In Defense of Big Hero 6’s Oscar Win

*Caution! Some spoilers follow.*

Big Hero 6

It seems Big Hero 6’s Oscar win for Best Animated Feature has been met with a lukewarm reception. While most agree that it’s a good movie, it seems a lot of people are still boohooing at the snubbing of The Lego Movie, or claiming that How to Train Your Dragon 2 “should have” won. I find this to be grossly unfair, because while I personally think The Tale of the Princess Kaguya was the most deserving winner (I named it as my favorite film of 2014), I have no qualms with Big Hero 6 taking home the gold. Big Hero 6 is a wonderful movie, and a more worthy winner of the Best Animated Feature Oscar than a number of past recipients.

 

Again, I was primarily rooting for Princess Kaguya (heaven knows Isao Takahata is well overdue for an Oscar), but I still consider Big Hero 6 to be one of 2014’s best films – animated or otherwise – and it follows Frozen’s lead in adding more character development into Disney’s filmmaking process. As far as I’m concerned, it told a better story than The Lego Movie or How to Train Your Dragon 2.

 

I’m pretty much the only person out there who didn’t care for The Lego Movie, as I found it overly snarky and more than a little bit full of itself. Not to mention it followed just about every trope it so readily mocked. Suffice to say I didn’t lose any sleep over its snubbing. Meanwhile, How to Train Your Dragon 2, while good, suffered from the same overly-predictable nature of the first film in the series. It did boast one daring creative decision in killing off a character who appeared in both films, which gave the film some emotional weight, but otherwise the story went pretty much everywhere you expected it to at every turn (the entirely uninteresting villain didn’t help, either).

 

Big Hero 6 did have its own predictable elements, with a plot twist involving its villain being a bit obvious. But when we find out the villain’s motivation, he suddenly becomes a more complex and interesting character who adds something extra to the story. By comparison, Dragon 2’s villain could be summed up as “I’m evil because reasons.” Although some of the supporting cast in Big Hero 6 could have done with some more fleshing out, they at least aren’t dictated by a singular punchline like those in Dragon 2. But I’m not writing this to wag fingers at Legos and Dragons, I’m writing this because Big Hero 6 is a worthy Best Animated Feature winner that doesn’t seem to be getting its due.

 

Some have cried foul that Disney has won the award too often, though Big Hero 6 is technically only the second Disney film to win the award in question. It is true that Pixar (Disney’s subsidiary) has won the award seven times (that’s half of the award’s 14-year history), which seems a bit iffy. I myself am a believer in making exception for the exceptional, but Pixar is far from the only studio capable of producing exceptional animated films, and some of their victories have seemed far too easy (don’t get me started on Brave’s undeserved win). But Disney and Pixar are two separate creative entities, with different artists and filmmakers between them. You can’t claim that Disney’s second win is “too many” because Pixar has been handed the award a few too many times.

 

Again I’m a bit sidetracked. My point is that most people who are complaining about Big Hero 6’s win are basing their arguments on things besides the film itself. It’s been either “X-film should have won” or “Disney’s won too many times.” No one is taking into account that maybe Big Hero 6 is just a great movie. Which it is.

 

Hiro Hamada and Baymax are two of the most endearing of all Disney characters, and their relationship is one of the more unique in the Disney canon. Big Hero 6 becomes the story of Hiro coping with the death of his brother Tadashi. At first Hiro becomes depressed, then vengeful, before finally learning to live with his brother’s memory in his heart. Hiro learns to deal with the loss of his brother through his brother’s creation. There’s something really touching about this setup of a boy and his (brother’s) robot. Big Hero 6 deals with loss in a meaningful way, without it simply feeling like a means to capture that token “sad moment” like a lot of today’s animated films.

 

On top of that, we also get a fun super hero story that outdoes most of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Simply put, Big Hero 6 is a film that combines a genuinely heartfelt narrative with top-notch blockbuster elements. I’ve seen the film multiple times now, and I’ve only enjoyed it more with subsequent viewings. Big Hero 6 is simply a great showcase of animated filmmaking and storytelling that ranks as one of Disney’s best animated features.

 

Of course, Big Hero 6 is no Spirited Away, The Incredibles or Frozen, but it is a worthy film to carry on their torch. It’s heartwarming, smartly-written, and a whole lot of fun. It’s an incredibly easy movie to love, and one that I’m happy to see win Best Animated Feature.

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My Favorite Film of 2014

Princess Kaguya

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is my favorite film of 2014. The idea of me naming a Studio Ghibli film as the best of its year isn’t exactly unpredictable, but it’s with reason. No one makes films like Studio Ghibli. They weave together their stories with an unrivaled sense of imagination. They’re capable of  creating senses of awe and wonder even in their simplest moments. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is another of the studio’s triumphs.

Princess Kaguya tells the story of Japan’s oldest folktale. A bamboo cutter finds a tiny princess from the heavens in a bamboo stalk, and the princess transforms into a baby. She is to grow up as humans do, with the bamboo cutter and his wife serving as her parents.

Princess KaguyaDirected by the legendary Isao Takahata (his first film in 14 years), The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is told with a sense of emotion and honesty that many animated films lack. It’s immediately inviting with the simplicity of its opening moments, and it grows into something deeper and emotionally complex as it goes on. Its story is told earnestly, and is crafted with such an elegance that it becomes something entirely unique, even among the Ghibli library.

Kaguya is depicted as a real person. She is not perfect, nor manufactured (even if the world around her wants her to be). She is a girl who (rapidly) grows into a woman. She is a bright and hopeful individual, but she has concerns and troubles of her own. Her life is filled with ups and downs, happiness and sadness. Life is never easy, not even for a princess, and Kaguya’s story is told with both beauty and tragedy in a simple, direct way.

Her parents lavish her with heavenly riches and the life of a princess, believing that anything short of the best is unworthy of her. But Kaguya simply wants to live a simple, peaceful, happy life. Her conflicts with her parents are never depicted as simple rebellion, nor are her parents made out to be antagonists (as they probably would be in most animated features). They’re simply people who are trying to do what they think is best, even if they don’t know how.

Princess KaguyaIsao Takahata takes this folktale, and turns it into a character-driven, emotional epic. And it’s all displayed with some of the most beautiful animation I’ve ever seen. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya ranks alongside Ghibli’s own Spirited Away and Ponyo as one of the most visually captivating of animated films. It’s visuals are minimalistic, and have the look of simple paintings and sketches brought to life. Princess Kaguya is arresting from its very first frame, and it never lets go.

The superb visuals make The Tale of the Princess Kaguya one of the most striking of animated films, but the best part about them is that their beauty is only complimentary to the artistry of the story and its depth of character. It combines a human element with a sense of magic and wonder, as all the best Studio Ghibli films do, and it does so with a subtlety and gentleness that’s all its own.

For its heartfelt, emotional story and its incomparable presentation, Isao Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is, without a doubt, my favorite film of 2014.

Princess Kaguya

 

Runners-up

Guardians of the Galaxy

Big Hero 6

The Imitation Game

Song of the Sea

My Favorite Film of 2013

*This blog was originally written in February of 2014. It has been resurrected here for historical purposes (I may periodically write about my favorite films of other years of my life later). And also because Frozen is freakin’ awesome.*

Frozen

Frozen is my favorite film of 2013. I haven’t been so enamored with an animated film since Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo back in 2009, and I haven’t felt so strongly for an American animated feature since The Incredibles back in 2004. I will even go so far as to say Frozen has become my favorite Disney film. But what is it that makes it so special?

The marketing campaign that Disney created for Frozen may have been the most misleading I have ever seen. The film’s first teaser – which focused on a snowman and a reindeer fighting over a carrot – was fun, but didn’t exactly tell you Disney was aiming to create an animated masterpiece. The later trailers and commercials were even less forgivable. The advertisements contained music that was too sugary, and seemed like they were trying too hard to make the film look “cool” for today’s youngsters. Once again, they featured that snowman so prominently it would be easy for someone to think the movie was about little more than the wisecracks and slapstick of this sidekick. You might not have even noticed the two sisters who would end up being the stars of the show.

Well, this was either the worst marketing I’ve ever seen, or the very best, depending on how you look at things. I went into Frozen with very little expectations. But after my attention was grabbed by the delightful short film Get a Horse (it in itself an absolute delight), I was surprised to realize that, well, I was surprised. From its opening moments to its heartfelt finale, Frozen was one of the most joyous movie experiences I’ve ever had.

Disney films, as much as I love them, are often predictable. It’s something most Disney fans don’t want to admit, but Disney characters are often more archetypal than deep. The songs are often meant to regain our attention after slower moments, and the stories, while undeniably charming, go in the exact directions you would expect.

How delighted I was then, that Frozen’s characters are not dictated by the plot, but the story is instead centered around the emotional depths and relationships of its characters. It’s soundtrack is the very best in the studio’s history, and the non-musical moments are equally entertaining. Oh, and that snowman, who looked so forced on the advertisements, ended up being as endearing as any character that has ever come out of the Disney brand.

In short, no Disney film has surprised and delighted me in the way Frozen has.

Frozen

At the heart of the story are Anna and Elsa, the two strongest and most likable female leads Disney has ever created. This is a film that is entirely focused on, and driven by, these two sisters. There’s still adventure, action, comedy and romance, just as there is in most Disney films. But at the heart of it all is the relationship between Anna and Elsa, two sisters who love each other, but have forgotten what it means to love.

Elsa possesses magical powers that are as dangerous as they are beautiful. In order to protect the people she loves from herself, she locks herself away in her room, shutting out the rest of the world. Fear effectively takes control of Elsa’s life, and Anna’s life becomes equally as lonely because of it.

The opening moments of the film, which explains this emotional setup through the song “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” has been compared to the opening moments from Pixar’s Up, famous for bringing audiences to tears. But I’ll go ahead and say I think Frozen’s opening is the more effective of the two. Up, great as it is, often lost that tone during the course of the adventure, but Frozen is more consistent. Even with all the humor and charm, the emotion that begins at the start of the film permeates at the core of the story throughout.

In these moments we see the changes that occur within Anna and Elsa. As children they are as close as can be, but as they get older we see how fear, loneliness and loss make them grow distant. Anna knocks on her sister’s door daily, at first asking Elsa if she wants to play and build a snowman. Eventually her enthusiasm disappears, and she simply pleads with her sister to let her in (literally she means for her sister to open her door, thematically she means for Elsa to open her heart to her again).

Despite the melancholy, Frozen is a joyous film. The emotional conflict between the sisters is always present, but Frozen isn’t about breaking hearts. As the leader of a group of trolls makes quite apparent in the latter half of the movie, this is a film all about warming our hearts. It’s as funny and well-written as it is heartfelt.Elsa

It’s all too easy to call Frozen a beautiful film. Its settings and visual effects are as eye-popping as any CG animated film yet made. The snowy landscapes and magical happenings are nothing short of stunning. But the film’s most beautiful aspect is the honesty of its story.

In this day and age, there’s a sense of sarcasm, and often cynicism, that accompanies animated movies. The CG animated pictures we see coming from most studios relish on wisecracking characters and smarmy references. Pixar has always stood out, sure, but they’re surrounded and outnumbered by far more obnoxious and insipid pictures.

But with Frozen, Disney has created a story, a fairy tale, as honest and sincere as any they’ve made. It’s modernized in the right ways (again, you won’t find female leads as strong and independent as Frozen’s in the older Disney films), but it never feels contrived to grab today’s audiences. It feels timeless, as all the best animated features do.

Disney has been getting back into their A-game for a few years now, with the likes of The Princess and the Frog, Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph being among the best animated films released in their respective years. But while all these films were great in their own right, they could, at times, feel a little forced, or not quite fulfill their concepts. But Frozen feels complete. Everything comes together fluidly and seamlessly. And in a rarity for Disney, Frozen takes many unexpected turns. When things start looking like they’ll fall right where we expect them to, Frozen finds ways to turn things on their heads.

Frozen

As previously stated, the characters here are deeper and more complex than what we usually see from Disney. Not just Elsa and Anna, but the supporting cast as well. Kristoff isn’t exactly a prince charming, and like Anna, is a lonely individual who’s resorted to providing the voice of his own pet reindeer just to have someone to talk to. Frozen’s equivalent of prince charming, Prince Hans, also reveals to be a more layered character than his demeanor at first suggest. Even Olaf, that snowman we were introduced to before all the other characters, could have easily become an overbearing source for comic relief. Instead he’s a genuinely charming character who, in a rarity for Disney sidekicks, feels necessary to the story, as he serves an emotional connection between the main characters.

FrozenPerhaps the moment that best showcases what makes Frozen so thematically different from other Disney works is the musical number “Let it Go.” An obvious choice, sure. It’s only the film’s signature song, but it’s earned it’s reputation for a reason. For all intents and purposes, Elsa is Frozen’s primary antagonist. She’s certainly no villain, but her conflicts become everyone else’s conflicts. Her dilemmas create the obstacles for Anna to overcome. So while she may not wear villainy on her sleeve, she is, as far as narrative goes, the primary antagonist.

If this were any other Disney film, the character filling Elsa’s role would no doubt be a lot more sinister, and their defining musical number might include an expository ballad explaining their evil intentions. In its place, Frozen instead features a triumphant musical number. Let it Go is as celebratory as it is liberating, as it expresses Elsa freeing herself from the fear that has ruled her life. It’s thoughtful and empowering, and far more effective than simply having a villain sing of their evil deeds.

It’s true, some characters with sinister intentions do show up in the film, but their presence is secondary (and still serves thematic purposes) and more notably, they are never the driving force in the story. While most Disney movies feel completely reliant on their villains, Frozen is built entirely around its two heroines. Frozen isn’t about Anna and Elsa putting a stop to a villainous plot, it’s about the two sisters reconnecting.Anna

This perhaps reflects Frozen’s greatest strengths. It’s a film that feels structured like the very best Disney movies, but narratively, it takes risks, and changes things up in ways most Disney films wouldn’t think to attempt. The marketing of the film alone showed Disney’s uncertainty to how audiences would take to the movie’s core relationship being between two sisters, but all the greater still is that the film constantly delights and surprises. It’s a testament to the skills of the filmmakers involved that Frozen’s surprises feel genuine. It doesn’t feel like it’s trying to avoid stereotypes and cliches, rather, it feels like a film that’s studied its predecessors, took the assets that worked, and used them as a backdrop to tell its own story.

Just about every Disney trope is either rewritten, reinvented, or written-off entirely. But unlike the aforementioned sarcastic animated films of today, Frozen never feels like a parody of its lineage. It celebrates the things we love about Disney movies while admitting to their faults. In turn it tells a story that’s more than deserving of being in the Disney canon, but it tells a story that’s all its own.

Frozen is a pure joy from start to finish. Its opening outdoes Pixar in the emotional department. And its final scene – which doesn’t focus on a kiss between one of the heroines and their love interest (though there is that too), but instead is the simple image of two sisters ice skating – is possibly the sweetest image in any Disney film. And everything in between is delightful, entertaining and magical.

On the surface, Frozen represents Disney  doing what they do best, at their best. In its depth, Frozen is unlike anything Disney has ever done before.

Anna and Elsa

Runner-up: The Wind Rises

In Defense of The Hobbit Films

The Hobbit

With The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies having been released, The Hobbit film trilogy has officially come to a close. As was the case with the first two Hobbit installments, the reception to the film has been somewhat mixed (to put it lightly). Some hail it as a fitting end to the series, while others continue to cry foul at the film’s deviations from the source material, among other complaints.

Sadly, while the Hobbit trilogy’s box office numbers are on the positive side, it seems the overall outlook of this trilogy will be less positive, with some even negatively comparing them to the Star Wars prequels (which is grossly unfair. Even with their missteps The Hobbit films never created gaping plot holes in their mythology like the Star Wars prequels did). This is a crying shame, because while The Hobbit films do have their flaws, and are not on the same level as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptations, they are much better than they get credit for.

Yes, the Hobbit films do have an abundance of CG, which makes them look more artificial than the Lord of the Rings films. And yes, there are some unnecessary fan service moments. And yes, the first two Hobbit films had some pacing issues (something I think the third film ironed out). But none of these issues are hardly as film-breaking as they’re made out to be.

 

Besides, don’t the much-beloved Marvel movies of today have an abundance of CG? They certainly cake-on the fan service, and don’t seem to get any flak for it. And they haven’t exactly been consistent, either (for every Guardians of the Galaxy there was a Thor: The Dark World). So why do the Marvel films get a free pass? It may be easy to say that The Hobbit has the unavoidable comparison to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, in which case it falls short. Though “not being as good” as a previous work doesn’t really justify the level of criticisms The Hobbit films have received, and it’s not exactly like The Lord of the Rings films would be an easy act to follow.

The HobbitMore importantly, The Hobbit trilogy isn’t The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s The Hobbit trilogy. The Hobbit was always more lighthearted and simplistic than Lord of the Rings. So if The Hobbit films are more blockbuster-y (more action, humor and some cartoony moments), well then it just makes sense given the source material. The Hobbit trilogy didn’t need to be The Lord of the Rings trilogy, it only needed to be The Hobbit trilogy.

Of course, there lies another source of contempt for The Hobbit’s detractors: The Hobbit was a shorter novel than any one of the Lord of the Rings books, so did it need to be a trilogy? Admittedly, no. It didn’t. But at the same time, I don’t think it’s innately a problem that it did become three films. After the three Lord of the Rings films, a single-film follow-up may have been underwhelming to audiences. The original two-part adaptation made sense, but three films, while maybe stretching the material, works for the kind of adaptation the films ended up being.

 

TaurielOne thing that’s important for people to remember is that these are adaptations. They were never going to be identical to the books. Just like The Lord of the Rings weren’t identical to the books. Changes were bound to be made. But if you’re a purist, you can at least say that all the added material in the Hobbit films still comes from J.R.R. Tolkien’s various writings, whereas the changes made to Lord of the Rings were mainly made up by Peter Jackson and company. The only notable addition Peter Jackson made to The Hobbit that I can think of is Tauriel, and while her love story in the films may be a tad forced (though ultimately harmless) at times, at least she brings some much-needed femininity to the series.

 

But the rest of the added material is all taken from Tolkien’s works in one way or another. Although Tolkien himself only lightly touched on most of the side stories that were brought into the films, it made sense for the filmmakers to shed more light on them. The whole side story with the Necromancer, for example, is only mentioned in passing in the original book, but had strong connections to the bigger goings-on in Middle-Earth involving the “War of the Ring.” After already having brought The Lord of the Rings to life on the screen, it makes sense that the filmmakers would put a stronger emphasis on that connection between stories.

 

There’s plenty to be justified within the aspects of the Hobbit films that people seem so ready to write-off. But even more so, it seems that people outright ignore all the good the Hobbit films have going for them.

First and foremost is the world building. Very few fantasy films have so much love for the world they depict, the story they’re telling and the characters within them. It helps that Tolkien put so much attention to even the most minute details, but just as much credit goes to Peter Jackson and company, who clearly love this world as much as anyone. The Hobbit films, like The Lord of the Rings trilogy, feel just as much like a love letter to their source material as they do an adaptation of it. Even with the added humor of The Hobbit films, they never have that snarky, tongue-in-cheek self-awareness that downgrades the fantasy/sci-fi elements of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the like.

The HobbitJust as important, the performances in the Hobbit films are memorable, and make the fantasy world of Middle-Earth a very believable place. It’s probably one of the best cast fantasy franchises out there, with the likes of Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen and Richard Armitage bringing life to the characters. Even the smaller roles like Stephen Fry’s Master of Lake-Town prove memorable.

It also doesn’t hurt that The Hobbit films are fun. Though the first film gets off to a slow start, after Bilbo leaves Bag End and the flashbacks become less frequent, the films become a series of spectacles. From visual effects to action scenarios to the dedication of their world, the Hobbit movies do ‘spectacle’ better than most blockbusters. They may not stack up to The Lord of the Rings from an overall filmmaking perspective, but (sans the aforementioned opener) the Hobbit movies are always fun. The third film even adds a good dose of emotion to the series, and tops the book as far as fleshed-out characters are concerned.

In the end, The Hobbit trilogy is flawed, but much better than a good deal of its reputation suggests. No, the Hobbit films don’t reach the heights of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but when compared to the majority of today’s blockbusters – which often amount to little more than noise and explosions – The Hobbit trilogy is in a unique place among fantasy films where things like world-building and character actually mean something.