Raya and the Last Dragon Review

Raya and the Last Dragon is the fifty-ninth film from Walt Disney Animation Studios. In recent years, Disney has seemingly reclaimed their crown from sister studio Pixar as the leading force in animated blockbusters, reaching new critical and commercial heights with the likes of Zootopia, Moana and, of course, Frozen. Disney Animation has never been as creatively robust and varied as they are now, and that remains true of Raya and the Last Dragon, which sees Disney try their hand at an action-adventure film with greatly entertaining success.

Disney has admittedly attempted some action-oriented animated features in the past, most notably in the early 2000s with Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet. Though it’s safe to say neither of those films are remembered as Disney classics. But with Raya and the Last Dragon, Disney seems to have found the right balance of making a satisfying action film with all the making of a Disney classic.

Perhaps I should say “most” of the makings of a Disney classic, as Raya and the Last Dragon isn’t a musical, like most of Disney’s best works. But as far as Disney’s animated non-musicals go, Raya and the Last Dragon is among the best, maybe even the best of the lot.

Set in the Southeast Asian-inspired world of Kumandra, the story of Raya and the Last Dragon begins five-hundred years before Raya herself enters the picture: Kumandra was once a unified continent in which humans lived in harmony with magical dragons. This all changed when evil spirits called “Druun” appeared, and turned every living thing they touched to stone. The Druun spread like wildfire, engulfing human and dragon alike. Eventually, only one dragon remained, Sisu (Akwafina), who concentrated all her magic into a gem that cleansed the world of the Druun and revived all the humans, though the dragons remained stone, and Sisu herself disappeared. The people of Kumandra then had a power struggle for the “Dragon Gem” and split into five tribes, each named after part of a dragon: Heart, Fang, Spine, Talon and Tail. Heart, being the epicenter of Sisu’s last stand, is where the gem remains.

Fast-forward five-hundred years, and the other tribes still envy Heart over its possession of the Dragon Gem. Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), the leader of Heart and protector of the gem, still believes in a unified Kumandra, and hopes to make peace with the other tribes. Benja invites the leaders of the other tribes to Heart for a feast as a sign of goodwill. All seems to be going well, with Benja’s daughter, a young Princess Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) becoming fast friends with the princess of Fang, Namaari (Gemma Chan). But after Namaari wins Raya’s trust, Raya – who is training to be the Dragon Gem’s next guardian – shows Namaari the location of the gem. Namaari alerts the other members of Fang, and when Benja goes to defend the gem, the other tribe leaders follow him. A struggle ensues between the tribes for the gem, which results in Benja being injured, and the gem being broken into five pieces. Each tribe takes a piece, but the damage has been done, and the gem’s fracturing has reawakened the Druun, who once again begin turning humans to stone, including chief Benja himself.

The remaining members of each tribe use their gem pieces to repel the Druun, and find refuge around water (which the Druun also hate), but the majority of people have already been turned to stone. Fast forward six years, and Raya, now a young woman, has been on a quest to track down Sisu, who is rumored to still be alive, in hopes that the dragon can fuse the gem back together and heal the world.

Given that the name of the movie is Raya and the Last Dragon, I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by revealing that Raya does manage to find the resting spot of Sisu, and summons the dragon. After filling Sisu in on the situation (the dragon still thinks it’s the same day from five-hundred years prior upon awakening), Raya and Sisu set out to claim the other pieces of the Dragon Gem so they can set the world right. All the while, Namaari, hearing of Raya’s quest, hopes to stop Raya and claim the Dragon Gem for Fang.

That may seem like a lot of backstory for a Disney movie, but I kind of like that about Raya and the Last Dragon. Between Raya and Frozen II, Disney seems to be giving their films legitimate worldbuilding and lore (while not letting such things get in the way of the story at hand, which is crucial). We’ve certainly come a long way from the days when everything in a Disney movie was built around the moment when two hot people would make-out.

The story of Raya and the Last Dragon from this point has a simple adventure structure, but there’s nothing wrong with that when things are executed this well. And in typical Disney fashion, the film introduces us to a number of memorable characters, and has a nice message about trust to boot (having been betrayed by Namaari, resulting in the world’s ruin, Raya has a hard time believing in her father’s more positive outlook on the world, which clashes with Sisu’s childlike optimism).

Along their adventure, Raya and Sisu are joined by different colorful characters from the different tribes: Boun (Izaac Wang) is a ten-year old boy from Tail who captains the group’s boat, which also doubles as a restaurant. Noi (Thalia Tran) is a baby from Talon who, along with her three monkey-like companions, is a con artist. And Tong (Benedict Wong) is a warrior with a heart of gold from Spine with a peculiar manner of speech. And of course Raya has her own animal sidekick in the form of Tuk Tuk, a kind of giant armadillo/chipmunk hybrid whose sounds are provided by Alan Tudyk (because who else would it be in a modern Disney movie?).

This may seem like a lot of characters to juggle, and while some of them could do with a little more screen time, Raya and the Last Dragon actually does a nice job at giving this diverse group of ragtag heroes their own distinct personalities.

The characters are a lot of fun, and so is the adventure they find themselves on. Disney has long-since showcased that animation is the ideal medium for the film musical, but Raya and the Last Dragon is among the rare animated films – like Castle in the Sky or even the Kung Fu Panda movies – that shows that action sequences may also be best suited for animation. The real world has its limitations, and special effects can get distracting, but animation creates a reality of its own, allowing for the action to only be limited by the filmmakers’ imaginations.

Whether it’s one-on-one fight scenes or chase sequences, Raya and the Last Dragon provides some exhilarating set pieces. And it’s all perfectly suitable action for younger audiences too. More cynical people might balk that such things would dumb the action down, but that isn’t the case. Children deserve a variety of movies as much as anyone, so it’s great that something like Raya and the Last Dragon can produce these elaborate, creative set pieces and still present them in an accessible way for its target audience. Atlantis and Treasure Planet could feel like they were “trying to be cool” through their action, which might explain why they don’t exactly feel timeless. But Raya and the Last Dragon feels like it has the heart of a Disney classic, but presented in an action-adventure film, as opposed to the musical we’re accustomed to. Raya should prove to be an exciting movie for audiences of all ages.

The animation is similarly captivating. The visuals of a lot of big budget animation studios can kind of blur together these days, but Disney has found a way to still make its character designs stand out. And with the Southeast Asian-inspired setting, the world of Raya has a distinct beauty from other Disney fare. It’s a beautiful movie to look at, especially when Sisu is performing one of her feats of magic.

Raya and the Last Dragon continues Disney’s current hot streak of modern animated classics, and does so in a way that makes it stand out from the pack. It may not be the best film Disney has put out in recent times, but Raya and the Last Dragon is that rare, satisfying action film that still manages to have a beating heart. That in itself is worth celebrating.

8

Tom & Jerry (2021) Review

Tom & Jerry are arguably the most prolific of the classic cartoon stars. Sure, Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny may be more widely known, but in terms of the short films themselves, I think it isn’t too far of a stretch to say Tom & Jerry boast the most acclaimed resumes (at least in the days of their MGM shorts. We could all do animation history a great service by forgetting the era when Tom and Jerry were thrown into those poorly-animated Czech shorts). While Mickey may have had a role in Fantasia, and Bugs Bunny has starred in a movie or two (including 1990s fever dream Space Jam), Tom & Jerry have never had a feature film deserving of their names. Though that isn’t for a lack of trying.

1992 saw the release of the aptly-named Tom & Jerry: The Movie, an animated feature so misguided that it gave its titular cat and mouse duo cutesy cartoon voices! The less said of that disaster, the better. During the late 2000s and throughout the 2010s, Tom and Jerry were thrown into cash-grab straight-to-video movies that featured gimmicks like pirates, wizards and even Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory thrown into the mix. 2021 finally saw Tom & Jerry return to the big screen (which was given a simultaneous streaming release on HBO Max) with a film simply named after the franchise itself. Could this finally be the Tom & Jerry movie that does justice to its two iconic cartoon stars?

In short, no. It isn’t. Though this live-action/animated hybrid film is an improvement over Tom & Jerry’s previous feature-length efforts, it will surely be a disappointment for anyone hoping to see the slapstick royalty of Tom & Jerry stretched into a 90 minute film.

Some might say that Tom & Jerry, the tale as old as time of a cat and mouse wanting each other dead, wouldn’t work as a feature film. But how could we know, since no one has ever actually attempted that simple transition? Studios always feel the need to include human characters or some big plot that Tom and Jerry somehow find themselves entangled in. Yes, movies are a storytelling medium, but storytelling doesn’t necessarily have to mean plot. The classic Tom & Jerry shorts could provide top notch entertainment by the situations the cat and mouse’s rivalry would take them to. We can’t know if their schtick can carry a feature film if no one tries.

Shaun the Sheep is a series of fifteen minute animated shorts about a sheep and a dog doing human-y things behind the farmer’s back, with no dialogue outside of some animal noises and mumbles. I bring this up because Shaun the Sheep has now had two feature length films that utilize the same formula as the show, and they’ve been some of the best TV-to-movie transitions I’ve seen. If Shaun the Sheep can carry two movies, why has no one had enough faith in Tom and Jerry to carry a movie by themselves? Why do there always need to be humans and their troubles and bigger stories thrown into the mix?

The primary human here is Kayla (Chloë Grace Moretz), a resourceful young woman who manages to fudge her way to a job at the Royal Gates Hotel after passing someone else’s resume off as her own. A big problem with the film is that it spends far too much time on Kayla’s work life in the hotel and her trying to avoid the suspicious event manager, Terence (Michael Peña), and not nearly enough time on the chaotic battles of Tom and Jerry. Though credit where it’s due, Chloë Grace Moretz is always charming, and she does a good job at making the audience care about Kayla.

Things get more complicated for Kayla, when Jerry moves into the upper-class hotel. The Royal Gates Hotel is set to host a major celebrity wedding, and the hotel staff worries a mouse living in the hotel could ruin their image before the big event. Kayla attempts to catch Jerry herself, but when the mouse proves craftier than she expected, she ends up getting Tom a job at the hotel as well, so that he might help catch Jerry.

Honestly, that’s a fair setup for a Tom & Jerry movie. Take their usual antics, but put it in a big, fancy location as a means to distinguish it as a “bigger” motion picture makes sense. The issue is, again, that Tom and Jerry’s actions are often in the background, and the film dedicates too much time to its subplot of the celebrity wedding. I can accept a human character like Kayla being added to the proceedings, but the film should have stuck with her, Tom and Jerry. Instead, we have the celebrity couple, and other hotel staff members become players in the plot. It’s just so unnecessary.

Now, Tom and Jerry do get a few moments of slapstick battles and chase sequences, but they are too few, too brief, and too spread out. The movie even teases a big, chaotic finale on the day of the wedding, but when it occurs, it’s over with as quickly as it begins.

I don’t want to sound completely doom and gloom in regards to Tom & Jerry’s 2021 outing though. I admit there were some bits that made me laugh (though I could live without the bathroom humor centered around Spike, who here is the pet dog of the celebrity couple). I also liked the look of the film. Though it would have been nice see Tom and Jerry hand-drawn as they were back in the day, the film does the next best thing by giving the CG characters a cel shading that makes them look like their painted past-selves. In fact, all the animal characters in the film are cartoon characters, which is a nice little touch. With all the big budget sci-fi and super hero movies we have these days, live-action and animation have never coexisted as regularly as they do now. Usually, however, the animation is used as a special effect to enhance the visual look of a live-action world. So a movie like this, where the animated characters are blatantly animated characters interacting with real humans, has become something of a rarity. And call me a sucker, but I appreciate some of the film’s sentiment and the little lessons it has to say to younger audiences (even if some of these lessons feel a bit shoehorned in). Maybe I’ve grown a bit soft, or maybe the rough times the world is currently living in has just made me appreciate these things more in movies, even when they have shaky execution.

Though I may be going a little easy on this 2021 Tom & Jerry (young audiences might really like it), I can’t deny that the film misses the point of Tom & Jerry. Just because something is family entertainment doesn’t mean it has to be sentimental. And if any cartoon duo should be allowed to go the Godzilla route and simply have their movie “let them fight,” surely it’s Tom and Jerry.

5

Rango Review

Rango is something of an animated anomaly. Released in 2011 by Nickelodeon Pictures (if you can believe it), directed by a usually live-action filmmaker (Gore Verbinski, of Pirates of the Caribbean fame), with animation by visual effects studio Industrial Lights and Magic. Rango is an American animated film aimed more at the adult movie buff , but is still kid-friendly enough to not be completely niche. Even watching it today, a decade after its release, Rango still feels like a delightfully surreal experience. One that, sadly, the movie world hasn’t really seen since.

Rango tells the story of a pet chameleon (voiced by Johnny Depp), who prides himself as something of a thespian, though that might be a cover for his ongoing identity crises. The chameleon’s life gets thrown into chaos when his terrarium flies out of his owner’s car during an accident, stranding him in the desert. He meets the cause of the accident, a sagely armadillo named Roadkill (Alfred Molina), who points the chameleon in the right direction to survive the brutal heat of the desert.

The chameleon eventually finds himself in the old west-style town of Dirt, populated by various desert animals. The chameleon, realizing being a stranger in a new place is the opportunity to “be anyone,” the chameleon takes on the name ‘Rango,’ and concocts an elaborate backstory as a badass gunslinger who can take on anyone and anything, which the town humorously accepts with very little question.

The newly-named Rango is quickly put to the test when a hawk invades the town. Due to sheer luck, Rango survives the encounter with the hawk, with the townsfolk humorously interpreting his bumbling and lucky circumstances as some kind of ingenious strategy. So the people of dirt arrange for Rango to meet the mayor (a tortoise voiced by Ned Beatty), who appoints Rango as the new sheriff of Dirt.

But all is not well in Dirt, as the town has been suffering a severe draught, to the point that the townsfolk have resorted to using water as currency (even depositing water into their local bank). The water used to flow into the town every Wednesday, but it has suddenly stopped. A local woman – a desert iguana named Beans (Isla Fisher) – has noticed water being dumped in the desert, and suspects a conspiracy. She and Rango then set out to investigate the cause of the missing water. Meanwhile, an additional threat looms over Dirt. With his natural predator the hawk dead, notorious outlaw Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy) might return to Dirt.

Honestly, any synopsis I give can’t do Rango justice. It’s a Blazing Saddles-style western spoof while simultaneously being a genuine western in the vein of Sergio Leone. It’s an animated film with talking animals in which none of the animals are ever made to be cute (in fact, they’re wonderfully ugly). And it’s filled with enough movie references to make Quentin Tarantino blush.

Even ten years later, the animation of Rango is something to behold. The film finds the perfect balance of making things look both realistic and caricatured. Take, for example, Rango himself. His finer details (such as his scales) evoke a real chameleon, but his eyes are comically asymmetrical, and his crooked pencil neck should not be able to carry that bulbous head of his. There’s a lot of imagination at work in the character designs in making them weird, gross and interesting. It’s just a fascinating film to look at, and the results are still captivating a decade on.

The biggest joys of Rango, however, are the characters and writing. The voice acting is top notch (with Bill Nighy being a particular highlight, making Rattlesnake Jake a truly memorable villain despite relatively little screen time). Rango is a funny film, but in a much different way than most animated fare. There’s no particular comic sidekick designed to be the fan favorite, instead, the film manages to squeeze humor out of all of its characters (sans the villains, who are dead serious), no matter how small and inconsequential their part may be in the story. While there is some slapstick at play, most of the humor in Rango stems from the characters themselves. Whether it’s their eccentric personalities (Rango’s dimwittedness being mistaken for heroism is another highlight) or just the strange things they say (“It’s like a puzzle! Like a big mammogram!”), Rango’s is an off-beat sense of humor that still stands out.

That’s one of the best things about Rango: It’s intrinsically funny because of its weirdness. Yeah, there’s still some bathroom humor and the occasional wink to the adult crowd, but it never feels reliant on such things in the same way a lot of modern animated comedy does. The film could bring out a smile or laugh out of someone simply by the way it and its characters go about things (for example, Dirt’s weekly ritual of celebrating the arrival of water, which includes the townsfolk dancing and slapping each other, because why not). It’s funny by being itself, which is always a rare treat for any movie.

Despite garnering critical acclaim, Rango never quite caught on. It seems to have fallen a bit into obscurity these past ten years, being remembered for winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature (and not being a Pixar movie) but rarely being brought up outside of that piece of trivia. That’s a real shame, because Rango was certainly one of the more original animated films to come out of the early 2000s (scratch that, one of the more original films of that timeframe, period). Studios and filmmakers would have done themselves well to take a page or two from its book.

I like that Rango exists in this weird space where it’s like the adult version of a kids’ movie. It’s aimed at the older crowd but isn’t really inappropriate for kids, either (maybe a bit scary for younger children at certain points). It’s an animated film that respects its audience, young and old, and doesn’t feel like it needs to dumb itself down for the former or lazily fall back on sexual innuendo for the latter. I honestly don’t know why such a concept is as hard to find in western animation as it is.

Rango may not quite be an animated masterpiece (the more dramatic aspects of Rango’s journey of self-discovery can get a little lost in the silliness), but it is a consistently fun and funny motion picture that deserves far more attention than it gets. It’s stunningly animated (its craftsmanship making its ugly characters somehow beautiful to see in motion), complete with some great action sequences. And its personality is entirely its own.

Rango isn’t really a kids’ movie, but it isn’t exclusively for adults. It’s just a movie. And a pretty great one. How about that?

8

Pixar’s Soul Review

Soul is the twenty-third feature film from Pixar Animation Studios, a studio that needs no introduction by this point. Though Pixar hit their first rough patches during the 2010s (Cars 2, The Good Dinosaur), for the most part, they’ve had a nearly-unprecedented streak of classics. As such, the release of a new Pixar film usually serves as one of Disney’s tentpole releases of any given year. That was to be the case for Soul as well, with Disney heavily promoting it alongside the likes of Frozen 2 a year before its planned 2020 release. Of course, like so many 2020 films, Soul saw a number of setbacks and delays, before finally being made available as a streaming exclusive to Disney+ on Christmas Day.

Soul is directed by Pixar’s new head honcho Pete Docter, who previously directed Monsters, Inc., Up and Inside Out, effectively making him Pixar’s most imaginative and whimsical filmmaker. While most of Pixar’s films are easily identifiable by a specific theme (toys, cars, fish, bugs, etc.), Docter’s films tend to be more abstract or ethereal (Monsters, Inc. probably fit in more with Pixar’s usual “themed” films, though even then the concept of closet monsters makes for more imaginatively fertile ground than the others). This was made most apparent with Inside Out, a film that presented the inner emotions of a little girl as its leading characters, as they ventured through different avenues of the human mind. In a sense, Soul is like a spiritual follow-up to Inside Out, using a similarly existential idea as the basis of its story. While Inside Out took audiences into the world of thoughts and emotion, Soul takes things a step further by exploring the human soul itself.

Soul tells the story of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a middle school music teacher who has always dreamed of becoming a jazz musician. He doesn’t hate his job as a teacher, but does feel stuck and held back by it. His seamstress mother Libba (Phylicia Rashad) objects to his musical aspirations, further dampening his attitude towards his life’s situation.

Things start looking up for Joe, however, when a former student – who now plays for jazz legend Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) – informs Joe that there’s been an opening in Dorothea’s band. Joe makes an impression in his audition, and he’s personally asked by Dorothea to perform with her band later that night.

Ecstatic that his dreams could finally be coming true, Joe is a bit careless on his way home to prepare for the gig, and ends up falling down an open manhole. Joe now finds himself as a blobby, blue soul, riding a kind of escalator to transport him to “the Great Beyond.” Refusing to accept death on the day his life finally started to turn around, Joe stumbles off the escalator and finds himself in “the Great Before,” the place where souls gain their personalities before they go to Earth.

Here, the unborn souls are watched over by cosmic beings who all go by the name “Jerry” (abstract creatures who are simultaneously two-dimensional and three-dimensional). The various Jerrys mistake Joe for a “mentor,” an experienced soul who takes an unborn soul under their wing before the former ascends to the Great Beyond and the latter makes their journey to Earth. Joe decides to play along until he can find a way back to his body on Earth, and winds up as the mentor to a troublesome soul named “22” (Tina Fey), who has spent millennia in the Great Before as countless mentors (including Abraham Lincoln and Mother Teresa) have failed to instill 22 with the inspiration she needs to find her ‘spark,’ which is required before she can go to Earth.

I feel like I can’t divulge any more of the plot without spoiling the specifics, but suffice to say that Joe has his work cut out for him as he tries to figure out how to reconnect with his body and help 22 find a reason to live. Their adventure will span both this incorporeal realm as well as a few trips back to Earth (in unexpected ways), and takes a number of twists and turns.

Visually speaking, Soul is among Pixar’s most beautiful films. The human world looks more realistic than the usual Pixar fare (with the humans still having a cartoonish and exaggerated look), while the afterlife (or ‘betweenlife’ or whatever you want to call it) is a serene, visually arresting animated world, the kind you know will long stay in the memory. The aforementioned “Jerrys” as well as the “lost souls” should rank near the top of Pixar’s best character designs.

Like Inside Out, Soul seems to be having a ball exploring its concept. Not just for the visual splendor of it, but also for the creativity of its story and humor. We learn that passionate artists in the living world enter an ethereal plain simply called “The Zone” when they get lost in their art, but that the Zone can also transform souls into their “lost” selves, should obsessions and anxiety take hold. There’s a sign twirling guru named Moonwind (Graham Norton) who is willingly able to travel to the Zone through meditation. And the Jerrys question why they send so many souls into the pavilions that teach self-absorbtion. I don’t think Soul quite reaches Inside Out in making the most out of its concept, but like any of the Pixar greats, it certainly does bring a lot of charm and creativity out of it.

I feel like I’m referencing Inside Out a lot, but I feel the comparison is close to unavoidable, given that Soul is Docter’s follow-up feature to Inside Out, and that its concept makes it feel more inline with Inside Out than any other previous Pixar picture. And I’m afraid it’s in that sense that I feel Soul falls a bit short. For all the merit Soul does have, I don’t feel like it ever reaches the same heights as Docter’s previous masterpiece, whether through emotion or story.

Perhaps I set my expectations too high in regards to Soul. After all, I consider Inside Out to be Pixar’s greatest film full-stop. But again, it’s hard not to make the comparison, given the similarities between the two in both narrative DNA and as the works from the same filmmaker.

I suppose it’s not too critical of a complaint to say Soul falls short of what I believe is Pixar’s best effort, but there is that extra something missing from Soul that prevents it from sitting alongside Pixar’s very best. It’s hard to say what it is exactly, since I don’t think that Soul does anything particularly wrong, so much as it just doesn’t quite reach the heights it could have.

Inside Out used its concept to strip Pixar films to their bare essence, exposing their heart and soul (ironically enough). Pixar films have often been noted for bringing audiences to tears, and Inside Out basically expressed what every Pixar film aimed to achieve emotionally. I feel like Soul has similarly deep and meaningful things to say about life and why our passions may not necessarily be our purpose, but I feel like it doesn’t always know how to express these themes. I admit it actually took two viewings for me to appreciate what Soul was trying to say, though even now I don’t feel it in the same way I did for Inside Out.

Soul is a great movie on its own merits, don’t get me wrong. It tells a great, imaginative story with some of the best visuals Pixar has created. It has terrific vocal performances, a strong musical score and – like Ratatouille and Coco before it – has an infectious love of music and the arts. And yes, I even think the message of the film is potentially as profound as any Pixar has done. It’s just in the way that Soul often stumbles in conveying that message that holds it back from reaching the same staggering heights of some of its Pixar predecessors. With that said, even with its flaws, Pixar’s Soul is, much like Pete Docter’s previous work, a beautiful movie, inside and out.

8

Mulan (2020) Review

One of Disney’s more polarized recent trends has been their stream of live-action remakes to their catalogue of animated classics. At first it wasn’t so bad (even if the movies themselves were), with 2010’s Alice in Wonderland and 2014’s Maleficent being spaced by four calendar years, and both adaptations attempting to put their own spin on the material. But after a while, the sheer amount of these live-action remakes became excessive, and one has to wonder what exactly the point is of remaking movies that are largely considered timeless as is (other than capitalizing on today’s obsession with nostalgia, that is). Is remaking an animated film as a live-action one supposed to make it more legitimate? If that’s the mindset, that not only furthers the unwarranted and ignorant stigma that animated films are somehow not as good as their live-action counterparts, but also would seem self-defeatist on Disney’s part, given that their entire empire is built on their legacy of animated features. When 2019 saw no less than four such live-action remakes (well, the Lion King remake wasn’t actually live-action, but don’t tell that to Disney), suffice to say the live-action Disney remake well seemed drained.

Now, to be fair, not all of these remakes have been bad (I quite enjoyed 2016’s The Jungle Book and 2019’s Aladdin), and I’ll take them over those horrible, straight-to-video sequels that tainted the legacies of Disney’s 90’s and early 2000’s output. Still, it can be hard to get too excited for these live-action remakes, no matter how hard Disney might try. And they’ve probably never tried harder with this strange sub-genre than with their 2020 adaptation of Mulan, based on Disney’s 1998 animated film (which, in tern, is based on “The Ballad of Mulan” from Chinese folklore).

From the get-go, Disney seemed to be going the extra mile and putting the extra effort into this particular adaptation, which was a pretty transparent means of trying to win over the Chinese box office, as China has become a major player in worldwide box office numbers over the last decade. Not only did the film encounter its share of controversies ahead of release, but due to the global pandemic of 2020, the film’s theatrical release – originally planned as one of Disney’s tentpole releases of the year – kept getting delayed, with it eventually skipping US theaters outright and heading straight to Disney+ (infamously costing an additional thirty dollars to watch during its first few months on the service). And when Mulan was finally released in China, it not only failed to be the international hit Disney was hoping for, but outright failed in the market Disney was banking on it to succeed in.

But is 2020’s Mulan really as bad as its lackluster performance suggests? Eh, not really. But it’s also not nearly as good as I’m sure Disney was hoping it’d be, either, given how much effort they put into its marketing. 2020’s Mulan is a resoundingly okay-ish film. That of course makes it inferior to the animated film it’s adapting, as that remains one of Disney’s best, but that’s probably expected by this point (I’d argue that only the Jungle Book remake is as good as the original full-stop, though my favorite song from Aladdin admittedly comes from the 2019 remake). But it also isn’t the worst live-action remake Disney has released in recent times.

The film, of course, tells the story of Mulan (Liu Yifei), a young woman in ancient China, who disguises herself as a man to enlist in the Chinese army in order to spare her ailing father (Tzi Ma), who was initially recruited after the Emperor decrees that one male of proper age from every available family must enlist. Mulan, now going under the name “Jun” in her guise as a man, is risking her life both on and off the battlefield. If her true identity is revealed, she will be killed by her own army.

Though the premise remains the same as its 1998 animated predecessor, Mulan makes more notable changes from the original than many of the other Disney remakes. On the plus side, I suppose differentiating itself from the animated film justifies its existence a bit more. On the downside, I think few fans of the original film will appreciate these changes.

Notably, there has been a major change to Mulan herself. Not in her personality or ambitions, but in her abilities, as this Mulan is capable of channeling her “Qi” to perform feats of superhuman agility! Basically, she’s been turned into a Jedi (and not even original trilogy Jedi, which at least would have made sense with its Eastern influence). This change is, well, it’s something…I guess. I don’t exactly understand the reason for the whole Qi aspect to Mulan, except for that it allows her to run up walls, momentarily float, and be able to kick a spear as if it were a bullet firing from a gun, which I guess is the kind of thing you might see in a Chinese action movie. It’s more pandering to the Chinese market, is what I’m getting at.

It just comes off as a bit cheesy, really. The supernatural elements of 2020’s Mulan just feels kind of shoehorned in, and it’s kind of weird how the animated Mulan was more bound by the laws of physics than her live-action counterpart. Also, Mulan has a younger sister in this adaptation named Xiu (Xana Tang), though she doesn’t really play a role in the story, so I’m not sure what the point of the addition is.

Fans of the ’98 film may also be disappointed to learn that Li Shang, Mulan’s commanding officer who became her love interest by the end of the original film, is not present. His role is taken over by two new characters: the stern Commander Tung (Donnie Yen), and Chen (Yoson An), an ambitious soldier who fills the romantic interest role. The filmmakers claim the change was made because the idea of a commanding officer falling for one of his soldiers seemed “inappropriate,” but I have to wonder if they remembered the animated film very well, seeing as it was Mulan who was always crushing on Li Shang, and the latter didn’t fall for Mulan until the end of the movie and the war was over. Maybe I’m being too technical. Or maybe the filmmakers of the 2020 film are. Or maybe everyone is.

At least this remake still includes Ling, Yao and Chien-Po (Jimmy Wong, Chen Tang and Doua Moua), so there is some direct adaptation from the animated film here. It’s perhaps appropriate that this loudmouth trio also provide the most overt references to the 1998 film (“It doesn’t matter what she wears or what she looks like. It only matters what she cooks like!”). Though for reasons I don’t understand, the cute little cricket from the original movie has been changed into a human character named Cricket (Jun yu). So that’s a thing.

Even the villains have received an overhaul. Instead of an army of Huns, we have the Rouran. In place of the hulking Shan Yu from the animated film, we have a duo of primary villains: Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), the leader of the Rouran army, and Xianniang (Gong Li), a witch whose powerful Qi enables her to shapeshift. As much as I love the animated film, I don’t think anything is really lost with this change in villains. Shan Yu looked intimidating, but as a character he was pretty interchangeable with any of his high-ranking henchmen.

Now for the question most fans of the animated film had during the lead-up to the 2020 film: Is Mushu in the live-action Mulan?

The answer to that is, quite simply, no.

I understand this is a deal-breaker for a lot of fans, though I’m going to break a few hearts and say I can live with or without Mushu. I don’t dislike the Eddie Murphy-voiced dragon from the original, but he was another transparent attempt at Disney trying to replicate the magic they concocted with Aladdin’s Genie. I think Mushu was a better attempt than some of his predecessors like Timon and Pumbaa or the gargoyles from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but after a while it kind of got tiring how the sidekick characters in Disney movies were purposefully designed to be more popular than the main characters.

Still, I suppose I can see where people are coming from with their longing for comic relief. While I detest the internet generation’s dismissal of anything that “takes themselves too seriously” (God forbid a movie cares about the story it’s trying to tell), I also understand that taking one’s self seriously doesn’t mean you can’t also be funny and joyous. The Disney animated films understand this. But this Mulan seems so hellbent on being taken seriously (again, being a means to try and win over the Chinese market by removing an “American element” like Mushu), that it seems to shun the concepts of humor and joy. Even the trio of Ling, Yao and Chien-Po get limited screentime.

So Mushu isn’t in the movie, but he has something of a quasi-replacement in the form of a phoenix, Mulan’s family’s guardian. But the phoenix doesn’t talk or anything, so it’s not really a worthy character replacement and more like a visual element that vaguely plays the same role. Also, on a side note, this is the second time one of these live-action Disney remakes has replaced a dragon with a phoenix, with the first being 2019’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. Maleficent no longer turns into a dragon, she turns into a phoenix. Mushu isn’t allowed in the new Mulan, but a phoenix is. I don’t know what that’s about. Is a flaming bird that resurrects itself somehow more realistic than a fire-breathing lizard or serpentine spirit? But I digress.

Another issue with this Mulan is that, much like The Lion King remake, the film is a whole half-hour longer than the animated feature that inspired it, yet somehow its story feels more rushed. It’s perhaps a credit to the storytelling abilities of Disney’s animators that they can create 90 minute movies that still feel like they take their time to establish story and character. These live-action remakes feel like so many key elements just zoom on by, that by the end of things I’m left wondering how they made it to the two hour mark.

Okay, I’m sounding largely dismissive. But 2020’s Mulan isn’t a total bust: the acting is strong, and helps give the film the proper emotional weight. Visually speaking, 2020’s Mulan is also very pleasant to look at, with great costumes and sets (though I could do without some of the obvious green screen bits). This Mulan remake retains just enough Disney charm to keep it afloat. But “just enough” might be the key words here, and for these live-action remakes on the whole.

I fully admit I had some good fun watching this version of Mulan. But you know what’s considerably more fun? Watching the animated original. But hey, it still beats the straight-to-video Mulan II. Let us speak no more of that.

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My Favorite Films and TV Shows of 2019

I am the most timely of people. What better time to name one’s favorite movies and TV shows of a year than November of the following year? Such timelines.

In all seriousness, sorry it’s taken me so long to get around to this. Between my early flip-flopping of making this list to getting distracted with other posts to, well, 2020 being what it is, a lot of the stuff I had planned for this site this year fell by the wayside (I plan to pick up the pieces, but the past several months have definitely done a number on my mental health, so apologies that it may take a little longer still).

Because I’ve delayed this list for so incredibly long, I’ve decided to do things a little differently this time around. Instead of writing an article about why one movie was my favorite of the year, or doing a proper top 10 list, I’m just going to list the movies and TV shows of 2019 that won me over the most, and write some explanation as to why they managed to do just that.

So without further ado, in no particular order, here – finally – is my list of favorite movies and TV shows from 2019.

Continue reading “My Favorite Films and TV Shows of 2019”

Howl’s Moving Castle: Miyazaki’s Missed Opportunity

*Caution: This article contains spoilers for both the novel and film adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle*

Let’s get one thing straight: I love Howl’s Moving Castle, in its own way. I don’t think it’s a bad movie by any stretch, and in fact, I would argue that Hayao Miyazaki is one of the few film directors who doesn’t have a single bad movie under his belt (and probably the only one who’s directed a considerable number of films, having helmed eleven himself, with a twelfth on the way some time in the future). The only movie to come out of Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli that I would say is an outright bad movie is Tales from Earthsea, which was directed by Hayao’s son, Goro.

Point being, before it sounds like the contrary, I like Howl’s Moving Castle (my review of it stands at a 7/10 on my current grading system), but it is undoubtedly the most flawed of Miyazaki’s eleven features. A point that’s magnified by the fact that it was Miyazaki’s directorial follow-up to Spirited Away, which is a flawless masterpiece in animated storytelling. If you want to delve even deeper, Howl’s Moving Castle was really the only notable dip in quality in Miyazaki’s films. Again, that’s not to say it was a bad movie by any means, but when a movie follows up an unparalleled string of animated classics featuring The Castle of Cagliostro, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Porco Rosso, Princess Mononoke and, of course, Spirited Away, the shortcomings it does have are going to appear all the more prominent.

This is even more unfortunate because, having recently read the original novel of Howl’s Moving Castle (by Diana Wynne Jones) again, the book almost seems like it was tailor-made to be adapted into a Miyazaki film. It has the same strong character personalities, magical goings-on, whimsy and humor you find in a Studio Ghibli feature, albeit with a notably more British tone (which makes absolute sense, given that Jones was English). But even the British-ness of the novel could have been seen in a Miyazaki movie, considering that Studio Ghibli is one of the few anime studios that is willing to represent people and cultures outside of Japan itself.

While most of Miyazaki’s films are his own creations, Howl’s Moving Castle is in a minority of the director’s films which was based on an existing work (The Castle of Cagliostro was part of the existing Lupin III franchise, and Kiki’s Delivery Service was based on the novel by Eiko Kadono). Some anime fans (namely hipster podcasters) try to claim that Studio Ghibli doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to adapting other people’s work, though as evidenced by the fact that Kiki’s Delivery Service is one of the studio’s most beloved features, and films like The Secret World of Arrietty and other Ghibli adaptations were among the most acclaimed films of their respective years, Ghibli certainly hasn’t had any persistent issues when adapting other people’s works. Even Howl’s Moving Castle has a large fanbase, and Diana Wynne Jones herself loved the movie (we once again go to Tales from Earthsea for the one instance where the original author wasn’t happy with Ghibli’s adaptation).

But Howl’s Moving Castle slipped-up more so than Miyazaki’s other adaptations. While he still very much made Lupin III and Kiki his own with his takes on the material, Howl’s Moving Castle seemed like it needed very few changes to become a Miyazaki feature: It’s main character is a strong young woman named Sophie, who is transformed into an old crone by an evil witch (with the spell also preventing her from telling people about the situation, so she can’t simply ask a wizard like Howl to remove the curse). Howl himself seemed impossibly easy to translate to Japanese audiences, his description in the book fits the anime pretty boy archetype so clearly you’d think the novel were adapted from the movie. He’s a vain, perfume-wearing, effeminate wizard who obsesses over his looks to impress the ladies. The tritagonist is Calcifer, a fire demon who created and powers Howl’s castle, but he and Howl are in a similar situation to Sophie, suffering from a magical plight and being unable to tell anyone about it.

In terms of looks, Howl is the most accurately depicted in the movie, while Calcifer has seen the most change. In the book, Calcifer’s physical description is a little more detailed, being a face made out of blue fire, with green fire for hair and eyebrows, purple fire for a mouth, and small orange flames for eyes. In contrast, the film’s version of Calcifer is simply a traditional orange and red fireball with big eyes and a mouth. I don’t mind this change at all though. The multi-colored flaming appearance described in the book is interesting (and we get something of a glimpse of it in the film in one scene where Calcifer is performing magic), the simpler design of the movie makes for a more iconic character. And it’s always fun when a fantasy story’s most powerful character has such a simple appearance.

Sophie’s appearance (as a young woman) is changed slightly, with her hair being brown in the film, as opposed to red from the book. Again, this change is fine and doesn’t affect anything story-wise. What isn’t so fine, however, is the changes made to Sophie’s character. Miyazaki has always excelled at making strong heroines, which is what makes it so baffling that his depiction of Sophie is Miyazaki’s most uninteresting main character, when her description in the book seemed as though Jones was aware of Miyazaki’s work at the time, and purposefully wrote the character for Miyazaki to adapt.

While Miyazaki’s interpretations of Howl and Calcifer are accurate (Howl being a whiny coward, and Calcifer always grumbling about how a powerful fire demon like himself deserves better), Sophie’s character seems barely touched upon. Granted, in the book she’s transformed into a 90-year old woman in the second chapter, but in the film, we know even less about her before she gets cursed.

In the book, we learn that in the story’s fantasy country of Ingary (which goes unnamed in the movie), Sophie is the eldest of three sisters, but in Ingary the eldest child is “doomed” to a simple life of inheritance, while the younger members of a family are told to seek their own fortune in life. Thus Sophie feels doomed to work at her late father’s hat shop her whole life, without being allowed to break away on her own.

While that’s a major factor of Sophie’s character in the book, the film shortens Sophie’s plight as the eldest child to a passing reference (“It’s what father would have wanted. I’m the eldest, I don’t mind.”). But this ends up affecting Sophie’s story arc. By downplaying Sophie’s position in life, and the fate her culture has seemingly decided for her, it also downplays her growth as a character when she seeks out her own destiny while under her spell (a spell which literally brings to life her fears of growing old in the same place she’s always been).

Also in the film, Sophie only has one younger sister, but the concept of the eldest child being doomed to a life of mediocrity could still work, so that’s alright. A movie has to omit some characters to account for running time, and the sister who was left out of the movie is also the one who didn’t return for the book’s sequel, Castle in the Air (which funnily enough has nothing to do with Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky), so it’s not a major character omission.

The issue is that the film fails to properly show Sophie’s disappointment with her position in life. She looks sullen, but we never get the full extent of how trapped she feels in the film. So when she does become an old crone and shows some signs of change (“I seem to have become quite cunning in my old age!“), they don’t have the same effect as they do in the book.

With Howl and Calcifer being so beautifully realized, it magnifies how Sophie fails to connect as the driving force in the story. In fact, she rarely ever feels like its driving force in the movie, more like someone who happens to be witnessing its events (a concept which could make for a unique movie of its own, if that were the idea going in).

Compare this to Chihiro, the protagonist from Spirited Away. Within the film’s opening moments – which depicts her family’s drive to their new house – we learn who Chihiro is. We see that she’s a bit spoiled, more than a little apathetic, lazy, clumsy, and looking for reasons to complain. Within the span of a short family drive, we learn who this character is at the start of their journey, which makes the growth Chihiro sees throughout the film feel so profound. Sophie, sadly, doesn’t have that same effect. Whatever growth she has feels considerably less substantial.

Again, I don’t want to sound all doom and gloom in regards to Howl’s Moving Castle. It’s not like Miyazaki’s Sophie is unlikable, but for a filmmaker who’s known for making memorable heroines, Sophie is decidedly bland.

Miyazaki made some additional changes from the book, and while that may not sit well with purists, a movie making changes from its source material in some ways isn’t an inherently bad thing (in fact, Jones herself acknowledged ahead of time that she expected the movie to be different, because books and movies are different mediums).

These changes are mostly for the best in bringing Howl’s Moving Castle to the silver screen, as they trim down some sub-plots that may have worked in the book, but would have probably felt like detours in a two-hour movie. For example, in the book, Howl’s apprentice Michael is a little younger than Sophie (her actual age, not her transformed self), and there’s a sub-plot about him dating one of Sophie’s sisters (of course, with Sophie unable to reveal details that would expose her actual age, Michael is blissfully unaware of the relation). First of all, in the movie, the character has been renamed “Markl.” This was done out of necessity, given how the name Michael would be pronounced in Japanese. But they wisely kept the change for the film’s English version as well, which I very much appreciate, as Markl just sounds more like a wizard’s apprentice than a name as common as Michael.

Anyway, in the movie, Markl is just a young boy, which means the storyline with him and Sophie’s sister is dropped. And frankly, I just think it suits this story better to have a kid accompanying Howl and Calcifer as the third member of the moving castle crew.

A noteworthy-yet-inconsequential change from the book comes in regards to Howl himself. Despite the brunt of the story taking place in a fantasy world in the country of Ingary, the Howl from the book actually comes from the planet Earth. More specifically, he comes from Wales, with one of the four destinations of the magic portal of a door within the moving castle leading to his home in Wales.

In the book, we get to meet Howl’s sister, niece and nephew, and it gives us more insight into Howl’s history. It may seem like a major change for the movie to leave out this detail, but in all honesty, aside from adding a little something to Howl’s character, the concept of Howl hailing from Wales doesn’t really play into the main plot. It’s an interesting bit in the book, but it’s understandable why Miyazaki would leave it out.

Despite these changes, the earlier portions of the movie are actually pretty faithful to the book. The elderly Sophie becoming Howl’s cleaning lady. Calcifer’s meeting with Sophie leading to the two striking a deal to break each other’s curses (Calcifer, being a fire demon, is powerful enough to see through Sophie’s curse without needing explanation). Even the scene where Howl throws a tantrum over his hair color by summoning dark spirits and emitting green slime from his skin, all more or less play out as they did in the book.

Things play faithfully to the book at first, but then, the film version of Howl’s Moving Castle adds an element that ends up changing the second half almost entirely.

In the book, the land of Ingary is on the brink of war with a neighboring kingdom (Strangia, which also goes unnamed in the film), and Ingary’s prince – the king’s younger brother, Justin – has gone missing, which is a double problem because not only is he a missing prince, but he’s also the country’s best general. Additionally in the book, there is another wizard of comparable reputation to Howl named Suliman, though he too, has gone missing.

By the end of the book, we learn that the Witch of the Waste (the full title of the witch who cursed Sophie) is responsible for both missing persons, having magically rearranged their bodies – one’s head on the other’s body – and subsequently transformed both chimeras into other forms (one into a scarecrow, and the other into a dog who can briefly return to human form before turning into a different type of dog. Yeah, the book can get wonderfully weird). There’s also a character who appears briefly in a chapter or two named Mrs. Penstemmon, a royal wizard who trained Howl in magic, who ends up murdered by the Witch of the Waste.

These elements are changed from the book, and ultimately cumulate as the film’s most misguided element.

The war doesn’t take place during the events of the book, instead happening between the book and its sequel. It’s a looming threat, but it only gets a few passing references. In the movie, however, the war becomes the focal point of the whole thing.

In the movie, the war is happening because the prince of a neighboring kingdom has gone missing, and that kingdom blames the unnamed Ingary for the disappearance. In the film, the prince is still revealed as the true identity of the scarecrow (though in the movie, the prince wasn’t transformed by the Witch, and instead simply claims he stumbled upon the curse while traveling).

The change in the prince and his disappearance being the cause of the war aren’t too drastic of changes, but things get more complicated. In the film, the characters of wizard Suliman and Mrs. Penstemmon are merged into one character. This character uses the name of the Suliman, but is an elderly woman, Howl’s former teacher, and wizard to the king, like Mrs. Penstemmon.

Miyazaki’s Suliman becomes the main antagonist of the film. As we find out, she has influenced the king into going into war, as a roundabout way of recruiting Howl back into her services as a soldier under the king. I actually like the film’s Suliman as a character, but her sudden ascension to the role of primary antagonist creates problems of its own.

The Witch of the Waste is the book’s villain. Simple as that. Well, the Witch and her own fire demon (who, unlike Calcifer, has the appearance of a human woman). In the film, Suliman briefly mentions that the Witch had a demon at some point, but that’s the only reference of it. In the film, the Witch falls for a trap laid by Suliman, and is robbed of her magical powers. She becomes an afterthought. And that’s an important change because it reflects the differences between the book and film as a whole.

From that point on, the film seldom resembles the book. Again, that in itself isn’t a bad thing (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, one of my favorite films, is vastly different than the book it’s based on, and is all the better for it). But the change ends up robbing the film of its magic and wonder.

As soon as the film’s version of Suliman is introduced and the Witch’s role in the story is demoted, the film becomes all about the war at hand. Howl reluctantly fights battles at night (despite never officially joining the king’s army), we see towns going up in flames from bombings, and we are repeatedly told over and over again about the horrors of war, and how unnecessary the war in the film is.

Now, any Miyazaki fan knows what the acclaimed director was going for with this change. Miyazaki is a noted pacifist, it was really only a matter a time before he made a movie whose main theme was an anti-war one, and he made no secret of his disdain for the Iraq War (he famously skipped the Oscar ceremony where Spirited Away won for Best Animated Feature out of protest). I certainly can’t blame Miyazaki for incorporating something he feels so strongly about into one of his movies. But there’s a time and place for things, and while the film’s 2004 release may have seemed like the time, Howl’s Moving Castle just wasn’t the place for such an anti-war theme.

It just makes the film feel disjointed. This is a fairy tale that’s supposed to be about a girl being transformed into an old hag, and how she ends up changing a self-centered wizard for the better. But then it pulls a 180 and becomes all about the travesties of war. Again, I don’t fault Miyazaki for making an anti-war movie (in fact I’m inclined to agree with him), but everything that makes Howl’s Moving Castle feel special is dashed by its sudden tonal shift. The film even seems to forget about its original premise, with Sophie inexplicably becoming young again by the end, before she even frees Howl and Calcifer from their contract. The story becomes so engrossed in the war aspect that the main plot fades into the background, before it’s abruptly resolved out of seemingly nowhere.

One of Miyazaki’s previous films, Porco Rosso, was set between both World Wars, and has a much subtler yet far more affective anti-war stance. And Miyazaki’s later film, The Wind Rises, a biopic about Jiro Horikoshi – an actual, real-life designer of warplanes during WWII – isn’t as focused on war as Howl’s Moving Castle, and that film had a much more appropriate opportunity to be. Yet it’s Howl’s Moving Castle, a wondrous fairy tale set in a fantasy world filled with eccentric character likes Calcifer and Howl himself, that Miyazaki saw fit to turn into his most overt ant-war picture. And it just doesn’t mesh.

Now, the book isn’t perfect, either. It’s a wonderful read, filled with unforgettable characters and humor (in fact, the book was my introduction to the idea of comical fantasy in literature outside of parody). But the book does keep too many loose plot threads up until the very last chapter, which resolves so much in such quick succession I wonder if Diana Wynne Jones had reached the eleventh hour of a deadline (it’s not that the events of the final chapter are bad, just that they should have been more spread out, but instead feel rushed. Basically it’s like the final episode of Samurai Jack). And the Witch’s aforementioned plot of making chimeras of people has a motivation that kind of comes out of nowhere, as she wants to use the different pieces of Suliman and the Prince Justin (and plans on topping off her golem with Howl’s head) in order to create what she perceives as a “perfect being” and to appoint him the new king of Ingary, with herself as the queen. Up until the final chapter, the Witch of the Waste seems like a powerful and feared sorceress who doesn’t have any greater agenda, she just uses her power for petty vengeance on people she thinks have wronged her one way or another. So the reveal of the motivation for her plot feels kind of random.

Still, while it may have its flaws, the book at least feels like a concise vision. And Jones excels at explaining the elements of her fantasy world with little exposition, something which Miyazaki usually has down pat as well. But when adapting the book into a film, Miyazaki seemed heavily distracted by the outside world, and it ended up hampering his vision for the film.

Okay, I know I’m sounding incredibly negative here. I repeat that I think Howl’s Moving Castle is an enjoyable movie: it’s fun and imaginative, filled with stunning visuals and a fantastic musical score (courtesy, of course, by Joe Hisaishi, whose work alongside Miyazaki probably makes them the only director/composer duo more wonderful than Spielberg and John Williams). For those who love imaginative worlds, stories and characters, Howl’s Moving Castle provides a unique experience. The problem is that its imagination may be wondrous, but its execution is only adequate, whereas most of Miyazaki’s films tell stories that are as excellent as their ideations. Howl’s Moving Castle could have lived up to Miyazaki’s unrivaled resume of animated classics, had Miyazaki set his thoughts on war to the side and saved them for another day, and instead focused on Sophie and her story.

Now, it’s also no secret that Studio Ghibli’s adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle was originally going to be director Mamoru Hosada’s debut outing for the studio, before he dropped out and Miyazaki stepped out of retirement (again) to take the reigns. Some might argue about the “what if?” scenario had Hosoda directed the film instead. While Hosoda is one of the better anime directors of today, I don’t think he would have done a better job with Howl’s Moving Castle. I’ve enjoyed Hosada’s films, but his movies have a more – for lack of a better word – “anime feel” about them, which I don’t think would have meshed with Howl’s Moving Castle, whereas Miyazaki’s films have a more ethereal fantasy aspect about them, which feels more in tune with literary fantasy like Howl’s Moving Castle (or even the works of Tolkien, of which Miyazaki is a big fan), and less like an “anime movie.”

But that’s why the shortcomings of Howl’s Moving Castle speak so loudly. Reading the novel again, the story of Howl’s Moving Castle may as well have been gift wrapped, topped with a bow, and hand delivered to Miyazaki. It just made so much sense. So for it to be Miyazaki’s weakest film by a wide margin is kind of disheartening.

I love Howl’s Moving Castle, in its own way. But it’s the one Miyazaki feature that, when reflected upon, I can’t help but imagine what could have been had he approached it with the same imaginative purity that made Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke such treasures. Oh, what if?

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh Review

The 1970s were not one of the high points for Walt Disney Animation Studios. This “Bronze Age” came about after the death of Walt Disney, and during a dark age for animation as a whole. That’s not to say that every Disney film released during this time was a total dud, but it might be saying something that the studio’s best film in this timeframe was a compilation of previously released shorts.

Yes, Disney was in such a state that they dipped back into the package film well in 1977, though they went even further with the concept this time around by stringing together short films that had already seen prior releases (the package films of the 1940s were at least all new shorts at the time).

On the plus side, these short films were those featuring the characters of the Winnie the Pooh universe, and is there a cast of Disney characters more charming than the studio’s adaptations of A.A. Milne’s creations? As a bonus, Disney did provide new animation in between the shorts in order to more properly mesh them together. Thus The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, the 22nd Walt Disney Animation Studios film, was born. Although its Frankenstein’s monster approach of merging previously-released material may not exactly make it the most original Disney flick, I’d have to have a heart of stone to say anything too harsh about Winnie the Pooh.

Yes, even if its production may have been tying together tried-and-true past successes and calling them new, there’s a charm, innocence and whimsy of the Winnie the Pooh universe that makes it all too likable, and impossible to resist.

Like many of the classic Disney films, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh begins by opening up a storybook (this time, however, the characters are well aware that they exist in a book, even interacting with the written-down words on the pages). The book tells different stories by Christopher Robin, the young boy who brought Winnie the Pooh and his friends to life with his imagination.

We’re introduced to characters like Owl and Rabbit and Piglet and Kanga and Roo, as well as Gopher (the only character not from A.A. Milne’s original books, which the film points out on a few occasions), Eeyore, Tigger and, of course, Winnie the Pooh, the bear of very little brain himself.

These characters are just so likable and endearing. Because within the context of the story, they’re all part of a kid’s imagination, they all have a childlike simplicity about them (even Owl, the oldest and wisest of the lot, isn’t as knowledgable as everyone – including himself – thinks he is). Pooh’s primary concern is when and where he’ll get his next “smackeral” of honey, while Tigger just wants to bounce everywhere he goes, and Rabbit, being something of a less jaded and cynical precursor to Squidward, just wants a neat and tidy house, and to prevent Pooh from eating all of his honey.

As you may have guessed from the title The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, or from the fact that the film is comprised of previously released shorts, there’s not really an overarching plot here. The film plays out like a series of episodes that each contain their own little plot or two. This episodic nature may not be ideal for a movie with a more traditional plot, but for something like this – in which these characters exist in a world void of any real conflict – it plays to the film’s benefit.

We have storylines like Pooh trying to get to a beehive high in a tree to get to its honey, Pooh eating all of Rabbit’s honey and getting stuck in the rabbit hole of his house, Tigger bouncing so high he gets stuck in a tree, and Eeyore trying to find a new house for Owl, after the latter’s treehouse is blown away on a windy day.

Not every movie needs to be a grand epic, and not even every Disney movie needs to be an adventurous fairy tale. Sometimes a little slice of lighthearted entertainment is all you need. And The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh provides just that. It’s an enjoyable, relaxing, charming series of (relative) adventures by an endearing cast of characters.

Winnie the Pooh would become of of Disney’s bigger franchises, with a television series in the 1990s, a series of straight-to-video movies, and even some that made their way to the big screen (one of which, 2011’s oddly titled Winnie the Pooh, being something of the “official sequel,” as it is counted as one of Walt Disney Animation Studio’s proper films, as opposed to a subsidiary). While that may seem like overexposure for some franchises, the simple charms of Winnie the Pooh make it easy to want to revisit its world again and again. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh epitomizes this infectious charm.

 

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One-Hundred and One Dalmatians Review

The 1960s were an interesting time for Walt Disney Animation Studios, namely because during the entire decade, the studio only released three new feature films (the slowest decade on record for Disney, though re-releases of past films helped keep things stable). Though many consider the “silver age” of Disney animation to have ended with Sleeping Beauty in 1959, the fact that Disney’s output in the 1960s were so few – as well as being the last batch to be released during Walt Disney’s lifetime – often sees them lumped into Disney’s silver age as well. I’m inclined to agree with notion. Although there is a rougher quality to the animation in Disney’s trilogy of features in the 1960s (which began with One-Hundred and One Dalmatians in 1961 and continued with The Sword in the Stone and The Jungle Book), the films themselves are on par with Silver Age Disney films like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, and certainly better than the “Bronze Age” that was to follow in the 1970s. Though maybe not one of the great Disney features, One-Hundred and One Dalmations is an endearing addition to the Disney canon in its own right.

It also may just be the most straightforward Disney film in terms of plot: it’s about a group of Dalmatian puppies who are kidnapped, and their family’s (both canine and human) quest to rescue them. It really is a simple plot, but it makes for an entertaining film, not to mention it inspired one of the all-time great Simpsons parodies.

If you need a little more detail, the film begins with Pongo, an adult Dalmatian who lives with his “pet” human, Roger. Pongo feels Roger deserves better than the life of a bachelor, and plans to find him a significant other (though the fact that Pongo only scouts women with female dogs makes me question who the search is really for). Pongo chooses an attractive woman walking her own Dalmatian (naturally), and sees her enter the park. So Pongo goads Roger into a walk in the park, and arranges an “accidental” meeting between Roger and the woman, whose name is Anita. Sure enough, the two humans fall in love and get married, and Pongo falls for Anita’s Dalmatian, Perdita, and they get…dog-married, I guess.

Some time later, Perdita is pregnant with a litter of puppies. Roger and Anita are approached by the wealthy, fur-coat loving former schoolmate of Anita, Cruella De Vil (how she was Anita’s schoolmate despite the glaringly obvious age difference, I’m not sure). Cruella is interested in buying the entire litter of puppies when the day comes, but Roger mistrusts Cruella (even writing a song about how despicable she is, as Disney character wont to do), and denies Cruella the future puppies. This leads to a falling out with Cruella, who storms off in a rage.

Perdita eventually gives birth to fifteen puppies (awww!). Yes, despite the jokes people often make about the movie featuring a dog giving birth to ninety-nine puppies (even the aforementioned Simpsons episode cracks a joke on the subject), Perdita only gives birth to fifteen of them.

The family doesn’t have long to celebrate, however. One night, while Roger and Anita are out with Pongo and Perdita, a duo of hired goons make their way into the house, and kidnap all fifteen puppies!

Roger naturally suspects Cruella, but Scotland Yard has already investigated her and found nothing. With no leads, Roger and Anita are at a loss. So Pongo and Perdita are left to investigate things themselves, and use the “Twilight Bark” to spread news about their missing puppies to their fellow dogs (think the beacons between Gondor and Rohan from Lord of the Rings, but with dogs barking). This chain of barks spreads far and wide, eventually reaching the farmhouse of an Old English Sheepdog named Colonel and his friends, a horse named Captain, and a tabby cat named Sergeant Tibbs. The militantly-named farm animals soon discover a dark secret. The two dog-nappers, Jasper and Horace, are staying at the seemingly abandoned De Vil family estate, Hell Hall (geez, at least try to hide your malevolence, Cruella!). Not only are Pongo and Perdita’s litter being held captive by Jasper and Horace, but an additional eighty-four Dalmatian puppies as well! It turns out, Cruella has hired the bumbling jailbirds to hide out with the puppies in the once-abandoned house, and as soon as the dogs are big enough, Cruella plans on having the dogs skinned to make a Dalmatian fur coat! Most Disney villains are pretty evil, but you usually love to hate them, because they’re cool sorcerers like Jafar or charismatic pirates like Captain Hook, but Cruella just wants to straight-up skin dogs for a fur coat! That’s pretty messed up!

Anyway, the Twilight Bark makes its way back to Pongo and Perdita, who set off to save the puppies with the help of Colonel and his cohorts, and even a few other dogs as well.

Again, it’s arguably the most straightforward plot in any Disney movie. It doesn’t feature any real moral lessons, plot twists, magical happenings, sub-plots, or much of anything outside of the main quest of “puppies kidnapped. Rescue them.”

I don’t mean that in a negative way though. It’s incredibly simple, but One-Hundred and One Dalmatians is an undeniably fun and entertaining film. The animation is certainly rougher than it was in Disney’s previous film, Sleeping Beauty (this was the era where you could see more of the sketch lines in the characters during the final animation), but the characters’ movements are still fluid and detailed. Less forgivable however, are a few frames of animation that are recycled (Cruella can apparently only glare out her car window one very specific way). The lack of songs is also notable, with Roger’s little number about Cruella – while fun – being the only song in the film, unless you count the Kanine Krunchies jingle (which I don’t). Even just another song or two may have spruced things up.

Though One-Hundred and One Dalmatians may suffer from the negative trend of old Disney films not having interesting main characters, it’s a little more forgivable here considering most of the characters are dogs. And, well, dogs are innately more likable than humans. The villains are kind of fun though, even if a dog lover like myself can only see them as the evilest Disney villains. Jasper and Horace are like the proto-Wet Bandits, being bumbling criminals who exist solely for the audience to laugh at their misfortune, while Cruella herself – while maybe not quite stacking up to the most memorable Disney villains – leaves an impression with her gaudy wardrobe and in-your-face personality.

One-Hundred and One Dalmatians may not boast the depth to make it one of Disney’s best animated films, but it has a deserved confidence and charm about it that makes it hard to resist. Plus, it has so many dogs!

 

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Sleeping Beauty Review

While princesses have become synonymous with Walt Disney Animation over the decades, it may come as a surprises to learn that for the first twenty-two years from the studio’s first full-length feature, there were only three Disney Princesses, with a fourth not arriving until The Little Mermaid was released in 1989! Snow White was in the very first Disney feature in 1937, with Cinderella arriving in her titular film in 1950. The lone princess to arrive in between Cinderella and The Little Mermaid was Aurora, who was the central character of Sleeping Beauty, released in 1959.

Well, maybe referring to Aurora as the film’s central character isn’t quite accurate, as she – along with her love interest, Prince Phillip – aren’t much of characters at all. In fact, Princess Aurora infamously only gets around eighteen minutes of screen time in the entire feature! That’s a shame, because otherwise Sleeping Beauty has a strong cast of characters: It features a trio of comical fairies, a duo of bombastic kings, and arguably Disney’s most iconic villain in Maleficent.

Sleeping Beauty plays out very similar to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: Aurora takes the role of a beautiful princess under a sleeping curse from Snow White herself, the three good fairies play a similar role to the Dwarves, Maleficent is an evil sorceress/queen like Snow White’s villain, and Prince Phillip is…well, he’s a Disney prince. They’re all basically the same, really.

The story here is that Aurora is born to King Stefan and Queen Leah, and at her christening, she is betrothed to Prince Phillip, the son of King Hubert of a neighboring kingdom, to unite their people. Also at the christening are the three good fairies, each of whom are to give Aurora a gift.

Flora, the red fairy, gives Aurora the gift of beauty. Fauna, the green fairy, grants the gift of song. But before Merryweather, the blue fairy can bestow her gift, the christening is interrupted by the evil fairy, Maleficent. You have to give it to Disney, they really know how to introduce a villain, with Maleficent’s arrival being met with fear by the humans in attendance, and contempt from her fellow fairies, instantly telling the audience she’s bad news.

Maleficent, holding a grudge for not being invited to the christening, takes out her frustrations by cursing the child. Maleficent’s strangely specific curse states that, on her sixteenth birthday, Princess Aurora will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die. Maleficent then vanishes, and Merryweather steps in to counter the curse as best she can. Though Maleficent’s dark powers are too great for Merryweather to undo the curse outright, she is able to alter it, making it so Aurora won’t die by the spinning wheel, but fall into a cursed sleep that can be broken by “true love’s kiss.”

King Stefan then orders that every spinning wheel in the kingdom be burned, and as an added precaution, Aurora is sent to live in the woods with the three fairies until the day after her sixteenth birthday, at which time she will return to her family and kingdom and resume her life as a princess. The fairies disguise themselves as human peasants to raise Aurora, fearing usage of their magic would alert Maleficent to their whereabouts.

Fast-forward sixteen years, and the fairies are preparing for Aurora – who  they have named “Briar Rose” to hide her identity – to return home. They decide to do something special for the occasion, and plan on making a new dress and a birthday cake for Briar Rose. So the fairies send Briar Rose to pick some berries while they prepare for her surprise party. While out, Briar Rose meets up with Prince Phillip, though because they haven’t seen each other since one was a kid and the other an infant, they don’t recognize one another, especially with Aurora going by “Briar Rose” now. The two instantly fall in love anyway, and this creates a fun sub-plot where King Hubert believes his son Phillip is set to marry a peasant girl, and can’t find the words to explain the situation to Stefan.

While Briar Rose meets up with Prince Phillip in the forest, the fairies’ plans for the surprise party go awry. Still not having mastered human ways in sixteen years, their attempts at baking and sewing lead to disastrous results. The fairies cave in to their impatience, and decide to break out the old magic wands, figuring using magic for a cake and dress wouldn’t be enough for Maleficent to detect.

Aurora has successfully eluded Maleficent for sixteen years largely due to the fact that the evil fairy’s henchmen – an assortment of pig and bird-like goblins – have still been searching for a baby for all these years, not understanding the aging process of humans. With time running out for her curse, Maleficent sends her pet crow to track down the lost princess, which he does by witnessing the fairies using their magic for Aurora’s would-be surprise party.

After Briar Rose is informed of her true identity and secretly brought into her castle by the fairies, Maleficent more or less cheats her way to having her curse fulfilled by conjuring a spinning wheel out of magic, and hypnotizing Aurora to touch it (the movie is titled Sleeping Beauty, so I don’t think I’m spoiling much by revealing Maleficent’s curse comes to fruition). Devastated that they failed within the eleventh hour, the fairies put the people of Aurora’s kingdom into a deep sleep to spare them their grief, and they will only awaken when Aurora herself does (I hope for their sake there aren’t any hostile kingdoms nearby, as the fairies’ spell – while well intentioned – seems to not take into account the grizzly possibilities of a defenseless kingdom). Luckily, the fairies manage to eavesdrop on King Hubert at the last moment, and piece together that the mystery man Aurora met in the woods and Prince Phillip are one and the same. So the fairies rush to aide the prince in a daring quest to save Aurora.

Despite its strong similarities to Snow White, Sleeping Beauty still manages to stand on its own two feet. Though the fairies are lesser in number than the Dwarves of Snow White, they have similarly strong personalities, charm and comedic appeal. Maleficent is a memorably scary villain who earned her place as one of Disney’s most memorable foes (even if the more recent duo of live-action remakes centered on the dark fairy have kind of altered her reputation for modern audiences). And both Kings Stefan and Hubert are given some extensive time to win audiences over with their antics.

That’s why it’s such a shame that Princess Aurora and Prince Phillip are probably most people’s go-to examples when it comes to the frequent criticism of Disney movies having cardboard main characters who are completely outshined by the supporting cast. And although not a flaw per se, it does seem kind of funny to modern audiences to see a movie like this try to pass off an arranged betrothal as “true love,” especially considering how little Aurora and Phillip know of each other. Sure, Sleeping Beauty is a very direct fairy tale in that regard, which can have an appeal of its own. But I find it weirder that some audiences criticize contemporary Disney movies for ‘modernizing fairy tales,’ when a movie like Sleeping Beauty is kind of proof that fairy tales needed some modernization.

Although Sleeping Beauty can’t quite recapture the same quality as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it comes close enough to be considered something of a Disney classic in its own right. It’s vibrantly animated and full of visual detail (Flora and Merryweather’s disputes to magically change things pink and blue are a particular visual highlight). But if we’re being honest, we watch Sleeping Beauty for Maleficent, the fairies and the kings. No one is watching it because Aurora and her prince have anything interesting about them.

 

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