while I did enjoy the look of the movie, I wish I could say the same about the rest of it. The movie primarily plays itself off as goofy and light-hearted, with the three cows' personalities bouncing off each other, the quirky side characters and the laughable exploits of the villain. However, there's also many points in the film where the tone goes sour, the realization of the farm's foreclosure, the farm of Maggie's past being sold off, lots of shots of sad animals... and worst of all, played up with horrible country songs. It's such a mood whiplash, and a real bummer, and frankly bore, to watch. But those scenes aside, the comedic angle still doesn't work. While our main heroines are pretty one-dimensional to begin with, they could have elevated their characters (and our interest) a bit with some good dialogue, but rather we get a hurricane of snarky dialogue and terrible puns. Plus our lead is voiced by Roseanne, who gets real irritating real fast.
As I haven't done in a while, I can take some refuge in our villain on this one. Not so much in his character, but in the one real notable scene in the movie, where it's revealed his expert cattle rustling is due to his hypnotic yodeling. Yeah, sounds weird, but his musical number is pretty damn amazing. Randy Quaid did a great job voicing it, this technicolor madness-inducing fever dream of a sequence. If this scene was executed so well and is so clever and amusing, why couldn't the rest of the movie have been too?

Verdict? It's sorry to see such a legacy depart in a fashion like this. Even with its strong visual style, nothing can disguise this film's smallness in scope, from its thin story, juvenile dialogue and lack of any kind of suspense or genuine emotion toward our lead characters. This is another movie I suspect Disney pushed ahead despite production issues; there could have been a wacky self-conscious movie here, something akin to "New Groove," but they just didn't get there in time, I guess.

#44: Brother Bear (2003)

Though not the last to be released, "Brother Bear" was to be Disney's last traditionally animated film... or so it seemed. It seems to take place in post-ice age North America, focused on three brothers, primarily the youngest Kenai, who is psyched to be getting a totem from the tribe elder. His excitement diminishes when he receives the "Bear of Love," not understanding its significance. He only gets more infuriated when his half-hazard efforts results in a bear absconding with their collection of fish, leaving Kenai to run off to take down the bear. He's left in a tough spot and his brothers come help, all resulting in the elder Sitka to sacrifice himself to save his brothers. After a period of mourning, Kenai goes off in a rage to kill the bear, only to set off the spiritual powers that be, which turn him into a bear. Now the much furrier Kenai must trek to the place "where the light touches the mountain" to turn back to normal, and ends up tagging along with a motormouth scrappy cub Koda who knows the way. Meanwhile, the remaining brother Denahi is on their trail, believing bear-form Kenai is the one who killed his remaining brother.
This is gonna be real tough to fill all this space, because I really can't think of much to say about this one, and that's one of its main problems. It comes across as so bland and banal that it's instantly forgettable. I watched it last night and I forget a lot of what happened. Perhaps because it's made up with elements we've seen in Disney films before: native prophecies ("Pocahontas"), transformations ("New Groove"), young tag-alongs ("Mouse Detective"), and the like. In the same way that "Pocahontas" felt like a Disney Renaissance epic pumped to the Nth degree, this feels like a movie flourished with traditional Disney elements, but like the studio could have done in their sleep. A simple redemption story, with your cast of cute talking animals, some dramatic tension between our leads... all very basic. But Disney's made a living out of transforming traditional story elements by gussying them up with different set dressings, making them new and palatable. But here, it feels like a big dead zone.
I guess I'll go through the movie and try to pinpoint some stuff... First off our three brothers feel a bit off; acting like a bunch of obnoxious modern-day teenagers doesn't mesh well with their aged setting. Our lead Kenai is kind of brazen and a slacker, but that's the whole point, I suppose. There are a few neat things pulled off thematically here; the beginning of the film before Kenai's transformation feels very washed out and "real" looking, with lots of great earth tones. As boring as most of the film is, the first part at least looks nice. When we get to the bear portion of our story, nature becomes a lot more vibrant and colorful, which I happened to not like, but it was a neat stylistic choice. So then we have Koda, the cub that won't shut up. He drives Kenai nuts, and I don't blame him. Cocky and talkative young kids are always annoying, and this one is no exception. Plus they gave him a hint of 'tude, as the great John K calls it, making him an unusually obnoxious character.
So Kenai grows fond of Koda through a music montage, with Phil Collins playing, who returns since "Tarzan" to do a few songs sprinkled throughout the film. They're nothing special, but they're nice, I suppose. Then we get to the salmon rush with the other bears, and then... some things happen, and... I tell you, I really haven't retained a lot of this. I could watch again and try to pinpoint exactly why a lot of this movie isn't that memorable, but why? A good film should grab you from one watch; you might appreciate it more the more times you watch it, but you should at least have some interest to watch again. I will say the twist at the hour mark is pretty interesting, and since I don't care if I spoil it, the bear Kenai killed is actually Koda's mother. That perked my interest slightly. Too bad there was only fifteen minutes of movie left. Oh yeah, there are also these two Canadian moose (meese?) that show up from time to time to provide comic relief. I guess they're supposed to be funny. I guess...
Verdict? I just don't know where this movie came from. I've heard rumors Michael Eisner really wanted to push a bear film through product to sell plush bear dolls, so maybe there's your answer. Everything about this movie feels very dated; to follow the extravagant "Lilo & Stitch" and "Treasure Planet" with something like this seems very odd. Not that I'm against doing a more traditional film, but it's got to have some twist or twinge of new interest, but this film feels very flat, quite boring, and not a single thing about it feels memorable. ...sounds kinda harsh, but what can I say but what I think, eh?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

#43: Treasure Planet (2002)

Poor "Treasure Planet"; regardless of its quality, it's hard not to feel bad for it. The concept had been the dream of Disney animators Ron Clements and John Musker since the late 80s, but it never got the go-ahead. After doing "Little Mermaid" and "Aladdin," they pitched their dream movie again, this time told that if they could deliver another smash project as they did before, they'd let them do this much riskier one. So they made "Hercules," which underperformed, sagging their progress a bit. But then, finally, they got their chance to make "Treasure Planet"; now with the advancements of CG, they crafted a film whose technical merits had never before been seen in modern animation. So what went wrong? Well there's no way to tell, really. The top two excuses for its failure were an overpopulated market (it was released at the same time as the second Harry Potter AND the Two Towers) and misaimed marketing (all commercials aired during kid's shows, while this was a broader appeal film). Whatever the reason, "Treasure Planet" was a spectacular failure; not even its worldwide revenue could cover production costs, let alone promotion. It's been labeled the film that (temporarily) killed Disney traditional animation... but hey, it can't be THAT bad, right?
It's Treasure Island! In SPAAAAACE!! Young ragamuffin Jim Hawkins is given a mysterious sphere by a dying space pirate, which ends up projecting a hologram with coordinates to Treasure Planet, the supposedly legendary planet rife with intergalactic booty. A ship is assembled, and a motley crew hired, secretly led by the ship's cook John Silver, a crafty dweller with a cybernetic arm. Jim is put in Silver's command, and despite their initial animosity, they develop a close bond, with Silver being like the father Jim never had. This unfortunately complicates matters, specifically Silver's plan to declare mutiny on the ship. The crew does so anyway, leaving Jim, the captain and his friend stranded on Treasure Planet, and with Silver believing he still has the map. Jim attempts to retrieve the map from the ship, but is caught by Silver, forcing him to lead them to the treasure, which is locked away in a most peculiar fashion.
So yeah, these visuals are totally mind boggling, and that's good and bad. This film is up to its eyeballs in CG; every environment, every ship, all the effects, even whole characters are comprised of CG. Some of the scenes here are downright incredible, be it the glory shots of the ship sailing through space, to the spaceport itself, seen from one perspective as a crescent moon, then when zoomed and tilted appears to be an entire shipping-off dockside city. The scenery in space, as with the barren parts of Treasure Planet, and the planet's core are full of lush color and beautiful design, blending natural and decidedly unnatural color. Now we spend a lot of time on the ship, which is entirely CG rendered; most of the shots of the film, even during dialogue, it's 2D characters conversing in a 3D environment. During intense action sequences it's less overt, but there were plenty of moments when it became pretty distracting. When Jim first meets Silver within the ovular cooking area, there's tension between them, signified with a wrapping camera movement around the 3D-rendered space, but the background looks so awkward and misplaced, it diminishes the tension. It's easy to misuse CG, but thankfully there aren't many of these moments.
As for the characters, I'm torn between some of them. It's hard to argue against their personalities given the source material, and the story is pretty sound, but a few characters suffer from over-design, Silver in particular. His CG-rendered cybernetic arm is pretty neat, but his character design is pretty ugly. He's meant to BE ugly, I understand, but a lot of the time his face seems to morph and tween in strange ways. I have a tendency toward limited design, as in the less lines it takes to establish a character and their personality and emotion, the stronger the design is. A lot of characters, particularly Silver, seemed to be too complicated, and were a bit unappealing. Jim is a simple design, but suffers from bland Disney protagonist syndrome as many have before him. His friend Dr. Doppler and the captain Amelia I liked, as some of the other aliens. The mindless (literally) robot B.E.N., again CG-rendered, shows up late to the picture to be loud, offer comic relief, and be voiced by Martin Short. But as annoying as he was, I did like how they translated his character from the source material: rather than being crazy, the legendary pirate who hid the treasure had his memory banks ripped out, leaving the robot tortured by his missing memories.
The adaptation from the novel was done pretty well too: combining steampunk and cyberpunk, but maintaining the traditional values of the original. They really did go all-out on revamping the events into sci-fi craziness, particularly the grand finale in the treasure locked away in the planet's core, and the inter-spatial gateway leading the crew there. The effects of all those gems and rubies plummeting into nothingness... just great. And the final bit of the explosion of the planet... crazy cool. It was all very exciting, quite so, quite so.

Verdict? Given its damaged reputation, I was surprised that part of me really enjoyed "Treasure Planet." It's a pretty clever idea, executed with the same cleverness and filled with some amazing eye candy and gorgeous scenery. However, I felt some of the technology was used in excess, and scenes fully rendered in CG could have been made seamless and believable in good old 2D. Overall I have mixed feelings on this one, but I can certainly say it's not the disaster it's labeled to be.

#42: Lilo & Stitch (2002)

Certainly one of Disney's stranger concepts; "Lilo & Stitch" is about the meeting of two very different outcasts. First in the far reaches of space, a crazed scientist has created a madly violent and indestructible little blue monster, experiment 626, later dubbed "Stitch," who manages to escape from the intergalactic powers-that-be. He crash-lands on the Hawaiian islands, where we meet Lilo, a socially awkward girl who is being looked after by her older sister Nani. They don't exactly have the most stable of domestic dwellings, with Nani on thin ice with a pursuant social worker, who will take her sister away if she doesn't straighten up her act. To blend in with its surroundings, and to avoid capture when its creator is sent to Earth to recover it, Stitch obscures his alien features and is adopted by Lilo as a "dog." This new addition to the family only causes it to become fractured further, but along the way Stitch starts to develop some sort of emotion for this family unit he's inadvertently destroying.
Some of the best of these modern Disney films have been the ones that don't wholly "feel" like Disney films. Not every one should have a traditional formula to follow; each one should be an entity within itself, a different experience, a whole new adventure, and "Stitch" is one of the more outlandish of them all. Not only does it take place in extravagant locales like Hawaii and... space, but our two lead characters are very unique and intriguing. While Lilo might appear to be just another social outcast/cute little kid character, her weirdness sort of pushes this archetype even further, with hints of her dabbling in voo doo and other strange things. One could read into this even further that this odd behavior might have stemmed from psychological trauma of the death of her parents, which I thought was an interesting interpretation. Stitch, on the other hand, is a complete maniac, very strange of a Disney lead. But he's not just silly crazy, for the first half of the film he's really mean, destroying things in the house, attacking people, and being an overall asshole. They didn't hold back in making Stitch a complete terror, and is only restrained by himself, since he must keep a low profile to evade capture.
The film is largely comedic, and a lot of the stuff here works splendidly. More grounded you have the dynamic between Lilo & Nani, who have typical sister rivalry, with Lilo's quieter quirkiness and Nani's exasperation in trying to hold their family together. Stitch of course is inherently funny, in his curiosity on common Earth items and customs and violent frustration over them. The film works in that every character is presented in such a sincere fashion, whether they be one of good intentions or intent to destroy everything; their role in the story is made perfectly clear and you can just watch it all unfold. There's a lot of great bits in here with Stitch adapting to his new surroundings, and Lilo & Nani trying to adapt to the real world, but there's still always an undercurrent of drama, as there is a bit of a ticking clock until Lilo is going to be taken away, and of course the theme of 'ohana,' which of course means family. While these serious elements could have easily been shoehorned in and disrupted the flow of the film, they fit in very well, and not only is there a natural progression between Stitch being an insane bastard to him actually caring about these Earth dwellers, but you believe it too. Scenes that by every right should feel manipulative and schmaltzy instead are incredibly powerful, because the characters are so pure and you've enjoyed them throughout the whole movie.
I haven't even got to the look of the film yet! Jeez. First off, "Stitch" is the brainchild of Chris Sanders; he came up with the story, co-wrote the screenplay and co-directed the movie, was heavy in designing the movie, and to top it off voiced Stitch. In an industry where a lot of movies are created by a soulless committee, "Stitch" does feel like a singular vision for the most part. Anyway, the character designs are based on Sanders' drawings, and they're some of the best, if not the best, designs in a Disney film. They're different from any Disney characters in the past, and are just as expressive, if not more so. While they're very planted in space, their actions are very loose and believable. And shocker of shockers, the body proportions on characters is played with, where Lilo, and particularly Nani, look like normal people, as in they don't have toothpick waists (lookin' at YOU, Ariel and Jasmine...). Stitch is also a great design, looking alternatively bizarre and adorable. The other aliens look good too, although some of the minions seem to have been slapped together too quickly, designed to look like raptors, bears, and other animals. But that's really me grasping at straws. This film also utilizes watercolor backgrounds, which hasn't been done by Disney in a while, giving this movie a very distinctive look and making it all-and-all gorgeous looking. Contrasting that, the CG keeps getting better, as I found myself questioning whether the aliens ships were done traditionally or on the computer, but no, it's 3D, but cel-shaded amazingly to look fluid with the rest of the movie. Fantastic.
Verdict? This one is phenomenal, and a true original for Disney. Likable, well-rounded characters, a bizarre story, gorgeous design and a off-the-wall concept, "Stitch" is a perfect example of taking the ball and running with it when it comes to unusual ideas. I'd only wish Disney had taken time and money to create more brilliant and original films like this, rather than create more DVD movies and a TV series of Stitch; since this is their only huge success in the last ten years, you'd better believe they'd squeeze every penny out of it.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

#41: Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)

Done by the directors of "Beast" and "Hunchback," "Atlantis" was to be completely unlike those films, or any other Disney film for that matter. It was going to be an epic adventure full of thrilling creatures and perils. However around this time the Disney higher-ups were becoming more and more discouraged with their feature animation's lack of success, and started to meddle with their films more to cut costs, so they could quickly release a movie, pump millions into promotion, and hope it was a hit. "Atlantis" was pretty expensive as is, but cuts forced them to remove most of the creature scenes, as the executives wanted to know why it was taking so long for the crew to GET to Atlantis, not realizing that was the whole point. The film is viewed as a bomb, a victim of excessive executive meddling, and one of the first nails in the coffin for Disney 2D animation.
At the cusp of World War I, linguist Milo Thatch has uncovered evidence that might prove the ancient civilization of Atlantis is actually real, but none of his peers will hear such nonsense. However, a mysterious benefactor beckons Milo, and having made a bet with his grandfather, pledges to fund his expedition to Atlantis and provide him with a crew, full of a bunch of ragtag characters. After a tough and dangerous journey, they arrive at the gorgeous ancient city, to find that it is going into decay due to the current citizens' inability to read the ancient texts of their people and resurrect the source of their power. Kida, the daughter of the Atlantian leader, discovers Milo's ability to read dead languages, and enlists his help, but unbeknown to them, the rest of the crew has more greedy intentions regarding the treasures of the lost city.
Visually, the film is quite strong, adapting a style akin to a graphic novel, which I personally liked. Although there were times where the different style clashed with traditional Disney elements, the characters were mostly interesting to watch in action. Then there's the great CG integration; the money shot here is where the camera sits as the Ulysses ship sinks down into the sea, where, through a giant orange ocular window we see the intricate ship design, exterior and interior, in 3D and the characters watching in 2D, all in one great seamless shot. The city of Atlantis is also incredibly lush and beautiful, with many technically proficient and gorgeous set pieces, like the gigantic undersea tablets, and the floating glowing masks representing lost leaders. The high-tech ancient vehicles (oxymoron?) are also pretty cool and pulled off quite well.
As for the story... well, let's say it's spotty. With so many plot elements and an entire civilization's back story and plight to explain, there's bound to be a lot of exposition, but the problem is that major elements of it are spread out throughout the film, and you forget important elements along the way. It doesn't help that a lot of the expedition to Atlantis is full of the side characters' comedic antics, which aren't really that amusing or interesting, and also take away from the sci-fi adventure aura that the film had presented itself to be. As a result, I'm still a bit hazy on the entire plot and what exactly the Atlantians' life force exactly is, even though they attempt to explain it several times in the film. Also, there's a few things that are just silly. Kida and her father are old enough to have been alive when the city was submerged into the Earth, so that must mean there are others still alive too who can read their own language, right? Did they just happen to forget? She seems to speak every other language that would prove her no use in Atlantis, and she forgot the most important one? The story became over-complicated, and as such, it was hard to follow, and ultimately care, about this epic story that was unfolding.
There's also the matter of our cast. The various crew members are slightly amusing in their quirkiness, but none of them really generate a real response from me like classic Disney side characters of the past. They all seem very distant, and it becomes even harder to root for them when they betray Milo under the orders of the greedy commander. And later when they have a change of heart and help the Atlantians, there's only like ten minutes of movie left, and I could really care less. As for Milo, he's likable enough, a well-meaning and bumbling nerd (nothing of which I can relate to, mind you), but when he's your only likable character, it's a bit tough to hold a movie together. Kida counts too, I guess. She's brave, earnest... hot... *ahem*...

Verdict? Perhaps if the higher-ups had left this film alone it could have been a bit stronger... or maybe it wouldn't have made a difference. It's futile to speculate on these matters; all I can talk about is the film as it is now, and unfortunately, despite it being one of the visually strongest and most stylistic Disney has done, there seems to be a real disconnect on a human level from this thing. Between the distant characters and somewhat slapdash story, "Atlantis" gets bogged down with a lot of dialogue when it should be kicking my ass with gorgeous scenery and giant monsters. Oh well, and so it is, the tribulations of our lost city...

Monday, February 22, 2010

#40: The Emperor's New Groove (2000)

Ah, we finally get to "Groove." Of the few Disney films I'd seen before embarking on this crazed mission, this was the only one of them that really impacted me, and that I could say I really loved. But movies like this don't just happen; in fact, "Groove" has probably the most interesting behind-the-scenes story of any Disney film, which I will try to briefly relay here. At the start, it couldn't have been further from what the final product would be; "Lion King" director Roger Allers wanted to do another serious epic story, and since his movie was the studio's biggest cash cow in decades, Disney gave him some rope. "Kingdom of the Sun" was basically like 'Prince and the Pauper' as the emperor and a peasant switch places, however the royal sorceress finds out, turns the real emperor into a llama and keeps the peasant under lock and key. She, meanwhile, has an evil scheme to extinguish the sun to preserve her beauty. Yeah, kinda strange sounding. Disney thought so too, but so did "Lion King" during its production stage, so they let Allers be. However a year or two into production, no test screenings were really working, and Disney began to get irate with this project. Eventually they brought in another director Mark Dindal, who did the light-hearted Warner Bros. film "Cats Don't Dance." Suffice to say, Dindal and Allers didn't quite agree on the direction of the project; the animators basically split up into two camps making two different movies, Allers still dramatic, while Dindal focusing on comedy. The deal-breaker occurred with the new test-screenings; while there was dead-silence during Allers' segments, audiences loved Dindal's. So Disney shoved Allers out on his ass, told Dindal to just finish the damn movie quickly, the team scrambled together, and we eventually got "The Emperor's New Groove." Now there's no telling what "Kingdom of the Sun" could have been if the executives hadn't have gotten cold feet about it. It could have been great, and a lot of animators hold a grudge against "Groove" for this reason. But you know, if this is what we got in its place, buddy, you could've done a WHOLE lot worse.
What started as a classic Aesop tale ended up being a screwy buddy comedy. Emperor Kuzco is a real spoiled brat, leader of an ambiguous Inca-eqsue civilization, who wants to destroy well-meaning peasant Pacha's village for his own summer home. Meanwhile, Yzma, adviser to the emperor, wishes to rule the kingdom; after she is fired, she and her henchman Kronk vow to murder the emperor and take his place. Unfortunately, a mix-up in magic potions turns Kuzco into a llama, and Kronk's half-assed disposal of said body leaves the now llama-fied Kuzco in the hands of Pacha, who agrees to help the emperor only if he agrees to spare his village. The two must learn to work together to get back to the palace, and also avoid Yzma and Kronk, who are on the hunt for the emperor once Yzma learns he might still be alive.
Watching this movie again in context of the studio's previous thirty-nine, it's become even more evident just how much of a step into uncharted territory this was for Disney. The fast paced jokes, total irreverence and embracing of irony, lack of traditional Disney elements like songs and sidekicks; this is nothing the way the studio had ever made their movies. It has more to thank the classic Warner Bros. shorts than anything out of Disney (makes sense, considering its director). "Groove" is still the funniest of the Disney films by far; while a few jokes don't quite hold up after so many viewings, far more of them are still oh-so good. This is helped by the amazing vocal performances, with everyone giving their all to their characters, be it David Spade's unwavering arrogance, John Goodman's dogged compassion, Eartha Kitt's villainous scheming, and best of all Patrick Warburton's quiet deadpan deliveries as Kronk. And that's it by the way; "Groove" also benefits from an economical cast of four, with pretty much no other side characters apart from Pacha's family. As such, we spend a lot of time with each character and begin to like them all, loving every moment they're on screen.
Another great thing about the film is its pacing. A lot of your Disney Renaissance stories have to set up a lot of expository ground, and at times it can be up to the thirty-minute mark before the film really starts moving. Here, we get rolling right off the bat, with Kuzco becoming a llama pretty early on. This is not done in sacrifice of establishing our characters though; everything is done smoothly and concisely, and most of all humorously. The movie is like a non-stop barrage of jokes, whether it be from character interactions, wordplay, callbacks, or calling out the shortcoming and stereotypes of the film itself. The most genius bit of the film is the mad dash back to the palace as we see our two teams as symbols on a map running with dotted lines trailing behind them. We then see Yzma and Kronk running who happen to notice these lines on the road below them and are quite confused by it. It's only made even better later on when they hit a sizable snag and Kuzco and Pacha get to the lab first, only to find they're too late. When questioned how it was possible that Yzma and Kronk could have beaten them, they're at a loss for words, with Kronk checking the aforementioned map and concluding it makes no sense. Every time there's a structural shortcoming in the movie, whether on purpose or not, the film at least has the decency to point it out and joke about it.
If I can complain about one thing, it's that perhaps the vocal performances were TOO strong. I haven't much talked about the visual style though, it's very simple design wise, but it fits the simple story, and is for the most part quite beautiful-looking. The characters are well-designed as well, fitting their personalities, however there were moments in some scenes where I felt a bit of a disconnect between the character and their voice. Sometimes the performance was so over-the-top and brilliant that the character animation almost felt restrained. This is a movie where you could really cut loose, and it almost felt like they were holding back. I mean, come on, the script is insane, so the animation should be too, and it's almost there.

Verdict? Yep, still love this one. Embracing wackiness and betraying the Disney formula, "Groove" is an absolutely satisfying detour from the normal, and absolutely hilarious to boot. I guess the only problem I had was that at times I felt it didn't go far enough, like it could have been really insane. But hey, it's still a phenomenal little movie, and a complete breath of fresh air for a company that was in danger of growing stale.