Alice in Wonderland Review

In the 1950s, Disney finally managed to rebound after World War II forced the company into its first dark age. With the sustainability the package films brought to the company, Walt Disney Animation Studios was finally able to resume production on larger animated features. Cinderella kickstarted the “Silver Age” of Walt Disney animation in 1950, and the very next year, Disney followed suite with Alice in Wonderland. This surrealist, nonsensical adventure is based on the Lewis Carroll novels Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and is appropriately the strangest animated feature from Disney not titled The Three Caballeros. Though this strangeness can be entertaining in its own right, Alice in Wonderland lacks the heart that Disney’s best animated features are known for.

Alice is a young girl with her head in the clouds. As her elder sister Dinah is giving her a history lesson, Alice grows bored and wishes for her own world “where everything is nonsense.” Soon enough, Alice sees a waistcoat-wearing white rabbit claiming to be ‘running late for a very important date.’ Curious, Alice follows the rabbit, and ends up falling down a rabbit hole that takes her to Wonderland, a bizarre place where, sure enough, everything is nonsense.

From there, the movie is more or less a series of strange things happening, as opposed to a coherent plot. I’ve actually never read the original Alice novels (it’s on my to do list), but from what I understand, the Disney film embraces the absurdity of the books, but deviates away from the tone and subtler details (the books have some kind of commentary on mathematics…it’s a whole thing).

Disney’s interpretation is enjoyable enough, with the nonsensical nature of the material leading to some fantastic animated sequences, and plenty of “what the hell” moments to provide some laughs. But Alice never feels much like a character, more like a vehicle to get from one bizarre situation to the next. We probably only get a minute or two to learn anything about Alice before she ends up in Wonderland, and the film doesn’t exactly make much of an effort to establish her character (her brief longing for her own ‘nonsense world’ is literally all we get).

Don’t get me wrong, Alice in Wonderland is a fun film, with its complete removal of logic being a blank canvas for the animators to go nuts with. On the downside of things, the film’s re-releases during the 1960s (the ‘psychedelic era’) has forever given the Alice in Wonderland story an association with drugs, a stigma that extends to the greater fantasy genre even today, much to my chagrin.

Alice in Wonderland has numerous fun moments: a Dodo telling Alice to run in circles with fish and birds in order to stay dry, all while they’re being pelted with tidal waves (the Dodo is standing on a small hill out of the waves’ reach, a detail he seems completely ignorant to). The same dodo trying to help the White Rabbit get a giant Alice out of his house. Alice encountering the wicked Queen of Hearts, who blatantly cheats in a game of croquet (involving flamingos as clubs and hedgehogs as balls, naturally). And of course, Alice stumbling upon an “unbirthday” tea party celebration held by the Mad Hatter and the March Hare (Ed Wyn’s vocals as the Mad Hatter remain among the studio’s most bluntly hilarious, with many voice actors imitating the performance for similar characters even today).

“The film does have a walrus in it. That’s always a bonus.”

The problem with Alice in Wonderland is that those “moments” are all it is. There’s no real storyline tying it all together, and as stated, Alice isn’t much of a character at all. The film is a series of fun and colorful sequences, but it lacks any heart or substance to make it anything more. Alice doesn’t grow as a person or gain anything as a result of her adventure. She’s just the mechanism that leads the audience from one weird thing to the next.

To further sully the experience, Alice in Wonderland features an abrupt “it was all a dream” ending, which has always been a pet peeve of mine, particularly for fantasy films. What’s the point? To try and justify the strangeness of its fantasy world by writing it off as a dream? If you think fantasy is so strange you have to write it off as a dream, why even bother making a fantasy film?

Maybe I’m overthinking that a bit. My point is the ending feels like a cop-out. Imagine if Pinocchio ended with its titular puppet waking up from a dream, and realizing he was actually a real boy all along, and his adventure to become one was just a dream. You’d feel kind of ripped off.

As a kid, I absolutely loved Alice in Wonderland. But nostalgia can only take something so far. While I still think Disney’s adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s stories has enough entertainment value to keep it afloat, thanks to its sheer strangeness and the visuals that come with it, but Disney films – even the most simple ones – usually have something to them. Sadly, that doesn’t really apply to Alice in Wonderland. It makes for an entertaining enough viewing, but it is a bit of a step down from Cinderella, and not quite the Disney classic it’s often made out to be.

A very merry “Unclassic” you could say.

 

6

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad Review

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is the sixth and final film of Disney’s Package Film Era, and the eleventh feature in the Walt Disney Animation Studios canon overall (yes, there was a moment when Disney had more package films than proper features). As the title implies, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is a showcase of two short films, one based on The Wind and the Willows (Mr. Toad) and one based on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Ichabod). Together, these two shorts closed out Disney’s first dark age, and did so on a surprisingly high note.

It seems Disney really learned their lesson when it came to the filler segments of these package films by this point. That is to say, they realized they were unnecessary and dropped them entirely. Both Ichabod and Mr. Toad have brief introductions (using the Disney tradition of live-action storybooks leading into the animated films), but that’s it. No cutaways during the films, no banter between different narrators, none of that. This makes this particular package film feel closer to Disney’s more traditional feature films.

Both shorts are given a celebrity narrator (Basil Rathbone for Mr. Toad, and Bing Crosby for Ichabod), but they’re only acknowledged via the opening credits, and actually feel like their casting added something to the shorts, as opposed to having the film blatantly point them out in live-action segments like they’re guest stars on a sitcom.

As for the shorts themselves, they’re pretty good! Both get about a half hour of running time, which is enough for them to feel like complete stories instead of just random segments chained together like some of the previous package films.

Mr. Toad comes first, and tells how the titular amphibian comes from a line of wealthy toads (his family estate, Toad Hall, is a local landmark, and the pride of the community). J. Thaddeus Toad is less responsible than the previous Toads of Toad Hall, however, and often splurges entire fortunes on whatever “mania” he’s currently obsessing over. Mr. Toad’s close friend, Agnus MacBadger, takes it upon himself to be Mr. Toad’s bookkeeper to prevent Toad from going into complete bankruptcy.

Not that this does much good. As Mr. Toad is off on the latest fad (horse-drawn carriages), he happens upon someone driving an automobile. Having never seen anything like it, the automobile immediately becomes the newest ‘mania’ for the poor Toad. Despite an attempted intervention from his friends Ratty and Moley, Toad is hellbent on obtaining an automobile. But with his access to his fortune being cut off by MacBadger, Mr. Toad can’t simply purchase the vehicle, and is willing to try other means to claim a car of his own.

The next morning, Mr. Toad is arrested for stealing an automobile! Toad insists it’s a mistake, and that he made a trade for the car by signing away the deed to Toad Hall, only to discover after the fact that the car was stolen. But witnesses at the trial prove otherwise, and Mr. Toad is sent to jail. Thus it’s up to MacBadger, Ratty and Moley to bust Mr. Toad out of prison, clear his good name, and retrieve the deed to Toad Hall.

The Mr. Toad short is simple and straightforward, and it’s undeniably charming. Keeping in mind Disney’s early habit of making the main characters the most boring ones in their features (being too perfect if they’re given any personality at all), it’s refreshing to see a flawed main character like Mr. Toad – who is kindhearted but irresponsible -come from the studio’s earlier years. I also like the supporting cast of MacBadger, Ratty and Moley. And it’s pretty fun to see a Disney movie where the main focus of the plot is to reclaim the deed to a mansion.

The second short, based on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, isn’t as immediately captivating as Mr. Toad, but it gets there eventually. The plot here is focused on Ichabod Crane – a lanky, gangling character with a funny face and “feet like shovels” – who is to be the new schoolmaster of Sleepy Hollow. Ichabod is also something of a miser, finding any and every way to spend as little money as possible (from attending parties for the free food to even riding a “borrowed” horse).

Despite his peculiar looks and skinflint behavior, Ichabod is inexplicably a ladies man, often putting up with the misbehaviors of the school children, provided their mothers are “good cooks” (whether the film is aiming for a euphemism here, or simply making Ichabod’s womanizing more Disney-friendly by literally centering it around food, I’m not quite sure). This eventually sees Ichabod fall head over heels for Katrina Van Tassel, the most beautiful woman in Sleepy Hollow… who also happens to be the daughter of the wealthiest man in the town.

This leads Ichabod to run afoul of Brom Bones, the town’s local prankster who also has eyes for Katrina. Brom Bones does his best to bully and embarrass Ichabod, but the odd Mr. Crane is more clever than he lets on, and continuously outwits Brom at his own game.

It’s hard to tell who we’re supposed to root for here. Mr. Toad is certainly flawed, but he’s also a decent enough fellow that we have sympathy for his plights. Neither Ichabod nor Brom are particularly upstanding figures, but Ichabod seems to be far more focused on Katrina’s family wealth than Katrina herself, whereas Brom – despite being a prankster – is described as “meaning no harm to anyone.” So I guess Brom is the lesser of two evils.

While it may at first appear that the short is presenting Ichabod as a wily Bugs Bunny type (outsmarting his rival at every turn) the film ultimately gives Ichabod the greater comeuppance.

At the Van Tassel family’s annual Halloween party (where Ichabod has seemingly once again gained the upper hand in his rivalry for Katrina’s affections), Brom Bones discovers Ichabod’s great weakness: It turns out the schoolmaster is dreadfully superstitious. So Brom uses this to his advantage by telling the tale of the Headless Horseman, a soldier that lost his head to a cannonball blast that now haunts Sleepy Hollow to claim a new head every Halloween night.

Broms’s plan works, as his ghost story has Ichabod spooked silly. And sure enough, on his way home from the party, Ichabod Crane is tormented by the Headless Horseman, with the frightful dullahan chasing Ichabod through the night.

Much like how Mr. Toad featured a more flawed main character than most Disney films of the time (and most of them for the decades to come), Ichabod also breaks away somewhat from Disney traditions by featuring a more interpretive ending. In the original Sleepy Hollow story, it is left ambiguous as to whether or not the Headless Horseman is real, or if it was Brom in disguise playing off of Ichabod’s fears, though it heavily implies the latter. In the Disney film the answer is even more up in the air. It gives some small hints that it could be Brom scaring Ichabod out of town, but also makes it seem more likely that Ichabod is spirited away by the apparition.

Personally, I like to think the Horseman is real, because it’s just more badass to have Ichabod pay for his selfish ways by means of an evil specter. But that’s just me.

Both short films included in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad are enjoyable and well animated. They both feel distinct (Mr. Toad being charming and cute, and Ichabod becoming genuinely frightening before all is said and done), but they both still compliment each other, and they come without any of the fluff to distract from the main attractions like some of the previous package films.

I first watched these Disney package films around ten years ago to complete my viewing of the entire Walt Disney Animation Studios canon. At that time, I didn’t feel won over by The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. But when watching it again for this review, I find it to be the best Disney film of this dark age by some margin. The Three Caballeros is worth a look for its utter insanity, but if there’s one feature from Disney’s oft forgotten Package Film Era that has held up, it’s The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.

 

7

The Three Caballeros Review

I don’t think you could name a weirder Disney movie than The Three Caballeros. That itself isn’t a bad thing (it has always baffled me that so many people consider “weird” to be a negative connotation). If anything, the weirdness is the saving grace of The Three Caballeros. As the second film in Disney’s oft-forgotten “Package Film Era,” The Three Caballeros is another example of shorter segments haphazardly strewn together and labeled as a ‘feature film’ within the Disney canon.

The Three Caballeros is also akin to being Walt Disney Animation Studio’s first sequel, as it is something of a follow-up to Disney’s previous package film, Saludos Amigos. Not so much in storyline (Disney Animation has only seen three canonical narrative continuations in their entire history, the first of which didn’t happen until 1990), but in that it features Donald Duck in a Latin American setting, and brings back the character of José Carioca the Brazilian parrot.

Like Saludos Amigos before it, The Three Caballeros was a product of a “goodwill tour” of Latin America for the Walt Disney Company commissioned by the United States Department of States in the wake of World War II. While Saludos Amigos was comprised of four short animated segments interspersed with clips of said tour by the Disney animators, The Three Caballeros has a bit more of a connected story linking most of its segments together. And when live-action does show up in Caballeros, it’s weaved in with the animated characters, instead of simply showing the audience who’s making the movie you’re watching.

The “story” here is that it’s Donald Duck’s birthday (which the film identifies as simply being “Friday the thirteenth”), and Donald Duck gets some presents from his friends. Presents that have increasingly surreal properties.

The first two gifts are short films of their own, given to Donald by José Carioca: The first is titled The Cold-Blooded Penguin and tells the story of Pablo, a penguin from the South Pole who wishes to live in a warmer climate, and ends up visiting many places in Latin America to find his new home. The second short is The Flying Gauchito, and involves a little boy in Uruguay who befriends a flying donkey.

These two opening shorts are okay, but much like the segments of Saludos Amigos, they are really nothing special. What’s all the weirder here is that the remaining segments go back to revolving around Donald and his friends (tied together by the loose narrative of Donald’s birthday). This makes the first two shorts feel completely disconnected from the rest of the film, and may leave you scratching your head as to why they were even included in the first place.

Again, the remainder of the film centers on Donald, José Carioca, and Panchito Pistoles, a pistol-packing rooster introduced here who represents Mexico. One additional segment kind of segues away from the beaked trio in telling the story of a group of Mexican children who celebrate Christmas by re-enacting the story of Mary and Joseph searching for a room at the inn, but this segment is narrated by Panchito, who is telling the story to Donald and José, so it’s also still kind of part of the main story.

The remaining segments are where the film gets really weird, with Donald, José and Panchito experiencing different Latin American cultures, interacting with live-action humans (mainly women whom Donald can’t stop lusting after), or being thrown into surrealist situations not dissimilar to the Pink Elephants number from Dumbo.

I mean, I don’t know how to describe some of these. The easiest one to explain sees the avian trifecta traveling the beaches of Mexico City, with Donald once again pining for every woman in sight, while José and Panchito try to keep him focused on their travels. The other segments though, are more about spectacle than anything, and can’t be so easily summed up.

“No comment.”

One scene involves an extended samba sequence with Donald, José and more real humans. Another sees Donald multiply himself to dance with another live-action woman, who then becomes an animated flower but still retaining the woman’s face. My personal favorite part sees Donald and José inexplicably shrunk so small that Donald can’t open his next present, so José teaches Donald a magic trick to return to their normal size. But I don’t mean the usual kind of Disney fairy tale magic by means of Fairy Godmother or evil witch. What José (and subsequently Donald) does is a bizarre series of movements that results in them blowing into their glowing index fingers to grow back to normal size. The movie’s finale involves Panchito setting a firecracker-packing toy bull loose to attack Donald, with the irritable duck charging headfirst into the bull to ignite the fireworks. Oh yeah, there’s also a hyperactive, gibberish-speaking bird who interrupts the film by breaking the fourth wall on an occasion or two.

Did you get all that?

The point is, the movie is a trip. But it’s that sense of surrealism and outright “what the hell am I watching?” moments that make The Three Caballeros much more enjoyable to watch than its predecessor. Unfortunately, the film’s fragmented structure takes something away from the proceedings, which is only magnified by the first two shorts which feel like they were stapled onto the picture for the sake of padding.

Like Saludos Amigos, The Three Caballeros doesn’t really play out like a movie because of this. Which is a shame, because had Disney used Donald, José and Panchito’s bizarre antics as the basis for a more fully-realized adventure, The Three Caballeros might be an all-time great in the Disney canon (Seriously, why have none of the characters of the “Mickey Mouse universe” ever been trusted to carry an entire movie?).

“Perfectly normal.”

As it is, The Three Caballeros can be a lot of fun when it has you scratching your head at what you’re seeing onscreen. But the whole package film structure plays against it, making you long for what the film could have been under different circumstances. Disney’s more “cartoony” animal characters on an epic adventure that’s as wacky and insane as this? Why has that never happened?

On the plus side, José Carioca and Panchito Pistoles have reemerged from obscurity in recent years, so maybe there’s still hope…

 

5

Saludos Amigos Review

The history of Walt Disney Animation Studios has seen many highs and lows. Though things started off well for America’s premiere animation studio, with their first five features still being regarded as classics to this day, it soon found its first extended slump after the release of Bambi. In many ways it couldn’t be helped, with World War II affecting the Walt Disney Company as it did everyone. A lack of resources and dwindling staff resulted in what could be called the “Package Film Era” of Disney. Being unable to create films of the same scale and spectacle as their initial five features, Disney resorted to making more cost effective short films, and packaging them together (hence “package film”).

The 1940s saw no less than six such package films by Disney. Though these package films aren’t total busts, they definitely represent one of the lower points in the studio’s creativity. The first movie of Disney’s Package Film Era was Saludos Amigos which, with a runtime of only 42 minutes, is the shortest “film” in the Disney Animation canon.

Though Saludos Amigos predates America’s involvement in WWII, the war still played a large role in its production. With fears of Nazi Germany’s possible influence on Latin American governments, the United States Department of States commissioned a goodwill tour for the Walt Disney Company in Latin America. The Walt Disney Company would get to make a feature while traveling abroad, in hopes of strengthening friendship between the U.S. and Latin America.

As if the background of its production weren’t odd enough, Saludos Amigos is one of the stranger Disney movies. Not that its story is particularly bizarre (though its quasi-sequel, The Three Caballeros, might just take the crown in that regard), but because its four animated shorts are interspersed with documentary footage of the Disney animators’ tour of Latin America. It’s just so weird to see a Disney movie open up showing the animators and having a narrator explain how they’re heading to Latin America for research on the movie you’re currently watching…

As for the shorts themselves, they can be fun, but are unspectacular. The first and last shorts feature Donald Duck, the second revolves around an anthropomorphic airplane named Pedro, and the third focuses on Goofy.

The first short sees Donald Duck as an American tourist visiting Lake Titicaca. Though Disney’s early depictions of other cultures are, let’s just say “poorly aged” for the time being, the fun of this short is that the joke is on American tourists as opposed to the cultures Donald is visiting. There’s even a good piece of physical comedy with Donald trying to guide a llama over a bridge (a scene which I can’t help but feel Disney revisited with The Emperor’s New Groove in 2000).

The second short, aptly named Pedro after its aerodynamic protagonist, is unfortunately the low point of the film. It’s just a basic story of a small plane braving tall mountains and rough weather to deliver the mail. The short is supposed to take place in Chile, but it doesn’t exactly make much of an effort to showcase the culture. On the plus side, Chilean cartoonist René Ríos Boettiger was so disappointed with the representation of his country in the short, that he created the character Condorito to be a better cartoon representation of his country, with that character going on to become one of the most iconic cartoon characters in Latin America. So that’s something.

El Gaucho Goofy sees the best character of the Mickey Mouse universe cast (Goofy, obviously) first presented as an American cowboy, before being transported to the Argentinian pampas and becomes a Gaucho. It’s certainly not the best Goofy short, but the character’s usual bumbling antics are a nice refresher after the boring Pedro.

The final short is Aquarela do Brasil, and brings Donald Duck back into the film while also introducing the character José Carioca the parrot, who would have a bigger role in Three Caballeros. This short is more about fun visuals than it is gags like the first Donald short or the Goofy one, being presented with the meta-reference of a paintbrush painting the characters and backgrounds as the short goes on, making for crazy transformations and such. It’s fun, but again, it’s nothing special.

Sadly, that feeling of “fun but nothing special” kind of sums up the entirety of Saludos Amigos. Three of the four shorts are decently entertaining enough, but are far from the best Disney shorts. And the remaining one is just bland. The fact that these four shorts and the live-action documentary segments combined only amount to forty-two minutes is kind of telling of the place Disney Animation was in at the time (funnily enough, the short runtime wouldn’t even qualify as a feature-length film under the modern definition, meaning that this compilation of short films is in itself a short film).

Saludos Amigos isn’t a terrible movie per se, it’s just not much of a movie at all. It’s a collection of shorts that are alright at best, with very brief glimpses at the animators in between. It’s just kind of weird that such a movie is actually considered an official part of Disney’s official animated canon (notably being the sixth film in the Disney Animation lineup, so it’s not even buried somewhere obscure in the middle of the studio’s history).

I admit it’s not the worst film in the Disney canon, but because it isn’t much of a movie, it’s just weird to even call Saludos Amigos a Disney movie…

 

4

Onward Review

Pixar’s Onward has one of the more unique premises in the animation studio’s history. While Pixar has proven to be one of the world’s most consistent sources of making excellent movies – animated or otherwise – most of their concepts can be summed up in one brief word: toys, cars, fish, etc. But in the case of Onward, we have a high fantasy world in the vein of Tolkien or Dungeons & Dragons, but placed in a contemporary suburban setting. With this concept, Onward takes the premise of a fantasy adventure, and turns it into a kind of road trip buddy movie. The end result is one of Pixar’s finer accomplishments of recent years. One that fits nicely into the studio’s acclaimed repertoire of entertaining and touching films.

The world of Onward is littered with the usual races of high fantasy: elves, goblins, trolls, dragons, and so on. But in this world’s history, as the art of magic proved hard to master, it eventually went by the wayside in favor of the accessibility of technology. So the present day of this world isn’t too dissimilar from our own, save for the fact that we have the aforementioned fantasy creatures in place of humans.

What once might have been brave warriors going into battle on their mighty steed are now your everyday, blue collar workers riding public transport. Magical creatures such as unicorns are now more akin to “pests” like raccoons or opossums, knocking over trash cans for food. And fearsome dragons are now common household pets.

It’s a fun premise that could have come off as a bit gimmicky under less capable hands. Thankfully, while certain other animation studios may have used the premise predominantly for gags and parody, Pixar has proven very reliable with keeping such things in check, and instead use their premises for the benefit of a story, as opposed to cheap laughs. And that’s as true here as ever.

The story revolves around two elf brothers: the younger brother Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt). Ian is the shy, awkward type, while Barley is something of a fearless goofball, and is obsessed with the magical past of his world (and the tabletop games it inspired). Their father Wilden passed away when Barley was very young, shortly before Ian was born.

On Ian’s sixteenth birthday, his mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) presents him with a surprise from his late father. This particular gift was to be given to both boys once they were both over sixteen, and not even Laurel is sure of what it is.

It turns out this gift is a wizard’s staff. Laurel mentions that when her husband grew ill, he “got into some strange things,” and it seems the old magic of the world happened to be among those things. Along with the staff is a spell, created by Wilden, which will allow him to be resurrected for a twenty-four hour time period, so that he may see who his sons grew up to be. As Barley notes, a spell that powerful would need a catalyst, which Wilden has included with the spell and staff in the form of a rare Phoenix Gem.

Barley tries for hours to get the spell to work, to no avail. Eventually, Ian – longing to meet the father he never knew – gives it a shot, and it begins to work. Slowly but surely, the spell is bringing Wilden back to the world of the living. Barley busts in and tries to help his brother, but the distraction, along with Ian’s lack of confidence, ends up making the spell go awry. The Phoenix Gem is destroyed before the spell can finish, leaving Wilden only half-resurrected. And by that I mean only his lower torso has returned to the realm of the living, which ends in a kind of blue vortex where his upper half should be connected.

Ian loses face, seemingly botching his one chance to meet his father. But Barley recalls a quest from one of his tabletop RPGs (which, in this fantasy world, are based on historical fact) that tells of a way to claim another Phoenix Gem. And so, following Barley’s knowledge of the adventure, the brothers – with Dad-legs in tow – set out in Barley’s van “Guinevere” on a quest to claim the Phoenix Gem so they can complete the spell before the twenty-four hours are up, so that they can see their father. Meanwhile, Laurel is on her sons’ trail, trying to keep them out of danger, where she is eventually allied by “Corey” the Manticore (Octavia Spencer).

It’s actually one of the more touching premises of the Pixar library (which is saying something), and again, under less capable hands this plot may have floundered. If one were to judge Onward from its marketing, after all, one wouldn’t be at fault to think – with the brothers disguising the living legs of their deceased father as a person – that it was some kind of kid-friendly version of Weekend at Bernie’s. Had this premise been under the umbrella of certain other CG animation studios, an emphasis on gags may have turned it into just that.

What makes Pixar stand out is that – despite their whimsical premises – they always try to put story and characters at the forefront. They don’t always succeed, mind you (The Good Dinosaur happened), but their track record is second only to Studio Ghibli in the world of animated features. And Onward is one of Pixar’s better films in recent years, if maybe not quite on the top echelon of the studio’s works.

The subplot with Laurel and the Manticore could have been given an extra scene or two, as it often seems forgotten for long stretches of time. But on the plus side, the main story is consistently delightful. The film does a great job at making both Ian and Barley into relatable, sympathetic characters. Perhaps this is giving me a bias in favor of the picture, but I couldn’t help but see parallels with me and my oldest brother with Ian and Barley (Though my  brother is much smarter than Barley, and I’m not nearly as competent as Ian). The story revolving around these brothers just wishing to spend a day with a deceased parent is quite touching. Pixar has a strong track record when it comes to making their stories feel personal, and Onward feels among the most personal of all of them.

As stated, the main plot successfully takes advantage of the film’s setting and premise by merging a fantasy adventure with a road trip buddy movie to surprising effect. It’s delightful to see how the filmmakers weave these two genres together. You get the feeling that the folks at Pixar must’ve had some fun figuring out how a fantastic journey translates with contemporary life. It’s a lot of fun.

The animation, as you would come to expect from Pixar, is top notch. The contemporary scenery like gas stations and freeways may seem to subdue the fantastic elements of the movie somewhat, but that’s kind of the point. This is a world where magic only just exists anymore, it makes sense for the fantasy element to be underplayed, visually speaking. Though with that said, I still hope Pixar delves deeper into a fantasy world for a feature down the road, since it allows for endless possibilities that aren’t attached to a specific motif (think of how limited the world of the Cars movies feels, because it’s a limiting premise. Going full fantasy would remove such shackles entirely and could set the animators’ imaginations loose).

Point being that Onward is a captivating film to look at, even if it may not reach the peak of the studio’s visual splendor (that honor still probably has to go to Inside Out which, no surprise, featured Pixar’s most abstract concept). I do wish the character designs for some of the background characters and creatures would have received a little more love however, as it seems the elves are the only prominent fantasy race Pixar managed to make their own. Though extra credit in character design has to go to the final obstacle of Ian and Barley’s quest which, without spoiling too much, is one of the more humorous giant monster battles in movies since the Ghostbusters faced off with the Stay Puffed Marshmallow Man.

Onward is a splendid film that further extends Pixar’s legacy of quality animated features. It tells a compelling story about brotherhood with its two memorable lead characters, and uses its unique premise to deliver both fun and emotion to great effect. Onward is another shining (Phoenix) gem in Pixar’s crown.

 

8

Weathering With You Review

Back in 2016, director Makoto Shinkai released Your Name, a film that ended up being more successful than anyone could have anticipated. Your Name became something of a pop culture phenomenon, not only was it the highest-grossing Japanese film of 2016, but it climbed the ranks of Japan’s box office to become the country’s fourth highest-grossing film of all time (keep in mind that Japan’s box office record holders don’t fluctuate year by year as they do in the west). Though it wasn’t Shinkai’s first feature, Your Name metaphorically strapped a rocket on the director’s back, suddenly ascending him to become one of Japan’s leading filmmakers.

The pressure was certainly on for whatever Shinkai decided to direct next. And in 2019, Shinkai followed-up his breakout Your Name with Weathering With You, which similarly captured audiences around the world. Like Your Name, Weathering With You became the highest-grossing Japanese film of the year, and climbed Japan’s all-time ranks (it currently sits at 12th place of all time, as of this writing). Though Weathering With You is a charming and sweet film in the same vein as Your Name – and is certainly visually captivating – it too often feels derivative of its predecessor, while never hitting the same emotional highs. Despite its merits, Weathering With You ultimately feels like a pale imitation of Your Name.

The story here centers around Hodaka Morishima, a high school student (this is anime, of course he’s a high school student) who has left his island home in search for a bigger, better life in Tokyo. Hodaka’s trip almost ends in tragedy as a storm thrashes the ferry he’s traveling on, nearly sending him plummeting to the sea below. Thankfully, he’s saved by a fellow passenger, Keisuke Suga, who gives Hodaka his business card in case he ever needs further help.

Hodaka doesn’t fare very well in Tokyo – which seems strangely trapped in a perpetual downpour – as he is unable to find work wherever he goes. The only solace Hodaka finds are in his encounters with a girl named Hina Amano, who works at a local McDonald’s.

“Natsumi is best girl. She should be in this movie more.”

It doesn’t take too long for Hodaka to take Suga up on his offer. Suga hires Hodaka as an assistant in his small publishing company, which also consists of Suga’s niece, Natsumi. Hodoka and Natsumi then begin investigating Tokyo’s unusually rainy weather, which leads to them discovering the legends of “Weather Maidens,” who are said to be able to manipulate the weather.

After Hodaka has another chance encounter with Hina and saves her from some lowlifes, she reveals to him that she is in fact a Weather Maiden, and can clear the skies by praying. Inspired by her abilities, Hodaka suggests they set up a business together, with Hina using her powers for people hoping for clear weather for special events. Together with Hina’s kid brother Nagi, they set up said business, and quickly find success through it. But Hina’s powers may come at a great price, which will also prove to test her and Hodaka’s relationship.

I really like the concept of Weathering With You. The idea of a girl being able to stop the rain by praying is both cute and intriguing. It’s just a shame that – whether by trying to repeat past success or being intimidated by it – Makoto Shinkai ends up turning the idea behind Weathering With You into a kind of Your Name Lite (or Diet Your Name, if you prefer). The supernatural setup may have changed – with the body-swapping of Your Name being replaced with the aforementioned Weather Maiden concept – but otherwise, Weathering With You seems to be repeating the same story beats as its predecessor.

Hodaka and Hina almost feel interchangeable with Your Name’s Taki and Mitsuha (who also have cameos in this film, further reminding you that this is Shinkai’s follow-up to his record-breaking picture). And the story doesn’t take too long before it starts treading the same ground as its predecessor. Young love is at the heart of the story. There’s a tragic element to the supernatural aspect that serves as the emotional crux in the two main characters’ relationship. Natural disasters ensue as a result of these happenings, and evoke the same real-world parallels that Japan faced in the early 2010s which Your Name also addressed (a perfectly reasonable allegory to make, but one that somehow just doesn’t work as well here).

Considering Your Name was a really good movie, Weathering With You’s similarities to it aren’t a horrible thing, but they do prevent it from becoming something greater than an echo of its predecessor. Certain characters are forgotten about for lengthy stretches of time, with Natsumi taking a backseat once Hodaka and Hina start their Weather Maiden business, while Nagi doesn’t seem to be of particular importance at all (his only real character trait being that he’s something of shameless flirt for his young age).

I’d like to reiterate that Weathering With You is a good movie, and a serviceable follow-up to Your Name. The problem is that Your Name was something special, so for Shinkai’s follow-up to merely be ‘serviceable’ is a bit of a letdown. Weathering With You may follow the same formula as Your Namebut somehow, it just doesn’t resonate in the same way.

Aesthetically, however, Weathering With You is every bit as beautiful as you would expect from one of Shinkai’s films. This is a film whose visuals you just wish you could soak in. There’s beauty and attention to detail oozing from every last frame. Weathering With You is a visually arresting work that is simply a joy just to look upon. And like previous Shinkai films, these outstanding visuals are complimented by a terrific musical score which helps elevate the emotion of the film (though admittedly I could have done without some of the vocal tracks, which seemed a tad distracting in certain key scenes).

Weathering With You is a good movie that I very much enjoyed while watching it, with its aesthetic pleasures particularly drawing me in. The issue I have though, is that it didn’t stick with me long afterwards like Your Name did just a few short years ago. It’s a good movie in the shadow of a great one, either too intimidated by that shadow or trying too hard to live up to it to find a voice of its own.

 

6

Frozen II Review

When Frozen was released in 2013, Disney had no idea what they had. What seemed to be planned as simply the “two princesses” Disney movie – with most of the marketing focusing on the comic relief – ended up being a worldwide phenomenon the likes of which Disney Animation hadn’t seen before. Disney found themselves unable to keep up with the demand for the merchandise surrounding the film, its songs instantly became iconic, and fans – adults and children alike – would dress up as the characters. It was a pop culture landmark whose impact was more akin to the likes of Star Wars than a Disney animated film.

It was an earned reputation as well. Frozen was a terrific movie that gained its popularity organically. Audiences fell in love with it, and through word of mouth, it continued to grow. Frozen became the highest-grossing animated film of all time, its characters quickly became some of the most beloved in cinema history, and it connected with audiences around the world (being particularly popular in Japan).The world couldn’t get enough of it.

Making a sequel seemed to be an inevitability on Disney’s part, but thankfully, the studio didn’t simply churn one out as quickly as possible. While other animation studios these days green light multiple sequels immediately after a decent opening weekend, Disney didn’t pull the trigger on a sequel to its biggest homegrown hit for well over a year, and even then, it didn’t officially begin production until a few years thereafter.

After over six years with only two short films to tide audiences over, Frozen II has finally become a reality. Thankfully, it’s a sequel that’s well worth the wait. Frozen II brings back the iconic characters and provides musical numbers as beautifully infectious as those of the original, while simultaneously setting itself apart from its predecessor in some incredibly bold ways.

Frozen II is set three years after the original, though its opening moments take us back to Anna and Elsa’s childhood, where their father, King Agnarr (Alfred Molina) tells the princesses how he became the king of Arendelle. When he was a young boy, Agnarr travelled with his father to an enchanted forest found far north of Arendelle. The forest was home to the spirits of nature: earth, fire, wind and water. This forest also served as the home of the Northuldra people, who lived in harmony with the magic of the forest. Under orders of the king, Arendelle constructed a mighty dam in the forest as a gift of peace for the Northuldra people. But the celebration was short-lived. During the festivities, something went wrong, and a battle broke out between the people of Arendelle and the Northuldra. During the fighting, the former king of Arendelle was sent plummeting off a cliff, while Agnarr was knocked unconscious.

The spirits, angered by the fighting, sealed off the forest with an impenetrable fog, and went into a deep slumber, thus trapping everyone already inside the forest, and preventing anyone else from entering. Luckily for Agnarr, a “mysterious voice” rescued him from the forest before the fog fell. He then returned to Arendelle as its new king. Agnarr ends his tale by warning Anna and Elsa that the spirits of the forest could reawaken, and should that happen, to expect the unexpected.

Fast-forward to the present (three years after the first film, and six years after Anna and Elsa’s parents died at sea). Elsa (Idea Menzel) is now the beloved queen of Arendelle, while her sister Anna (Kristen Bell) is its equally-beloved princess. One day, out of the blue, Elsa begins hearing a mysterious voice calling out to her. The same mysterious voice that rescued her father all those years ago. The voice seems to have a connection to Elsa’s magical ice powers, as she is the only soul in the kingdom who can hear it.

As the voice persists to haunt Elsa, it eventually draws out an inner power within her, and Elsa ends up reawakening the spirits of the enchanted forest. This results in a bit of chaos in Arendelle, with all traces of fire and water vanishing from the kingdom, while the movement of the earth and a powerful wind force all of Arendelle’s residents out of the kingdom. The citizens of Arendelle (or “Arendellians” as we learn) take refuge with the magical trolls, whom inform Elsa that she must travel to the enchanted forest, calm the spirits of nature and uncover the secrets of the past in order to restore peace to her kingdom.

Anna, ever the adventurer and always willing to stand by her sister, accompanies Elsa on her journey, as does Anna’s boyfriend Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and lovable snowman Olaf (Josh Gad), who now has a permafrost body to prevent him from melting. Lead by Kristoff’s reindeer-drawn sled (good ol’ Sven has to be involved as well), the group make their way to the enchanted forest, where Elsa’s magic allows them to penetrate the fog to enter the woods. But the group quickly realize they can’t get back out unless Elsa accomplishes her mission and permanently frees the forest.

While the characters are as endlessly likable as ever, and the film remains a musical, Frozen II is a very different movie from its predecessor. Not only does it meld into action-adventure territory, but it also takes on a darker, more mature tone (while younger children can still very much enjoy it, Frozen II seems to acknowledge that the kids who watched the original are now six years older, and the narrative has fittingly grown up alongside them). While the first film may have been a fairy tale, Frozen II doubles down on fantasy logic in both its narrative and world-building.

At first glance, these elements may make Frozen II seem alienating to fans of the original. But by being so radically different from its predecessor (while still, of course, retaining the characters we all grew to love), Frozen II is not only following the path of all the best sequels, but is actually the perfect kind of follow-up the original Frozen could have asked for.

Frozen has become so popular and so engrained in pop culture over the years, that we might actually forget why it gained that status in the first place. Frozen was all about bucking trends. It celebrated the things we love about Disney movies, while dismantling the cliches and outdated elements. It turned Disney archetypes into fleshed-out characters, who dictated the direction of the story, instead of being directed by it.

Disney could have gone the easy route with this sequel, and simply repeated the same beats as the original. It would have been easy money, to be sure. But by going in a very different direction narratively and tonally, it’s not only a brave, intelligent sequel, but it’s also – in a roundabout way – keeping in spirit with its predecessor by being different than it.

Sequels so often get derided for being “more of the same,” but Frozen II should be viewed as one of those rare sequels that justifies the artistic merits of franchises. Just because we’re revisiting a familiar world and characters doesn’t mean we can’t be given new stories. And Frozen II very much provides us with a different story.

Admittedly, this sequel is a bit more plot-focused than the original’s character-driven narrative, with the opening moments delivering the necessary exposition, but this isn’t an inherently negative thing. The only issue is that after we get the backstory with Agnarr retelling the events of the enchanted forest to Anna and Elsa, we immediately enter the brunt of the plot with Elsa beginning to hear ‘the voice’ as soon as we’re reintroduced to her. It’s not a big deal, and the film definitely delivers more than a few great character moments, but the story may have benefitted further if we got a few such moments before jumping into the plot. But that may be my love of the original film and its structure talking.

The characters are as likable as ever. Anna and Elsa remain Disney’s strongest lead characters, and Frozen II still wisely puts them and their sisterhood at the heart of the story, albeit in a very different way than the first film. While the original had Anna in the protagonist’s role trying to connect with Elsa – who more or less filled the role of antagonist – here both sisters are on the adventure together. This allows the film to showcase their interactions more, which brings more out of both characters.

Olaf still serves as the film’s primary comic foil, but again, in a different way than what the first film did with the character. In the original, Olaf was determined to experience Summer, being gleefully naive to how the hot Summer weather would affect a snowman such as himself. Here, Olaf’s character arc is all about growing up. Being the de facto ‘kid’ character of the lot, Olaf is – in his own words – dealing with “the increasing complexity of thought that comes with maturity.” While Olaf’s newfound inquisitiveness is mostly played for laughs, it does echo the film’s overall themes of maturity.

Kristoff does admittedly get something of the short-end of the stick in the storyline, but I suppose not everyone can get the same time in the spotlight. Kristoff’s story arc this time around is his attempt to work up the courage to propose to Anna, with every such attempt falling apart in one way or another. It’s a fun sub-plot, and it does get to showcase Kristoff’s character (including giving him a proper musical number all to himself, after Jonathan Groff got shortchanged in that area in the first film), but he is left out of most of the film’s third act.

Another great thing about Frozen II is how it handles its returning characters. It’s often easy for sequels to turn their characters into exaggerations or parodies of themselves, or to seemingly hit a reset button and undo the developments their characters went through in their first go-around. But Frozen II instead enriches the key players of its franchise. The film acknowledges how the the characters have grown from the events of the first film, while also staying true to their personalities.

Elsa, for example, may no longer be ruled by the fear of her powers, and is now willing to embrace the world and people around her. But Elsa still has a solemn and melancholic aspect to her, and still showcases a vulnerability and social awkwardness that is unique in movies, Disney or otherwise. Anna, meanwhile, is more worldly after everything she went through in the first film, but she’s still a bit naive when it comes to personal interactions (which humorously plays into Kristoff’s fumbling proposal attempts). This character growth goes back to what makes Frozen II such a special sequel: it doesn’t try to simply replicate the original, but instead builds upon it.

There are a few new characters introduced once the story enters the enchanted forest, the most prominent of which being Lieutenant Mattias (Sterling K. Brown), a Lieutenant who served Arendelle under Anna and Elsa’s grandfather who has been trapped in the forest ever since that fateful day. Another commendable aspect of Frozen II is how it so easily avoids the pitfall of so many animated sequels of overemphasizing new characters at the expense of the returning ones. The new characters who are present in Frozen II help enrich the world and story of the film, but they all play the roles they need to without overstaying their welcome, as opposed to needlessly playing roles that are already covered by the established characters (no talking sporks or swashbuckling cats in this sequel).

Frozen II is a visual wonder. While the first Frozen showcased snowy landscapes, Frozen II’s setting of the Northuldra forest is drenched in an Autumn pallete. There are a lot more Earthy-colored environments this time around, while Elsa’s ice powers, as well as the purple flames that emanate from the Fire Spirit, keep the hues of the original film intact. Between its gorgeous environments and many magical happenings, Frozen II is an astonishingly beautiful film. And much like the story itself, the art direction and settings distinguish this sequel from its predecessor. There’s not a moment in Frozen II that doesn’t look like a work of art.

The voice cast is every bit as enjoyable as they were in the first film, and remains among the best vocal cast of any animated feature. Josh Gad provides charm and warmth to Olaf without making him too cutesy. Jonathan Groff gives Kristoff heart and humor. And most notably, Kristen Bell and Idena Menzel are perfect in the roles of Anna and Elsa. Bell has a unique combination of heroism and innocents to her performance that brings Anna to life, while Idena Menzel’s unrivaled ability to capture both vulnerability and raw power in her voice make her the one and only person who could’ve voiced a character as unique as Elsa.

Also new to the cast is Evan Rachel Wood as Anna and Elsa’s mother, Queen Iduna. Though her role is primarily in the film’s opening flashback, she proves to be another stellar addition to the Frozen cast.

That brings us to Frozen II’s songwork. Frozen II is the first musical sequel in the entire Disney canon (those straight-to-video cash-grabs of the 90s and early-naughts were created by third-rate subsidiaries of Disney). As such, Frozen II had a unique uphill battle. Making a sequel to a beloved film is a difficult enough endeavor in itself, but how do you follow-up something like Let It Go?

I’m happy to say that, somehow, songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez have done the impossible and created a selection of songs that match those of the original film. The songs of Frozen II vary wildly, from its opening lullaby sung by Queen Iduna (“All is Found”) to an 80s power ballad (Kristoff’s aforementioned musical number, “Lost in the Woods”). Every major character gets a new song, all of them catchy and infectious in the best way. We even get an ensemble (“Some Things Never Change”). And perhaps knowing that recreating Let It Go simply wouldn’t be  possible, Frozen II avoids having to deal with said comparison by giving Elsa two musical numbers, thus making them more likely to be compared to each other, as opposed to their indelible predecessor. While all of the songs of Frozen II are great, it’s no surprise that Idena Menzel’s vocals make both of Elsa’s songs (“Into the Unknown” and “Show Yourself“) the biggest highlights.

As a fan of the original film, I was excited for Frozen II, but admittedly a little cautious. How exactly could Disney (or anyone) make a worthy follow-up to a film that was such a pleasant surprise to begin with? It turns out any such cautions were misplaced. Frozen II retains the spirit of the beloved original, and much like said original differentiated itself from Disney traditions, Frozen II differentiates itself from its predecessor. The beloved characters and terrific songwork return, but the story, its structure and its tone are unique to itself.

Frozen II is an ideal sequel, then. One that creates a wonderful continuation to the stories of the characters audiences have grown to love, while telling a story of its own. Frozen II is the best sequel of recent years, and is such a strong and unique film of its own that I find this to be a rare instance of me wanting to see where Anna, Elsa and company can go next with a third chapter in their story.

Frozen II could have been an easy sequel that road the coattails of the original. Instead, Frozen II follows its own advice, venturing into the unknown to create the best animated sequel since Toy Story 2. Frozen has become so endearing that we can’t – ironically enough – let it go.

Frozen and Me

I just got back from seeing Frozen II and I have to say, as a fan of the original, that was a very rewarding sequel.

I plan on writing my review for Frozen II soon, but first I’d like to give some early impressions of the film, due to reasons that I’ll explain right now.

When Frozen was released in 2013, it was quite unlike anything I’d seen. Internet cynics would probably lambast me for saying that, seeing as it’s a Disney musical and thus ‘can’t be art’ yadda yadda yadda. But as someone who has been a lifelong fan of Disney, I admit there were still things about the animation studio’s output that I always felt were outdated. Frozen, as it turned out, was the Disney movie I always wanted, but never knew I’d actually get.

As much as I appreciated Disney films, I never would have put them on the same level as Studio Ghibli or Pixar’s animated features. Ghibli and Pixar would craft stories that were driven by the characters. Disney, meanwhile, used characters who were defined by a small handful of archetypes, and seemed to exist for the sole purpose of pushing the plot forward. Compared to the characters of Studio Ghibli or Pixar, well, there was no comparison.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a plot/concept-based movie. But knowing what animated storytelling was capable of due to the likes of Ghibli and Pixar, it felt like Disney was unable/unwilling to break away from their formula. Granted, Disney movies were mostly good, but kind of interchangeable really. I could name several Studio Ghibli or Pixar movies that would rank among my favorites, because they all felt distinct. But I felt I could pick one Disney movie to represent the entire lot because, well, they very much had their formula down pat (in case you’re interested, I would have listed Beauty and the Beast in a pre-Frozen world).

But Frozen changed all that. In one fell swoop, it addressed and rectified the issues I felt were holding Disney back. Sure, the archetypes were there, but there ended up being so much more to these characters than what was on the surface. What seemed to be marketed as “just another Disney Princess movie but with two princesses,” ended up being the most thoughtful and meaningful film in the Disney canon. Said princesses were fully fleshed-out characters, the comic foil (Olaf) existed for more than just comic relief (though he was also great at just that). Even the Disney Prince, the most bland and uninteresting of Disney’s archetypes, was given an overhaul, and the film featured one of the very few plot twists that genuinely surprised me.

Frozen subverted expectations before subverting expectations was cool. And honestly, it did so way, way better than the works that have attempted it since. Perhaps The Last Jedi would have been less polarized if Rian Johnson had studied how Frozen subverted expectations, as opposed to seemingly writing off what J.J. Abrams and company started with its predecessor. No doubt Frozen did to Disney traditions what Rian Johnson could only hope to do with Star Wars.

On top of defying tradition and giving new depth to Disney storytelling, Frozen was also a hell of a lot of fun, and the catchiness of the songs needs no explanation. Again, the cynical and snarky would love to ridicule me for saying something like this, but Frozen was a perfect movie (and certainly THE perfect Disney movie). Sure, naming my favorite Disney movie still has an easy answer, but now it’s because there’s one that’s just so damn good, as opposed to one I simply feel best utilized the studio’s formula (I still love you, Beauty and the Beast).

Now I have to get a bit more personal. On top of being the Disney movie I always wanted/never expected, Frozen also had a profound impact on me personally. Sorry to sound like a sad sack, but I suffer from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Depression and Social Phobias. I have my entire life, and in that particular point in time I had been feeling especially low. But Frozen, a Disney movie about a magical snow princess and her sister, believe it or not, helped me better understand and subsequently deal with my demons. And I have been improving myself ever since.

Through Elsa, the snow queen who gives Frozen its name, Disney somehow created a character who serves as a universal and sympathetic allegory to such issues (and many others). Many people have also viewed Elsa as an allegory for homosexuality, and more power to them. But that goes back to what made Frozen so special: What other Disney movie featured characters and elements that were allegorical and left so much room for interpretation?

Again we go back to the internet smartasses, who would no doubt laugh at me for claiming Frozen – a kids movie (and perhaps even more so, a popular movie) – of all things, is what has helped me better understand myself. Surely they would point out all the arthouse and indie films that deal with mental issues and such in a literal manner. Well, I’ve seen a good number of such films, but even with the good ones, I’ve felt a bit of a disconnect with them. Along with a tendency to feel more than a little bit like award-bait, many such films tend to display mental issues and the like as a hopeless tragedy, or something that is simply to be pitied or vilified. But through Elsa, Frozen told audiences how these issues – even though they may be hard, and sad, and tragic – are a fact of life for many. These things shouldn’t be feared, but we should learn to accept them and be willing to face our issues to better ourselves. Elsa may have been the antagonist, but not because she was the typical Disney villain who was out to cause evil because reasons, but because people were ignorant and feared her, which caused her to run away from her problems and create the core conflict of the movie. It’s through the selfless love of her sister Anna, the film’s protagonist, that Elsa in turn learns to love herself.

Yeah, it’s a bit deeper than the usual Disney fare.

For one reason or another, Elsa was a far more relatable character to me than anyone found in “more intellectual” films. I may now be a 30-year old male, and (as far as I know) I lack magical ice powers, but Elsa is indeed the movie character I relate to over all others. I am not the slightest bit ashamed to admit that.

Frozen, of course, eventually became a worldwide phenomenon. Along with Pokemon and Harry Potter, it’s probably among the biggest pop-culture phenomenons to have occurred in my lifetime. While it was great to see something so good be rewarded with recognition, the fact that we live in the often-abhorrent internet age naturally meant that as soon as Frozen became popular, it became ‘cool’ to ridicule it (how dare children like things!). But despite generic internet contrarianism (a YouTuber complaining about stuff? Oh, how original), that first year or so of Frozen-Mania, when the film was absolutely ubiquitous, was probably the first of maybe two instances in the 2010s where the world seemed to find something that made it genuinely happy and brought people together in a way that’s incredibly rare in this cold, disconnected internet age (the second instance would be the release of Pokemon Go).

Frozen became the highest-grossing animated film in the world for nearly six years (it was somehow displaced by that uncanny valley Lion King remake. Though I suppose Frozen can still claim to be the highest-grossing good animated film). And yes, a sequel became an inevitability. As with any sequel, it’s a risky move. That’s especially true of something that had no pre-conceived expectations (Frozen may be very loosely inspired by Hans Christen Anderson’s The Snow Queen, but really only in the fact that it features a snow queen). Again, Frozen originally just looked liked the “Two Princesses” Disney movie. No one would have guessed it would become what it did.

I should point out now that, ahead of its release, I myself rolled my eyes at the advertisements to the film, as I – in my certain knowledge – knew it was just going to be another example of the Disney formula. Never before or since has a movie made me look like a fool so beautifully.

Here we are, six years later, and Frozen II is a reality. I’m sad to see a number of ‘professional’ critics were cynical even ahead of its release (and some after). Yes, the success of the original surely swayed Disney to make the sequel, but if this were a mere cash-grab, it would have happened years ago, and simply repeat the same beats as the original. This is a genuine sequel, and it’s sad to see some still write it off basically because it’s a sequel and thus “can’t be art.”

Earlier this year, Pixar released Toy Story 4. While that particular movie was decently good on its own merits, it paled in comparison to its three preceding films and, at its worst, retroactively rendered its immediate predecessor pointless. Yet Frozen II is the one cynics are targeting as being “all about the money.” It seems a bit hypocritical, considering that Toy Story 4 is the fourth entry in a series that already wrapped up with its third entry, and is a series that’s literally about toys (I love Toy Story, and Toy Story 4 certainly wasn’t bad, but c’mon, if any party in this scenario is guilty of milking a franchise, well…..).  I am aware that Toy Story 4 currently has higher meta-ratings on Rotten Tomatoes and its ilk, but I don’t see that as a reflection of the actual quality between the movies, so much as yet another reason why we should stop giving Rotten Tomatoes and company any credibility and form opinions ourselves. It also seems kind of strange that franchises primarily targeted at young girls are usually the ones that come under fire for “being greedy.” But that’s perhaps a discussion for another day.

Having seen Frozen II, I genuinely felt it was a worthy follow-up to the original. I hope to review it ASAP, but part of me wonders if I should review it. After all I’ve said of the personal impact Frozen had on me, no doubt many would think I’m an unreliable source due to my love of its predecessor (which seems a bit strange, when you think about it. Who exactly are sequels made for if not fans of the original?). But I would say, if there are means to justify biases, x-thing helped me understand and deal with mental illness seems like a pretty decent one. It certainly has a stronger case than it’s a sequel ergo it’s bad, I like to think. And in my defense, I do try my best to still be fair and honest when I review things. Sure, I have preferences (I am a human being, after all, not a robot), but that doesn’t mean I can’t also view things from a critical lens. I could have easily awarded every Hayao Miyazaki directed film a 10/10 based on personal feelings and history, but of the eight of them I’ve reviewed so far, their scores range from 7s to 10s (Miyazaki still unquestionably makes good movies, so nothing on the lower half on the scale from him, admittedly).

Yes, I honestly felt that Toy Story 4, while decent, was a retrograde sequel that undermined Toy Story 3, while Frozen II felt like a meaningful continuation that added to the growth of the characters and world of the original.

The big question has to be: Is Frozen II as good as the original? Well, that’s kind of an unfair question at this point in time. Again, I have been praising Frozen as Disney’s finest achievement for six years now, and it has played a surprisingly big influence in my life for that same amount of time. It’s kind of difficult to compare. I will reiterate that Frozen II is an exceptional sequel that – like any good sequel – feels different from its predecessor while simultaneously adding to it. It was worth the wait, and it feels like something that came from the heart of its creators, as opposed to a token sequel merely capitalizing on the success of the original.

I hope to review Frozen II in the near future, and maybe after better analyzing it and contemplating it, I can give a proper comparison between it and its predecessor. But at the moment it feels like an unfair task on myself. Frozen II is an incredible sequel, but with the impact the original had on me, can I of all people make that comparison? It would be like if I saw a really great anime movie, and someone were to ask me if it compares to Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro. It’s like, well no. Of course not. It’s an unfair battle.

I loved Frozen II, and yes, I even cried. When I do review it, expect it to be pretty glowing. It genuinely saddens me that a number of critics are writing it off because of that ‘II‘ in the title, because the film is more than that. But whether or not I think it matches the original is, for once, not a matter of the film’s quality itself, but a testament to what the first film accomplished, and what it did for me.

The Addams Family (2019) Review

When it comes to the Great War – and by ‘the Great War’ I am of course referring to the age-old Addams Family vs. Munsters debate – I usually find myself ultimately siding with the Munsters. That’s not to say that I dislike the Addams Family, and I certainly appreciate the (surprisingly large) influence they’ve had on American pop culture from their inception in comic strips over eight decades ago. But in regards to the comparisons between the two franchises, the concept of the Munsters just makes more sense to me.

The Munsters were a traditional American family, immigrating from “the old country” to America. It just so happened that the Munster family was an assortment of classic movie monster archetypes. It was a fish-out-of-water scenario, with the Munsters being completely naive to the fact that the average person wasn’t a vampire or a Frankenstein’s monster, which of course lead to many a misunderstanding and unintentional frights. This toyed with the idea that the “normal” people around them were much weirder than the Munsters themselves.

The Addams Family, by comparison, is much less defined. They’re macabre, and they frequently boast some dark humor. But they’re also a bit inconsistent. Some of them are undead, some of them are oddities (like the hairy “Cousin Itt”) and some are just…weird people, I guess. That’s all well and fine, but they kind of lose some of their charm when their personalities become as all over the place as their family tree.

“The reference to Stephen King’s It is fun. Too bad it was spoiled in all the trailers.”

A good example of what I mean happens in this 2019 animated feature adaptation: Wednesday Addams (Chloë Grace Moretz), daughter of Gomez (Oscar Isaac) and Morticia Addams (Charlize Theron), is looking to displease her mother. Not out of teenage rebellion, but because the Addamses are weird and opposite of everyone else, so displeasing parents is to the Addamses what pleasing parents is to normal people. Wednesday hopes to upset her mother by changing her physical appearance (by wearing bright pink colors, skirts and hairbands, of course). But when her mother disapproves, Wednesday takes offense and decides to run away from home to escape her overbearing mother. So which is it? Do the Addamses indulge in negativity and conflict or do they have more relatable human wants and desires, and just happen to be weird in outward appearance and behavior? It’s a case of having one’s cake and eating it too.

It’s these weird inconsistencies with the characters that can, in certain adaptations, make it hard to empathize with the Addams Family. Sadly, I think this movie is an example of just that. It can’t seem to decide if the Addamses are simply misunderstood (which seems to be what it’s trying to do thematically) or if they actually work on some bizarro, backwards logic and morality.

Along with the plot of Wednesday and Morticia butting heads, there are two additional main plot lines, which prove to be spread too thin for a movie that barely misses the hour and a half mark in its runtime.

The other family-based dynamic is between Gomez and his son, Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard). Pugsly has come of age to perform a “Sabre Mazurka,” a swordfight/dance that serves as a kind of right of passage for Addams boys to become Addams men. Pugsley is disinterested in learning sword fighting, being far more occupied with explosives. This leaves Gomez fearing that Pugsley will embarrass himself on his big day.

It may have been better had the film settled on the two parent/child plots, since they’re narratively and thematically similar, and focus on the core group of characters, with Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll) in the mix for good measure. But the third aforementioned plotline involves the swampland surrounding the Addamses’ hilltop home being replaced by a planned community. This not only means multitudes of ‘regular’ human beings now live just under the hill, but because the swamps are gone, the fog blocking the Addamses’ house from view has disappeared. This means that the Addamses now have to socialize with the world around them which, as you probably guess, doesn’t tend to go too well.

This is especially true in the case of Margaux Needler (Allison Janney), a reality TV show host and homemaker, who sees the Addamses as a disturbance to her budding neighborhood. Needler then makes it her mission to run the Addamses out of town to maintain a “perfect neighborhood” image.

Honestly, it’s this third plot that drags the story down. The other two storylines at least mirror each other in a way that makes sense. But this story with Needler’s disdain for the Addamses feels like a different movie, and yet, it’s probably the plotline that gets the most attention.

The Addams Family can be a funny movie at times. I think I even let out an audible laugh on a couple of occasions. The film is admittedly at its best when it’s acting more like a gag reel, with the titular family’s oddball, macabre nature providing some good laughs. Take, for example, how the film introduces the Addams family’s butler Lurch into the picture. In the movie’s opening moments, when Gomez and Morticia are moving to New Jersey, they hit an escaped asylum inmate (Lurch) with their car, and see the asylum on a nearby hill, which they then decide will make a perfect home to raise their family. They then just kind of pick Lurch up and he becomes their butler on the spot, no questions asked.

It’s the silly little moments of dark and oddball humor such as that when The Addams Family is at its best. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be quite enough of it weaved into the main plots, so when they do show up, they feel separated from everything else going on. As you can imagine, with three main plots in a movie that’s slightly under an hour and a half, with various series of gags that seem removed from those plots thrown in, The Addams Family really feels stretched thin and episodic.

That’s not to say that there’s anything innately horrible with The Addams Family, just that there’s nothing particularly special about it, and none of its elements feel like they click together to form a proper movie.

The animation can also be a bit of a mixed bag. As you could tell from a glance, the animation is cartoonishly exaggerated to the nth degree. That can be fine in some cases, and it’s not nearly as over-animated as the Hotel Transylvania movies, but something about the visual look of The Addams Family just didn’t quite work for me. I like the character designs for the Addamses themselves. Wednesday’s braids ending in nooses is a particularly nice touch, and Uncle Fester’s bulbous head leads to some fun physical comedy. But the designs for the ‘regular’ humans leaves a lot to be desired. Maybe that was the point, like the ‘normal’ people are the real weirdos, but they don’t look weird in an interesting or appealing way that catches the eye. They look more akin to the kind of animated characters you’d see in a straight-to-video movie from the late 2000s, than from a theatrically released feature at the tail-end of the 2010s.

I also enjoyed the voice cast for the film, with particular highlights being Isaac, Theron and Moretz. It’s just a shame that such a spot-on cast doesn’t have a better film to showcase their vocal talents.

I admit I had fun at times watching The Addams Family. It has its charms, but the film’s inability to find a cohesive flow between its elements, combined with the inconsistent personalities and motivations of the Addamses themselves, make it a hard movie to recommend.

Or maybe I’m just an angry Munsters fanboy.

 

4

Abominable Review

In the early-to-mid 2000s, Dreamworks Animation was seen as Pixar’s big rival in the world of CG animated features. Though Dreamworks has had a number of animated hits, their habit of strictly following the template of animated features of their time (both in the 2000s and into the 2010s) combined with what seems to be a willingness to green light every last idea that enters their door (Boss Baby), made Pixar’s inevitable victory in this so-called “war” a foregone conclusion long ago. And with Disney rising to prominence in the CG animation front over the past several years, the idea of Dreamworks being a rival to either of the Mouse House’s two premiere animation brands seems all the more like a distant memory.

That’s not to say that Dreamworks has completely fallen off the map (I still quite enjoy the first two Shrek films and the Kung Fu Panda trilogy), and every now and again they still crank out a good movie.

Case in point: Abominable, a charming and heartfelt animated feature from Dreamworks Animation’s “Pearl Studio” division, a joint venture between Dreamworks and Chinese investment companies. Though even with its charms and emotional strengths, Abominable still ultimately falls short of its full potential by once again adhering too closely to Dreamworks’ rulebook.

Abominable tells the story of Yi (Chloe Bennet), a young Chinese girl who has recently lost her father. Living with her mother and grandmother, Yi has taken to performing odd jobs around town in order to save up money to go on the trip around Asia that her father had always wanted to go on, but died before he had the chance. But Yi’s world is thrown into disarray when she discovers a yeti living on top of her apartment building. Yi soon befriends the yeti, naming him ‘Everest’ (after his home), and is determined to keep him safe.

It turns out this yeti has escaped captivation from a wealthy man named Mr. Burnish (Eddie Izzard), who recently caught the creature on an expedition to Mount Everest, after having searched years for the creature following an encounter with it in his youth. Determined to prove the yeti’s existence after being called a liar his entire life, Mr. Burnish has recruited zoologist, Dr. Zara (Sarah Paulson), as well as a small, private army, to help him reclaim the yeti.

Fearing for Everest, Yi sneaks the Yeti onto a departing ship, but in the spur of the moment, ends up accompanying Everest on his journey home. But Yi isn’t alone on her adventure to escort Everest back to…Everest. Caught in the middle of all the commotion are Yi’s friends from her apartment: Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor), a self-absorbed pretty boy, and his younger brother Peng (Albert Tsai).

If it all sounds a bit familiar by now, that’s because, well, it is. Abominable is ultimately a good movie, as it tells its story well and by the film’s third act, it hits the right emotional beats. But Abominable is also a movie that can feel like it came off a conveyor belt, as the story it does tell is all too familiar for animated features of today. Granted, I would rather see a predictable good movie than an original bad one, but I can’t help but feel just a handful of tweaks to Abominable’s story structure could have ascended it from being simply a ‘good’ animated feature to a great one.

Again, there’s nothing inherently bad about Abominable. But from the main character’s story with a deceased parent, the friendly, misunderstood creature, the comic relief, and the overall pathway of the story, Abominable is very much following the proverbial animated movie guidebook. I suppose the film does attempt a bit of a twist with its villain scenario, but it seems like many animated films do that these days. And unlike in something like Frozen, where the villain twist had thematic depth that subverted Disney’s tropes, Abominable’s ‘twist’ just seems to kind of happen for the sake of it. Some might point out Yi’s lack of a romantic interest to be of note, but again, that’s become pretty commonplace for animated heroines over the past few years (and it’s something that, once again, Frozen did infinitely better).

It’s the over familiarity of it all which has plagued numerous Dreamworks animated films in the past. While Pixar – Dreamworks’s one-time rival – continue to take animated storytelling to new heights (even if they may not do so quite as consistently as they once did), Dreamworks often seems to simply make due with the status quo. Sure, not every movie can be a masterpiece, and sometimes a lighter, more familiar movie is perfectly fine (and it is here). But I worry that Dreamworks is too okay with ‘perfectly fine’ all too often, instead of aiming for something greater.

By now I’m probably sounding pretty negative about Abominable. But it should be noted that Abominable is a movie I feel bad saying anything bad about. Because it is a charming and heartwarming feature, despite its lack of originality. And I certainly found it a more enjoyable offering from Dreamworks than How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.

While the third entry in the Dragon series felt overly cluttered with a small army of characters (most of whom felt pretty one-note even back in its first installment), Abominable keeps things simple and focused. We have a trio of heroes, a duo of primary villains, and a huggable yeti as the centerpiece. Yi is a likable heroine, and I applaud how the film at first presents Jin as a one-dimensional character who wouldn’t have felt out of place as a secondary character in the Dragons films, but goes through his own miniature story arc that makes him a much stronger character as the film goes on.

The film is also well animated, with memorable character designs and colorful scenery. And of course, every time the yeti uses its magic, the film provides plenty of visual splendor.

Abominable certainly has a lot going for it. Between its sharp animation, charming characters, and genuine heartfelt moments, Abominable should delight children as well as older audiences. But if you’ve seen pretty much any of the better half of Dreamworks’s animated output, you basically know everything you’re getting from Abominable, which ultimately prevents its many merits from shining as brightly as they should.

 

6