The Rescuers Down Under Review

Rescuers Down Under

The Rescuers Down Under is often seen as the ‘forgotten’ film of the Disney Renaissance era. Released in between fan favorites The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, The Rescuers Down Under had the unfortunate honor of being the bridge from one beloved classic to another. While The Rescuers Down Under does have some merits to boast, its status of being in the shadow of its predecessor and successor isn’t entirely unfair. In the end, it’s just not as memorable as Disney’s other offerings of the time.

The Rescuers Down Under does have the distinction of being the first ‘true’ Disney sequel, and one of the select few sequels that are considered part of Disney’s official canon of animated films, being a sequel to the 1977 film The Rescuers. At the time of Down Under’s production, The Rescuers was the last hit Disney had made, so a sequel was seen as a means to get the studio back on track. The fact that it also took advantage of American pop culture’s short-lived infatuation with all things Australian of the late 1980s is also something of an obvious attempt to bring back audiences of the time.

Little did Disney know that The Little Mermaid – which was in production at the same time as Down Under – would be the movie that revitalized the Disney brand. The Rescuers Down Under ended up being an honest effort, but a misdirected one.

The story revolves around an Australian boy named Cody (Adam Ryan), who befriends a rare golden eagle named Marahute, after saving the bird from a poacher’s trap. Said poacher – who goes by the name McLeach (George C. Scott) – then kidnaps the boy as to find out the eagle’s whereabouts.Rescuers Down Under

The animals of the outback then send a message to the Rescue Aid Society (the organization of international mice from the first film), who recruit returning heroes Bernard (Bob Newhart) and Miss Bianca (Eva Gabor) for the rescue mission to save Cody. Along the way, Bernard continuously tries to work up the courage to propose to Miss Bianca.

It’s a simple enough setup, but the stories never quite mesh together. The Rescuers themselves aren’t even introduced until after a good chunk of the movie has passed, and when they do show up, they don’t seem nearly as important as Cody or any of his animal friends. It almost feels like the Rescuers were shoehorned into an entirely different movie, forcing an otherwise unrelated film to become a sequel.

Just the same, the storylines involving the Rescuers seem underdeveloped as they get lost to the bigger story. Bernard and Bianca’s relationship never gets the attention it needs. A kangaroo mouse named Jake (Tristan Rogers) even joins the duo in the outback, seemingly setting up a possible rival for Bernard over Bianca’s affections, but nothing really comes of it.

There is one charming sidekick character in Wilbur the Albatross (John Candy), who serves as the Rescuers’ transport to Australia, but he gets stuck in an unnecessary subplot involving a back injury that only serves to further distract the story. This is a great shame, since a Disney character voiced by John Candy could have been gold if used properly.Rescuers Down Under

There are additional sidekicks with the various animals McLeach has kidnapped, who also try to help Cody escape, but they lack the humor and charm needed to make them memorable. This is echoed by the movie itself, as these animal characters seem forgotten by the plot as quickly as they’re introduced. Literally, their fates go unresolved.

Cody may not be the most memorable character either, but he’s capable enough to not detract from the film. McLeach is also a pretty forgettable villain, which is all the greater of an offense when you realize he’s one of the few Disney villains who can be described as such. Disney usually excels at creating bad guys you love to hate, but McLeach is the kind of mustache-twirler you boo solely on principle. He’s neither evil or entertaining enough to give him any real sense of presence.

By now this all seems largely dismissive, but The Rescuers Down Under does have its qualities. The animation is a delight, boasting a richness in detail and motion that proudly displays Disney’s production values. The action sequences are also well executed, with the flying scenes with Cody and Marahute in particular holding up to those of today’s animated films, which always seem to be trying to ‘out-flying sequence’ each other.Rescuers Down Under

As a whole, The Rescuers Down Under is one of Disney’s lesser animated features, and certainly the weakest of the Disney Renaissance era. Its animation may be top notch, and its action scenes well paced, but its characters lack the endearing qualities we associate with the Disney brand, and its story is never quite sure what to do with itself. It includes bits and pieces of a sequel that are seemingly forcing themselves into another movie, which only hurts both of its halves.

As a sequel to The Rescuers and as its own movie, The Rescuers Down Under is too unfocused to soar alongside Marahute.

 

5

The Little Mermaid Review

The Little Mermaid

The Little Mermaid is one of the most beloved of all Disney movies. Released in 1989, The Little Mermaid breathed new life into the Disney brand, creating the broadway musical-style Disney movies we still see today, as well as kickstarting the Disney Renaissance – a period that saw one Disney hit after another – that continued throughout the 1990s. In terms of pure entertainment value, The Little Mermaid remains a highlight in the Disney canon. In regards to its message and narrative, however, I’m afraid that The Little Mermaid shows a bit of age.

 

We all know the story by this point: the titular Mermaid Ariel (Jodi Benson) is the daughter of King Triton (Kenneth Mars), ruler of the seven seas. Ariel is too free-spirited and rambunctious to be confined to the sea. She dreams of seeing the world above the waves. Ariel finds the human world to be a more fascinating place, collecting so many human trinkets that she needs a treasure trove to store them all.The Little Mermaid

One day, Ariel ends up saving the life of a human, Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes), and she immediately falls in love with him. Meanwhile, the sea witch Ursula (Pat Carrol) has the power to grant Ariel’s wish to live on land with Prince Eric, but at the cost of the mermaid’s beautiful voice. Ursula has ulterior motives, and plans on using Ariel to get revenge on King Triton.

The Little Mermaid features some of Disney’s most memorable characters. Ariel is one of the stronger Disney heroines, showing a sense of ambition and drive that her predecessors such as Snow White were never allowed, and Ursula is one of Disney’s most iconic villains with reason. She’s effectively scary and equally charismatic, making her a villain you love to hate. And Pat Carrol’s vocals make her one of the most perfectly voiced villains in animated cinema.

Ariel’s sidekicks include Sebastion (Samuel Wright), a charming crab who serves as Ariel’s perpetually nervous caretaker, and Flounder (Jason Marin), a fish who fills the ‘little buddy’ role better than most. There’s also Scuttle the seagull (Buddy Hackett), who gives Ariel information on her human trinkets with less-than accurate knowledge.Little Mermaid

The Little Mermaid boasts an appealing cast of characters, but its main stars might just be the musical numbers. Most Disney animated films have songs in them, but The Little Mermaid is one of the few (along the likes of Beauty and the Beast and Frozen) where the songs feel so integral to the narrative that it can truly be labelled a musical.

The movie’s centerpiece song, “Part of Your World” remains one of the most beloved of Disney numbers, and the Oscar-winning “Under the Sea” is still one of the most fun. While the other featured numbers may not be as iconic, they are nonetheless just as entertaining (Ursula’s musical number “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is an underrated highlight).

On top of it all, the animation is lively and colorful, and expresses such quality that it’s hard to believe the movie was made during one of Disney’s rougher periods. There were no cut corners in bringing Ariel to life (though the early uses of CG certainly show their age).

However, as entertaining as the film still is, there are elements in the story that haven’t aged so gracefully. The major drawback to the film is, strangely enough, Ariel’s infatuation with Prince Eric. As sweet and well meaning as the film is, the love story at the heart of it all feels a bit naive. That is, when it isn’t outright eye-rolling.

The problem is that Ariel, who on one hand was Disney’s first attempt to make their female characters interesting, basically falls head over heels (pardon, fins) for Prince Eric based solely on the fact that he’s the most attractive human she encounters. Before he even knows she exists, Ariel is ready to leave behind her life and family just because, well, he’s hot.The Little Mermaid

Sure, Eric ends up being a nice enough guy. In fact, he may be a little too perfect for his (or more accurately, his movie’s) own good. Prince Eric is, unquestionably, the most boring and bland character in the movie. Granted, he never needed to be as interesting as Ariel or as fun as Sebastion, but Eric’s cardboard personality only make Ariel’s infatuation with him seem all the more questionable. The Little Mermaid was supposed to be a sweet and timeless love story, but Ariel’s “love” for Prince Eric more often than not comes off as little more than a juvenile crush.

Perhaps The Little Mermaid isn’t the most meaningful Disney movie then. But it still is one of Disney’s most fun offerings. Aside from Prince Eric, the characters are memorable, the animation is lovely and the soundtrack remains one of Disney’s best. Its idea of love may be misguided and outdated, but in terms of sheer entertainment value, The Little Mermaid holds up. Swimmingly.

 

7

 

Song of the Sea Review

Song of the Sea

Song of the Sea is a beautiful film. Its simple and charming character designs compliment its fluid animation to make a visually captivating motion picture. Best of all, it tells a sweet, endearing story that matches up to, if not betters its predecessor, The Secret of Kells.

Song of the Sea tells the story of a boy named Ben (David Rawle). When his mother was pregnant with his soon-to-be sister, Ben makes a promise to his mom. That promise is that he will be the best big brother ever. But tragedy strikes, and Ben’s mother dies during childbirth. Ben blames his sister Saoirse for the loss of his mother, and he grows to resent her.

Song of the SeaSaoirse is a mute, having not uttered a single word by age six. She also holds a secret passed down from her mother. It turns out Saoirse, like her mother, is a Selkie, a mermaid-like creature that lives mostly as a human, but can also take the form of a seal. Ben’s mother often told him bedtime stories of Selkies and other such wonderful creatures, and those stories turn out to be true, but in order for this other world to stay alive, the Selkie must sing a magic song.

Ben and Saoirse’s father Conor (Brendan Gleeson) wishes for the past to remain buried, blaming the responsibilities of Selkies for the loss of his wife. When he learns his daughter has inherited her mother’s abilities, he sends both of his children to live with their grandmother to prevent history from repeating itself.

Song of the SeaWhat then ensues is an adventure as sincere as it is fantastic. Ben and Saoirse must work together to find their way back home, and to prevent the magical worlds of their mother’s stories from fading away. Saoirse must find her voice, and Ben must finally live up to the promise he made to his mother.

This is a magical movie. Much like Secret of Kells, it is steeped in Irish folklore, but it is also enriched with great storytelling and striking imagination, making it feel both universal and timeless. The film evokes a similar sense of magic and wonder to that of a Miyazaki film. The animation is simpler, but it has a similar heart to those of the Studio Ghibli films.

Song of the SeaSong of the Sea deals with strong thematics such as loss while also being perfectly accessible to children with its messages of kindness and staying true to one’s promises. While many animated features feel the need to give sly winks to the adult crowd in order to win them over to a “kids’ movie,” Song of the Sea is one of those rare animated films that – like the Ghibli features – needs only to rely on the sincerity and depth of its storytelling to captivate audiences of all ages.

Song of the Sea is a little bit sad and bitterweet. It’s also a little mystifying and bewildering. It’s heartfelt, emotional, and brimming with imagination. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a lullaby, and it’s an absolute delight.

 

9

Frozen Fever Mini-Review

Frozen Fever

Frozen Fever, the seven-minute short film that accompanies Disney’s new live-action Cinderella, is an absolute delight. It returns audiences to the world of Frozen for a brief, but incredibly fun little ride through the kingdom of Arendelle.

The story is appropriately simple for its short running time, but nonetheless sweet. It’s Princess Anna’s (Kristen Bell) birthday, and her sister Queen Elsa (Idena Menzel) wants to make it the best birthday ever, to compensate for all the birthdays lost when she shut herself away from her sister. The problem is that Elsa is feeling under the weather, and her illness is making her ice magic run amok.

Frozen FeverObviously, this simple plot and short running time mean that Frozen Fever doesn’t share the more complex character elements of the feature length original, but it still manages to produce some sweet moments between the sisters. But Frozen Fever is aiming more for fun anyway, and it succeeds greatly at just that.

A new song “Making Today a Perfect Day” is as fun as it is catchy, and the short is filled with good humor and plenty of fan service (as Elsa begins to catch the sniffles she proclaims “a cold never bothered me anyway”), there’s even a quick nod to a running gag from the Back to the Future sequels.

Frozen FeverIt’s a testament to how immensely likable the Frozen characters are that at a mere seven minutes, this short film is more charming and fun than the feature film that follows it. Frozen Fever only gives audiences a quick taste of a Frozen follow-up, but there’s so much fun to be had that you’ll savor every minute of it.

Why Frozen 2 Must Deliver the Goods

*Caution: Some spoilers ahead!*

Frozen

Frozen 2 has officially been announced to be in the early planning stages by Walt Disney Animation Studios. While animated sequels come in by the droves these days, this is one animated sequel whose announcement comes as a huge deal for a number of reasons.

The most obvious of such reasons being that Frozen is the most successful animated film of all time, yet it’s taken well over a year for this sequel to be announced (compare that to other animated films of today, where multiple sequels are announced after the opening weekend). Another reason this is interesting is that it’s a sequel to a Disney animated film. Sure, the 90s Disney films were tainted with straight-to-video sequels, but Disney was well aware of their “less-than favorable” quality. Not only has Disney long-since discontinued the entire concept of straight-to-video sequels, but those that they made are not counted as official movies in the Disney canon. The only ‘true’ Disney sequels are The Rescuers Down Under, Fantasia 2000 and Winnie the Pooh, the latter two of which aren’t necessarily continuations of their predecessors, either. Pixar and Dreamworks seem to have a heyday with sequels these days, but a true Disney sequel is a rarity.

So while it may seem obvious that a film as successful as Frozen would get a sequel, the circumstances of time and its lineage are something to note.

But one thing is certain: Frozen 2 must deliver.

On a personal level, Frozen is my favorite Disney movie of all time. I had gotten to a point where I still enjoyed Disney films, but thought that the studio was merely capable of making entertaining movies, not artistic ones. Then Frozen came along and was not only the most fun Disney movie I’d seen (and I’ve seen every Disney animated film), but also one that, finally, had deeper meanings, thematics and character development to it (a trait that carried over, to a lesser degree, to Big Hero 6). It proved me wrong so beautifully and I enjoyed it so immensely that I’m not afraid to admit it’s one of my favorite films, animated or otherwise.

Outside of personal interest, Frozen is also the animated film that has seemingly taken over the world. It’s not simply a movie that made a lot of money, it’s a genuinely beloved phenomenon. Yes, I will even say it’s on Star Wars levels of movie mania, and it has gained an international appeal that few movies can claim (it ranks as the third highest grossing film in Japan, where it topped the box office for sixteen straight weeks).

Suffice to say, there are a lot of people who will want this sequel to deliver. And deliver it must.

Frozen

First and foremost, Frozen 2 must tell a story as meaningful as the first, but it shouldn’t simply rehash the same themes. It can expand on them and introduce new thematics, but simply having Elsa become fearful again would only feel like someone hit a reset button. It would undo Frozen’s ending, and that’s a no no.

Then there’s the villain scenario. Simply having Prince Hans return for revenge would be too simple. Hans can still make an appearance, but he’s served his thematic purposes, and no longer needs to be the villain. Either introduce a new villain who can also serve a purpose for the movie’s themes, or just leave out the villain concept altogether and center the story’s conflicts around the heroes (which Frozen also did to great success).

Introducing new characters almost seems inevitable, and that’s fine, provided they don’t take the spotlight away from the main characters. Olaf and Sven don’t need a third member of their comedic troupe, and Elsa most certainly doesn’t need a romantic interest (a large part of the character’s appeal has been her independence). Frozen strayed from Disney norms by focusing its primary relationship on sisterhood, putting romance in the background when it wasn’t tossing it aside entirely. Frozen 2 would be wise to do the same. It can’t be just another Disney movie. It has to live up to the uniqueness of the original.

Given Frozen’s predominantly girl power attitude, it wouldn’t be too surprising if a third female character is introduced. Once again, this is fine, so long as any such character doesn’t overshadow Anna and Elsa, or get shoehorned into the plot (no long-lost third sister, please).

Then there’s the songs. Good heavens, how does one follow-up Let It Go? But they’re going to have to give it a try. With how wonderfully infectious the songs in Frozen were, the sequel can’t have anything less than that. These songs must etch their way into my brain and – ironically enough – never let go. Frozen

 

Of course, I have great faith in Frozen 2. Disney has not set a release date, meaning they’ve more or less given the filmmakers the time they need to get it right. Disney has also given the filmmakers full creative control, another great sign. Best of all, those filmmakers are Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, who masterminded the original Frozen and shaped what was originally going to be another Disney princess movie into something truly special.

So I do have faith in Frozen 2 (more so than I do Toy Story 4 or Finding Dory). I believe Disney knows they have awoken a sleeping giant with Frozen, and they’ll want to make sure the sequel to their most popular movie isn’t just a mere cash-in (this isn’t the Michael Eisner era anymore). But Frozen 2 must be a sequel of Toy Story 2-like quality. One that takes what you loved about the original, and adds to it while also creating an identity of its own. Frozen 2 is already guaranteed to win over the box office. But if it wants to live up to the original Frozen, it must win over our hearts as well. I think it can do just that.

The Boxtrolls Review

The Boxtrolls

The Boxtrolls is another offbeat stop-motion endeavor from Laika Studios, who previously created Coraline and ParaNorman. Boxtrolls is a bit more charming and less dark than its predecessors, but it retains their expert craftsmanship.

In case the title of “The Boxtrolls” wasn’t offbeat enough, the hero of the movie is named Eggs. Eggs is a human boy raised by the Boxtrolls after he was orphaned. The Boxtrolls are strange little creatures that take up names based on the cardboard boxes they wear (Eggs wears a box labeled ‘eggs’ hence his name). They sleep underground during the day, and dig through garbage for metal trinkets at night. They are harmless creatures, and too cowardly to fight back should anyone try to do them harm (hiding in their boxes is their only method of self-defense).

Despite their simple nature, the people of the town of Cheesebridge all fear Boxtrolls, believing that they kidnapped and ate the orphaned boy years earlier. A ruthless exterminator, Archibald Snatcher, claims that he can rid the town of the creatures. In return, Snatcher wishes for the town’s mayor to grant him membership into the White Hats, the town’s council of aristocratic cheese connoisseurs (despite Snatcher having a cheese allergy). One by one Snatcher and his team of thugs begin to exterminate the Boxtrolls, until only a few of them (and Eggs) remain. It’s then up to Eggs and the mayor’s daughter Winnie to find a way to save the defenseless creatures.

The BoxtrollsIt’s a simple storyline that packs a fair bit of charm due to its sillier aspects and some fun humor (the scenes where Eggs attempts to fit into human society – only for his trollish upbringing to get in the way – are among the film’s highlights), but it’s the animation that’s the real star.

The character models are wonderfully realized caricatures, and they move with a liveliness to match that of a CG animation. Oftentimes there’s so much going on all at once that you really do wonder how the film was made. Stop-motion animation is always a work of painstaking patience and attention to detail, and The Boxtrolls is one of the best examples of how well it can all payoff.

Unfortunately, The Boxtrolls isn’t always so wonderful as its animation. Too often it falls back on gross-out gags (namely those relating to Snatcher’s cheese allergy), which never mesh with the movie’s otherwise good nature. And as has been the case with Laika’s past films, the message, while telling simple truths, becomes a bit loud. Being kind and understanding to those who are different than oneself is definitely a good message, but it’s also recycled from ParaNorman, and both films seem to have a need to bluntly reinforce it, which can make things feel a tad contrived at times.

The BoxtrollsStill, the good ultimately outweighs the bad, and it would be hard for someone to be completely bored with a movie that looks so alive. The Boxtrolls boasts some of the most detailed stop-motion I’ve seen, and makes it look effortless. And when it’s wise enough to  leave the gross-outs behind it, it can be a funny and smartly-written film (another highlight are snatcher’s minions, a group of simpletons who think they’re doing the right thing, but slowly begin to realize they are little more than evil henchmen).

The Boxtrolls may not always work, but it would be impossible to not be won over to some degree by the work that went into it.

 

6

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.

The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water Review

Spongebob

The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water is absolutely baffling. It takes the surrealistic elements that have grown into the television series, and uses its theatrical budget to push them to the extreme. The end result is something that is often hilarious, and often disjointed, but it is always unmistakably Spongebob.

2004’s The Spongebob Squarepants Movie served as a fitting transition from small screen to big screen for Spongebob’s trademark nautical nonsense. It was appropriately bigger, but very much accessible for those unfamiliar with the series. It was ridiculous, but it felt focused, at least considering it was an hour and a half expansion of a normally eleven-minute format.

The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water is much less focused, and unapologetically inaccessible to anyone outside of the Spongebob fanbase. In some instances, it works for its benefit, in others it feels lost in its own weirdness.

Many fans cry foul that Spongebob lost his way after the first movie, and that the series became dumbed-down, relying on gimmicks and an over reliance on surrealism over the clever writing of the older episodes.

One could say that Sponge Out of Water brings with it the good and the bad that has been attributed to the series over the years. It’s well-written and witty when it wants to be, but oftentimes it abandons it own intelligence just to weird-out its audience, which can feel like a cheap and easy way to fill its running time after a while.

SpongebobThe story – or what there is of one – is simple in explanation, but head-scratching in execution. Plankton is once again in the midst of trying to steal the Krabby Patty secret recipe when he gets into a scuffle with Spongebob. As they fight over the recipe, it magically vanishes from sight. Mr. Krabs, and every other Bikini Bottom citizen, suspect Plankton to be behind the recipe’s disappearance. Spongebob, having witnessed the inexplicable occurrence, defends Plankton. This leads to both Plankton and Spongbob being run out of town, and it’s up to them to set things right.

It’s more complicated than that, however. It turns out, a pirate named Burger Beard (portrayed by a live-action Antonio Banderas, who seems to be having a blast in the role) has stolen a magic book – which inexplicably controls the events of Bikini Bottom – and by writing in it, gave himself the Krabby Patty recipe, as well as making the few who knew the secret recipe forget it. Naturally, this sends Bikini Bottom into a Mad Max-inspired apocalypse.

SpongebobBefore all is said and done, events like time-travel, an encounter with a psychic, rapping dolphin from the future, and Plankton’s umpteenth venture into Spongebob’s brain occur. It all culminates with a giant parody of The Avengers, in which Spongebob and company become super-powered CG versions of themselves, travel to the surface and do battle with Burger Beard. Again, this is a weird movie.

On one hand, I applaud Sponge Out of Water for its weirdness. You’ve got to give credit to a movie like this for being itself and not pandering to audiences. When the weirdness works with the plot it’s hilarious (the aforementioned dolphin is involved with Spongebob becoming CG in a moment that feels like pure cinematic insanity).

SpongebobThe problems arise when Sponge Out of Water’s weirdness works against the story. The primary plot seems to get abandoned entirely for a good chunk of the movie, and the partnering of Spongebob and Plankton – which seems to be the movie’s core relationship – kind of disappears in the third act. While the first Spongebob movie kept things simplified and focused, Sponge Out of Water is so determined to prove its weirdness that it forsakes its own story to do so. Because of that, the movie often doesn’t feel like a movie. Instead, Sponge Out of Water feels like a series of small episodic events, with the larger story only taking part in the earlier moments and the very end.

But when it works, it works. Sponge Out of Water makes subtle nods to the show’s early years without forcing them, the movie parodies are clever, and when the writing and weirdness work together it’s close to genius. It’s just a shame it’s all so inconsistent.

The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water is definitely the best Spongebob has been in years, but it still falls victim to some of the problems of the series’ more recent seasons. There are some humorous diamonds in the rough here, but with a little more attention given to the writing, it could have been a comedy goldmine.

 

6

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. I’d say Frozen’s opening matches up to it beautifully. 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