Strange World Review

Say what you want about Disney’s overall slate of live-action remakes and an over-reliance on Marvel and Star Wars in recent years, but the Walt Disney Company’s animated output has never been better than in has over the last thirteen years. Starting with the Princess and the Frog in 2009, Walt Disney Animation Studios seemed to find their groove again, often rivaling and occasionally surpassing sister animation studio Pixar. The past decade-plus has seen Disney Animation release worldwide phenomenons like Frozen and Encanto, and additional acclaimed hits like Moana, Zootopia and Wreck-It Ralph. Walt Disney Animation Studios’ output has never been more consistent and varied. The animation giant’s sixty-first feature film, Strange World, adds another notch in Disney’s recent versatility in storytelling by hearkening back to pulp fiction adventures of the mid-20th century. Unfortunately, while Strange World continues Disney Animation’s recent winning ways in terms of versatility, it doesn’t match up to the same consistent quality as its recent predecessors. It doesn’t fall so short as to make me think the studio’s hot streak is broken, but Strange World does leave me wondering if said hot streak is winding down.

Strange World takes place in the land of Avalonia, a kind of Jules Verne world of flying machines, adventurers and retro futurism. Avalonia is surrounded by mountain ranges so large that even their most advanced airships can’t get past them. One notable Avalonian adventurer is Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid), who is so tough he shaves with a piranha. Jaeger is joined on his adventures by his much less brave son, Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal). Jaeger has conquered seemingly everything Avalonia has to offer, with the sole exception being the discovery of what lies beyond the mountains of Avalonia, which is to be his life’s accomplishment. During the Clades’ expedition of the mountains, Searcher discovers a new type of plant that gives off energy. With the mountains proving too treacherous to conquer, Searcher and the rest of the crew suggest that the new plant (which they dub ‘Pando’) is world-changing enough of a discovery, and decide to return to Avalonia. Jaeger, hellbent on accomplishing his goal, abandons his son and continues onward through the mountains.

Fast-forward twenty-five years, and Pando has indeed changed Avalonia by becoming the land’s power source. Searcher is seen as Avalonia’s new hero for his discovery (he has a statue right next to his father’s), and he has since become a farmer of Pando along with his wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) and their son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White). Jaeger, meanwhile, is long-since presumed dead.

All is not well in Avalonia, however, as Pando crops are dying at an alarming rate. The leader of Avalonia, Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu) – who was with Jaeger and Searcher on their mountain expedition all those years ago – shows up at Searcher’s house to recruit him on a new expedition. Massive roots of Pando have been discovered in a sinkhole to the north, and Callisto believes these roots lead to the source of Pando’s power (the “Heart of Pando”), and that finding the source may help them solve the issue of Pando’s rapid decay. Searcher is reluctant, but having more knowledge of Pando than anyone else, agrees to embark on the adventure. Unbeknownst to him, Ethan stows away on Callisto’s ship (he’s always dreamed of going on adventures like his grandfather), with Meridian following in pursuit of her son

Unfortunately for the crew, the sinkhole not only leads underground, but into an entrance way to a whole other world beneath their own (the titular Strange World) and their ship crashes. This Strange World is a land filled with dangerous creatures and terrain, so Ethan and the rest of the crew will have to survive this Strange World if they hope to save Pando and return to Avalonia. But they’ll have some additional help in the form of Jaeger, who had fallen into the Strange World long ago, and has survived by building a flamethrower and feasting on the smaller creatures of Strange World (I don’t consider Jaeger’s survival a spoiler. It was shown in the trailers, and even if it wasn’t, these kinds of films always have this kind of character to guide our heroes on their adventure).

Again, the film has a very strong throwback vibe, hearkening back to the days of pulp magazines and movie serials, and unabashedly flaunts the expected tropes of such genres. On one hand, such sincerity in genre filmmaking is hard to come by these days, and has a certain innocent appeal to it. But it also means that Strange World doesn’t have a whole lot of surprises in store. Still, even a cliched story can be made special by its execution, and I’d rather have a good predictable movie than a bad movie that features twists just for the heck of it. Though I must admit it’s in that execution that Strange World becomes a bit of a mixed bag.

I think my main issue is that the action of Strange World is serviceable, but unmemorable. Considering the film is aiming for that ‘BANG ZOOM’ action of yesteryear, the action scenes should be one of the film’s highlights. Instead, Strange World simply seems to make due with its action scenes. Disney Animation hasn’t had the strongest history with action films, but they did do it right recently with Raya and the Last Dragon, so it’s a shame that didn’t translate here when it would have been even more beneficial. Strange World could have brought the action of movie serials up to date and, with the benefit of animation, gotten really imaginative with it. Unfortunately, the action scenes here are decently entertaining but overly familiar.

Where the film shines, however, is in its animation. The titular Strange World is a sight to behold, with its sharp reds, magentas and oranges making everything pop. Better still are the creatures that inhabit it, many of which are faceless blobs of varying shapes and sizes (one of which, dubbed Splat, is rightfully the film’s mascot). Others are stone-like brontosauruses that shed pollen from their backs and have legs as thin as pipe cleaners with feet like giant mushroom caps. I’m always a sucker for creature designs, and I get the impression the Disney animators had a lot of fun coming up with the creatures of Strange World. Even the world of Avalonia, the supposed ‘normal’ world of the film, is a joy to look at with its combination of history and fantasy.

The film also deserves credit for injecting a bit of heart into an otherwise by-the-books action-adventure, tying in a generational trauma theme seemingly carried over by Encanto, with the three generations of Clades (Jaeger, Searcher and Ethan) often butting heads with their worldviews. It doesn’t tug at the heart in the same way as other recent Disney animated flicks, but an action-adventure doesn’t really need to. Of course, with the action failing to lift Strange World up to greater heights, perhaps a little more effort trying to reach the same emotional heights of a Frozen or an Encanto may have been the key to making Strange World something special.

Strange World is a solid entry in the Disney Animation Studios canon. But in a time when Disney’s animated storytelling has never been stronger, simply being ‘solid’ does mean that Strange World is in the shadows of the studio’s other recent films. It isn’t that Strange World is bad, just that – much like the characters in the film – it often feels lost and stumbling amidst a land of giants.

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Wreck-It Ralph Turns 10!

Yep, another anniversary post at the Dojo. This time for something that’s only kind of/sort of related to Super Mario. We’re talking about the Disney animated film Wreck-It Ralph, which is somehow ten years old today!

Yes, another thing to make me feel so old. Wreck-It Ralph was released on November 2nd 2012. It’s become something of a semi-classic in the Disney canon, but it still probably ranks in my top 10 favorite Disney animated films, to add some personal perspective.

Wreck-It Ralph tells the story of an old arcade video game villain (the titular Ralph), as he grows tired of the stigma that comes with his job as a gaming baddie, and sets off to prove himself a hero. Admittedly, the premise does seem to echo previous animated films such as Shrek, Despicable Me and Mega Mind, but Ralph is the best film of that lot (sorry, Shrek fans). And it has more than enough charm and visual inventiveness to stand on its own.

Ralph was one of the earlier entries in Disney Animation’s ongoing resurgence, which began with either The Princess and the Frog or Tangled (or Bolt, depending on who you ask). And while Disney Animation is still going strong, the early 2010s were particularly great thanks to the likes of Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen the next year. Interestingly, both films were also accompanied by fantastic short films (Paperman in the case of Ralph, and the best Mickey Mouse short, “Get a Horse” ahead of Frozen). Disney was really at the top of their game at that point!

Wreck-It Ralph is definitely worth a look for fans of Disney, animation and video games, and people who simply like a charming story. It’s 2018 sequel, Ralph Breaks the Internet, is almost just as good. I honestly wouldn’t mind a third entry.

Happy Tenth Anniversary, Wreck-It Ralph and Paperman!

Also, as a bonus, yesterday marked the 15th anniversary of Super Mario Galaxy’s release in Japan (you had to know we’d get back to Mario). Since I missed out on writing a proper post for the occasion (I also missed out on my Halloween post, sadly), I will be sure to write something on the fifteenth anniversary of Super Mario Galaxy’s US release a little later this month. As well as some actual reviews and such.

Happy (belated) fifteen, Super Mario Galaxy!

Fun and Fancy Free Review

Fun and Fancy Free is the fourth film in Walt Disney Animation’s first dark age, better known as the “Package film era.” In the wake of World War II, with resources and staff dwindling (some even drafted), the Walt Disney Company was forced to cut corners with their animated features. Unable to create something of the same scale, scope and detail as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves or Pinocchio, Disney instead opted to emphasize short films,  package them together, and release them as a ‘feature film.’ Though the circumstances couldn’t be helped, suffice to say this era of Disney is often forgotten for a reason.

Following Saludos Amigos, The Three Caballeros and Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free continued the package film trend, and didn’t exactly improve on it. Fun and Fancy Free cuts down the number of featured shorts to two, and while that does make for a more focused film than its predecessors, it also means it has less chances to win the audience over to this format. Not to mention the segments in between the two shorts are the most padded yet.

The two featured shorts are Bongo, the tale of a circus bear who escapes into the forest and falls in love with a girl bear, invoking the wrath of a brutish villain bear, and Mickey and the Beanstalk, the tale of Jack and the Beanstalk, but with Mickey, Donald and Goofy in the lead roles.

The film begins with Jiminy Cricket – yes, Jiminy Cricket from Pinocchio – wandering around a random house, singing a happy song while encountering a goldfish and a black cat (who are not Cleo and Figaro from Pinocchio, by the way), before stumbling on a porcelain doll and a teddy bear next to a record player. Among these records is Bongo, the aforementioned bear romance story, which happens to be narrated by actress Dinah Shore (this movie was released in 1947, so you’d be forgiven for not being familiar with who that is). Inspired by the perceived love of the (quite inanimate) doll and teddy bear, Jiminy Cricket decides to play the Bongo record, which is where the first short begins.

After Bongo finishes, Jiminy Cricket happens upon a birthday invitation, with said party just so happening to be going on at that time. So Jiminy makes his way to the party to get some free cake, and this is where the filler segments get weird. It turns out the birthday party is for child actress Luana Patten, and takes place in the very much live-action world. Patten is being entertained at her party by famed ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, as well as his two then very famous (now just plain creepy) ventriloquist dummies Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. Bergen then tells the story of Mickey and the Beanstalk, with Charlie and Mortimer giving their own commentary with annoying frequency.

This just blows my mind on so many levels. First of all, the fact that Jiminy Cricket is in this movie just feels so strange. I know he’s one of Disney’s most iconic characters, but unlike Mickey, Donald or Goofy, who were “cartoon stars” who would be cast in different roles while retaining their core personalities, Jiminy Cricket was a character in an animated feature film. He was a key character in a defined narrative. So while the characters of the Mickey Mouse universe make sense to be used in package films like this, it just seems so weird to have a character like Jiminy Cricket show up in something that has no actual connection to Pinocchio.

“Ummm… No.”

Second, if you’re going to have Jiminy Cricket serve as the segue between the shorts, why not have Jiminy Cricket narrate the shorts himself? At least then his presence would make more sense. Instead, we have actors and entertainers from the late 1940s narrate the stories while Jiminy just kind of listens. It’s pretty transparent that Disney was in some desperate times that they had to utilize star power and resurrect a character from a previous and infinitely better movie in order to sell this movie. Sure, celebrities are a big part of animated features today, but they actually voice characters in the movies, they don’t just show up as themselves in live-action segments like some kind of guest star.

With all due respect to Edgar Bergen and Dinah Shore, watching this movie in 2020 feels like unearthing some kind of time capsule by their presence. I mean, part of the allure of animation is its timeless appeal. So it just seems so weird to have a Disney movie so overtly (if unintentionally) date itself. Had Bergen and Shore voiced some of the actual characters in the shorts, that’d be fine, but the fact that the movie feels the need to tell (and show) the audience which stars from decades ago are narrating the shorts is just so strange.

Enough with the filler segments. What about the shorts themselves? Well, like the previous package films, there’s really nothing too special about them. I suppose Mickey and the Beanstalk has the appeal of being one of the rare instances of Mickey, Donald and Goofy sharing the screen together, and it also has the little bit of trivia as being the last time Walt Disney himself voiced Mickey Mouse. Mickey and the Beanstalk is decently entertaining enough, and introduced audiences to Willie the Giant (the dude  what played the role of the Ghost of Christmas Present in Mickey’s Christmas Carol, in case you always wondered who the hell that was), but it’s nothing spectacular. And whenever Mickey and the Beanstalk starts to pick up some steam, it’s either interrupted by the constant nagging of those ventriloquist dummies, or flat-out cuts away back to said live-action segments.

It’s just kind of weird how the characters of the Mickey Mouse universe – Disney’s supposed ‘signature characters’ – were only put into Disney’s animated features when they needed to sell one of these package films. Is asking for a proper Disney movie starring Mickey, Donald and Goofy really asking for too much?

As for Bongo, well, it’s probably best that Fun and Fancy Free gets this one out of the way first. Because it honestly feels like it could be any Disney short from the time, but stretched unnecessarily long. This short in itself is around a half hour, but it feels longer than that. It’s the definition of a mediocre short, which may have been more charming if it were all the shorter.

There are moments of enjoyment in Fun and Fancy Free (namely those that involve Mickey, Donald and Goofy with as little interruptions as possible), but like the package films before it, it doesn’t feel like it belongs in the official Disney canon of animated films. Films like The Nightmare Before Christmas (one of the most beloved animated films from the 1990s) aren’t part of the primary Disney canon, so why are these shoddily made time-savers from the Package Film Era? Granted, I don’t think any of these package films holds the distinction of being the worst Disney movie ever, but none of them are particularly good, and they aren’t even much in the way of movies themselves.

The Mickey short is decent enough, but Bongo is kind of a slog, and the filler segments feel more padded and pointless than ever.

Three Caballeros was probably the highlight of this era, if for no other reason than its utter insanity and surrealism. But Fun and Fancy Free has none of that. But it does have ventriloquist dummies!

Jiminy Crickets…

 

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