Tag Archives: Disney

Beauty and the Beast (2017) Review

Disney has struck gold with their recent string of live-action remakes to their classic canon of animated features. Though their earlier efforts such as 2010’s Alice in Wonderland and 2014’s Maleficent weren’t very good, they still brought in enough box office revenue to ensure Disney would continue with their sub-genre of live-action remakes. 2015 saw Cinderella receive the same treatment, and though it wasn’t great, it was an improvement over the preceding features. It was with 2016’s The Jungle Book where the concept of Disney animations turned live-action really hit a home-run. The Jungle Book was not only a technical marvel, but it was an improvement over the animated original in terms of story and character development. So it seems Disney has now managed to make these live-action remakes worthy of their beloved animated counterparts by this point.

However, there was a large amount of skepticism in regards to what was to come after The Jungle Book, as Disney planned to remake Beauty and the Beast as their next live-action adaptation. This was a risky move for two big reasons.

The first is that, although Beauty and the Beast is twenty-six years old as of 2017, it’s still a much more recent feature than the other animated films Disney has chosen to remake so far, meaning it’s a much larger target for millennial cynicisms and dismissals.

The other reason is that Beauty and the Beast is quite likely the most acclaimed Disney animated feature in history. The other animated movies Disney remade were enjoyable to varying extents, but there was definitely room for improvement (even if the live-action remakes didn’t always achieve that). Beauty and the Beast, on the other hand, is so charming, sweet and entertaining, it didn’t really need a remake. I would even say it was my favorite non-Pixar Disney animation up until Frozen was released twenty-two years later. Disney was taking a big gamble with this one.

I’m happy to say that I ultimately feel this new version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is a highly enjoyable movie. Though it never reaches the same heights as the animated original, it’s a more than worthy retelling that does justice in reimagining the film so many of us have grown to love.

The story is nearly identical to the original. A young prince (Dan Stevens) is vain and selfish, and is punished for his ways by an enchantress, who places a spell on the prince that transforms him into a beast, and the staff of his castle become anthropomorphic objects. The only way for the prince to break the spell on himself and his staff is to learn to love another, and to earn their love in return.

Some years later, in a small village not-so-far removed from the castle, a young woman named Belle (Emma Watson) lives with her tinkerer father Maurice (Kevin Kline). Belle doesn’t fit in with the rest of the village, being a well-educated bookworm in a town filled with more simple-minded people, such as the brutish Gaston (Luke Evans) an accomplished hunter and the most respected man in town due to his good looks, who is obsessed with making Belle his wife (due solely for the fact that she’s the most beautiful woman in the village).

One day, Maurice gets lost in the forest on his way to the market, and ends up becoming the prisoner of the castle ruled by the prince-turned-Beast. Belle goes to rescue her father, and ends up taking his place as the Beast’s prisoner. From there, Belle befriends a number of the castle’s staff, such as Lumiere (Ewan McGregor) who has been transformed into a candlestick, Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), who has become a clock, and Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), who has become a teapot. The castle’s staff believes Belle could be the one to break their curse, but winning the Beast’s affections is easier said than done.

So the story is lifted almost directly from the animated film. That’s probably for the best (why fix what isn’t broken?), but there are some slight changes to certain scenes in an attempt to add more to them or make them fit more into the ever-so-slightly different tone. Some of these changes are fine (Gaston is more immediately villainous here, as opposed to the comical buffoon who slowly degrades into a monster by the third act). Others, however, can feel a little bit like padding, with the most notable example being a largely out-of-place flashback to Belle’s childhood, which details the tragic events involving her mother, and why Maurice has raised her alone.

I don’t want to sound too hard on the scene, because in terms of emotion, it does a solid job, and actually adds a bit to this version’s take on Maurice’s character. But it also happens at kind of a random moment, and the method in which the film gets us there feels kind of shoehorned.

With that said, the film – as a whole – does retain much of the animated original’s charms. The iconic musical numbers such as Belle, Gaston, Be Our Guest, the titular Beauty and the Beast, and The Mob Song are all here, with most of the cast providing solid recreations of these classics (though with all due respect to Emma Thompson, the kindly vocals of Angela Lansbury just can’t be recreated). Emma Watson does sound a little auto-tuned (at least during her character’s self-titled musical number), which is a little distracting as she’s the main character, but the songs are so great it’s hard to be too critical.

There are also a few additional songs added in this version, and though they’re unlikely to become as immortal as the returning songs, they still make for some great musical sequences. The best of the new batch are probably Days in the Sun and Evermore, the latter of which rectifies one of the few questionable omissions from the original by giving the Beast his own solo number.

The film also follows in the footsteps of The Jungle Book by being an absolute marvel to look at. The CG used to create the Beast and his transformed staff is impressive, and the art direction, set designs and costumes do a great job at bringing the animated source material to life. It’s just a really pretty film to look at.

As enjoyable as the film is, Beauty and the Beast just can’t quite recapture the same magic and excellence of the animated film. Some of that is simply the differences in mediums, with certain elements just not being able to translate as perfectly as you’d wish they could.

For example, in the animated film, when Maurice first meets the talking candlesticks, clocks and teacups of the castle, he’s more curious and delighted by the occurrence than anything, and there’s something charming about that innocence. Sadly, that just wouldn’t translate into live-action, so when Maurice finds a talking teacup, he does what someone would do in real life, and out of fright, tries to get the hell out of there. It makes sense in this version, but obviously that’s a bit of the original’s charm that simply can’t be recaptured in a live-action setting and feel natural.

Another small example (strangely also involving Maurice), comes when we are first introduced to the tinkerer. In the animated version, Belle – after hearing the entire town sing about how she doesn’t fit in – asks her father if he thinks she’s “odd.” He replies – after emerging from under one of his contraptions wearing a goofy helmet and comically large goggles – “My daughter, odd? Where in the world would you get an idea like that?” In this version, Belle asks him the same question, and Maurice’s response remains identical, only this time with a much calmer voice, and he simply continues work on one of his inventions, without the ironic visual gag to go with it.

These kinds of things aren’t too big of deals, and are certainly no deal-breakers. But I do see them as simple reminders that the animated film was perfect as it was, and that there are some elements that simply work in animation, and lose a little something when brought to the realms of live-action.

With all that said, this Beauty and the Beast is a worthwhile retelling of the beloved animated film, which ultimately does a terrific job at bringing its source material into a new medium. All while providing a solid cast (also including Josh Gad as Gaston’s sycophantic lackey LeFou). Emma Watson certainly looks the part of a Disney princess, just as Luke Evans is a perfect match for the vain Gaston. Meanwhile, Ewan McGregor and Ian McKellen are highlights of the film through their banterings as Lumiere and Cogsworth. Throw in some wonderful music both new and old, and some shiny new visuals, and you have a worthy modernization of one of Disney’s most timeless films. Even if it didn’t necessarily require one.

 

8.5

Lady and the Tramp Review

Lady and the Tramp has to be one of the most iconic of Disney films. Though the 1955 feature may not be among the best features from the House of Mouse, it has enough charm to it to warrant its iconic status.

Lady and the Tramp tells the story of two dogs: Lady, a Cocker Spaniel who lives a ritzy life with an upper-middle-class family (whom she refers to as “Jim Dear” and “Darling,” after the pet names the couple call each other), and the Tramp, a stray mutt just trying to get by.

After Lady’s owners have a new baby, life begins to change for the pampered pup, as she begins to realize she’s getting less attention than she once did, though she loves her family, and the new baby. Lady’s life gets turned upside down, however, when Jim Dear and Darling take a trip, leaving Lady and the baby in the care of “Aunt Sarah,” a ghastly crone with a disdain for dogs.

Not only is Aunt Sarah trouble, but so are her two Siamese cats, who tear up the place and blame it on Lady. Aunt Sarah goes to a pet shop to get Lady a muzzle, which results in the family’s beloved dog running away. After getting lost, Lady becomes acquainted with the Tramp, who helps her get by in life without humans, and the two begin an adventurous romance. All the while, Lady hopes to find a way back home.

It’s simple stuff, but like most Disney movies, the animal characters are cute and easily win the audience over, and it’s a charming enough story to delight both children and adults. It’s true that Disney movies reached a whole new level of entertainment value during their “Renaissance” era of the 1990s, and its only been in recent years that the non-Pixar animated features from Disney have reached a greater level of sophistication in their storytelling. So Lady and the Tramp falls under the umbrella of simplicity that was Disney’s 1950’s output, but again, it has the right amount of charm to bring smiles to faces (especially if you’re a dog lover like myself, though this makes the dog pound scene twice as heartbreaking).

The film is well animated, as you would expect from Disney, though their are some notably choppy moments in editing. But the animals all have a fluidity to their movements, and like most Disney features, the animators gave them as much personality in their appearance as the actors did in their voices.

Lady and the Tramp is also notable for including some of the most iconic scenes in not only Disney’s library, but in all of American cinema. The famous spaghetti scene has been paid homage and parodied countless times through the decades, to the point that younger audiences may not realize that it originated here.

Lady and the Tramp is too simple to be ranked among the absolute best Disney animated features, but it’s filled with so many delightful little moments and cute animal characters that it hardly matters. It’s a sweet, innocently romantic movie that remains heartwarming even today.

 

7.5

My Neighbor Totoro Review

My Neighbor Totoro

My Neighbor Totoro is pure magic. Though director Hayao Miyazaki’s trilogy of previous films were all terrific, it was with this 1988 feature that Hayao Miyazaki became the legend in animation that he is. My Neighbor Totoro is a film that’s as wonderful as it is unique, and an absolute joy for all ages.

While Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky were all epic adventures, Hayao Miyazaki decided to make something more subtle for his fourth feature.

My Neighbor TotoroMy Neighbor Totoro – originally conceived as a children’s book by Miyazaki over a decade before it became a reality on the silver screen – is not a film featuring action, suspense, or daring adventurers. Instead it’s a film all about the little moments in life, every day occurrences made magical. My Neighbor Totoro is all about childhood wonderment and imagination, and yet is also deeply grounded in real emotion. It’s a film that’s as beautiful as it is adorable.

My Neighbor Totoro tells the story of 10-year old Satsuki Kusakabe and her little sister Mei, two girls who are moving to the Japanese countryside with their father. Their move is meant to bring them closer to their sickly mother, who is in a hospital near the new home. Unbeknownst to the family, their new home is haunted.

My Neighbor TotoroNot haunted in any traditional sense of the word. There are no scary apparitions at work here. The house, it turns out, is invaded by Soot Sprites. These small, fuzzy creatures – who would later appear in Miyazaki’s own Spirited Away – simply produce dust in the old house. But an even bigger supernatural presence happens to live next door. Inside of a gigantic camphor tree that stands behind the girls’ new home live the Totoros.

These Totoros are gentle forest spirits who can easily be seen by children, but are more elusive to adults. The camphor tree is home to three such Totoros: a tiny, white one who can disappear. A slightly larger blue one who carries a magic bag full of acorns. And finally, the gigantic gray Totoro – the “King of the Forest” – who can make trees grow, produce gusts of wind by flying on a magic top, and rides around in a Catbus.

My Neighbor TotoroLittle Mei is the first to meet the magical Totoros, and her sister Satsuki is soon to follow. Together, the two sisters have several amazing encounters with the Totoros as they get accustomed to their new home and deal with their mother’s illness.

There really isn’t a more detailed plot than that, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. My Neighbor Totoro is not a film about a plot (it’s only real conflict doesn’t arrive until its third act). Instead, its story is all about its wonderfully realized characters and their daily occurrences: some mundane, some magical. Some happy, some sad.

My Neighbor TotoroSatsuki and Mei are quite likely the most realistically depicted characters in animation. Their personalities, mannerisms and interactions with each other and everyone around them capture an amazing sense of realism. They may be animated, but they’re depicted in such a way that makes them as believable and lifelike as any characters in cinema. Because of their believability, we are able to get all the more emotionally invested in the film. It’s easy to smile in the moments when the girls are playing, and it’s downright heartbreaking to see them argue or worry about their mother.

My Neighbor TotoroTheir father is similarly memorable. Though he doesn’t partake in the girls’ magical adventures (he’s a busy university professor, and adults aren’t aware of when Totoro is around) he is loving towards his daughters, and completely respectful of the tales they tell him. While any other movie might have adults openly doubt their children, or simply humor them, Professor Kusakabe firmly accepts and believes his daughters when they tell him about their adventures with Totoro or the Catbus. He may or may not fully understand what his girls are telling him about magical forest creatures, but he never once doubts them. The same goes for the girls’ mother, who is delighted to hear that the family’s new home also occupies spirits. While many animated features often feature a conflicting dynamic between parents and children, My Neighbor Totoro’s depiction of family comes across as refreshingly loving.

My Neighbor TotoroThe girls also encounter Kanta, a neighborhood boy who develops a crus on Satsuki, and his kindly grandmother, who watches over the girls while their dad is at work. These characters also have a strong sense of believability about them, and help add to the film’s realness.

Then we have the Totoros themselves, arguably Miyazaki’s greatest creations. They’re as mystifying as they are adorable. They are capable of utterly wondrous feats, yet are as simple and cuddly as a household pet. They are certainly cute enough to justify their standing as Studio Ghibli’s mascots, yet there’s also a reverent, spiritual quality about them, making for a completely unique combination.

In terms of animation, My Neighbor Totoro remains a captivatingly beautiful film. Though it may not have the same sleekness of Miyazaki’s later features, the backgrounds are as stunning as they’ve ever been, the character designs as unique as any of the great director’s features (and certainly the most adorable), and the film (once again) captures a striking realism with each of the character’s mannerisms.

As beautiful as the visuals are, the soundtrack seemingly pulls off the impossible and equals them. As is the case with every Miyazaki feature starting with Nausicaa, My Neighbor Totoro was composed by Joe Hisaishi, and it is possibly his finest work. Appropriately, the soundtrack to Totoro is equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking. The film as a whole brilliantly captures the happy and the melancholic, and the soundtrack brings out these emotions all the more.

My Neighbor Totoro is one of the few Miyazaki films to have been dubbed into English on two separate occasions. The first dub (released on home video in 1993 and no longer in print) was distributed by Fox, and is easily the best of the early dubs of Japanese animation. The second dub, distributed by the Miyazaki-mainstays at Disney, is more readily available, and features a more star-heavy cast (with sisters Dakota and Elle Fanning providing the voices of Satsuki and Mei). Perhaps because I grew up watching the original dub, that tends to be my go-to English version, though in many ways Disney’s effort is just as great. Either way, you can’t go wrong.

My Neighbor TotoroWhen it was first released in Japan, My Neighbor Totoro was a revelation, winning numerous awards – many of which were normally reserved for live-action features – and becoming one of the most cherished family films of all time. Though it never saw a wide theatrical release in the western world, its impact has been no different, becoming a beloved classic as much in the United States as it is in its native Japan. It’s acclaim couldn’t be more deserved.

My Neighbor TotoroMy Neighbor Totoro is a film entirely void wickedness. There are no villains, and not even the tiniest shred of cynicism. But despite its consistent happiness, My Neighbor Totoro is anything but naive, as it never shies away from the existence of sadness and tragedy. It captures the feelings of childhood better than any film I’ve ever seen, and is relatable to both children and adults.

My Neighbor Totoro is one of the greatest animated films of all time. It finds magic in the mundane, adventure in the average, and depth in the simplistic. And it does so with a sincerity and grace that seems unapproachable to other filmmakers. My Neighbor Totoro is the most gentle, sensitive and sweet film I’ve ever seen.

 

10

Princess Mononoke Review

Princess Mononoke

Few animated films have had the impact of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. When it was first released in Japan in 1997, it became the highest-grossing film in Japan’s history at the time (it later lost that title to Titanic and, ultimately, to Miyazaki’s own Spirited Away). It won a number of awards, many of which were normally reserved for live-action films, and became a landmark animated feature not only to its native Japan, but for the entire world.

An interesting note about Princess Mononoke is that it is a reimagining of Hayao Miyazaki’s own Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, with many narrative and thematic similarities. Though excellent Nausicaa may have been, Princess Mononoke polishes Miyazaki’s classic tale and gives it a fresh coat of paint with a different setting and even more fleshed-out characters.

While Nausicaa took place in a postapocalyptic future, Princess Mononoke sets the clock backwards to an alternate, ancient Japan. The hero here is Ashitaka, a prince of a long-forgotten tribe bearing a curse in his arm, a result of an encounter with a demon. It turns out that the demon was actually a boar god, and that his hatred and rage devolved him into the hideous demon. Ashitaka’s curse threatens to slowly take his life, so he leaves his village and journeys to the west from where the boar god originated, in hopes of finding a cure for his curse.

Princess MononokeAn even bigger plot unfolds, however, as Ashitaka’s journey places him in the midst of a war between the humans of Iron Town, and the animal gods of the forest. The forest is home to a benign deity, a Deer God, whose presence allows the other gods of the forest to thrive. The forest is also home to a tribe of wolf gods, who have adopted a young human woman, San (the titular “Princess Mononoke”) as their own. Iron Town is ruled over by Lady Eboshi, a strong and fearless woman who wishes to destroy the forest so that her people and industry can thrive. A third-party in the scuffle comes in the form of Jiko, a monk who is willing to ally with Eboshi in a quest to retrieve the head of the Deer God.

San has sworn to kill Eboshi, and the animals of the forest wish to destroy Iron Town and the human civilizations as much as Eboshi wishes to remove the forest. This is where Princess Mononoke becomes something special, because while the “man vs. nature” setup may actually be a rather tame storyline for a Miyazaki feature, the character depth and dimensions make it so much more than any other film in the genre.

While movies like Avatar have an almost cartoonishly black-and-white depiction of the struggle between man and nature (trees good, humans bad!), in Princess Mononoke, there is good and bad to be found everywhere.

Lady EboshiSan, for example, isn’t simply a nature-loving princess, but a proud warrior who wants to defend her home, while also becoming dangerously hellbent on revenge because of it. Lady Eboshi – arguably the heart and soul of the film’s depth – is probably the most moral character in the film. While so many environmentalist fables depict industry as a faceless evil, Eboshi is a kind, compassionate individual who rescues women from prostitution and personally cares for lepers. Miyazaki’s antagonists rarely exhibit blatantly evil attributes, and Eboshi is one of the great director’s best creations. Even Jiko, with his Wario-esque appearance and seemingly sinister motives, is just a man trying to find his way through life.

Ashitaka of course is at the center of it all, trying to maintain peace between the roaring factions. He may seem similarly simplistic to Nausicaa – at least when compared to the more complex characters around him – but like Nausicaa, he works for the narrative at hand.

Admittedly, the similarities to Nausicaa are more than a few. Not only do the plot and themes reflect those of Nausicaa in many respects, but even the characters and settings can be seen as reworkings of Miyazaki’s previous film.

Ashitaka fills Nausicaa’s role, while San plays the part of Prince Asbel. Lady Eboshi stands in for Princess Kushana, while Jiko works as a more cynical Kuratowa. You could even argue that Nausicaa’s Toxic Jungle has been swapped for the forest, with the boars and wolves filling the roles of Nausicaa’s giant insects. Even the Deer God’s transformation into the Nightwalker – a colossal, blob-like apparition that is one of the great visual spectacles of animated cinema – is something akin to the God Warrior of Nausicaa.

I must repeat that Princess Mononoke was created as a remake of Nausicaa, so it’s understandable that the similarities are there. Still, said similarities do arguably make Mononoke the least original Miyazaki film from a narrative perspective.

Princess MononokeWith that said, it should also be repeated that Miyazaki did a better job at fleshing out the characters here, which is no small feat, considering Nausicaa already boasted a rather complex cast. Likewise, the themes here are also further delved into (Mononoke is arguably more about the destructive nature of hatred and rage itself, than it is about man and nature fighting each other). So the similarities to Nausicaa are ultimately a minimal gripe.

Princess Mononoke also saw a solid dub hit Stateside in 1999. Though it may fall short of the later dubbing work for Ghibli films provided by Disney and Pixar, Princess Mononoke’s dub is still a great alternative to the original Japanese track, and features Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver and Billy Bob Thorton as Ashitaka, San, Eboshi and Jiko, respectively.

Another highlight to Princess Mononoke, like any Miyazaki film, is the animation itself. Princess Mononoke ranks as one of the most beautifully animated films ever made. At the time of its release, Mononoke was the most expensive animated film of all time, and it shows. There’s a painstaking attention to detail in every movement, and the environments are some of the most breathtakingly beautiful of any animated feature.

There’s a strong sense of variety in the character designs, and the beasts and demons are all sights to behold. Every Miyazaki film is a visual feast, but Mononoke raised the bar with a visual sheen that would then become the standard for Miyazaki’s subsequent films.

Then there’s the musical score, composed by Miyazaki mainstay Joe Hisaishi. While all of Hisaishi’s scores for Miyazaki’s films are strong enough that it’s hard to pick out a best of the bunch, Princess Mononoke’s score is certainly a strong contender for that title (though it falls slightly short of a couple others, in my personal opinion). It’s a simply captivating soundtrack.

Princess MononokeJust like every Hayao Miyazaki film (except, perhaps, Howl’s Moving Castle), the profoundly pleasing visual and audio qualities are only secondary to the story and characters of Princess Mononoke. While it may not have the originality of the director’s other works in terms of structure, the depth and complexity (not to mention the imagination) at hand are up there with any of his films.

Princess Mononoke remains a classic of animated cinema. Its memorable, detailed characters, stunning animation and soundtrack, and compelling story and action sequences make it an absolute landmark in the world of animation.

 

9.5

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind Review

Nausicaa

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is one of the great landmarks of animated cinema, comparable in impact to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Toy Story. The second feature film directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Nausicaa can be seen as the feature that laid the groundwork for Miyazaki’s style, and its production ultimately led to the creation of Studio Ghibli. It’s hard to understate Nausicaa’s impact on the world of animation.

It certainly wasn’t an easy road to get Nausicaa made, however. Hayao Miyazaki originally envisioned the idea for Nausicaa as a feature film, but back in the 80s, an anime film not based on an existing manga was something studios didn’t want to bother with. So Miyazaki decided to make Nausicaa into a manga. A manga which Miyazaki attempted to write in such a way that it couldn’t be translated into a film (possibly to prevent anyone else from getting a hold of his creation). But the manga – which would be published over the course of thirteen years – would lead to a feature film version of Nausicaa getting the greenlight, with Miyazaki in the director’s chair. The film would end up being released when the manga was only in its second year of publication, so suffice to say Miyazaki had quite the challenge in giving Nausicaa its transition to the silver screen.

Thankfully, Miyazaki managed to overcome these insurmountable hurdles. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind – while far from Miyazaki’s best work – exudes a level of quality and imagination that make it an animated classic.

NausicaaNausicaa of the Valley of the Wind takes place in a distant future. Almost all of civilization was destroyed over a thousand years before the events of the film, in an event known as the “Seven Days of Fire.” This post-apocalyptic world has unleashed toxic jungles with gargantuan insects – the mightiest of which being the Ohm – and produce fungi which spread the jungles’ poison across the world.

The few kingdoms that still exist struggle for power in the devastated world. The nations of Tolmekia and Pejite in particular try to gain the edge over the other. Tolmekia and Pejite believe they’ve found the solution to not only end their struggles with each other, but also the Ohm and the Toxic Jungle.

NausicaaPejite has unearthed a long-dormant “God Warrior,” one of the artificial beings that destroyed the world in the Seven Days of Fire. The Tolmekians seize the sleeping giant from Pejite for themselves, but an attack by giant insects leads the ship carrying the God Warrior to crash into the Valley of the Wind, a small kingdom of few citizens and whose ocean air helps protect them from the poisons of the Jungle.

The princess of the Valley of the Wind is the titular Nausicaa, a selfless champion of her people who set the stage for Miyazaki’s unique brand of heroines. When the Tolmekians – lead by their own princess Kushana and her head officer, Kuratowa – occupy the Valley of the Wind in order to further tend to the sleeping God Warrior, Nausicaa volunteers as a hostage to the Tolmekians to find a way to make peace between the roaring nations.

It’s a rather grand sci-fi/fantasy adventure that is equal parts entertaining and intriguing. The world Miyazaki created for Nausicaa is as original and distinct as any other he’s made. The creature designs for the insects are imaginative and grotesque, and the look of the Toxic Jungle itself is far more visually unique than its name may imply, and provides some breathtaking background environments. The machines in the film may be fantastic at a glance, but given the nature of the film’s world and its limited recourses, they also have a believable crudeness about them. This gives the machines a similarly “used” quality to those found in Star Wars (and much like Star Wars, many of the inventions’ uses are immediately apparent to the audience, with no need of unnecessary rants to how everything works a la Star Trek). Like the majority of Miyazaki’s works, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is a beauty to behold in both visual beauty and in the imagination of its world.

Unfortunately, the animation itself isn’t quite up to par with many of Miyazaki’s other works, with many of the character designs looking similarly to each other, and limited movements from the characters in the background. Granted, given that Miyazaki and company were getting off the ground here, Nausicaa’s limitations are a bit forgivable. But in retrospect, after having watched Miyazaki’s later works, the limitations really stand out.

NausicaaThat’s a small price to pay, however, considering that the characters themselves leave quite the impression. Though Nausicaa is almost simplistically “perfect,” her undying selflessness works wonders in helping the audience become invested in the film’s rather bleak world. Lord Yupa is a master swordsman and something of Nausicaa’s surrogate grandfather, always ready to dispatch sagely wisdom. Asbel is a Pejite prince who becomes Nausicaa’s friend and confidant. And the villains began Miyazaki’s trend of complicated antagonists, with Kushana having relatable goals of her own, and Kuratowa being able to find humor and amusement in even the darkest moments.

NausicaaOnce again, Disney provided a solid dub for the film: Alison Lohman voices Nausicaa, Patrick Stewart dubs over Yupa’s mustache movements. Shia LaBeouf voices Asbel, while Uma Thurman and Chris Sarandon voice Kushana and Kuratowa. Each actor gives a strong vocal performance and captures the intended nature of the film.

The characters and the world they inhabit really help the film come alive, while the suspense and action sequences help it maintain a high level of entertainment throughout. On top of the narrative and visual strongpoints, Nausicaa also marks the first time that Joe Hisaishi scored a Miyazaki film, meaning that there’s a good deal of memorable music to be heard as well. Admittedly, the film’s limited production can sometimes be found in the soundtrack (Hisaishi worked mostly with a soundboard here, as opposed to a full orchestra), but the music still stands out as a unique and emotional score.

Nausicaa, despite its many merits, falls a bit short when compared to a number of Miyazaki’s works that came after it. Though this is probably more of a case of Miyazaki perfecting his craft, than it is a statement to any particular flaws with the film itself. Though it may be of note that Hayao Miyazaki himself was no fan of the finished product, and was disappointed enough in it that he eventually remade it under the guise of Princess Mononoke.

Perhaps this is simply an instance of a creator being overly critical of themselves, however. Aside from some relatively limited animation and an admittedly abrupt ending closing an otherwise stellar third act, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind has all the hallmarks of a Miyazaki classic. Without it, we may never have seen the Miyazaki classics that were to follow. And a world without Miyazaki movies? We’d be better off in the Toxic Jungle.

 

9.0

Frozen Review

Frozen

Frozen really doesn’t need an introduction at this point. After its release in late 2013, Frozen became the unexpected hit of the decade, climbing its way to becoming the most popular animated film in history, and creating a worldwide pop-culture phenomenon that few films could ever match. If we were to rewind the clock back to the earlier part of 2013, probably no one could have seen such success coming. The teaser trailer seemed to indicate the film was about a snowman and a reindeer fighting over a carrot, and later marketings only seemed to give the impression that it was just another Disney princess movie, but with two princesses.

Now, however, it’s all too easy to see where Frozen’s success stemmed from. In a time where Disney has been at their creative best, crafting memorable features such as Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6, Zootopia and Moana, Frozen sits comfortably as the apex of Disney’s modern generation.

Anna and ElsaFrozen tells the story of two sister princesses: The older sister Elsa (Idena Menzel) and the younger sister Anna (Kristen Bell), who live in the kingdom of Arendelle. Elsa was born with a magic gift, the ability to create and manipulate ice and snow. For two sisters who love spending time together building snowmen and ice skating, this is a dream come true. But Elsa’s magic is often too powerful for her to control, and can even become dangerous.

One night when they were young, Elsa accidentally struck Anna with a magic spell, which almost cost Anna her life. Horrified, the desperate king and queen take the girls to a tribe of trolls, who manage to heal Anna. The trolls then remove Anna’s memories of her sister’s magic, as the girls’ parents decide Elsa’s powers should be kept a secret to protect anyone from any further harm.

Elsa and Anna are then raised in separate chambers of their castle, with Elsa locking herself away from her sister as she tries to learn to control her powers, and Anna becoming just as lonely with the absence of her sister in her life. As they grow older, Anna and Elsa lose their parents, leaving them with only each other. Though Elsa’s fears of her powers mean they don’t even have that much.

Once Elsa becomes of age, she is to become the new queen of Arendelle. But after a confrontation with her sister goes awry during her coronation, Elsa accidentally reveals her powers to her sister, and inadvertently unleashes an eternal winter onto Arendelle. Elsa exiles herself from the kingdom, and Anna sets out to find her sister and hopes that she can break the spell that has befallen Arendelle.

Anna and ElsaIt’s probably the most character-driven setup in the entire Disney animation canon. While most Disney films tell great stories, oftentimes the characters are a bit archetypal, and are more like pieces that simply push the plot forward. But here, it feels like Disney crafted the story around the characters, their personalities, and their relationships with each other. Frozen is all the better for it.

Not only is the story built around the characters, but said characters are just so likable, as Frozen takes many of the usual Disney archetypes, and evolves them into deep, fleshed-out characters.

Anna is kind-hearted and heroic, but also socially awkward and more than a little clumsy, while Elsa is intelligent and refined, but also sad and lonely. There’s a greater sense of substance to Anna and Elsa than the Disney heroes and heroines who came before them, which makes them all the more relatable and sympathetic.

Anna and HansThe other characters include Olaf (Josh Gad), a snowman created from Elsa’s childhood memories who serves as the film’s comedic sidekick. Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), a mountain man with a pet reindeer named Sven, who escort Anna on her journey. Prince Hans (Santino Fontana), a royal from a neighboring kingdom who serves as Anna’s love interest. And the Duke of Weselton (Alan Tudyk), an eccentric and distrusting figure who believes Elsa to be a menace due to her powers.

FrozenMuch like Anna and Elsa themselves, the supporting cast also has a greater sense of depth than most characters found in Disney films: Kristoff is lonely to the point of providing the voice for his pet reindeer so he has someone to talk to. Olaf avoids the unfortunate pitfall of some past Disney sidekicks of being an overbearing distraction by actually serving an emotional connection between Anna and Elsa. Being their imaginary friend from their childhoods, he actually contributes to the story. Not to mention Olaf’s childlike naivety makes him all the more endearing. Even Prince Hans is given dimensions that prevent him from simply being another automaton of a Disney prince.

Of course, the biggest mixup of Disney norms goes back to Anna and Elsa themselves. While most Disney films have stories that are built around the plots of dastardly villains, here, Elsa more or less serves as the antagonist of the story. Yes, some sinister characters (such as the Duke of Weselton) show up, but they are never the driving force in the story. It’s the dynamic between Anna and Elsa that serves as the film’s central conflict. Anna isn’t a heroine out to stop a villain, but instead is trying to reach out and understand her sister.

Because of this alteration of story and characters, Frozen is able to change up the Disney formula in fun and inventive ways. It’s one of the few Disney films that’s full of surprises.

ElsaLike the majority of great Disney features, Frozen is a musical, and it has possibly the catchiest and most memorable soundtrack of any Disney film. Some of the best songs in the film include Do You Want to Build a Snowman, a simple but heartbreaking number that explains the divide between Anna and Elsa during their youth. For the First Time in Forever (one of the best “I want” songs ever), which further shows the contrasts between the sisters’ personalities. And Let It Go, Elsa’s signature song that has not only become my favorite Disney song ever, but has also seemingly become the anthem of childhood for an entire generation.

All of the songs in Frozen are insanely infectious, and will surely get stuck in your head in the best way. The songs are so good, in fact, that the wonderful musical score is often overlooked because of them. Though not as iconic as the song work, the instrumental pieces from Frozen are still a joy to listen to, and help capture the film’s many emotions.

FrozenTo top it off, Frozen is a beautifully animated film. Frozen adopts a similar look to Tangled, combining CG animation with traditional, hand-drawn techniques. The characters’ motions have a fluidity that matches even Pixar’s best, and the character designs all leave a lasting impression. Plus, the snowy landscapes and magical goings-on make for some truly captivating imagery. Frozen is simply a gorgeous film that belongs in any discussion of beautiful animated features.

Frozen is a wonderful film. It’s as simple as that. It tinkers around with Disney’s conventions and turns them on their head, while still paying full respect to the things we love about Disney films to begin with. Its cast of characters are as memorable as those of any of the best animated features. And they tell a great, heartwarming story filled with fantastic songs and stunning animation.

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

 

10

Wreck-It Ralph Review

Wreck-It Ralph

Disney’s current streak of animated features has seen a consistently high level of quality, as well as a greater variety in stories than any previous generation for the studio’s animated output. Perhaps the best example of this variety is Disney’s 2012 animated feature, Wreck-It Ralph.

Wreck-It Ralph is something of a cross between Toy Story and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but with its focus being on the world of video games. The film takes place within the arcade machines of Litwak’s Arcade, where the video game characters live their daily lives during closing hours, with the roles they play in their respective games during the arcade’s operating hours being something of their careers.

One of these games is Fix-It Felix Jr., a not-so-subtle nod to the old Donkey Kong arcade games, which sees a Mario-esque construction worker, the titular Fix-It Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer), climb a building to stop the villainous Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly).

Ralph is good at his job as a video game bad guy, but it’s thankless work. The villains are the outcasts of the video game world, even though many of them – such as Ralph – are good people outside of their job. Felix is just about the only friend Ralph has, but even he can’t ease things with the other denizens of their game.

Wreck-It RalphTired of his lot in life, Ralph sets out to be the good guy for once, as to finally gain some recognition. He gets this opportunity after a chance encounter with a soldier from a game called Heroes Duty, a modern FPS-style game that’s more rewarding to Ralph’s more destructive nature. Ralph soon learns that game-jumping is serious business, however, as his ventures outside of his game leaves Fix-It Felix Jr. without its villain, essentially rendering it unplayable and risking it from being removed from the arcade. Worse still, Ralph’s actions inadvertently unleash a problem that threatens the entire arcade, and Ralph will need to venture to a game called Sugar Rush (a kind of hybrid between Mario Kart and Candy Land) and team up with the glitchy, would-be racer Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) if he wants to save the day and prove himself a hero.

The story may seem to evoke elements of past animated features, with Ralph’s motives echoing Shrek to some degree, but Wreck-It Ralph becomes something original due in large part to its setting. Placing the action of the film in the realms of video games not only gives the film some of the most inventive and varied visuals in any animated feature, but even gives the film a strong sense of world-building (characters can’t regenerate if they die outside of their own game, glitches like Vanellope can’t leave their games, and other interesting rules). Not to mention in allows for all kinds of video game cameos.

Ralph attends support group meetings for video game villains alongside the likes of Clyde from Pac-Man, Bowser, Dr. Eggman, M. Bison and Zangief (who is notably out-of-place among villains). Sonic the Hedgehog provides public service announcements (which may be a sly reference to similar PSA segments in one of the old Sonic cartoons)., and the characters from Q*Bert have become vagabonds after their game was unplugged from Litwak’s arcade.

Wreck-It RalphThe references don’t stop with the cameos, even the film’s humor reflects video game culture, from character dialogue to visual gags (including the Konami Code). You get the feeling the filmmakers had a lot of fun throwing in shout-outs to their favorite video games.

On the downside of things, most of the video game-based nature of the film seems to disappear almost entirely as soon as Ralph enters Sugar Rush. Though Sugar Rush bears a number of similarities to Mario Kart, the video game cameos come to a dead stop, and the humor deviates from referencing Mario and Metal Gear to Nesquik and Oreos.

I fully admit that my status as a fan of video games may make me especially bummed out that the video game theme doesn’t feel properly carried through the whole film, but even with my preferences set aside, the fact that the central theme of the film’s world seems to shift so drastically midway through may feel a bit like the filmmakers ran out of steam on their initial subject.

Still, even with the change in the nature of the film’s world, Wreck-It Ralph is still a terrific entry in the Disney canon for its well-paced story and memorable cast of characters.

Wreck-It RalphWreck-It Ralph easily wins us over. His status as a misunderstood outcast makes him easy to sympathize with, while his more dimwitted and brutish tendencies make him funny and likable. Fix-It Felix is just as memorable, being a classic video game hero, Felix is an overly-polite do-gooder whose graciousness almost parodies itself. And Vanellope, on top of being cute and spunky, is in a similar situation to Ralph, being an outcast in her game for being a glitch, making her just as sympathetic as Ralph himself.

Wreck-It RalphThen there’s Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch), the tough-as-nails soldier from Hero’s Duty who seems to be a parody of the “edginess” of more contemporary gaming, and King Candy (Alan Tudyk), the mischievous king of Sugar Rush who will stop at nothing to prevent Vanellope from racing.

Another highlight are the visuals themselves. Because its setting allows for multiple different worlds to be presented, Wreck-It Ralph is able to showcase a constant visual variety in its animation. The retro, pixellated suburbs of Fix-It Felix Jr., the gritty and metallic world of Hero’s Duty, and the insanely colorful landscapes of Sugar Rush are all distinctly realized, yet they are all weaved together effortlessly through the film’s art direction. Wreck-It Ralph is simply a constant visual delight.

Wreck-It Ralph is a highlight of the studio’s ongoing winning streak. It’s an undeniably entertaining film that – although it seems to lack the confidence in its subject matter to sustain it the whole way through – is something of a love letter to the video game medium, and one of the most visually appealing animated films Disney has ever made. It’s a whole lot of fun.

 

8.5