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.