How 2019 is a One of a Kind Movie Year

This is something I brought up in my 800th blog back in the day, but I thought it was interesting enough to point out again (plus, heaven knows I could really use with more updates as of late). And this something is the simple fact that I think 2019 is shaping up to be a one of a kind year for movies.

“How so?” you may be asking. The reason is that 2019 is (quite obviously) the last year of the decade, but in an instance of “stars aligning,” many of the films being released in 2019 are appropriately bringing a close to this decade in cinema.

Take for example Avengers: Endgame, the biggest film of the year (and all time, boy does it feel good to say that). Though the first two Marvel Cinematic Universe films were released in 2008, the majority of the MCU has been the dominant force in movies of the 2010s. Year after year this decade, Marvel has released blockbuster after blockbuster in their colossal crossover mega-franchise. And though the MCU is scheduled to continue, Endgame brought everything in the MCU thus far to a grand, satisfying close. More than twenty MCU films were released during the 2010s, and fittingly, the MCU’s grand finale (up to this point) was released in the last year of the 2010s.

Similarly, the Star Wars sequel trilogy, which began with The Force Awakens in 2015, will come to its conclusion in 2019 with Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (Star Wars movies never were good with titles). This will make it the only Star Wars trilogy to be a part of a single decade. The original Star Wars trilogy began in 1977, with the two subsequent installments being released in the 1980s. While the Star Wars prequel trilogy began in 1999, and continued into the 2000s. But the Star Wars sequel trilogy is uniquely tied to a singular decade which, in a weird way, I think makes it the most decade-defining trilogy in the franchise.

On a much smaller note, the How to Train Your Dragon franchise, which began in 2010 at the very start of this decade, saw its third and final installment hit theaters this year, meaning Dreamworks’s trilogy bookended the movie decade. Hell, even the Stephen King “It” duology released its second half in 2019, after the first half became one of the most unexpected success stories of the movie decade.

Speaking of unexpected success stories, that brings us to Disney’s Frozen, which I think is safe to say was the movie surprise of the 2010s. Sure, you expect Disney animated films to be successful, but Frozen was on a whole other level, and with relatively little fanfare in the buildup to its 2013 release. Not only was Frozen Disney’s most iconic animated feature in decades, it became one of the biggest pop culture phenomenons in history. Fittingly enough Frozen – the biggest movie/franchise to originate in this decade – will see the release of its long-awaited sequel towards the end of 2019. And though there’s nothing definitively “final” about Frozen II (that we know of yet) like there is for The Rise of Skywalker or Endgame, the fact that this decade’s biggest contribution to pop culture will be getting a sequel as the decade comes to a close just feels fitting.

While the final year of any decade has film buffs reflecting on the past ten years of cinema and trying to compile their favorites from within that time, I don’t think there’s been another instance of another ‘last year of the decade’ where the finality of it was reflected so strongly in its films. Again, I feel it’s a “stars aligning” situation, where so many individual elements just came together. Perhaps some of these “endings” to the movies of the 2010s were intentionally released at the decade’s end. But the fact that so many of them fell so neatly into place seems like an unprecedented occurrence in the movie world. I’m happy to be experiencing such a unique year in film.

Advertisements

Kingdom Hearts 3 Review

*Review based on the Playstation 4 version*

Is it possible to love half a game? Or to half-love a game? Because I think that might describe my feelings for Kingdom Hearts 3. I honestly can’t remember the last time a game had me grinning from ear to ear and feeling like a kid on Christmas one minute, and then leave me aggravated and annoyed like an adult at the DMV the next. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game that made me feel so emotionally polarized.

Kingdom Hearts 3 is the long-awaited “third” installment in the main Kingdom Hearts series, arriving thirteen years after Kingdom Hearts 2. Of course, considering how every handheld “spinoff” entry in the series that was supposedly intended to whet the appetite of fans in the interim between Kingdom Hearts 2 and 3 are all part of the main story, Kingdom Hearts 3 isn’t really Kingdom Hearts 3 at all. It’s more like Kingdom Hearts 9. And that kind of takes away a little something from the long-awaited experience.

Even from the game’s opening moments, it doesn’t feel like the thirteen-years in the making trilogy capper it should be, but just another random episode in a series. In fact, if it weren’t for the game’s final stage (which somehow simultaneously rushes plot resolutions and drags things out at the same time), you’d probably never even think Kingdom Hearts 3 was serving as the end to the storyline that began with the series’ first entry.

Kingdom Hearts is, of course, Square-Enix’s crossover franchise which sees original characters created by Final Fantasy alumni Tetsuya Nomura travel across the different worlds of classic Disney films. The series also used to boast the occasional Final Fantasy character, but that aspect has been dropped  almost entirely for this ‘third’ entry (sans for the Moogle shop, and a few cameos via constellations in the stars. No, not even Sephiroth returns as a super boss).

It’s the Disney half of the game which is the half I love. As a particular fan of Disney’s recent animated films and those of the Pixar brand, Kingdom Hearts 3 is especially enticing in this regard, as Disney’s recent animated output and Pixar films are what Kingdom Hearts 3 really emphasizes this time around with its Disney-themed worlds.

There are seven primary Disney worlds featured in Kingdom Hearts 3 (plus the traditional, optional Winnie the Pooh world, which focuses on mini-games), five of which fall into the modern Disney and Pixar categories: Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., Tangled, Frozen and Big Hero 6. The additional two Disney worlds are based on Hercules (which has been present in all three ‘main’ Kingdom Hearts titles) and Pirates of the Caribbean (specifically At World’s End, a movie I actually very much enjoy despite its general reception). Additionally, the game’s best side quest involves Sora and company seeking out ingredients and making new recipes for Remy from Ratatouille.

Even though it’s a smaller lineup of Disney worlds than some of the previous games, Square was clearly aiming for quality over quantity. And in that sense, they nailed it. This is the best lineup of Disney films the series has represented. And it’s within this Disney fan service that Kingdom Hearts 3 is at its very best.

There’s an inescapable delight every time you enter a new Disney world and Sora, Donald and Goofy interact with characters and events from the films. Many of these characters even have their original voice actors from their respective movies (the cast of Frozen, Mandy Moore as Rapunzel, James Woods as Hades, and the perennial John Ratzenberger as Hamm are particular highlights). Of course, this also means when a character doesn’t have their original actor, it does kind of stick out like a sore thumb (I’m looking your way, Pirates of the Caribbean world).

If you’re a Disney fan – particularly a fan of modern Disney, such as myself – it’s impossible not to have a smile beaming across your face during many of the game’s Disney-centric moments. Naturally, seeing Frozen’s Let It Go recreated for the game stands out as my favorite, but you also get the lantern scene from Tangled, get to ride on the endless door conveyor belt from Monsters, Inc., and fly around San Fransokyo atop of Baymax. It’s moments like this when Kingdom Hearts 3’s many flaws wash away and you can simply bask in the charm of the Disney worlds.

With that said, the game often bungles what should be easy fan service. In both the Tangled and Pirates of the Caribbean worlds, their unique party members (Rapunzel and Flynn Rider in Tangled, Jack Sparrow in Pirates) seem to repeatedly leave your party at every other turn, leaving them feeling underutilized (particularly in Tangled’s case, as Rapunzel no longer joins you if you revisit the stage after its story is done).

In perhaps the game’s most dumbfounding (or hilarious) creative hiccup, the Frozen world doesn’t see Elsa or Anna join Sora’s party, but Marshmallow the snowman (geez, they couldn’t even make it Olaf). Some might say they were trying to do something unexpected, but that seems like the wrong place to do it. Wouldn’t getting an unexpected party member in a returning world like Hercules or Pirates make more sense? They have access to the most popular animated film in history, and don’t fully utilize the main characters? Is it a joke? Especially seeing as Rapunzel – who barely seems to join your team at all – is the only female party member you get in the game, it makes Elsa and Anna’s omission even more baffling still.

Another disappointment with the utilization of the Disney brands is in the boss fights. In past Kingdom Hearts titles, you would at least battle against a fair amount of Disney villains. In Kingdom Hearts 3 there are only three boss fights against Disney characters: The Titans in the Hercules world, Marshmallow in Frozen (they’re certainly getting a lot of mileage out of Marshmallow, it seems), and Davy Jones in Pirates. You can’t help but wonder why they couldn’t have added a few more.

The non-Disney half of the equation is as clunky as ever. What’s even worse is how the game seems to reinforce the idea that the Disney stuff isn’t important, and only Tetsuya Nomura’s characters actually mean anything in the grand scheme of the Kingdom Hearts mythos. Nomura’s original creations simply don’t have any of the likability of the Disney characters with whom they often share the screen.

Even after all these years, Sora remains the atypical “anime boy doofus” character you’ve probably seen a thousand times over in other sources. The villainous Organization XIII consists of one-note, entirely interchangeable bad guys (with the game almost self-awarely reinforcing this when the Organization starts swapping out some members for other characters). Sora’s love interest, Kairi, still amounts to little more than a damsel in distress. Riku is the archetypal ‘rival’ who flirted with the dark side. There are other Keyblade wielders thrown into the mix without any real purpose to be in the story at this point. There are clones of characters. Clones of clones. Characters who aren’t clones but look exactly like other characters. There are even characters who share the same name as other characters!

Yes, it’s sad to admit that instead of learning from past mistakes, Nomura has instead doubled-down on them (whether through stubborn arrogance or blissful ignorance, I’m not sure). Instead of developing the core set of main characters, Nomura just kept adding more and more players throughout the series. This has left his original characters with about as much depth as a shallow puddle.

As stated, the Disney element has also suffered from this abundance of characters, with the different Disney casts being shoved to the side as the game constantly reminds us how unimportant they are. In one telling moment, an Organization XIII member discovers that the Dead Man’s Chest from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is not the macguffin he’s after, and immediately disregards it. Yep, that key item from the second and third Pirates movies is merely scoffed at by just another one of the original villains. It almost feels like Kingdom Hearts is now embarrassed of its crossover element at times.

The plot of the game and its characters would feel infinitely smoother if it made the Disney characters feel important to the narrative. Organization XIII alone would be a far more memorable villain group if some Disney and Final Fantasy villains were in its ranks (seeing as they’re established characters, you wouldn’t have to take time with introductions and getting to learn their personalities, thus leaving room to flesh out the original characters that are present). It seems like it should be obvious. You have a big crossover with Disney and Final Fantasy, why not make those aspects of this mythology feel like they mean something? But one is (admittedly delicious) dressing, and the other is barely existent anymore.

Suffice to say, the narrative of Kingdom Hearts 3 is a bit of a mess, with its only real charm stemming from the Disney characters and moments it borrows. But how is Kingdom Hearts 3 as a game?

For the most part, it’s pretty fun. The gameplay is primarily separated into two halves. The first half sees players control Sora, with Donald and Goofy serving as permanent teammates, and each Disney world coming with one or two teammates of their own (for a nice change, you no longer have to swap Donald or Goofy out of the party to make room for the new guys). The gameplay is predominantly a hack-N-slash RPG, with Sora and company hacking away at hordes of Heartless and Nobodies. The D-pad cycles through quick menus, allowing you to use items, cast spells and other such actions. In terms of control, Kingdom Hearts 3 feels a lot like its predecessors, which means it’s quick to get into if you’re familiar with the series, but also means some of the controls feel stuck in the PS2 era.

Sora’s jumps still feel a bit clunky, and cycling through those “quick menus” may not be as quick as one might hope once you start unlocking more abilities and options. If you found the combat of the past games to be a little repetitive, you may find that to be the case here as well. But there are a few new additions to the gameplay that may win you over.

Some may lament that Sora can no longer change into different forms like in Kingdom Hearts 2, but there’s been a fair trade in that the different Keyblades you acquire can change forms instead. By chaining together combos, your currently equipped Keyblade can temporarily transform into a new weapon, giving Sora new moves, altering spells, and boasting a powerful finisher.

Other abilities can be utilized by performing combos as well. Do enough moves when standing next to a teammate, and you can perform a special move with them. Chain together enough spells, and you can perform more powerful versions of said spells. And in one of Kingdom Hearts 3’s best new additions, defeating certain marked enemies during a combo will allow you to summon an “Attraction.” As the name implies, Attractions are vehicles based on Disneyland rides that work like transformations for all three main heroes.

The only issue I have with these different abilities is that they’re all used by pressing the same button (Triangle on PS4). You can cycle through the temporary abilities you currently have available (L2 on PS4), but in the heat of battle it can get confusing and you’ll often use a different ability than the one you wanted. But they do help keep combat fresh.

The other half of the gameplay are the Gummi Ship sections, and this is where Kingdom Hearts 3 has greatly improved on its predecessors.

Players travel between worlds aboard their Gummi Ships (and can do so freely, should they so choose). Whereas past entries placed the Gummi Ships in fixed rail stages that, frankly, weren’t very good, Kingdom Hearts 3 instead boasts three different sandbox worlds set in outer space.

Players are free to fly about the galaxy at their leisure, can fight enemies and bosses, and find hidden treasures. Most treasures consist of more Gummi Ship parts, as players can create their own vessels, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts style. The more you do in space, the stronger your Gummi Ship becomes, and the more options you have available when creating new ships.

For a nice change of pace for the series, the Gummi Ship sections actually feel like a worthy and complimentary alternative to the main game. I found myself willingly spending entire play sessions just in the Gummi Ship portion of things.

“The A113 gag is a nice touch.”

In addition, there are more than a few side quests in Kingdom Hearts 3 that will keep players occupied outside of the main story. Along with helping Remmy create fine cuisine, the Disney themed stages all host a myriad of Hidden Mickeys (referred to as “Lucky Emblems” in the game). By taking photographs of these Lucky Emblems, the player can unlock secret items and abilities (naturally, the camera can also just be used to goof off as well). And a number of worlds feature their own mini-games where the player can once again unlock bonuses and earn high scores.

Kingdom Hearts 3 is a beautiful game to look at. As usual, Square-Enix provides some of the cleanest looking cut scenes in gaming. But the real visual delight of the game is how accurately the developers have captured the look and feel of each different Disney world and the styles unique to them.

Perhaps Kingdom Hearts 3’s most consistently great element is its music. Once again composed by Yoko Shinomura, Kingdom Hearts 3 combines her unmistakeable style with renditions of classic Disney themes in addition to original compositions. Even when other aspects of the game seem to be pushing the Disney element to the sidelines, Shinomura’s terrific score brings it to the forefront, while also creating its own identity.

In the end, it’s hard to say that Kingdom Hearts 3 lived up to the thirteen year buildup. And if you weren’t a fan before, it may leave you wondering what all the fuss was about to begin with. The story aims for emotion but never resonates, due to the lack of substance in the characters (an obvious product of the fact that there’s just too damn many of them). The gameplay is decent, but lacks polish in a number of areas. And despite the franchise’s biggest selling point being its status as a Disney crossover, Kingdom Hearts 3 often comes across as dumbfounded as to how to make that crossover mean anything.

“Why can the loading screen give me what the game itself can’t?”

Yet, despite all the complaints, I’m still happy I played it. The gameplay is solid enough in its own right, complimented by the vastly improved Gummi Ship segments. Best of all are the Disney worlds themselves. Though they could have (and should have) been better implemented, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a persistent glee in my heart simply by running through these worlds, meeting the characters, and seeing iconic scenes recreated. Some might say I’m just a Disney fan who fell for Nomura’s bait and switch. But hey, when the bait is this enticing, can you blame me?

But seriously, next time have Elsa join my team.

 

5

Well, Now I HAVE to Get Kingdom Hearts 3

I may not be the biggest Kingdom Hearts fan out there. Despite some fun ideas, I find the games are bogged down by an utterly convoluted, incomprehensible plot, cliched original characters, and often monotonous gameplay. Not to mention the fact that all the spinoff titles released on a myriad of different platforms all serve as parts of the main story have made it impossible for anyone but the most diehard of fans to follow.

But by God, Kingdom Hearts 3 has a Frozen level!

Allow me to fanboy-out for a moment here. Frozen is my favorite Disney animated film, and yes, one of my favorite films, period. And yes, its presence in Kingdom Hearts 3 is enough to sell me on buying the game (again, the series isn’t horrible. If it were, I wouldn’t buy it even with the Frozen stuff).

Now, this really shouldn’t come as any sort of surprise. Seeing as Frozen is the biggest animated film in history – and is especially popular in Japan – it would be nothing short of dumbfounding to leave it out of a game filled with Disney franchises. But to actually see it in action is just…YES!

On the downside, some of the dialogue in the reveal trailer suggests that this entry may still suffer from the narrative gobbledygook of the series. But heck, I’ll push through it for Anna and Elsa.

Although I still have my skepticisms with Kingdom Hearts 3, I do admit I’m intrigued by the fact that it seems to be emphasizing modern Disney movies more than past entries of the series. Along with Frozen, Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6, and Pixar films like Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. have already been announced. I’ve made it no secret that I think Disney’s current run is their best ever (I don’t care what your nostalgia says). So while some older Disney films will be making a return (Hercules), I’m happy to see something as prominent as Kingdom Hearts is putting modern Disney in the spotlight.

Yeah, I would probably prefer Kingdom Hearts if it were just the Disney (and Final Fantasy) characters. But whatever. We get Frozen. And they even nabbed Josh Gad to voice Olaf for the game, which is pretty great.

Anyway, here’s the reveal trailer for the Frozen stuff in KH3, though be warned, some elements are clearly unfinished (pretty sure Elsa’s ice blast is supposed to have sound), which makes some parts a little awkward. Same goes for the fact that Haley Joel Osment is still the voice of Sora, despite the actor now being 30 and the character still a teenager (have we learned nothing from Goku’s ungodly Japanese voice?).

 

…I promise I’ll add meaningful content soon.

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

Why Elsa Should NOT Have a Girlfriend

Frozen

Okay, this will be one of the weirder blogs I post here, but bear with me. As I was logging on to Twitter earlier today (while simultaneously wondering why I still have a Twitter), I saw a featured tweet claiming that many people are insisting that Disney should give Elsa, the elder royal sister from their beloved film Frozen, a girlfriend in Frozen’s eventual sequel, as a means to “give the LGBT community someone to look up to as well.”

Now, before anyone gets the wrong idea (lord knows if you aren’t entirely politically correct these days people will write you off as a fascist and vilify you for life), I have absolutely no problems with the idea of Disney introducing a gay princess to their character lineup. In fact I think it would be interesting to see. But it shouldn’t be Elsa for two reasons: One pertaining to the social issue, and one pertaining to Frozen itself.

The first reason is that retroactively deciding to make the character gay would ultimately end up making the issue feel forced, and subsequently, meaningless. You never want to go the bait-and-switch route with fictional characters, but it’s a route people go all too often with homosexual characters. J.K. Rowling revealed that the character of Dumbledore in her Harry Potter series was gay, but conveniently only did so several months after the last book in the series had been published. Similarly, video game developer Naughty Dog, when creating the DLC for their critically praised title The Last of Us, decided to make the character of Ellie gay, even though any indication of sexuality was never previously brought up with the character.

I’m not saying these authors don’t have good intentions. But to me anyway, if you’re trying to bring up some social issue or diversity, you should probably do so from the get-go. Otherwise, it feels like they’re just throwing it in there to give themselves a pat on the back. Almost as a means for them to say “look at us! Aren’t we so great? Look at how we’re representing diversity!” If you really want to make a statement, you don’t wait until after you’re in the safe zone to do so. If Disney just decided to up and make Elsa gay now, it would just feel like another instance of “hey, look at us!”

The second reason, which deals with Frozen itself, is one of artistic integrity (I know, shame on me for caring more about artistic integrity than political correctness with movies). One of the reasons Frozen worked so well is that it’s one of the few (if not the only) non-Pixar Disney animated film that manages to successfully integrate allegory and interpretive elements into its narrative. Yes, it’s still a fun movie where princesses sing songs and talking snowmen make jokes, but there’s a stronger sense of subtext to it than in other Disney fare. And a large reason for that is Elsa herself.

It’s true, many people have interpreted Elsa’s situation of being a misunderstood outcast because of her magic to being an allegory for homosexuality. And if people interpret it that way, then more power to them. But Elsa has also been interpreted in other ways as well, with some (including myself) making comparisons to mental illness and depression, among many other interpretations.

If Disney were to simply decide to make Elsa gay, it would negate what the filmmakers accomplished with the character narratively. By deciding to overtly acknowledge one interpretation as the correct one, it would undo much of the depth of the character and story. And yes, it would even demean the interpretations of homosexuality with the character to begin with. Personally, I think keeping the character asexual makes her more interesting and universally relatable.

One of the things that makes Frozen special, and yes, one of the reasons I think it’s remained such an unparalleled success, is that it employs subtleties in its narrative, characters, and themes. It helps it to break age and cultural barriers even more so than most other animated films. If Disney were to simply have Elsa come out as gay, it would diminish the film’s themes and even the desired social statement.

Yes, it would be interesting to see Disney add a gay princess to their lineup. But it’s not something that should just be forced (again, a forced social statement is not a social statement at all). And it shouldn’t be Elsa. If Disney can come up with a great story to introduce a gay princess, then that’s awesome. But making it a retroactive thing would ultimately be cheap and meaningless. If you’re going to do it, do it right.

Elsa being asexual never bothered me, anyway.

Thoughts on Disney and Pixar’s Upcoming Animated Films

Zootopia

I recently attended Disney’s D23 expo, and one of the events’ biggest highlights was, of course, the panel for Disney and Pixar’s upcoming slate of animated films. This particular panel was hosted by none other than John Lasseter himself, and some high points included a preview showing of Riley’s First Date?, an appearance by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (who will be voicing a character in Disney’s Moana) and some greatly hilarious scenes from the upcoming Zootopia. Here are some thoughts on the Disney and Pixar movies shown at the panel. Starting with Disney. Continue reading “Thoughts on Disney and Pixar’s Upcoming Animated Films”

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.