Why Today’s Disney Renaissance is Better than the 90s Disney Renaissance

Big Hero 6

Big Hero 6, Disney’s most recent release, has kept the House of Mouse’s current hot streak alive. This hot streak, which began in 2009 with The Princess and the Frog, is often thought of as the “modern Disney Renaissance” in reference to the original Disney Renaissance that began after The Little Mermaid and continued throughout the 90s with such beloved films as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, ending with Tarzan.

A lot of Disney fans like to think of the 90s Renaissance to be something of Disney’s golden era, untouchable by any other generation of Disney films. But recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that the current wave of Disney films not only stands up to the 90s Disney Renaissance, but betters it. Granted, the modern Disney flicks in question currently stand at six, compared to the original Renaissance’s ten films. But it terms of diversity, creativity and storytelling, these six films give the 90s Disney canon a run for their money.

 

Little MermaidOne of the main reasons the 90s Disney films were so successful, and yet so restrained, can be summed up with both The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Both of which are charming movies (the former has aged in terms of its message, but the latter is still one of Disney’s finest), but Disney, looking to reclaim their former glory after their rather lackluster run in the 80s, was willing to play things safe. The Little Mermaid created the template for the generation of Disney films to follow, and Beauty and the Beast refined it. The rest, you could argue, simply replicated it. From character archetypes to story progression to the style of songs, the 90s Disney Renaissance, even with its best films, was largely unwilling to be different, or think outside of the box.

Hunchback of Notre DameArguably the sole exception to this was The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which I consider to be both one of Disney’s best and most underrated animated films). Hunchback of Notre Dame took the Disney template of the time, and wrapped it around a darker narrative and adult themes. The rest of the lot, even some of my favorites (Mulan, Hercules) wouldn’t have taken the creative risks that Hunchback did.

 

But that was one movie out of ten, whereas I think all six of the current Disney wave have far more distinct identities. Sure, Princess and the Frog and Tangled may fall under some of the same tropes as the 90s generation, but they at least cared to give their princesses personalities, and they as a whole have a stronger sense of characterization than the brunt of Disney’s films. Not to mention that both Tangled and The Princess and the Frog tried to add some twists to the formula, whereas the 90s films would have felt content sticking to the rulebook laid down by The Little Mermaid.

 

To top that off, the other modern Disney films include the charming Winnie the Pooh, a super hero movie in Big Hero 6, a video game love letter in Wreck-It Ralph, and Frozen, which may look like ‘another’ princess movie from the outside, but narratively and thematically, is in a league of its own in the Disney canon.

Anna and Elsa

Winnie the Pooh is as simple and cute as you would expect from the bear of very little brain, but it has a sense of innocents and peacefulness that most American animated features lack. Big Hero 6, while a by-the-books super hero film in some ways, is genuine and honest enough to give it more heart than its live-action super hero brethren. Wreck-It Ralph is a fun story with a memorable cast of characters, complimented by a constant sense of visual inventiveness. Finally, Frozen took what could have been another tried-and-true Disney musical, and turned it into something meaningful, with believable, even relatable characters, a story that took creative risks, and a level of depth that makes it one of the few Disney films I’ve seen analyzed and interpreted on an artistic level. When was the last time a Disney film had themes that could be interpreted in different ways?

 

I know what you’re probably asking by this point: “What about The Lion King? What about Aladdin?”

The Lion KingTruth be told, I find both The Lion King and Aladdin to be nothing special. That’s not to say I think they’re bad movies, but I certainly don’t think they’re worth the immense praise fans have given them. Nor do they really belong in arguments of great animated films. Aladdin is remembered for the iconic Genie, but take him out of the equation and everything else in the film is pretty forgettable. The Lion King, while good, is a pretty basic plot with an inconsistent tone (one minute Simba is crying over his father’s lifeless body, the next a warthog is singing about farting). And both still stuck true to the established formula. Again, they aren’t bad movies, but I don’t see them as a great argument in favor of the 90s Disney Renaissance.

 

I know, I am now the villain of every 90s kid. But I’m certainly not writing off the nostalgic favorites of the Disney Renaissance. I simply think that Disney’s recent output feels more free. Perhaps Disney doesn’t feel so desperate as to recycle the same formula now that they have the likes of Pixar, Marvel and Star Wars to fall back on, and so their own films are now allowed to be more creatively daring. But whatever the reason, I feel that these past six Disney animated features, while they may not be equal among each other (Princess and the Frog and Winnie the Pooh are no Frozen or Wreck-It Ralph), do feel equally free to be themselves. The Princess and the Frog didn’t write a rulebook like The Little Mermaid did. But it did open the door for Disney movies to be more creative. I would say that’s all the more impressive.

Advertisements

The Lego Movie Review

The Lego Movie

With the Lego toy line now encompassing all sorts of media, from television to video games, it seemed only inevitable that a feature film would don the Lego name. But while The Lego Movie may boast the charming aesthetics of the toy line, it ends up being a largely inconsistent affair.

The Lego Movie tells the story of Emmet (Chris Pratt), an average, everyday construction worker in the city of Bricksburg. He doesn’t do or say much to stand out from the rest of the crowd, which makes it all the more surprising when he is revealed to be “The Special” a legendary figure proposed to save the world from Lord Business (Will Farrell).

Lord Business is hell-bent on bringing order to the world, and plans to freeze Bricksburg permanently into place with an item known as the Kragle (KRAzy GLuE). Emmet, along with sure-to-be romantic interest Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), the blind wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) and Batman (Will Arnett), set out to put a stop to Lord Business’ plot.

The Lego MovieIt’s a silly storyline that plays off the usual tropes of action/adventure movies, it’s sometimes effective, but it often works against itself. The parodies are spot-on, and provide the occasional laugh. The problem is parodying these tropes doesn’t change the fact that The Lego Movie is still shackling itself to them. It’s a by-the-books adventure that believes itself better than by-the-books adventures. It becomes all the more magnified by the movie’s insistence on telling the audience to be creative, yet it doesn’t adhere to its own message.

Be grateful for the visuals then, as they are just about the only thing The Lego Movie can call its own. It’s a CG animation, but it mimics the look and feel of stop-motion, more than likely inspired by the countless Lego fan films found on YouTube. The characters look and move as you would expect  Lego figures would. The environments look like they were constructed by the colorful toy bricks (including water, which makes for the movie’s most fun visuals), and if you look closely, you’ll even see fingerprints on some of the characters.

So the visuals are nice, though the novelty only works for so long. You can only care so much about the lively visuals when the story doesn’t share in their inventiveness. The Lego Movie is always at the ready to mock the cliches of other movies, but is ignorant to the fact that it’s in the same boat. It’s the very thing it claims to be smarter than.

Younger audiences might not mind, they’ll probably just love it for being The Lego Movie. No doubt the presence of Batman, as well as cameos from Star Wars, Ninja Turtles and countless other franchises might even make older audiences giddy. But at the end of the day, the fun of The Lego Movie can only go so far. It can preach creativity all it wants, but if it itself feels like any other average animated movie, then there’s nothing “special” about it.

5

How to Train Your Dragon 2 Review

How to Train Your Dragon 2

How to Train Your Dragon 2 the sequel to Dreamworks’ acclaimed 2010 animated feature of a similar name (minus the 2). Dreamworks hasn’t had the most consistent track record when it comes to sequels – for every great Kung Fu Panda 2 there’s been a not-so-great Shrek the Third – but given the status of ‘Dragons’ among Dreamworks’ features, it seems the studio has made an honest effort to live up to the original with How to Train Your Dragon 2. But just how effective is that effort?

I have a bit of a confession to make. I found the original How to Train Your Dragon to be great when I first saw it. But I’m afraid it doesn’t hold up so well in repeated viewings. It’s a good film that tells a solid story (no tired pop-culture references), and it had some nice emotional touches, but it also lacked any real sense of inventiveness. There were no surprises, and the story could largely be figured out by the trailers alone. You could say that How to Train Your Dragon was good and pretty much everything it did, but everything it did was pretty much everything you expected it to do.

I think it’s safe to say Dragon 2 continues this trend. It’s solid, but nothing groundbreaking. Though that may be less forgivable the second time around.

The story takes place five years after the original film. Young viking Hiccup has done a lot of growing up (bringing peace between vikings and dragons will do that). His father, Stoic the Vast thinks it’s time Hiccup begins preparing for the day when he succeeds his old man as chief viking of Berk.

But all is not well in the world. An old enemy of Stoic’s, Drago Bludvist is training  dragons of his own, with the intent on creating a dragon army to take over the world! Hiccup, his dragon Toothless, his girlfriend Astrid, Stoic and the rest of the vikings are then dragged on an adventure that, among other things, leads to the discovery of Hiccup’s long-lost mother Valka.How to Train Your Dragon 2

The story is tight enough, with some clever writing and good character development with Hiccup (his relationships with his parents being a highlight), and a good sense of humor to boot (one notable scene involves Astrid poking fun of Hiccup’s mannerisms, which seems like a sly joke by the filmmakers at the way they animated the main character). The downside is, with all the good, How to Train Your Dragon 2 still suffers the same shortcomings of its predecessor.

My primary gripe with the first Dragons was that the supporting cast was largely comprised of one-note characters, and that rings doubly true here. Stoic’s right-hand man Gobber is the essential goofball, while Hiccups friends fill a similar role, but even more condensed: Dragon 2Snotlout  and Fishlegs spend the entire movie swooning over Ruffnut , who in turn spends the entire movie swooning over someone else. Ruffnut’s twin brother Tuffnut gives a few obligatory one-liners during the film as to not be completely left out. Even Astrid feels like  forced ‘strong girl’ character, following the trend that a girl needs to act like a boy in order to prove she’s strong. It’s not that any of these characters are unlikable, but the fact that they feel defined by a singular joke or trait does make it feel like the Dragons series has a bit of an excess in supporting characters.

This goes double, however, for Drago Bludvist, who amounts to little more than the archetypal “the world shall soon be mine” kind of villain. And given that Bludvist has a considerably bigger role than the aforementioned characters, it only magnifies his one-note villainy.

Another problem is that much of what happens in the movie’s first half happens all to quickly. Perhaps Dragon 2 is trying to tell a story that’s too big for its own running time, but some of the earlier parts of the film feel like they’re cramming elements together to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Thankfully, the second half of the film smooths things out and finds a more consistent flow and steady pace.

If you loved How to Train Your Dragon, then you should love How to Train Your Dragon 2. It has all the pieces that made the original one of Dreamworks’ better animated films, but it also doesn’t exactly improve on its predecessor either. It’s a fun, beautifully animated ride, just like the original, but it’s also full of more elements than it knows what to do with, and aside from one big emotional moment, lacks any real surprises. Maybe it’s not the bigger and better sequel it wants to be, but if you’re a fan, you probably won’t care.

6