As we approach Avengers: Endgame, we’re not only coming to the conclusion of Phase three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the climax of the ten-plus year journey of the MCU so far. As such, we’re beginning to see the next generation of key players come into the MCU, from Dr. Strange to Spider-Man to Black Panther. The newest player in the MCU (and the last one introduced before Endgame) is none other than Captain Marvel, whose Marvel Studios proclaims to be the most powerful character in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. Of course, no matter how powerful a super hero is, it doesn’t amount to much if the story they’re telling is weak. And with Marvel’s recent string of hits, Captain Marvel has a pretty steep hill to climb.
Unfortunately, despite being the MCU’s most powerful super being, Captain Marvel can’t seem to carry her own movie. It’s not that it’s a bad movie per se, just that it’s so by-the-books and average that it doesn’t stand out in any way. It’s so average that by the day after I saw it, I saw a commercial for it and thought “oh yeah, I saw that movie.” Unless you somehow haven’t seen an MCU movie for the past several years, there’s nothing about Captain Marvel that will prove particularly memorable.
Taking place in 1995, Captain Marvel is a prequel to the all but one other MCU film (Captain America: The First Avenger). Our titular heroine is called ‘Very’ (Brie Larson), an Earth-born human pilot who gained incredible power after she was involved in a mysterious plane crash that also left her with amnesia. She was then taken in by the Kree, a race of “alien warrior heroes” who have been battling an endless war against the Skrulls, mysterious shape-shifting beings.
Under the tutelage of Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), Vers has become an unstoppable fighting machine in the war against the Skrulls. Though she longs to remember her true past, especially after she meets up with ‘The Supreme Intelligence’ – the Kree’s AI leader who appears to different individuals as “the person they most admire” – whom appears to Vers as a woman she’s seen only in flashbacks (Annette Bening).
Vers inadvertently gets her wish to rediscover her past, when an encounter with a Skrull named Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) ends up sending her down to Earth, where she meets a younger Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and embarks on a journey that takes her to many places from her past.
Again, it all sounds promising. And I once again stress that the movie isn’t bad. It’s just that, when all is said and done, it really doesn’t feel like anything new. It’s the most ‘vanilla’ MCU film to come along in a good while.
The one bit of originality Captain Marvel attempts is telling the origin story of its titular hero in a non-linear, out-of-sequence fashion, with the film jumping between the present day of the film and Vers’s plane crash and the events leading up to it. The film also does a pretty good job at delivering a more novice Nick Fury learning his craft (as well as explaining how he lost one of his eyes).
Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn and Annette Bening all give memorable performances (with Ben Mendelsohn’s character getting a pleasantly surprising amount of comedy, and Bening playing a duel role that showcases very different personalities). The CG used to de-age Samuel L. Jackson is also impressive (we’ve come a long way since the creepy young Tony Stark from Captain America: Civil War), though I suppose it helps that Sam Jackson has aged very well.
Unfortunately, not everyone in the cast is as impressive. Brie Larson feels void of charisma in her role, which is especially affecting to the film seeing as she’s the main character. Of course, it probably doesn’t help that the character is written so blandly, with the film continuously emphasizing how powerful she is, without giving us much reason to care for her as a character. Captain Marvel is already at risk of being a deus ex machine for the MCU, if she is indeed the one to defeat Thanos after just being introduced to the mega-franchise in the eleventh hour. The fact that the character is written without any real character flaw makes this even more concerning.
Although not as big of a detriment, Jude Law’s role also seems surprisingly empty. The movie builds him up to be an important figure in the story, but through long stretches of the film, you may forget he’s even a part of it.
Again, I don’t want to sound too hard on the film, because it isn’t necessarily bad, just resoundingly uneventful. It has great special effects (again I emphasize the de-aging on Jackson), the action scenes are fun, and the overall entertainment value is there to a degree. But the same could be said about most MCU films, and aside from the aforementioned back and forth with the origin story, Captain Marvel doesn’t really try its hand at anything new for the franchise. And when the film starts veering into a series of plot twists that feel like they’ve already been done in the MCU, this is only emphasized. Combine that with the film’s disappointingly wooden heroine, and Captain Marvel fails to live up to its potential.
I’m sure plenty of people will have fun with Captain Marvel. But it too often comes across as too little, too late for the MCU. There’s just not enough here that feels special or unique, and if anything, Captain Marvel feels more like its regressed back to the Phase One days of the MCU with its simple and straightforward origin story. Captain Marvel may be “the most powerful character in the MCU,” but her movie feels like one of the least powerful of the lot in a good while.
Is it possible to love half a game? Or to half-love a game? Because I think that might describe my feelings for Kingdom Hearts 3. I honestly can’t remember the last time a game had me grinning from ear to ear and feeling like a kid on Christmas one minute, and then leave me aggravated and annoyed like an adult at the DMV the next. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game that made me feel so emotionally polarized.
Kingdom Hearts 3 is the long-awaited “third” installment in the main Kingdom Hearts series, arriving thirteen years after Kingdom Hearts 2. Of course, considering how every handheld “spinoff” entry in the series that was supposedly intended to whet the appetite of fans in the interim between Kingdom Hearts 2 and 3 are all part of the main story, Kingdom Hearts 3 isn’t really Kingdom Hearts 3 at all. It’s more like Kingdom Hearts 9. And that kind of takes away a little something from the long-awaited experience.
Even from the game’s opening moments, it doesn’t feel like the thirteen-years in the making trilogy capper it should be, but just another random episode in a series. In fact, if it weren’t for the game’s final stage (which somehow simultaneously rushes plot resolutions and drags things out at the same time), you’d probably never even think Kingdom Hearts 3 was serving as the end to the storyline that began with the series’ first entry.
Kingdom Hearts is, of course, Square-Enix’s crossover franchise which sees original characters created by Final Fantasy alumni Tetsuya Nomura travel across the different worlds of classic Disney films. The series also used to boast the occasional Final Fantasy character, but that aspect has been dropped almost entirely for this ‘third’ entry (sans for the Moogle shop, and a few cameos via constellations in the stars. No, not even Sephiroth returns as a super boss).
It’s the Disney half of the game which is the half I love. As a particular fan of Disney’s recent animated films and those of the Pixar brand, Kingdom Hearts 3 is especially enticing in this regard, as Disney’s recent animated output and Pixar films are what Kingdom Hearts 3 really emphasizes this time around with its Disney-themed worlds.
There are seven primary Disney worlds featured in Kingdom Hearts 3 (plus the traditional, optional Winnie the Pooh world, which focuses on mini-games), five of which fall into the modern Disney and Pixar categories: Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., Tangled, Frozen and Big Hero 6. The additional two Disney worlds are based on Hercules (which has been present in all three ‘main’ Kingdom Hearts titles) and Pirates of the Caribbean (specifically At World’s End, a movie I actually very much enjoy despite its general reception). Additionally, the game’s best side quest involves Sora and company seeking out ingredients and making new recipes for Remy from Ratatouille.
Even though it’s a smaller lineup of Disney worlds than some of the previous games, Square was clearly aiming for quality over quantity. And in that sense, they nailed it. This is the best lineup of Disney films the series has represented. And it’s within this Disney fan service that Kingdom Hearts 3 is at its very best.
There’s an inescapable delight every time you enter a new Disney world and Sora, Donald and Goofy interact with characters and events from the films. Many of these characters even have their original voice actors from their respective movies (the cast of Frozen, Mandy Moore as Rapunzel, James Woods as Hades, and the perennial John Ratzenberger as Hamm are particular highlights). Of course, this also means when a character doesn’t have their original actor, it does kind of stick out like a sore thumb (I’m looking your way, Pirates of the Caribbean world).
If you’re a Disney fan – particularly a fan of modern Disney, such as myself – it’s impossible not to have a smile beaming across your face during many of the game’s Disney-centric moments. Naturally, seeing Frozen’s Let It Go recreated for the game stands out as my favorite, but you also get the lantern scene from Tangled, get to ride on the endless door conveyor belt from Monsters, Inc., and fly around San Fransokyo atop of Baymax. It’s moments like this when Kingdom Hearts 3’s many flaws wash away and you can simply bask in the charm of the Disney worlds.
With that said, the game often bungles what should be easy fan service. In both the Tangled and Pirates of the Caribbean worlds, their unique party members (Rapunzel and Flynn Rider in Tangled, Jack Sparrow in Pirates) seem to repeatedly leave your party at every other turn, leaving them feeling underutilized (particularly in Tangled’s case, as Rapunzel no longer joins you if you revisit the stage after its story is done).
In perhaps the game’s most dumbfounding (or hilarious) creative hiccup, the Frozen world doesn’t see Elsa or Anna join Sora’s party, but Marshmallow the snowman (geez, they couldn’t even make it Olaf). Some might say they were trying to do something unexpected, but that seems like the wrong place to do it. Wouldn’t getting an unexpected party member in a returning world like Hercules or Pirates make more sense? They have access to the most popular animated film in history, and don’t fully utilize the main characters? Is it a joke? Especially seeing as Rapunzel – who barely seems to join your team at all – is the only female party member you get in the game, it makes Elsa and Anna’s omission even more baffling still.
Another disappointment with the utilization of the Disney brands is in the boss fights. In past Kingdom Hearts titles, you would at least battle against a fair amount of Disney villains. In Kingdom Hearts 3 there are only three boss fights against Disney characters: The Titans in the Hercules world, Marshmallow in Frozen (they’re certainly getting a lot of mileage out of Marshmallow, it seems), and Davy Jones in Pirates. You can’t help but wonder why they couldn’t have added a few more.
The non-Disney half of the equation is as clunky as ever. What’s even worse is how the game seems to reinforce the idea that the Disney stuff isn’t important, and only Tetsuya Nomura’s characters actually mean anything in the grand scheme of the Kingdom Hearts mythos. Nomura’s original creations simply don’t have any of the likability of the Disney characters with whom they often share the screen.
Even after all these years, Sora remains the atypical “anime boy doofus” character you’ve probably seen a thousand times over in other sources. The villainous Organization XIII consists of one-note, entirely interchangeable bad guys (with the game almost self-awarely reinforcing this when the Organization starts swapping out some members for other characters). Sora’s love interest, Kairi, still amounts to little more than a damsel in distress. Riku is the archetypal ‘rival’ who flirted with the dark side. There are other Keyblade wielders thrown into the mix without any real purpose to be in the story at this point. There are clones of characters. Clones of clones. Characters who aren’t clones but look exactly like other characters. There are even characters who share the same name as other characters!
Yes, it’s sad to admit that instead of learning from past mistakes, Nomura has instead doubled-down on them (whether through stubborn arrogance or blissful ignorance, I’m not sure). Instead of developing the core set of main characters, Nomura just kept adding more and more players throughout the series. This has left his original characters with about as much depth as a shallow puddle.
As stated, the Disney element has also suffered from this abundance of characters, with the different Disney casts being shoved to the side as the game constantly reminds us how unimportant they are. In one telling moment, an Organization XIII member discovers that the Dead Man’s Chest from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is not the macguffin he’s after, and immediately disregards it. Yep, that key item from the second and third Pirates movies is merely scoffed at by just another one of the original villains. It almost feels like Kingdom Hearts is now embarrassed of its crossover element at times.
The plot of the game and its characters would feel infinitely smoother if it made the Disney characters feel important to the narrative. Organization XIII alone would be a far more memorable villain group if some Disney and Final Fantasy villains were in its ranks (seeing as they’re established characters, you wouldn’t have to take time with introductions and getting to learn their personalities, thus leaving room to flesh out the original characters that are present). It seems like it should be obvious. You have a big crossover with Disney and Final Fantasy, why not make those aspects of this mythology feel like they mean something? But one is (admittedly delicious) dressing, and the other is barely existent anymore.
Suffice to say, the narrative of Kingdom Hearts 3 is a bit of a mess, with its only real charm stemming from the Disney characters and moments it borrows. But how is Kingdom Hearts 3 as a game?
For the most part, it’s pretty fun. The gameplay is primarily separated into two halves. The first half sees players control Sora, with Donald and Goofy serving as permanent teammates, and each Disney world coming with one or two teammates of their own (for a nice change, you no longer have to swap Donald or Goofy out of the party to make room for the new guys). The gameplay is predominantly a hack-N-slash RPG, with Sora and company hacking away at hordes of Heartless and Nobodies. The D-pad cycles through quick menus, allowing you to use items, cast spells and other such actions. In terms of control, Kingdom Hearts 3 feels a lot like its predecessors, which means it’s quick to get into if you’re familiar with the series, but also means some of the controls feel stuck in the PS2 era.
Sora’s jumps still feel a bit clunky, and cycling through those “quick menus” may not be as quick as one might hope once you start unlocking more abilities and options. If you found the combat of the past games to be a little repetitive, you may find that to be the case here as well. But there are a few new additions to the gameplay that may win you over.
Some may lament that Sora can no longer change into different forms like in Kingdom Hearts 2, but there’s been a fair trade in that the different Keyblades you acquire can change forms instead. By chaining together combos, your currently equipped Keyblade can temporarily transform into a new weapon, giving Sora new moves, altering spells, and boasting a powerful finisher.
Other abilities can be utilized by performing combos as well. Do enough moves when standing next to a teammate, and you can perform a special move with them. Chain together enough spells, and you can perform more powerful versions of said spells. And in one of Kingdom Hearts 3’s best new additions, defeating certain marked enemies during a combo will allow you to summon an “Attraction.” As the name implies, Attractions are vehicles based on Disneyland rides that work like transformations for all three main heroes.
The only issue I have with these different abilities is that they’re all used by pressing the same button (Triangle on PS4). You can cycle through the temporary abilities you currently have available (L2 on PS4), but in the heat of battle it can get confusing and you’ll often use a different ability than the one you wanted. But they do help keep combat fresh.
The other half of the gameplay are the Gummi Ship sections, and this is where Kingdom Hearts 3 has greatly improved on its predecessors.
Players travel between worlds aboard their Gummi Ships (and can do so freely, should they so choose). Whereas past entries placed the Gummi Ships in fixed rail stages that, frankly, weren’t very good, Kingdom Hearts 3 instead boasts three different sandbox worlds set in outer space.
Players are free to fly about the galaxy at their leisure, can fight enemies and bosses, and find hidden treasures. Most treasures consist of more Gummi Ship parts, as players can create their own vessels, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts style. The more you do in space, the stronger your Gummi Ship becomes, and the more options you have available when creating new ships.
For a nice change of pace for the series, the Gummi Ship sections actually feel like a worthy and complimentary alternative to the main game. I found myself willingly spending entire play sessions just in the Gummi Ship portion of things.
In addition, there are more than a few side quests in Kingdom Hearts 3 that will keep players occupied outside of the main story. Along with helping Remmy create fine cuisine, the Disney themed stages all host a myriad of Hidden Mickeys (referred to as “Lucky Emblems” in the game). By taking photographs of these Lucky Emblems, the player can unlock secret items and abilities (naturally, the camera can also just be used to goof off as well). And a number of worlds feature their own mini-games where the player can once again unlock bonuses and earn high scores.
Kingdom Hearts 3 is a beautiful game to look at. As usual, Square-Enix provides some of the cleanest looking cut scenes in gaming. But the real visual delight of the game is how accurately the developers have captured the look and feel of each different Disney world and the styles unique to them.
Perhaps Kingdom Hearts 3’s most consistently great element is its music. Once again composed by Yoko Shinomura, Kingdom Hearts 3 combines her unmistakeable style with renditions of classic Disney themes in addition to original compositions. Even when other aspects of the game seem to be pushing the Disney element to the sidelines, Shinomura’s terrific score brings it to the forefront, while also creating its own identity.
In the end, it’s hard to say that Kingdom Hearts 3 lived up to the thirteen year buildup. And if you weren’t a fan before, it may leave you wondering what all the fuss was about to begin with. The story aims for emotion but never resonates, due to the lack of substance in the characters (an obvious product of the fact that there’s just too damn many of them). The gameplay is fun, but lacks polish in a number of areas. And despite the franchise’s biggest selling point being its status as a Disney crossover, Kingdom Hearts 3 often comes across as dumbfounded as to how to make that crossover mean anything.
Yet, despite all the complaints, I’m still happy I played it. The gameplay is solid enough in its own right, complimented by the vastly improved Gummi Ship segments. Best of all are the Disney worlds themselves. Though they could have (and should have) been better implemented, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a persistent glee in my heart simply by running through these worlds, meeting the characters, and seeing iconic scenes recreated. Some might say I’m just a Disney fan who fell for Nomura’s bait and switch. But hey, when the bait is this enticing, can you blame me?
Maybe it’s because I haven’t played a Kingdom Hearts game since the second proper installment, and I was younger when I played the previous entries, so maybe they suffered from this as well. But as I delve further into Kingdom Hearts 3, I’ve noticed a glaring flaw with it that I (at least at the time) didn’t notice with its predecessors: The Disney crossover element feels tacked on, and ultimately, underutilized.
Again, maybe this was the case with past entries, but whether I’m just more aware of it now or the issue has magnified in Kingdom Hearts 3, the franchise’s biggest selling point – it’s very nature as a Disney crossover – feels largely unimportant. All of the classic Disney movies, characters and storylines feel completely drowned out by Tetsuya Nomura’s original characters (I use the word ‘original’ loosely here, given how Nomura seems to just copy-and-paste the same handful of anime archetypes repeatedly).
Whenever I bring this up to Kingdom Hearts fans, I always get the same responses: “It has to have its own mythology.” “The original characters bring everything together.” Things of that nature.
Such responses are shortsighted, however. Of course Kingdom Hearts should have a mythology of its own, and yes, it should have characters unique to that mythology. But the fact of the matter is, the series is a crossover with the different worlds of Disney movies. As such, the Disney worlds should actually feel like an integral part of the mythology to make the crossover mean something. Instead, the Disney element feels like window dressing, and only Nomura’s original characters have any importance to the overall story. It makes the series’ biggest selling point as a Disney crossover feel…kind of pointless.
Even Donald and Goofy, two of supposed three main characters, just feel kind of there. Mickey shows up as a deus ex machine from time to time. And Sora, Donald and Goofy travel to the worlds of different Disney movies, only for one of a seemingly endless supply of black robed zipper enthusiasts to show up and take the focus off the Disney storyline just so they can say the words “Hearts” and “Darkness” ad nauseam.
Some might say I’m just a salty Disney fan, and while I’m certainly more in favor of Disney movies than Nomura’s creations, my issue isn’t that Nomura’s characters take center stage, but that the Disney half of the equation ultimately comes across as irrelevant.
The sad thing is, the first Kingdom Hearts – from what I remember – did a decent job at weaving the crossover element into its story. The main original characters at that time were Sora, his friends Kairi and Rikku, and the villainous Ansem (who was actually Xehanort…or something). Donald and Goofy joined Sora as they searched for the missing King Mickey, and Ansem/Xehanort manipulated Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent (who in tern rallied other Disney villains) into his plot, with the Disney baddies then playing the role of big bad in their respective worlds. The Disney characters felt like they had a place in the mythology.
But then, when making the sequels, Nomura apparently forgot he made a world that featured Disney characters, as they increasingly began to feel tacked on as an afterthought. The villainous Organization XIII was introduced, with its members now taking the role of the antagonists in every Disney world. It totally undermines the Disney worlds you visit in the games when the Disney villains aren’t even allowed to be the villains of their own world. When it was one singular bad guy orchestrating everything, and the Disney villains had their place in their own world, it worked. But now in Kingdom Hearts 3, the bad guy’s henchman are ranked higher than the Disney villains. Way to undermine your own crossover.
It’s not just the Disney stuff that ends up suffering, either. Tetsuya Nomura apparently has no filter when making characters, and he’s added so many of them to the series over the years that they all feel interchangeable. They’re spread so thin that they aren’t allowed to have any depth, and only possess the most token distinctions imaginable (this bad guy has a guitar, but this bad guy rambles about his scientific research). Nomura’s original characters are defined almost entirely as “good guy” and “bad guy,” with no real sense of individuality among them. It gets so excessive that when the characters mention Kairi – one of the original main characters in the series – I’m almost left in shock. I had nearly forgotten that Kairi even existed. That’s not an exaggeration.
All this before we even get into all the other characters thrown into this messy narrative. There are even characters who are alternate versions of other characters!
This all could have been avoided if, again, Tetsuya Nomura understood how to make the Disney crossover mean something to his mythology. Instead, Kingdom Hearts 3 follows an annoying pattern of throwing Sora, Donald and Goofy into a different Disney world, and just as you start to get excited about reliving your favorite Disney movies in video game form, one of the Organization XIII goons shows up, delivers the same repetitious monologue, and it just becomes a total buzzkill. Kingdom Hearts is at its best when it’s indulging in fan service, making you feel like a goofy kid grinning from ear to ear as you meet one Disney character after another. But Testuya Nomura seems adamant to remind the player that his characters are the only ones that matter, and repeatedly kills the magic.
There are two kinds of Disney worlds in Kingdom Hearts 3: those that follow the stories of the movies they’re based on (more or less. Though at times Sora, Donald and Goofy come across as little more than interlopers in these classic Disney plots. And sometimes, their presence even creates plot holes in the original stories). And there are worlds that take place in the world of a certain movie, but tell a story of their own.
The latter category suffers a little bit less, since they aren’t trying to recreate the Disney movies themselves. But even they often fail to deliver it what should be easy fan service. The former category, however, feel like massive missed opportunities.
I haven’t beaten Kingdom Hearts 3 yet, but I think I’ve visited most of the Disney worlds (I’m currently at Pirates of the Caribbean). And before I sound too negative, I will say that there still is a wonderful sense of charm every time you visit a new Disney world and meet iconic characters, and overall I am enjoying Kingdom Hearts 3. But that’s exactly why the game’s shortcomings sting all the more.
Take, for example, the Tangled world. It looks great, you visit locales from the 2010 feature, and you get both Rapunzel and Flynn Rider as party members. But Rapunzel and Flynn seem to leave your party at any given opportunity (in one particularly hilarious instance, Sora tells the Tangled duo to move on ahead because they can’t fight a horde of enemies… after they’ve already helped Sora and company fight hordes of enemies). And once you revisit the Tangled world after beating its story, Rapunzel no longer joins your party. What a ripoff!
Then we have the Toy Story world. Again, at first, it’s magical. Sora, Donald and Goofy become toys, and you quickly befriend none other than Woody and Buzz Lightyear. But then most of the stage takes place in a mall that looks nothing like it came out of Toy Story, and despite the stage’s token Organization XIII bad guy having the ability to corrupt toys (I guess), the level doesn’t even have the decency to end with a boss fight against Evil Emperor Zurg. You just fight another Heartless monster who follows the same general character design, just in UFO form. What a ripoff!
Perhaps the biggest offender is none other than the Frozen world. Yeah, I often go on about how Frozen is my favorite Disney movie. But personal fandom aside, it’s also the most popular animated film in history, which makes it baffling how Kingdom Hearts 3 manages to bungle it up so much.
Now, to be fair again, being the Frozen fan that I am, it of course felt magical to visit the land of Arendelle in the game. The original voice cast from the movie reprise all their roles (hell yes!), and recreating ‘Let It Go’ is already a contender for best video game moment of the year. I don’t want to sound like its presence is a total waste, but it ends up feeling like the biggest missed opportunity in terms of its translation as a video game stage.
You don’t get to visit most of the iconic locations from the movie. Arendelle’s Castle Town? Nowhere to be seen. Elsa’s Ice Palace? It’s in cinematics, but the best the player gets to see is a generic snow dungeon that could have come out of any video game ever (what’s worse, this dungeon is created by an Organization XIII member, making it feel even more taunting). And while the Tangled and Toy Story worlds at least had the common sense to make the main characters of their respective films join your party, the Frozen world doesn’t even get that much.
Elsa seems like the obvious choice for a teammate, given that she has ice powers. But since the stage (attempts to) follow the plot of the movie, I at least expected Anna and Kristoff to join your party. But despite being the main characters of the highest-grossing animated film in history, you don’t get any of them. The team member you get in the Frozen world is Marshmallow. Y’know, the monster snowman who’s in a couple of scenes in the movie. And you don’t even get him for that long in the stage. What. A. Ripoff.
You really have to wonder how they could have squandered these opportunities so badly. But it all goes back to the same issue: the Disney element of Kingdom Hearts needed to feel important to its overarching story and mythology.
Again, I have no issues with Tetsuya Nomura making his own characters to tie everything together. But there are just too many original characters, to the point when they feel bland and lifeless. At its worst, it almost seems like Nomura drew a sketch of an existing character with a different hairstyle, and decided to make it a separate character in the game because why not.
Both Kingdom Hearts’ status as a crossover, and its own original creations, would feel so much more fleshed-out and meaningful if it gave the Disney characters more integral roles in its mythos. It would be an easy way to rectify the series’ most glaring narrative flaw (too many characters), and make the crossover element feel worthwhile.
I am enjoying Kingdom Hearts 3 for the most part. But playing a video game where I get to visit the worlds of Frozen, Toy Story, Tangled and Monsters, Inc. should feel special in and of itself. But what should be an easily magical experience ends up feeling like a massive missed opportunity more frequently than it should. And that’s a damn shame.
I guess it’s safe to assume that when Kingdom Hearts 4 hits store shelves sometime in the next decade, I can look forward to playing the Frozen II world and teaming up with the Duke of Weselton.
Even though animated sequels are commonplace in this day and age, Walt Disney Animation Studios – the world’s most famous source of animated features – rarely creates follow-ups to their animated classics. Some might be quick to point out the flood of direct-to-video Disney sequels that plagued the 90s and early 2000s, but those were actually produced by the now (mercifully) defunct DisneyToon Studios. Those were products of their time, and never once have those straight-to-video sequels been considered a part of the official Disney Animation canon.
The beloved studio’s only true animated sequels are The Rescuers Down Under, Fantasia 2000, Winnie the Pooh (2011), and now, Ralph Breaks the Internet, sequel to 2012’s delightful Wreck-It Ralph. Though considering the Pooh movies work more like standalone episodes, and the Fantasia films are non-narrative, there could be an argument that Ralph Breaks the Internet is only the studio’s second animated sequel. No matter how you look at it, however, Ralph Breaks the Internet proves to be the best sequel Disney has yet made by an incomparable margin, and arguably the best Disney animated film since Frozen.
Ralph Breaks the Internet is set six years after the original (coinciding with the real gap between films). Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly), the lovable video game ‘villain’ of Fix-It Felix Jr., has become something of a surrogate brother to Vanellope Von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a character from the cutesy, Mario Kart-esque racer, Sugar Rush. Ralph and Vanellope spend the days in their respective arcade games, while at night they jump from game to game goofing off. Ralph, having spent years as an outcast due to his role as a video game baddie, is perfectly content with his life now that he has a friend. Vanellope, meanwhile, wishes for something more out of life, feeling that her game is too simple, and her time with Ralph too routine.
Ralph, wanting to help Vanellope out with her problems, tries adding something new to her game. But, true to his name, Wreck-It Ralph’s good intentions make a mess of things. This results in the steering wheel controller for Sugar Rush’s arcade cabinet breaking. Mr. Litwak (Ed O’Niell), the owner of the arcade, unplugs the Sugar Rush game. A child at the arcade finds a Sugar Rush wheel on eBay, but Mr. Litwak deems it too expensive, and expects to can the game for good
Luckily for Ralph and Vanellope, however, Mr. Litwak has recently installed wi-fi in the arcade. And so Ralph and Vanellope sneak into the arcade’s wi-fi router, in hopes of traveling into the internet to find eBay and buy a new Sugar Rush wheel so that Vanellope (and all the other now-homeless Sugar Rush characters) can go home. Of course, being video game characters, Ralph and Vanellope don’t exactly know what they’re getting themselves into, and their ensuing adventure may just test their friendship.
It sounds like a simple setup, but like the other recent Disney films, Ralph breaks the Internet tells a story that’s made complex by the characters. Gone are the days when Disney simply utilized their stock archetypes to push plots forward, Disney’s recent output have told stories dictated by the characters, not the other way around. And Ralph Breaks the Internet continues this trend in a unique way. Being a sequel, Ralph 2 could have easily fallen into the pitfall of recycling the original’s material under a new guise. Instead, Ralph Breaks the Internet uses its position as a sequel to build on the characters we grew to love the first time around, and give them new dimensions. In turn, this sequel may actually outdo its predecessor in the emotional department.
Like the first film, Ralph Breaks the Internet uses its premise to create a wide array of different visual styles and art directions. It’s easy to go into the film being skeptical at the change in focus from the video game theme of the original to the internet theme of this sequel, but Ralph Breaks the Internet finds ways to make it work.
Not only does the internet world have a cleanly “retro future” look about it, but Ralph and Vanellope also find themselves visiting an online game called Slaughter Race, a grungy mix between Grand Theft Auto and Gran Turismo that beautifully contrasts the vivid colorfulness of the rest of the film. And – as has been greatly advertised – Vanellope even finds herself in the (very real) Oh My Disney website, where she encounters characters from Star Wars, Marvel and even her fellow characters from the Disney Animation canon, most notably the Disney Princesses (with all the more recent princesses being voiced by their original actresses). These scenes are among the funniest in the movie, though they do kind of make you wish we could get an entire movie about a Disney crossover…
With so many different worlds to explore – whether it’s the returning Sugar Rush or Fix-It Felix Jr., the internet itself, Slaughter Race, the dark web, or the worlds of Disney – Ralph Breaks the Internet continues what the first film started by making an animated feature that’s constantly rebuilding itself on the visual front. The Wreck-It Ralph movies are so good I’d love to see a third entry, but I wouldn’t mind a third one even just to see what other visuals they can come up with.
Like the first movie, Ralph Breaks the Internet also features a memorable musical score that channels the video games that inspired it. And this time around, we even get a big musical number, which is another highlight of the film.
Another interesting change of pace from Disney norms is that Ralph Breaks the Internet doesn’t have any real villain. It seems like Disney’s recent flicks have been doing new and different things with their villain scenario, finding ways to make them key to the plot without being the center of it like the Disney of old. And now Ralph 2 seems to just throw the villain element away entirely. As stated, this is a movie about Ralph and Vanellope, and they end up creating their own dilemmas for themselves (whether through conflicting interests or well intentioned accidents). There’s something really refreshing about that.
If there are any issues with the story, it might simply be that it can feel like it takes a fair bit of time to get going. As stated, searching for a video game steering wheel doesn’t exactly sound like it makes for a great adventure, and you may wonder where exactly the film is going for a while (albeit the charming characters and witty writing might make you not care), but once it picks up, it’s a consistently entertaining and heartwarming picture.
Fans of the original film may also lament that returning characters Fix-It Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer) and Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch) have largely reduced roles. After marrying at the end of the first movie, Felix and Calhoun end up adopting all of the Sugar Rush racers (sans Vanellope) once their game gets unplugged. It had the potential to be a pretty funny sub-plot, but sadly it gets very little time overall.
New characters include Shank (Gal Gadot), a badass chick from Slaughter Race, Knowsmore (Alan Tudyk, who’s omnipresent in Disney animation these days), a search engine, Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), an algorithm on a YouTube-esque site, and J.P. Spamley (Bill Hader), a clickbait pop-up advertisement. With the exception of Shank, most the new characters don’t have too big of roles. But they all help push the main plot forward with Ralph and Vanellope’s journey, so they don’t feel underutilized in the way Felix and Calhoun do with their own sub-plot.
In the end, what makes Ralph Breaks the Internet such a winner is that it is a heartfelt story between its two main characters that helps them change and grow in a way a lot of sequels are afraid to do. It doesn’t simply continue what its predecessor started, but builds on it. The change in setting from video games to the internet may have been cause for concern going in (because really, which one seems the more fitting setting for an animated film?), but the story and characters win you over so strongly the change seems inconsequential. It seems a lot of CG animated films are defined by their setting – emulating the ‘themed movie’ approach of Pixar films without understanding the deeper story aspects – but Ralph Breaks the Internet lets its characters take the steering wheel, ultimately telling a story that delivers in entertainment and emotion, with a pretty heavy and mature message about friendship that may bring a tear or two to your eye.
Disney has rarely created proper sequels to their animated classics. But Ralph Breaks the Internet puts up a good argument that they should do it a little more often. It may have a slow start, but Ralph Breaks the Internet is a prime example of what a sequel should be. Fingers crossed that Frozen 2 can do the same.
Disney is in an interesting place at the moment. While their much-beloved animated features are fresher and more inventive than ever, pushing their studio’s narratives and themes forward, their live-action slate is more or less being dictated by its past. The live-action remakes of their animated back-catalogue seem to be popping up left and right, and now Disney has reached 54 years into their past to deliver a sequel to arguably the most beloved Disney movie of all time, Mary Poppins.
That’s certainly means that Mary Poppins Returns has some pretty big shoes to fill. The film itself seems largely aware of this, and follows much of the same path as its classic predecessor to such a degree that it can sometimes feel more like an echo of Mary Poppins as opposed to a sequel. This of course means that Mary Poppins Returns is an incredibly familiar film (and thus not quite “practically perfect in every way” like its forebear), but still provides an undeniable good time. Perhaps most impressively, Mary Poppins Returns displays a sense of whimsy without once feeling the need to give a wink to the camera about it which, in this cynical day and age, can feel like a godsend.
Mary Poppins Returns is set twenty-five years after the original. The Banks children, Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer) are now grown. Michael is recently widowed, and lives in his childhood home with his three children; Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Sales) and Georgie (Joel Dawson). Jane has moved in with Michael in his time of need, and soon learns that Michael took a loan from the bank to pay for his late wife’s medical expenses, a loan that will cost him his home if he can’t pay it back by the end of the week.
Soon thereafter, Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) quite literally blows into town, and immediately resumes her duties as the nanny of the Banks family. Though Michael and Jane are in awe of Mary’s apparent lack of aging, they have long since written off the magical adventures they once had with the nanny as their childhood imaginations running wild. But together with a lamplighter named Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) – an apprentice of the first film’s Bert the chimney sweep – the younger generation of Banks children learn there’s more to Mary Poppins than meets the eye.
It’s a simple and charming plot that, as stated, can feel like something of a cover version of the original 1964 film. There are many fun sights to see, whimsical scenarios take place, and a good number of songs throughout. It’s all well and good, but each sight, scenario and song seems to reflect those of the original film a little too closely, right down to when they each take place within the film. Returns’ most captivating scene – in which the live actors are joined by hand-drawn animated characters, feels like a remixed version of the similar sequence from the first movie, and even takes place around the same time within the plot. And when it’s time to recreate the scene where Bert was joined by his fellow chimneysweeps for a good song and dance number, we get Jack and is fellow lamplighters doing more or less the same thing.
Mary Poppins Returns plays things safe then, and can feel like it suffers a bit of what I like to call “Home Alone 2 syndrome” (that is to say, it’s a sequel that plays out just like the original). But unlike most sequels which seem to mimic their predecessor as a means for a quick cash-grab, Mary Poppins Returns instead seems intimidated by its predecessor’s reputation, and doesn’t want to tamper with what isn’t broken. It’s a considerable bit more respectable than most other such sequels due to that reverence for its predecessor, but it still doesn’t change the fact that this may have been a better sequel if it were willing to be more of its own movie.
Still, as overly familiar as it may be at times, Mary Poppins Returns is nonetheless an undeniable charmer. It’s great to see a movie in this day and age where fantastic occurrences can just happen without needlessly being explained or attempted to be rationalized. Today’s audiences seem to have goaded movies to try to make sense of everything, no matter how fantastic the material. So to see Mary Poppins fly down to London on a kite, travel to an undersea world via bathtub, and transport herself and company to the hand-drawn world of a painting on the side of a bowl without explanation is kind of beautiful.
Although the aforementioned songs may play into the film’s familiarity in terms of their placement and tone, in terms of lyrics and melody they stand on their own two feet (the film wisely goes against trying to recreate Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, which just couldn’t be done). The songs are fun and catchy, and really help the film’s enjoyment factor.
Another highlight of the film is Mary Poppins herself. Emily Blunt puts a nice spin on the character, playing her as more brash and curt than Julie Andrews did in the original. There’s just something appealing about the Mary Poppins character. She seems to work within her own world of childlike logic (with her ‘things can happen because magic’ mentality), yet has a number of adult character traits (arrogance, somewhat condescending, and a little bit of a smartass), putting her in a unique archetype that you really don’t see much of. And Emily Blunt brings out the best in it.
On one hand, Mary Poppins Returns is a welcome and refreshing type of movie for today’s audiences: one which is only cynical towards cynicism itself. It’s a whole lot of fun, and can even feel magical at times. But on the other hand, it accomplishes these feats by more or less being a mirror image of the iconic 1964 film. In a lot of ways, I’d say Mary Poppins Returns is a great movie. But because of its similarities to the original, it’s greatness may simply be a testament to just how great the original was.
It would have been exceedingly difficult for Mary Poppins Returns to ever become as iconic as the original Mary Poppins. But it does do a great job at echoing just how special Mary Poppins and her world are.
Ponyo (or Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, as it’s known in Japan) has always been Hayao Miyazaki’s most misunderstood feature. Though it received strong reviews from critics, fans of the famed Japanese animator often referred to it as Miyazaki’s “weakest film,” due to it being aimed at a younger audience (apparently these people forgot that Miyazaki made his name with films like My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service). It was even more bizarrely the only Miyazaki-directed feature not to receive a nomination in the Best Animated Feature category at the Academy Awards since that category’s introduction. Ten years later, and Ponyo is only now being more widely recognized for its merits. And while Ponyo may not be as synonymous with Miyazaki’s name in the same way Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro are, it is the strongest of the director’s trilogy of ‘post-Spirited Away’ features.
On paper, Ponyo may sound like Hayao Miyazaki’s most straightforward film: it tells the tale of a young boy named Sosuke, who finds a magical goldfish whom he names Ponyo (her ‘real name’ being Brunhilde). The two form a bond, with Ponyo defying her wizard father Fujimoto and transforming into a human girl to be with Sosuke.
A synopsis such as that might imply that Ponyo is simply a Japanese version of The Little Mermaid, but its execution makes it something more complex: Ponyo is described as a goldfish, but has a human-like face and a dress-like tail fin, and she becomes human after tasting Sosuke’s blood (by licking a cut on his finger to heal it) and tampering with one of her father’s magic wells. We also learn that, by becoming human, Ponyo breaks the laws of nature, and her transformation sends reality out of whack. The moon falls closer to Earth, leading the ocean to rise and satellites to fall from the skies, ancient fish come back to life, and tsunamis turn Sosuke’s world upside down. This all leads to a series of adventures between Ponyo, Sosuke, and Sosuke’s mother Lisa. All the while, Fujimoto – the closest thing the film has to an antagonist – tries to separate Ponyo from Sosuke to set things back to the way they were, while Ponyo’s mother, the goddess of the seas, more calmly tries to find a way to fix nature while not interfering with Ponyo and Sosuke’s relationship.
It is undoubtedly Miyazaki’s weirdest film, but it’s impossibly charming and sweet, and its imagination is seemingly infinite. While its immediate predecessor Howl’s Moving Castle’s weirdness often came at the expense of a consistently solid narrative, Ponyo’s story benefits from its surrealism and absurdities. Howl featured a strange tonal shift midway through, surrendering its fairy tale plot in favor of an anti-war narrative, ultimately feeling like two different, clashing stories. Meanwhile, Ponyo is a children’s adventure, and is running on “child logic.” As delightfully weird and surreal as Ponyo gets, it all feels like one cohesive whole with its imagination. The weirdness enhances the flow of the story, as opposed to clashing with it in the way Howl did.
It’s that childlike wonderment that is Ponyo’s biggest strength. It is impossible not to smile when watching the film. Like Totoro or Kiki’s Delivery Service, there’s a gentleness and sensitivity to Ponyo that’s unique to Miyazaki’s features. While many animated films feature one scene of hustle and bustle after another to hold the attention of younger audiences, Ponyo trusts that children are capable of following a less hectic plot and can appreciate a good story. And though Ponyo’s story is smaller than something like Princess Mononoke, it shares a similar scope to Miyazaki’s more dramatic works, making for an interesting combination of simplicity and complexity.
The characters here are among Miyazaki’s most memorable: Ponyo’s naivety makes her as humorous as she is cute, and Sosuke’s determination makes him an easy hero to root for. Lisa is head-strong and independent, and Fujimoto is an eccentric who looks suspiciously like David Bowie. They may not be Miyazaki’s most complex characters (though Fujimoto continues the rich Miyazaki archetype of a “villain who isn’t really a villain”), but they’re possibly his most charming sans Totoro.
Speaking of My Neighbor Totoro, that is the comparison people always seem to make with Ponyo and Miyazaki’s older catalogue, since both share a more childlike narrative. And I suppose if there is one area in which Ponyo does fall relatively short, it’s that it doesn’t quite match up to its inevitable comparison. For all its charm and lovability (Ponyo equals Totoro in those departments) it doesn’t match its predecessor’s depth. The drama of Ponyo is almost exclusively fantasy, whereas Totoro’s dilemmas evoke a sense of relatability that is almost unheard of in fantasy films.
Still, if the big issue with Ponyo is simply that it isn’t quite as good as arguably Miyazaki’s most cherished film – which it shares elements with – I’d say that doesn’t exactly equate to a major flaw. If Ponyo served as a return to form for Miyazaki after the confused Howl’s Moving Castle, is it really much of a complaint if it isn’t quite Totoro or Spirited Away?
While Ponyo may not match the depth of Miyazaki’s best work, it is among the acclaimed director’s most entertaining features. Its utter adorableness should have you smiling from ear to ear, and as mentioned, the weirdness adds a good dose of comedy to the equation, and packs on to the film’s charm. The story unfolds both beautifully and uniquely.
Disney was once again responsible for the dubbing, as they had been for most Miyazaki features to this point, and the dub of Ponyo is another winner, perhaps surprisingly so. While Noah Cyrus and Frankie Jonas – younger siblings of Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers – may have seemed like gimmicky casting as Ponyo and Sosuke on Disney’s part (given the dub was released in 2009, when Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers were still a thing), their voices ended up fitting the characters nicely. Tina Fey served as the English voice of Lisa, while Liam Neeson voiced Fujimoto and Cate Blanchett voiced Ponyo’s mother Gran Mamare. Getting such actors not only showed how much care Disney put into the dubbing, but their performances have helped the dub age gracefully. Perhaps the only downside is that the adorable end-credits song has a pop-y remixed second verse, which seems really out of place.
Hayao Miyazaki’s films are known for their stunning animation, and Ponyo is certainly no exception. In fact, in many ways, it may be Miyazaki’s most visually ambitious film. There’s a fluidity of movement at play that is close to unrivaled in hand-drawn features. Also of note is that the film seems to occasionally simplify its art direction, while never sacrificing the hard work and effort that went into the animation itself. Ponyo subtly changes its style from time to time, and combined with its settings both on land and the world under the sea, as well as its penchant of characters rapidly changing shapes, Ponyo is an absolute marvel of visuals. Fittingly, it was probably the most impressive hand-drawn animation since Spirited Away.
Complimenting these visuals is one of the best musical scores of any Miyazaki feature. Per the norm for the director, Ponyo’s score was composed by Joe Hisaishi, who created one of his strongest soundtracks here. The music of Ponyo captures an ethereal quality similar to that of the visuals, which perfectly compliments the story at play. Ponyo, almost secretly, boasted one of the best musical scores of any animated film of its time.
Sadly, that “secret” quality seems to speak for Ponyo as a whole. Despite its many merits and acclaim, Ponyo never quite reached the same heights in legacy as many of the Miyazaki-directed films that preceded it. Only now, a decade after its initial release, is Ponyo starting to get its due. Admittedly, Miyazaki’s resume does feature some giants of the animation medium that are hard to live up to, but Ponyo always did live up to that legacy, albeit a bit differently than you’d expect. It may not have attempted the same thematic depth of some of the director’s films, but it was something of an avant garde for animation, presenting a narrative that seems comprised of one idea after another that could only exist in its medium. And it does it all while being as fun and adorable as it can be.
Ponyo has lived in the shadows of Miyazaki’s other films for far too long. While it may not be the director’s best work, it has always, in its own way, deserved to sit right alongside them.
Of all the casts of Disney characters, the most likable has to be that of Winnie the Pooh. Sure, Mickey Mouse and company may be the figureheads of Disney, but the adaptations of A.A. Milne’s characters are Disney’s most endearing and charming consistencies. And while Disney’s recent trend of turning their beloved animated films into live-action retreads has been a bit of a mixed bag (for every Jungle Book there was a Maleficent), the idea of a Winnie the Pooh addition to this sub-genre of Disney films was promising. Thankfully, Christopher Robin ultimately delivers on the fun and charm one would expect from a film starring the bear of very little brain, though it does take a while to get there.
Christopher Robin begins where the original Disney film ended, with a young Christopher Robin ready to leave the Hundred Acre Wood to begin school and, subsequently, grow up. Winnie the Pooh, Tigger (both voiced by Jim Cummings), Eeyore (Brad Garret), Piglet (Nick Mohammed), and the rest of the Hundred Acre Wood gang throw a going away party for Christopher Robin. And though Pooh and friends don’t forget about Christopher, as he grows older (becoming Ewan McGregor in the process), he forgets them.
We get brief glimpses of Christopher’s adult life from there: Meeting and marrying a woman named Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), fighting for the British forces in World War II, and having a daughter named Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). After returning home, he finds a job as an efficiency expert at the Winslow Luggage Company, where he slowly but surely begins dedicating more and more of his time.
Admittedly, this is where the film starts to teeter both into overly familiar and slow moving territory. A movie about the importance of family over work – while always a well-meaning message – is a bit formulaic, and it’s here where the film maybe slows down a little too much. However, once Winnie the Pooh and company come back into the picture to help Christopher Robin remember his more carefree days, things pick back up and start building more steam. Not to mention heaps of charm.
Of course this is a movie about rediscovering childhood wonderment. Of course it’s about not being a slave to your work and the importance of, as Pooh puts it, “doing nothing.” But it works because it’s told well, acted well and, perhaps most importantly, because it’s impossible for Winnie the Pooh to ever come across as anything other than lovable.
The movie is naturally at its best whenever Pooh and friends are on-screen, with their childlike simplicity and humor being all too easy to win us over with. But Christopher Robin also manages to find some good footing in the live-action department due to the performance of Ewan McGregor as its titular character as well as that of Hayley Atwell.
I’ve already seen some comments regarding that the film is “confusing” in regards to the relationships between the human and stuffed animal characters. Winnie the Pooh, Tigger and company are possibly created from Christopher Robin’s imagination as a child, yet other humans are able to see and hear them. And Pooh even manages to accomplish teleportation by means of entering a tree in the Hundred Acre Wood and finding London on the other side. But this is one of those movies where you really don’t need a logical explanation for things. When Christopher Robin questions his sanity when Pooh comes back into his life via the aforementioned tree, he claims Pooh’s explanation of the tree “being wherever it needs to be” to be silly, to which Pooh responds with “why thank you,” which delightfully sums up the nature of the movie.
It should be noted that although the film is (of course) the definition of child-friendly, I actually think it’s geared more for the adult crowd who grew up with these characters. This is, after all, a film about a grown-up Christopher Robin. It doesn’t bask in childhood like the animated Pooh movies, but rather expresses a melancholic yearning to recreate childhood. Younger kids may even get a bit antsy in the film’s slower moments, but adults may appreciated the film’s (very, very relative) more mature tone and pace.
The CG used to bring Winnie the Pooh and his friends to life is, as you might expect with a Disney budget, top notch. It may not quite reach the levels of The Jungle Book in terms of realism, but the characters here don’t really require it. They mesh well with the live actors, and the character designs are adorable (especially that of Pooh himself).
Christopher Robin is a fun movie with a lot of heart, only held down by a sloggish start and some overly formulaic material (Christopher Robin even has a snobbish hire-up at the workplace who seems far too much like a Hollywood product for a Winnie the Pooh feature). But the flaws are easy to look past for the sheer warmth that radiates from the film. Though there’s nothing innately wrong with more hectic and serious family fare, it’s rare that you get to see a film aimed at a family audience that isn’t afraid to quiet down a bit.
Winnie the Pooh has always provided winning material by extolling simplicity and even passing on a good dose of wisdom (“They say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing everyday.” Explains Pooh). Christopher Robin follows suit with this tradition, and provides a film that, despite its early missteps, has a heart that continues to grow as it moves along.