Howl’s Moving Castle Memories

Howl's Moving Castle

It’s time to feel old! Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle was released in North American theaters ten years ago today. I certainly feel old now.

I was going to celebrate this milestone with a full on review of Howl’s Moving Castle, but I think I’ll get to that another time. I figured I’d just detail some of my personal experience with the film for now.

It’s important to note that Hayao Miyazaki is my favorite filmmaker. I’ve loved My Neighbor Totoro ever since I was a little kid, and have only grown to love it more through the years. It was with Spirited Away though, that I actually found out who Miyazaki was. While Spirited Away and Totoro sit at the peak of my list of Miyazaki films, Spirited Away introduced me to the director’s other work, and I’ve fallen in love with all of them (some more than others of course, but the man never made a movie that wasn’t great).

Leading up to Howl’s June 10, 2005 release, I couldn’t have been more excited. It was the first Miyazaki film to be released theatrically since Spirited Away, and I was counting down the days like a kid and Christmas.

Howl's Moving CastleI remember it was the first movie I saw at the El Capitan Theater in Los Angeles, and it was awesome! I’ve seen a number of movies there since, and have tried to see every major Disney animation, Pixar film and Studio Ghibli production there when possible. The theater gave a nice, classic movie atmosphere, and the crowd was pretty enthusiastic as well, so that always helps. Then there was the organ player playing classic Disney songs, so that made it all that much cooler. The build up itself was so great that I can forgive the poor assortment of trailers that included the likes of Chicken Little and Valiant (it was a CG movie about pigeons or something).

Then the movie started, with the big Studio Ghibli logo of Totoro’s mug engulfing the entire theater, and it was glorious. I absolutely loved the movie, from its striking imagination, beautiful animation, fun characters and everything in between, it was a great time. I also think that Disney’s dubs of the Ghibli movies are excellent (particularly the theatrically released ones), and Howl was no exception.

Of course, as time has passed I now see Howl’s Moving Castle as one of Miyazaki’s “weakest” films, since Sophie is probably the least interesting Miyazaki heroine by some margin, and the subplot with the whole war thing seems to overtake the main story during the third act. But using the term “weakest” when referring to an unparalleled canon of films like Miyazaki’s is a very relative thing. Despite not being up to par with most of Miyazaki’s other works (I feel it’s on par with Nausicaa, but that’s just me), Howl’s Moving Castle is still a great animated film.

But that’s beside the point. Like I said, I’ll review it another day. The fact of the matter is that that initial screening I had of Howl’s Moving Castle remains one of the most fondly remembered moviegoing experiences of my life. I had a great seat, the place had a great atmosphere, the crowd was great, and most importantly, so was the movie. It’s experiences like that why I love movies so much.

Howl's Moving CastleMiyazaki made two more films after Howl’s Moving Castle and has since retired (though never say never, it’s not the first time Miyazaki has called it a career), and Studio Ghibli itself seems to be on the brink of closure. Whether or not Ghibli has come to an end though, the studio has a peerless legacy in the world of animation. My experience watching Howl’s Moving Castle on that June day ten years ago is but just one of the reasons why they’ve made such an impact on me.

Here’s to Howl’s Moving Castle! Keep on making me feel old.

More On Why Today’s Disney is Better Than 90s Disney

big-hero-6-2

Some spoilers ahead!

I already wrote a blog about why the Disney animated films of today are superior to the Disney animated films of the 1990s, but I realize I mostly talked about how the newer Disney films are more unique, whereas the 90s Disney films were all pretty much the same. One thing I briefly mentioned but feel I should have gone into more detail is the fact that the modern Disney films also trump the 90s Disney movies in terms of thematics. In fact, this is probably one of the areas in which today’s Disney movies best their 90s counterparts the most (this, and better all around scripts and character development).

I know, I’m already the archenemy of every 90s kid from that first paragraph alone. But I’m not trying to stomp all over anyone’s childhood. After all, I grew up with the “Disney Renaissance” myself. But nostalgia, while a beautiful thing, can sometimes be blinding. We often hold our favorite movies and shows from our childhoods on a pedestal, no matter how well they may or may not hold up. We often dismiss newer things – even those made by the same artists who made the things we loved as kids – on the sole grounds that they aren’t those same things we loved as kids. Objectively speaking, I find that Disney’s more recent films tell far more meaningful and beautiful stories than the entertaining but cliched 90s Disney films.

Now, that’s not to say that the Disney Renaissance films didn’t have their messages. Some of them had good themes going for them. But their messages were very simple, and didn’t delve particularly deeply into thematics. Even The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the most thematically rich of the Disney Renaissance films of the 90s, wore its themes on its sleeve. Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King similarly had good intentions, but never really dug deep.

The Little Mermaid

Then there are the Disney Renaissance films whose stories haven’t aged well at all. Case in point: The Little Mermaid.

Yeah, I’m really the bad guy now. Look, The Little Mermaid is still an entertaining movie for the songs, fun characters and colorful animation, but the actual message of the movie has aged like curdled milk. It’s the usual “love conquers all” story found in virtually all of Disney’s older movies, but its idea of love is based solely on the physical attraction between Ariel and Prince Eric. Ariel “falls in love” with Prince Eric based solely on the fact that he’s the best looking guy she sees. She is even willing to abandon her life and family to be with the guy, just because he’s hot. She goes so far as to change her physical appearance to be with him. Do either of them learn a lesson in the end and love each other for who they are? Nope. Ariel ends up changing herself again in the end, and she does in fact abandon the life and family she had all because, once again, Eric is the most handsome guy around. Even though the movie is still fun, I can’t exactly say it has a good message for kids.

Beauty and the Beast had things a bit more figured out, as it actually takes some time and interaction for Belle and the Beast to fall in love. It has the whole “inner beauty over outer beauty” theme going for it, as the Beast only becomes a handsome prince after he manages to earn someone’s love, and love them in return. So it was a big step in the right direction, but it’s still pretty simple. Not that there’s anything wrong with simplicity, but when you consider the deeper layers of the narratives in the contemporary Disney movies, it becomes clear that the Disney filmmakers are now working on a whole other level.

Anna and Elsa

Frozen is the best and most obvious example, and is probably the most allegorical narrative Disney has ever made. It’s been interpreted as having themes about mental illness, coming to terms with one’s sexuality, depression, religious allegory, even about misunderstood artists (think of Elsa like Vincent Van Gogh). When was the last time a Disney film could be interpreted in different ways, let alone about adult subjects like depression?

It’s the subtlety within Frozen’s narrative that gives it such versatile themes for adults as well as children. It still has princesses and singing and romance, but its princesses actually feel like real people (Anna is socially awkward, Elsa is depressed), the songs often have thematic depth of their own and don’t just simply explain the plot, and it understands that romance and physical attraction do not equal love. In fact, Disney’s traditional idea of romance is outright written off as foolish in Frozen, and it’s the love between sisters that is at the heart of the movie.

Another good example is Disney’s most recent film, Big Hero 6, which primarily deals with the hardship of losing a loved one. Now, this is not unfamiliar to Disney, since it seems the studio is always killing off family members of the characters in their movies. But every other Disney movie that dealt with death seemed to do so for either the convenience of plot, the token “sad moment” or to teach that the people we lose aren’t gone so long as we keep their memory in our hearts. Don’t get me wrong, keeping a loved one’s memory in your heart is a great message in its own right, but it doesn’t actually deal with the pain of loss. Big Hero 6 acknowledges this, and Hiro bluntly points out that keeping someone in your heart doesn’t mean that the loss doesn’t hurt.

"There there."

Big Hero 6 is a movie about how Hiro deals with the death of his brother. Hiro at first seems lost, and when he finally seems to rebound and seek justice for his brother’s death (by forming a super hero team, naturally), he’s secretly planning vengeance, as he’s still very much angry and confused about the loss of his brother Tadashi. It’s through the love and support of his friends and family (and his brother’s robot) that he comes to learn to live up to what his brother would have wanted and become a better person. While other Disney movies give the message that simply remembering someone will make everything better, Big Hero 6 understands that how you choose to live your life determines how you handle tragedy. Loss is always devastating, and if you allow it, such tragedy can outright destroy you. You can’t let tragedy define who you are. Big Hero 6 is wise enough to know that remembering someone is only part of the healing process, and Hiro ultimately uses his brother’s memory as inspiration to do good for himself and others.

Some might say that The Lion King told something similar, but it’s really too simple to make a proper comparison. Lion King does have good intentions, with a message about facing responsibility. Though its themes often get lost in misplaced humor and its insistent melodrama. Sure, Simba learns to take his father’s place on the throne, but only after he receives a convenient vision in the clouds telling him to do so. And it overall feels more about Simba defeating Scar and becoming king than it does about him coming to terms with his father’s death. It only deals with the subject in a minimal way, whereas Big Hero 6 thrives on the thematics.

Even Wreck-It Ralph tells a great story about accepting those who are different. The Princess and the Frog and Tangled, while less thematically deep than Frozen, Big Hero 6 and Wreck-It Ralph, still made great attempts at adding more details to the characters, their interactions, and their developments. By comparison, the 90s Disney Renaissance films more or less kept recycling the same character archetypes (rebellious hero rising to the occasion, the villain who’s bad for the sake of bad, etc.) and by extension they basically just retold the same story.

Again, I’m not trying to write off the 90s Disney films entirely. They are entertaining movies. I just feel Disney is finally upping their game and making movies that are more than just entertaining. They are finally feeling grown up and deep while also retaining all their fun qualities. Disney is finally making animated films that can be discussed for their artistic qualities and not just their entertainment value and technical craft. It seems the likes of Pixar and Studio Ghibli have inspired Disney to finally tell stories that are more than what they are on the surface.

Nostalgia can be a beautiful thing. I myself am pretty sentimental when it comes to the subject, but I feel a lot of people, Disney fans in particular, allow it to prevent them from seeing the qualities in newer things. It baffles me when people act upset that Frozen is more popular than their childhood favorites (heaven forbid today’s children enjoy something from their time) or when they dismiss something like Big Hero 6 or Wreck-It Ralph as being “inferior” to the Disney movies of the 90s. They should be happy that Disney is thinking on deeper levels with their narratives and providing children with meaningful stories. That doesn’t take away people’s fond memories of The Little Mermaid or The Lion King, so why act like these newer Disney movies are encroaching on them? Why not be happy that Disney has found a newfound success by providing these new, heartfelt stories?

I know if I ever have kids, I’d much rather they look up to the likes of Anna, Elsa and Hiro than a character like Ariel. That doesn’t mean that movies like The Little Mermaid and The Lion King don’t have their place, but there’s a difference between appreciating the past and being stuck in it. I’m glad that Disney is finally looking forward.

Inside Out Review

Inside Out

Pixar has had a reputation for making emotional films, with some of their works being famous for bringing audiences to tears. It shouldn’t be all too surprising then, that Pixar has decided to make a film about emotions themselves.

Inside Out tells the story of an eleven-year old girl named Riley. More accurately, it tells the story of the emotions that live inside her head: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust.

Inside OutJoy, Riley’s first and most prominent emotion, is the leader of the bunch, and makes sure Riley’s core memories are happy ones. Sadness is there whenever Riley needs to shed some tears, but she has to be careful not to tamper with Riley’s emotional state too much. Fear is the voice of reason (and caution), as it’s his job to keep Riley safe. Anger is there to keep things on the defensive, and longs for the day when he can finally allow Riley to use a curse word. It’s Disgust’s job to influence Riley’s likes and dislikes.

These emotions are, as they put it, what make Riley Riley. They use a control panel in the “headquarters” of Riley’s mind to shape her every day life and her memories. The most important of these memories in turn shape the “Islands of Personality” within Riley’s mind.

Things are suddenly thrown into disarray, however, when Riley and her family move from their Minnesota home to San Francisco. Riley’s emotions don’t know how to handle the situation, and Sadness is compelled to tamper with Riley’s memories. Amidst all this chaos, Joy and Sadness accidentally get sent to the further reaches of Riley’s mind (including “Imagination Land” and “Long Term Memory” among others). Joy and Sadness must then work their way back to headquarters, as all five emotions are needed to keep Riley’s personality intact.

If the premise sounds a bit weird, that’s because it is. Inside Out is, quite beautifully, the weirdest movie Pixar has ever made. It’s also their most imaginative and their most visually unique, as its setup allows for its story to think outside the box like no Pixar movie has before. While the likes of Cars may feel creatively limited by their gimmick, and Brave was a missed opportunity to do something wondrous with its fantasy setting, Inside Out is constantly – and fittingly – coming up with new ideas that bring out the most of the concept’s humor and heart.Inside Out

Joy and Sadness befriend Riley’s long-forgotten imaginary friend, for example. He’s a part elephant, part cat, part dolphin made out of cotton candy who’s become something of a vagabond as Riley got older and left him behind. We also learn that Riley’s dreams are her mind’s equivalent of movies, and are put together by a film studio that regularly casts a unicorn in the lead role. We even get to see little peaks into the minds of Riley’s parents, leading to a series of gags of their own.

Inside Out is a movie that’s always looking for new ways to delve deeper into its premise in the most creative ways possible. From simple gags to deeper storytelling elements, Inside Out never lets up with its imagination. It’s one of Pixar’s most ingenious concepts, and it’s used to its fullest. Some concepts work better than others, sure, but even its lesser ideas still boast more creative spirit than most movies. And you can’t fault Inside Out if some of its ideas don’t quite match up to others, considering it has so many great ideas going for it.

Inside OutBest of all is how deep and emotional the story ends up being. Inside Out deals with subjects like depression and the hardship of growing up in ways that you won’t find in most animated films aimed at children. It’s a surprisingly deep movie that really makes you care about the characters. As Riley struggles to adapt to her new life, you can’t help but feel for her. Both Riley’s story and the adventures of her emotions tie together beautifully.

Inside Out is the most heartfelt movie Pixar has made in quite some time. I may sound a bit cynical for saying this, but even Up and Toy Story 3 could feel a bit mechanical at times. As good as they were, there were some moments in those films where the emotion felt a bit contrived. But with Inside Out, it would be difficult to imagine the sentiment could feel more earnest.Inside Out

The quality of Pixar’s films may have waned in recent years, with Cars 2 and Brave – the studio’s two weakest features – being released back-to-back, followed up with the good but ultimately unremarkable Monsters University. But Inside Out shares the spirit of Pixar’s greatest efforts of the past. This is the Pixar that made films like The Incredibles, Wall-E and Toy Story. Whether Inside Out is the beginning of a new Pixar streak or a one-time return to form, it deserves to be ranked favorably alongside any of the studio’s highlights.

Inside Out is a wonderful film. It is a constantly inventive, emotional and visually arresting work that will – appropriately enough – etch its way into your memory. It’s an absolute joy.

 

10

The Good and Bad of The Avengers: Age of Ultron

Age of Ultron

The Avengers: Age of Ultron is now one of the highest-grossing movies all time. That’s not too surprising, since it seems like all a movie needs to do to make such a claim these days is have a lot of super heroes and visual effects. But, Age of Ultron is an enjoyable movie, which is more than you can say about most billion-dollar movies. Age of Ultron is more entertaining than more cynical nerds would want to admit (“I found one tiny flaw so now everything about it sucks and it betrayed the comics!”), but it also has its share of problems. Here are the things I loved about Age of Ultron, followed by the things I, well, didn’t.

*Be warned: spoilers ahead!*

Continue reading “The Good and Bad of The Avengers: Age of Ultron”

Fantasia 2000 Review

Fantasia 2000

Fantasia 2000 is, as its title suggests, the 2000 sequel to Disney’s classic musical experience film, Fantasia. The original Fantasia was never intended to be a singular film, as its segments were meant to be replaced and rearranged during different runs. Audiences could see some new material as well as returning favorites, making Fantasia a different experience every time. Luckily, that plan fell through, so Fantasia was allowed to endure as a more definitive classic in the Disney canon.

This would, of course, eventually lead Disney to produce an all-out sequel instead. It would end up being delayed a bit, as Fantasia 2000 was released six decades after the original.

Fantasia 2000 continues the same setup as the original film, with various animated segments bringing classical pieces of music to life. Pines of Rome, for example, is expressed through flying whales in the arctic, while Rhapsody in Blue depicts the lives of various citizens of New York City as 1930s cartoons.

Fantasia 2000Most of the animated segments work just fine, and they are all lovingly animated. Though some lack the extra oomph of others, with The Carnival of Animals, Finale (which depicts a flamingo troubling his flock with a yo-yo) feeling lackluster with its brief running time and unfulfilling of its fun premise.

An overall downside to the movie is that it is nearly a full hour shorter than the original Fantasia, but it has just as many animated segments, and the live-action introductions in between feel longer than those in the 1940 original. By making this sequel shorter but including more filler, it makes the entire “Fantasia experience” feel diluted.

It also doesn’t help that this “filler” mainly consists of celebrity cameos, as opposed to the conductors introducing the segments like the original movie. Some of these introductions – like those of Steve Martin and Penn & Teller – are entertaining in their own right, but something about all the cameos makes it feel like Disney was just showing off their budget. It feels more commercial and less earnest than the original.

Fantasia 2000In keeping with the original vision of Fantasia, one of the segments from the first film returns. Naturally, Disney decided to reuse The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, as it stars Mickey Mouse. It’s a fun segment in both films, but given the movie’s already short running time, you kind of wish Disney had cooked up an additional new segment to squeeze in the film instead.

Donald Duck gets his own portion of the film with Pomp and Circumstance, in which he plays a role in the story of Noah’s Ark. It serves to compliment Mickey’s role in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and while not one of the more powerful Fantasia segments, it nonetheless adds some extra fun to the package.

Fantasia 2000Fantasia 2000 follows suit of the original film by saving its best segment for last. In this instance the final chapter is Firebird Suite, which displays gorgeous animation and fantastic imagery of nature, destruction and rebirth. Other segments of note are the aforementioned Rhapsody in Blue and Shostakovich’s Piano Concert No. 2, which retells the story of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Steadfast Toy Soldier.

Overall, Fantasia 2000 is a solidly entertaining addition to the Disney canon that should delight most audiences, no matter their age. But it does suffer from being in the shadow of its predecessor. Fantasia 2000’s segments are less consistent than those of the original, and its short running time leaves a lot to be desired. It’s fun, but Fantasia 2000 falls short on being the same level of experience as its predecessor.

 

6

In Defense of Tomorrowland

Tomorrowland

Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland has quickly turned into a bomb for the Walt Disney Studios. Failing to win over the box office and garnering a mixed reception from critics, Tomorrowland is already drawing comparisons to another Disney bomb, John Carter (another live-action sci-fi flick directed by a former/future Pixar director). This is an unfair comparison since, unlike John Carter, Tomorrowland is actually entertaining.

Yes, Tomorrowland is a flawed film. It often can’t decide whether it wants to be a whimsical, bewildering sci-fi adventure (in which it mostly succeeds) or a fast-paced action flick (in which it’s less consistent). Some of the visual effects aren’t nearly as convincing as others, leaving one to wonder how Disney of all studios could skimp in that department.

But Tomorrowland is, in its own way, a beautiful movie. It has a sense of imagination that is uncommon in (would-be) blockbusters, and it has a lovely, earnest message that goes against the increasing cynicism of today’s movies (and culture in general).

The setup of the film is that the titular Tomorrowland (which is only referred to by name once in the movie) is a community within another dimension founded by the likes of Nikola Tessla and Jules Verne, where scientists, artists and other such “dreamers” are transported in order to make their creations without the burdens of Earth getting in the way. Of course, these dreamers do this to help make a better future for a troubled Earth.

This being a movie, something goes wrong in this seemingly perfect community of creative minds, and the promising world of Tomorrowland abandons its original goal of helping Earth, and Tomorrowland itself is left behind to all but a select few.

Although marketing would have you believe George Clooney’s character, Frank Walker, is the star of the film, he’s only a supporting player. The movie’s real focus is on Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), an optimistic tech-genius, and Athena, an android bearing the likeness of a young girl, who is still following her mission to bring more great minds to Tomorrowland.

"Why weren't we featured more in the marketing again?"
“Why weren’t we featured more in the marketing again?”

Both of the female leads are a highlight of the film, as neither of them fall under the tropes that most other movies would blindly follow when it comes to female characters (even Age of Ultron largely reduced Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow into little more than a romantic interest for Bruce Banner). It’s baffling that Disney hasn’t played up the “girl power” heroines of this movie more, given the wild success Disney has seen in that area in recent years. Casey and Athena serve as the real heart of the film. Sure, George Clooney brings the star power, but it’s time we stop pretending that George Clooney ever plays any character other than George Clooney in every movie he’s in.

"I'm only the villain because people suck!"
“I’m only the villain because people suck!”

What I most appreciated about Tomorrowland was its sheer optimism. It is cynical only towards cynicism itself. The film has a message about how the popularization of pessimism and the embracing of doom and gloom are disgusting trends of modern society. We constantly reinforce the bad and feed the negative, despite that we can make our futures better with a little work and effort. Even the film’s antagonist (portrayed memorably by Hugh Laurie) is fed up with the defeatists of today. As he so eloquently puts it:  “In every moment there’s a possibility for a better future, but you won’t believe it. And because you won’t believe it you won’t do what’s necessary to make it a reality.”

In this day and age, when even the Avengers ends on the sour note of two robots discussing how doomed mankind is, it is infinitely refreshing to see a movie that is not only hopeful and optimistic, but that outright dismisses cynicism itself. While just about every other big budget movie aims for dark and gritty, Tomorrowland can’t think of anything more annoying than just that.

I have also heard a number of people write off the movie as “weird.” But its weirdness is one of Tomorrowland’s best qualities. I grow tired of sci-fi and fantasy movies feeling the unnecessary need to explain their every last detail to their audience. Movies these days are so afraid that they might alienate some of their audience with imagination that they either over explain or under develop their fantastic elements. There’s no awe to sci-fi and fantasy when they spoonfeed audiences their every detail.

Tomorrowland is a weird movie. But weird is wonderful. I love that it only went into detail with what needed to be addressed, while a good deal of other things were gleefully left unexplained. There’s even a fun line of dialogue that more or less dismisses audiences wanting more exposition. There’s something admirable about a movie so defiant in wanting to be itself.

“Looking up even when the box office is looking down.”

As mentioned previously, Tomorrowland does have its share of problems. It is the weakest of Brad Bird’s five directed films due to the aforementioned inconsistency in its tone, as well as some story mishaps (the movie makes the unwise choice of ending on an explosion-heavy action sequence, which undermines its feel-good intentions). Some may also find the insistent Disney references eye-rolling, but what were you expecting in a film called Tomorrowland?

Ultimately though, Tomorrowland is far more enjoyable than it’s getting credit for. Its box office failure has been discouraging enough for Disney to cancel its long-gestating Tron 3, and it looks like the studio will go the John Carter route with Tomorrowland and slowly but surely pretend like it never existed. Again, this is a shame, since Tomorrowland – despite its obvious flaws -boasts more honesty and originality than a lot of the movies that are making a billion dollars these days.

Tomorrowland is dismissed for being weird, but that’s what makes it unique among more cliched genre movies. It’s been written off by critics and audiences for its optimism, but that may just prove the movie’s commentary on cynicism to be more than a little accurate.

The Emperor’s New Groove Review

Emperor's New Groove

Released in 2000, The Emperor’s New Groove was one of the earliest “post-Renaissance” Disney animated films. The film originated as an entirely different, more traditional Disney musical before being reworked into a buddy comedy, leading to a highly turbulent production. But the change ultimately paid off, as The Emperor’s New Groove was one of the best Disney movies of its time, and its emphasis on comedy makes it one of the more unique Disney features.

 

The Emperor’s New Groove tells the story of Kuzco (David Spade), a Mesoamerican emperor who’s young and spoiled. Kuzco lives a pampered lifestyle, and has become so selfish that he can’t seem to think of anything other then himself. In one of his routine acts of selfishness, Kuzco plans on having a small peasant village destroyed, to make room for a Summer getaway as a birthday gift to himself.

Kuzco’s life gets turned upside down, however, when he fires his longtime advisor Yzma (Eartha Kitt). Yzma, seeking revenge for being fired, plots to kill Kuzco and take over the throne. But her dimwitted manservant Kronk (Patrick Warburton) botches the murder. Instead of poisoning Kuzco as planned, Kronk accidentally slips the emperor a potion that transforms him into a llama. Kronk can’t bring himself to finish the job, and through a series of mishaps, Kuzco ends up in the very village he plans on having bulldozed, where the peasant Pacha (John Goodman) and his family live. Kuzco and Pacha form a reluctant partnership to get back to the palace and change Kuzco back to a human, with Pacha hoping his help will change the emperor’s mind about destroying the village.

It’s a very simple story, but The Emperor’s New Groove isn’t aiming to be one of Disney’s grandest features. The Emperor’s New Groove is all about the laughs, and in this regard it’s a wild success.

The Emperor’s New Groove is, in a lot of ways, more cartoon than an animated movie. In this case, that’s not such a bad thing. It uses slapstick and fourth wall-breaking liberally, and features some genuinely hilarious dialogue. Best of all, its four main characters are wonderfully entertaining personalities.

Emperor's New GrooveKuzco starts off downright unlikable, but the sheer magnitude of his ego makes for some entertaining banter with the good-natured Pacha. Even when Kuzco inevitably starts to ease up, his sarcasm keeps his comedy intact. Pacha is interesting because, if this worked like any other Disney movie, he’d probably be the main character, but here he’s humorously relegated to the buddy role (at one point, the movie even pauses to make a joke about it).

Yzma is one of Disney’s best comedic villains, with Eartha Kitt’s vocals giving the character boisterous energy and charisma. It’s Kronk, however, who steals the show. Kronk could have easily been another throwaway villainous henchman. Instead he’s made more unique for being kind-hearted and often well-intentioned, he just happens to be working for the antagonist. He’s also a lot more capable and knowledgable than his bumbling exterior suggests.

The film has fun, simplistic animation. It’s not the most ambitiously animated Disney feature, but it’s colorful and fun enough to perfectly compliment the film’s cartoony nature.Emperor's New Groove

If the film has one notable drawback, it’s that its third act is surprisingly lacking in substance. Yes, The Emperor’s New Groove is more cartoony than most Disney movies, so one shouldn’t expect a grand finale. But the film’s final moments feel rushed and incomplete, a possible side effect of the movie’s countless production and scheduling problems. The rest of the movie is briskly paced, but the last act, while still funny, feels like it’s speeding through the remainder of its running time. It’s a shame, because with just another ten or so minutes to give the film a proper ending, The Emperor’s New Groove might have been one of the Disney greats, instead of “merely” being a really, really good Disney movie.

In the end, The Emperor’s New Groove is far from the biggest film Disney has ever made, but it isn’t exactly trying to be. It’s content with simply introducing a quartet of fresh, funny characters, giving them some witty dialogue, and setting it all free with nonsensical, cartoonish antics. It’s an undeniable good time.

 

7

Treasure Planet Review

Treasure Planet

During Disney’s slump in the early 2000s, the famed animation studio tried its hand at some unfamiliar territory to try and win back audiences from competing animation studios and their CG films. Disney’s tradition of colorful musicals all but disappeared, and they started producing some more action-oriented features during this time. 2002’s Treasure Planet is one such feature. Although Treasure Planet became a bomb at the box office, it features enough creativity and character to lift it above some of Disney’s other films of the time.

 

Treasure Planet is a retelling of the classic story Treasure Island, but reconfigured into a science fiction setting. A young man named Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) grew up hearing the stories of the notorious pirate Captain Flint, and the insurmountable wealth he kept in a mysterious world called Treasure Planet. One day, a dying space sailor gives Jim a chest containing a strange orb, warning Jim that a gang of pirates lead by a cyborg are after the item.

Treasure PlanetJim soon learns that the orb is indeed a map that points the way to the fabled Treasure Planet, and he, along with his dog-like friend Delbert (David Hyde Pierce) recruit a crew for the expedition. The crew consists of Captain Amelia (Emma Thompson) and her trusted First Mate, Mr. Arrow, as well as a band of more unsavory figures, including the ship’s cook, Long John Silver (Brian Murray). It’s no secret to anyone who knows the story of Treasure Island that Silver is the one-legged man (or cyborg, in this case) who plans a mutiny and steal the map.

Treasure Planet does a decent job at retelling the story, with the relationship between Hawkins and Silver being a strong point. Under his rouse as a kindly cook, Silver and Hawkins form a kind of father-son relationship, and both gain a mutual respect for one another, even after Silver reveals his initial intentions. The fluctuating friendship and rivalry between the two is well reflected in Treasure Planet.

The film is well animated for the most part, with fluid, energetic visuals and fun character designs (particularly with the alien creatures). There are some moments where the hand-drawn characters and CG backgrounds clash a bit too much, but overall the film is pleasant to look at.Treasure Planet

Treasure Planet also includes some top notch action scenes, with the finale being especially exciting. The film takes advantage of its animation and setting to provide a series of fun action sequences. It may have benefitted the movie to have a couple more breathes in between these action scenes for additional character development, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t fun.

I suppose it’s necessary to address the elephant in the room: the sci-fi setting.

As previously stated, placing Treasure Island in the depths of outer space is an interesting concept that makes for some good action, but is it also a bit gimmicky? It can be a bit distracting in the film’s earlier moments, and even once you get used to it, you may still wonder if a more direct adaptation would have worked better. It’s a nice twist in some ways, but it can be off-putting in others.

Treasure Planet holds up better than similar Disney movies of the time, such as Atlantis: The Lost Empire, since the movie’s core relationship keeps the story afloat and the action scenes are well done. But its whole schtick can come across as something of a gimmick, the animation techniques don’t always mesh, and the story could dedicate a little more time to the characters. It’s a more solid entry in the Disney canon than its contemporaries were, and better than its box office performance suggests, but it ultimately didn’t have the extra oomph Disney needed to get back into the game.

 

6

Brother Bear Review

Brother Bear

Released in 2003, Brother Bear arrived during one of Disney’s rougher periods. While Pixar and Dreamworks were seeing strings of success with the likes of Finding Nemo and Shrek, Disney was having trouble reclaiming their former glory. While some of the Disney movies released in this time attempted to branch out from the studio’s norm to try to regain an audience, Brother Bear instead opted for a safer approach. The end result is an honest effort at storytelling, but an ultimately uneventful one.

 

The story follows Kenai (Joaquin Phoenix), a young hunter who has come of age, and is ready to receive his spirit totem from the village elder. The totems are represented as necklaces in the shape of an animal, with Kenai’s older brothers Sitka and Denahi having the Eagle of Guidance and the Wolf of Wisdom, respectively. Kenai’s totem is to be the ‘Bear of Love,’ but he dismisses his totem, believing bears to be thieves.

When a bear takes some salmon from a fisherman, Kenai sets out to hunt the bear and prove himself a man in his own way. But the ensuing struggle results in the death of his brother Sitka, leaving Kenai to seek vengeance against the bear. Kenai succeeds in killing the bear, but is subsequently transformed into a bear himself by the ghost of his brother, so that he can see the world from a different point of view and live up to his totem.Brother Bear

The plot is a bit straightforward, with Kenai befriending a young bear cub named Koda, who serves both the roles of comic relief for younger audiences and giving the film some sentiment with his relationship with Kenai. There’s also the obligatory comedic duo with two moose brothers named Rutt and Tuke.

Most of the characters seem to be filling their roles at a basic level, never really breaking from their archetypes. The story also lacks surprises and moves at an uneven pace. Though Brother Bear does have some small bits of inspiration.

The movie has a unique take on its villain scenario, with Denahi taking the role of antagonist as he tries to hunt Kenai, mistaking him for the bear that killed Sitka and believing Kenai suffered a similar fate. Having the two brothers become inadvertent foes is a departure from Disney’s usual preference of hero versus villain, and the moments when Denahi comes face to face with Kenai are the film’s most exciting scenes.

Brother Bear also weaves some interesting visual techniques into its narrative. Although the animation in Brother Bear is quite basic by Disney’s standards, it cleverly switches styles during different points in the story. When Kenai is human, the character designs are more realistic and the colors are more Earthy. But once Kenai is turned into a bear, the characters become more cartoony, and the film becomes a lot more bright and colorful. Even the screen presentation shifts alongside Kenai’s transformation.Brother Bear

But that’s about where Brother Bear’s inspiration ends. The rest of the movie has a distinct lack of creativity. It has some well-intentioned emotional moments, but they never stack up to Disney’s better works. Similar to Tarzan, a number of background songs are performed by Phil Collins. It’s a decent soundtrack, but not entirely memorable when compared to those of other Disney movies.

In the end, Brother Bear provides some simple entertainment that younger audiences might really enjoy, but it lacks the extra effort in storytelling and animation that is often associated with the Disney brand. It’s a well-meaning tale of brotherly love, but it lacks in imagination and substance.

 

5

Atlantis: The Lost Empire Review

Atlantis: The Lost Empire

The early 2000s were a rough time for Disney animated features. The Disney Renaissance had come to an end, and audiences were more wowed by the CG works of Dreamworks or Disney’s own sister franchise, Pixar. On the upside this period saw Disney stretch their creative muscles a bit in an attempt to rekindle interest in their brand. On the downside, very few of these creative departures were successful for the House of Mouse. Perhaps no other film better represents Disney’s bold ambition and muddled realization of this period than 2001’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

In case the title wasn’t already early 2000s “edgy” enough, Atlantis: The Lost Empire all but abandoned the more kid friendly nature of past Disney movies in attempt to appeal to a more mature audience. It was a respectably bold move on Disney’s part, the problem is that Atlantis lacks the well structured storytelling of those kid friendly Disney movies. It’s so busy with its emphasis on action scenes (some of which are quite well done) that it often loses its plot and characters. In doing so, it also lacks the sophistication needed to make it an interesting animated feature for adults.

Atlantis: The Lost EmpireThe story follows Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox), a linguist and cartographer who dreams of finding the lost city of Atlantis, despite being labelled a loon by his peers. Milo gets his chance to discover the lost city when he is recruited on an expedition by an eccentric millionaire, who was friends with Milo’s grandfather.

Milo is joined on his expedition by an assortment of characters: Vincenzo is an Italian demolitions expert, Audrey is a teenage mechanic, Dr. Sweet is the crew’s enthusiastic medical personnel and Moliere is a French geologist who behaves like a mole, to name the more prominent members of the crew. Also onboard are Commander Rourke and Lieutenant Helga Sinclair, whose behaviors leave no secret to their ulterior motives.

To be honest, the film actually has a nice setup, with the first several minutes introducing us to Milo and the other characters in effective and fun ways. But once the crew sets off for Atlantis much of the film’s character rapidly disappears. Milo ends up falling in love with the Atlantian princess, but he never gets any real moments of character development, and the personalities of the supporting cast feel dictated by their introductory jokes.

Atlantis: The Lost EmpireThe story itself falls prey to just about every action adventure movie cliche you can think of. As previously stated, the buildup works just fine. But once the crew makes it to Atlantis the story feels like it’s leaving checkmarks on an adventure movie’s to do list. It even borrows some elements from Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky, but to say it doesn’t use these elements nearly as effectively is a drastic understatement.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire is far from all bad though. The animation takes on a comic book visual style, which makes it look distinct in the Disney lineup. The style is complimented by Jules Verne-inspired aesthetics, which adds to its overall visual appeal. The action scenes are exciting, with the climactic sequence in particular being close to stunning (if only the rest of the film were as good). And Michael J. Fox brings the same sense of enthusiasm and personality to his voice over work as he does his live-action roles, which is always appreciated.

When all is said and done, however, the story ultimately falls flat. Atlantis is a Disney movie that doesn’t want to be labelled a “kid’s movie,” but it’s also one that lacks substance. It aims to be mature with lots of action and explosions without stopping to think that, maybe, maturity means a bit more than that.

 

5