Moana (2016)

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Well, it took some time but I finally saw Disney’s latest animated feature film, Moana.  I missed seeing it in theaters by thismuch and had to wait for it to be released on dvd (do people still say dvd, or have they defaulted to blu-ray? I’m so out of touch with what the hip kids are saying these days).  I knew next to nothing about the plot going in, and was optimistically hopeful that the film would live up to Disney’s other most recent endeavors.  Suffice it to say, it lived up to its predecessors, and then some.

For those who haven’t gotten around to seeing it yet (no major spoilers ahead, but I will discuss key plot elements), Moana is the story of a young Polynesian girl who is the daughter of a chief (she dislikes being called a “princess”).  She’s destined to take her father’s place as ruler of their island, but Moana’s heart pulls her elsewhere: specifically, the ocean, a place she and her people are forbidden to go.  Like any teenager, she craves what she’s been denied, and through a series of events Moana finds herself on a journey across the ocean.  She is joined by Maui, a demi-god (voiced by Dwayne -stop trying to pretend your middle name isn’t “The Rock”- Johnson) who is less than helpful at times but always entertaining.  Moana is trying to return a stone to a specific island, a magical item that represents the heart of the Earth… okay you know what? It’s way too hard to describe this plot accurately (or explain why this movie is good) without giving away spoilers.

If you haven’t seen it yet, go watch it RIGHT NOW.  I’ll wait.

….

It’s so great, right??

From this point on I’m going to assume that you heeded my instructions and watched the film. If you’re a rogue and decided to ignore my instruction, BEWARE THE SPOILERS.

Okay, let’s talk about what the film does well:

Music

I have had half the songs from this film stuck in my head for a week, no lie.  Part of that may be due to the fact that Mistah J downloaded the entire soundtrack and proceeded to sing the songs all weekend, but it’s kept them fresh in my mind.  There’s your perfect blend of Disney tones: we get the heartfelt ‘why don’t I fit in’ style song, sung beautifully by lead actress Auli’i Cravalho, The Rock sings an upbeat tune essentially touting how amazing he is, and our main villain’s song is performed by a giant crab who exclaims over and over that he’s so shiny all while insulting (and trying to eat) Moana and Maui.  The music reminded me of the greats from the Disney Renaissance, so much so that like those great films, I could easily see this one taking a spin on Broadway at some point.  “Shiny” specifically stands out, serving as one of the antagonist’s shining moments (couldn’t help it) and yet somehow projecting a “they can’t dull my sparkle” uplifting sentiment as well. If you’re having a bad day, just blast that song while dancing around like the badass you are. You’ll undoubtedly feel 1,000% better.

 Characterization

In recent films Disney seems to have decided to stick to certain stock tropes for its characters, especially when it comes to Disney princess films.  There’s the leading lady, a funny and charming romantic interest, a cute animal sidekick, an antagonist who is clearly evil yet the viewer can’t help but find aspects to like, and a few ancillary characters to round out the mix.  To be fair, Moana abides by many of these rules, and frankly there’s nothing wrong with that.  They work, and you can’t fault Disney for re-using basic storytelling techniques that have proven successful in the past.  The one major change in Moana though is a big one for me:  there is no romantic interest.  Prior to seeing the film, I was certain that Moana would be romantically linked to someone, either Maui or an as-yet unknown boy from her island.  It seemed inevitable, given Disney’s past princess films.  Instead, the focus of the film is entirely on Moana’s journey, with not even a hint at any romantic entanglements. Even when her parents discuss her future as chief, there is never any mention that she must have a husband by her side.

THANK YOU DISNEY.  If you’re a guy reading this, maybe you don’t get why I would consider this such a big deal. Let me explain: growing up, the only female Disney characters I had to look up to were princesses whose entire existences were heavily focused on romantic relationships.  From Snow White and Sleeping Beauty all the way up through Pocahontas and Mulan, there was always a figurative (and sometimes literal) knight in shining armor there to save the day, or at the very least serve as motivation for the princess’s actions.  Even recent films like Tangled and Frozen are heavy on the romantic subplots, even if they’re not the primary focus of the film.  As a child these characters led me to believe that a romantic relationship should be the primary focus of my attention.  Even as the films progressed and Disney started allowing the princesses to have their own dreams and personalities, there was still a prince waiting in the wings for them.  With Moana, young girls will finally have the chance to look up to a Disney princess who is perfectly fulfilled without a man in her life.

That being said, obviously I have no problem with Disney telling a love story, but it’s nice to see that they’re finally branching out and accepting that young girls can enjoy a good old-fashioned adventure story even if it doesn’t have the romantic element.  This is SO IMPORTANT for the way young girls (and boys) are brought up, and I’m thrilled that Disney has finally expanded out into this uncharted territory.

Mini-rant over, back to the movie:

Negatives?

I try to be fair-minded when I write these posts, and review from all angles to try and appreciate the good and the bad. To be completely honest, I’m having difficulty thinking of any negatives about this film.  The animation, voice action, story-telling, music: it was all very well done.  There’s a part of me that’s sad that I won’t ever have the childhood nostalgia for this film the way I do say, The Lion King or The Little Mermaid.  It will undoubtedly become a classic in Disney’s canon, and hopefully the studio continues producing films of this caliber.

As I finish writing this, I’m bopping to “You’re Welcome”, The Rock’s solo song in the film (I broke down and bought the soundtrack, couldn’t help it).  The fact that I can’t write without dancing in my chair and singing along seems like praise enough.

Also, if you haven’t already seen it, go watch the post-credit scene. It’s brief, but it may have been one of my favorite parts. Trust me.

-Jess

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Zootopia (2016)

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I’m closing in on the end of my Disney film-watching endeavor (and coincidentally, getting awfully close to finishing “the shelf” as well).  The second-to-last film on my list was Zootopia, one of Disney’s most recent features and yet another that I had yet to see. (I’m looking like a bad Disney fan with all of these recent movies I haven’t watched yet, aren’t I?)  I had heard good things about this one, and my affinity for big-eyed cartoon animals assured that I’d find at least something to enjoy here.

What surprised me though was the actual plot of the film. Disney’s latest films don’t shy away from addressing more adult topics, but Zootopia’s focus was exceedingly adult-oriented.  The film centers around Judy Hopps, a small-town bunny who dreams of traveling to the big city and becoming the first bunny-cop.  Her dreams are realized, but it turns out it’s not as simple as it seems.  Her boss doesn’t treat her with respect, thinking she can’t handle the difficult job of being a police officer and relegates her to being a meter maid.  Judy doesn’t give up though, demanding she be given a chance to prove herself and earn a spot on the force.

This plot is pretty innocuous, and doesn’t sound too controversial. All in all, it sounds like a decent, run-of-the-mill Disney plot.  What stands out here though is the entire storyline which shows how Judy is going to accomplish her goals.  The film heavily focuses on the concepts of prejudice.  Predators are “going savage” in the town, causing all of the prey to become wary of their neighbors.  What transpires is a wholly adult conflict, with people distrusting those around them, or those who are “different” from them.  Obviously here “predator” and “prey” is a symbol for various races or ethnicity, using different animal species as a placeholder for the diversity we face as humans.

I don’t object to Disney films addressing adult topics, but it was surprising just how prevalent the idea was throughout the film.  There were far more serious scenes than light-hearted ones, creating a much darker, sobering tone for the movie than I ever could have guessed. Yes, there are moments of levity, but they are sprinkled throughout far more serious-minded scenes, bringing the overall feel of the film down to a much more realistic level.  Using animals to tell this story helps to soften the content a bit, but it’s still exceedingly obvious what the movie is really getting at.

There’s plenty to say about this movie, but I just can’t quite find the words.  I enjoyed it, and yet it felt more geared towards adults than anyone else.  Do children even realize the deeper themes being addressed here? Maybe I’m not giving kids enough credit, but it just feels like maybe it would be over their heads a bit.  I can’t fault Disney for wanting to teach a moral in their movies, especially when said moral feels applicable to our everyday lives.   It was just an unexpected twist for Disney, to find a movie that felt a bit more like a PSA than anything else. It was good, but it felt just a bit too heavy-handed for a kid’s film. I fully acknowledge that it’s an important lesson, but there’s just something about it that feels off to me. Maybe it’s the sad realization that we live in the 21st century and are just now getting around to teaching children to treat one another as equals, regardless of race, ethnicity, or any other distinguishing factor.  Seeing a Disney movie address this topic reminds us that there’s a need for it in the first place, and it’s a bit saddening to realize that.  I’m not looking to bash Zootopia, because I did genuinely like it and thought it did a good job of presenting an adult topic in an accessible way for children; it was just a little too realistic for the normally magical Disney, and took some getting used to.  The moral is certainly a vast improvement over what certain earlier Disney films teach us, so if nothing else at least the company is progressing with the times. It’s just sad to think that we’re still at a point where films like this need to be made, and that tolerance isn’t just a norm that we all automatically subscribe to. Maybe I’m reading a bit too much into this (it is just an animated movie, after all).  Either way it’s a really good film, just be aware that if you’re looking for a light-hearted, fluff film that doesn’t make you think, you’ll probably be disappointed.

-Jess

Big Hero 6 (2014)

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It’s really great to see that Disney has once again hit its stride, and has been turning out a number of truly entertaining films in recent years.  The latest on my list is Big Hero 6, a contemporary story about a young boy named Hiro and a healthcare robot named Baymax.  Since this movie is only a few short years old I won’t give much away, but suffice it to say that this film features Hiro and Baymax teaming up with a handful of smart and industrious college engineering students to take on a bad guy.

That description sucks, I know. It’s just impossible to describe it more without giving away key plot points that are better revealed while watching the film.  What I can tell you is that this movie is creative, and has a slightly different feel than some other Disney films. For once though, I don’t mean that in a bad way.  Parts of it remind me of Meet the Robinsons, specifically the heavy emphasis on science and science-based careers.  Disney’s bread and butter is magic, but I really like that they ‘ve crafted a fun movie centered around science.  Had this film come out when I was a child, I might have been more inclined to study engineering or another science-related field.  It’s great to see a kid’s movie that doesn’t fall on magic as its sole source of entertainment, and shows that other, more tangible forms of “magic” can be equally as interesting.

While the film is grounded in science, it doesn’t sacrifice heart.  There are plenty of emotional scenes peppered throughout the film (some are even too emotional, if you ask me).  I appreciate the fact that Disney figured out how to balance these characteristics, helping create a movie that is logical and heartfelt all at the same time.  Hiro and Baymax have a great relationship, and yes, Baymax fills in as the amusing animal-like sidekick that has been popularized by Disney over the years.  He’s cute, innocent, and endearing, and there’s no doubt in my mind that you’ll like him after watching the film.

This post is a little sad and lackluster, since I can’t discuss much without giving away key moments of the story, and I don’t want to spoil anything.  Suffice it to say that it’s well worth a watch, and will certain take your emotions on a roller coaster ride.  Is that a good thing? I’ll leave it up to you to decide.

-Jess

Frozen (2013)

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I feel as though this movie doesn’t really need a post all its own. After all, is there anyone not already familiar with the Frozen phenomena?  After all, this movie was (and to a slightly lesser extent, still is) BIG.  There are countless memes and articles about why this movie is the best, and how it’s the forerunner for so many wonderful tropes that Disney has thus far ignored, etc etc.  Now before I go being all contrarian, let me make it clear: I actually like this movie very much. It’s well written, has beautiful animations and music, and the story itself is fun and heartfelt.  That being said, I do feel as though it’s just a little overrated.

To be fair, that’s not the movie’s fault.  It was released just like countless Disney films before it, and it somehow morphed into this worldwide obsession with the stories and characters that nobody could have predicted.  A quick search online will show you numerous arguments that Frozen is so forward thinking, that Disney finally gets it.  For the three people in the world who don’t already know the story: Elsa and Anna are sisters, as well as princesses. After their parents die, Elsa assumes the throne as queen, but she has a secret: mysterious ice powers that she has kept hidden from everyone her entire life.  Unable to control them, Elsa thrusts her kingdom into perpetual winter and flees the castle.  Anna then spends a good part of the movie trying to find Elsa and convince her that they can figure everything out together.

As stories go, this one is really well done, and I can certainly see where the obsession comes from.  Neither Elsa nor Anna is focused on finding a husband (in fact, the movie finally addresses the absurd notion perpetuated in its previous films with Elsa’s classic line, “You can’t marry a man you just met”, eliciting a chorus of, “About damn time, Disney” from around the world.)  There is a major emphasis on sisterly love and sacrifice here, leading many to claim that this is the first popular Disney film to not emphasize romantic love as its primary theme (to which I say umm hello? Have you seen Mulan?) 

I get it, I really do.  Top of a more progressive story with a cast of lovable and funny side characters and you’re sure to have a hit on your hands. I think my issue is just that so many people over-emphasize the groundbreaking nature of Frozen that I can’t help but feel that it’s being blown out of proportion.  While I will agree that Frozen seems to present certain themes in a more straight-forward light than others, it’s not the first Disney film to address such themes.  Beauty and the Beast features sacrifice for non-romantic love, and Brother Bear emphasizes the bond between siblings much the same way Frozen does.  People seem to forget these points when discussing this film, and it just irks me because it detracts from the other great work Disney has done in its time.

Now that I’ve sufficiently pissed off the die-hard Frozen fans, I really must emphasize that I actually like this film very much.  The characters are funny and the princesses are more relatable than many (compare how Anna and Cinderella wake up and you’ll know what I mean).  Olaf is the cutest little snowman ever, and if you’re ever having a bad day, just turn on “Let it Go” and belt it out. You’ll instantly feel better, I guarantee it.

I hated writing this post, not wanting to sound like I was bashing a film that I enjoyed.  I guess my issue is more with the fan reaction to the film than the film itself. Of course, I’m not begrudging anybody being obsessed with a movie, and certainly don’t want to criticize anyone’s interests. I just wish people wouldn’t lift up this movie by forgetting or insulting the rest of Disney’s canon by claiming Frozen is the first to do anything. Have there been some crummy Disney films? A look at my past posts will tell you that, at least in my opinion, there definitely have been.  Does that mean they’ve all been sub-par? Of course not.  Many of them are truly wonderful works of art, and shouldn’t be forgotten just because a great film has recently been released.

Now that this post has completely veered away from Frozen and turned into a diatribe against “in the moment” fandom, I think it’s best to sign off for now.  If by some chance you haven’t seen Frozen yet, I highly recommend it. If you’ve already seen it, what do you think? Is the Frozen phenomenon just a little over-hyped, or am I completely off my rocker?

Both are equally likely.

-Jess

Wreck-It Ralph (2012)

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Ever wish you could watch a movie about some of your favorite vintage video game characters? Well, your wish has been granted (at least, sort of) with Wreck-It Ralph, Disney’s original and surprisingly creative 2012 film.  This is another one of those “I never got around to seeing it” Disney films, so I didn’t know what to expect. I had remembered hearing that this had received pretty favorable reviews, but then reviews aren’t everything, and just because the world likes something is no guarantee that I will. In this instance though, it turns out the world was correct.

Wreck-It Ralph stars, you guessed it, Wreck-It Ralph, a villain in a classic arcade game called Fix-It Felix Jr.  Ralph has been the villain in his game for 30 years, and he dreams of more.  In a truly creative twist, we get to see Ralph and company travel between games, using their power cords and surge protectors to journey from cabinet to cabinet.  The novelty of this is that while Wreck-It Ralph and his fellow characters from Fix-It Felix Jr. might be made-up, we get to see cameos from plenty of real characters sprinkled throughout the film.  From Qbert and Bowser to Chun-Li and Sonic, there are nearly too many classic characters to count in this film. Sure, they’re not the stars, but my inner gamer was extremely excited to see appearances by so many classic characters.

Aside from these cameos, there’s also a great story in this film. Ralph is on a journey to win a hero’s medal, and along the way he meets Vanelope, a girl from a sickly-sweet-but-I-still-want-to-play-it game called Sugar Rush (think Mario Kart, but with candy everything).  Vanelope is a glitch in the game, meaning she’s not allowed to participate in the actual game play in case her glitching causes the shop owner to think the game is broken and unplug it forever.  The explanation given is descriptive enough to give the film a unique twist, rather than feeling like a typical rehashing of a story we’ve heard a million times before.  A bulk of the story takes place in the Sugar Rush game, meaning we’re met with an onslaught of candy-related puns and humor, yet surprisingly they’re creative and never cross the line of too much. Ralph is torn between searching for his medal and helping the young racer, and the relationship that develops between them is sweet and sassy enough to feel true to the characters.

Without giving too much away, I must say this film is a must-watch.  Mid-way through the movie I found myself idly wishing that there were more appearances by real characters, but upon further reflection I respect why Disney wrote the film the way they did. If real characters played a larger part in the film, it would have morphed into a Mario movie, or a Sonic movie, etc.  Here, we get the nostalgia and enjoyment of seeing characters from real games on-screen, while still allowing Disney to create a film that is entirely their own.  Rather than feeling derivative, Wreck-It Ralph  is a wholly original story, peppered with enough gaming references to instantly send me back to my childhood and reminisce about all of the incredible Nintendo games I played back then (…or played last Saturday, if I’m being honest).

There’s honestly very little for me to criticize with this film, which given some of my recent reviews is surprising.  I just honestly really enjoyed this film from start to finish. In the past I’ve criticized Disney films for straying too far from their roots, trying to be modern instead of focusing on interpretations of classic stories.  Here Disney found the perfect balance, giving a modern twist to “classic” stories in the form of vintage games.  It’s an engaging and enjoyable story, and one that hopefully will influence Disney’s storytelling method moving forward.

-Jess

Winnie the Pooh (2011)

Image result for winnie the pooh 2011If you’ve read my post on The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, you know that Pooh Bear and I go way back.  I grew up with that silly old bear, and he and his Hundred Acre Wood friends hold a special place in my heart.  I never got around to seeing this when it was released back in 2011, so I was excited to finally sit down and see what Pooh of the 21st century would look like.

Needless to say, I was…underwhelmed.

That’s not to say that the movie is bad. It’s genuinely not a bad film. There’s just a part of me that wonders why it needed to be made in the first place.  Winnie the Pooh stays very true to the original film, featuring all of the same characters and generally the same character designs.  The layout of the film is even the same, taking place within the pages of a book, in which the pages and paragraphs appear in various scenes as though the characters are living among them.

I love this. I really do. I loved it about the original and I love that this film wanted to pay homage to it in such an endearing way.  That being said, there were almost too many similarities to make this film meaningful in its own right. Was it just because Disney thought they could cash in by remaking a film from 25 years prior? Did they think today’s kids wouldn’t be interested in the “old” story, so it had to be remade? (And if that’s the case, why keep everything the same? Why not modernize the whole story?)  There were just so many similarities that I found myself wondering what the purpose of this film was.

That being said, there are a few distinct differences between this and the original that stood out to me. Unfortunately, neither are positive.  The first is that all of the characters seem to be engulfed in a cloud of cynicism.  What I loved about the original characters was that they were so innocent and earnest in their naivete.  Here they’re still naive and silly, but when someone makes a mistake or doesn’t know something, the others criticize or insult him.  There is just something about all of the characters that feels edgy, and it didn’t sit well with me.   I prefer to think of these characters as perfectly imperfect, with a sense of childish wonder and amusement that never fades.  This just felt lacking from the newer version.

My second complaint is more superficial, but really stood out to me.  In this film the main antagonist is the fabled Backson, a terrible creature that is responsible for all of life’s little woes.

Um…excuse me…what exactly is wrong with heffalumps and woozles? Are kids today incapable of appreciating the brilliance that is these “scary” creatures?  Half the fun of heffalumps and woozles is saying heffalumps and woozles.  “Backson”, a simple misreading of “back soon”, is not nearly as entertaining.  I would really love to know why this plot point was changed when so many others were kept the same.  Yes, it’s a fairly minor point in the grand scheme of things, but it stood out to me the whole film, and I just couldn’t let it go.

Perhaps that’s my problem with this film as a whole. I’m stuck on my childhood memories of Pooh Bear and don’t want to see anything about him changed or altered in any way.  Maybe today’s generation loves this film the way I love The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and perhaps I’m just not the target audience for this film.  I’m very much attached to the Pooh Bear of my youth, and the thought that he could be changed in any way, however slight, doesn’t sit well.  This review should probably be taken with a grain of salt, because I’m entirely incapable of being unbiased.  It could very well be a great film, but I think I’ll stick with the original.

Long live the heffalumps and woozles.

-Jess

Tangled (2010)

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I haven’t been too kind to Disney films lately. To be fair, it’s because the films I’m reviewing haven’t been all that great.  From Home on the Range to Chicken Little, Disney has faltered in trying to match the magic and adventure of some of their earlier pictures.  Looking to regain some traction, Disney returned to one of their staple elements: that of the Disney princess.  Of course, this couldn’t be your typical “wait around to be saved by a prince” Princess movie.  Gone were the days in which a princess could sit idly by and allow someone else to do all the work.  Tangled followed in the footsteps of late 90’s Disney heroines, focusing on a young woman who makes her own choices and chases after her own dreams.

Given Disney’s recent track record, this could have been a train wreck. Instead, it wound up being a genuinely great film that is easily on par with some of the greatest Disney classics.  I don’t make that claim lightly though.  There are a number of reasons that this film is so endearing and enjoyable, but nearly all of them have to do with Disney finally striking a perfect balance between classic and modern storytelling.

We’ve got the Disney princess motif, always a big money-maker.  They’ve also dug up a classic children’s story that they hadn’t adapted yet.  Somehow, even though they tend to completely veer away from the original source material in these instances, it works out incredibly well (and results in fewer traumatized children, I’m sure). On top of that we’ve got a return to the traditional Disney musical. Yes, there have been songs featured in recent Disney releases, but this was the first in quite a while to actively feature characters singing within the narrative of the movie.  You don’t realize how important they are to a Disney picture until they’re not there.

These classic tropes help ground Tangled in Disney’s past, while the creative team was able to likewise give the characters a more modern spin (without making them too modern and of their time, which could only lead to them seeming “dated” in a few short years).  Gone are the one-dimensional characters of yore.  Here, instead of nameless and boring Prince Charming, we get Flynn Rider, a roguish and somewhat selfish thief who stumbles upon Rapunzel hidden away in a tower.  Here we see a pivotal shift in the story as well: in the original story, the prince climbs Rapunzel’s hair and rescues her…and that’s it.  She’s a pretty passive princess.  Here, Rapunzel was kidnapped as a baby and doesn’t even know she’s a princess, and literally blackmails Flynn to taking her to the city to see the mysterious “floating lights” she’s been mesmerized by her whole life.

Blackmail and a dream will take a girl far.

While the ensuing story is fun and sweet enough all its own, what really stands out are the details. All of the supporting characters have their own personalities. Yes, some are more fleshed out than others, but they all lend something to the story.  The villains are truly unlikable, while the heroes and sidekicks are actually worth rooting for.

Speaking of sidekicks.  Thank you Disney for bringing back the animal sidekick.  Pascal, the adorably expressive chameleon of Tangled, is one of the cutest things ever.  Go ahead, try and tell me I’m wrong. He doesn’t speak, but his face conveys emotion so well that he’s one of the biggest highlights of the film.  When a speechless side character can leave a mark like that, you know you’ve got a winner.  I don’t think I’ve loved a sidekick so much since Pocahontas’s Meeko, and that’s saying something.

I’m hesitant to reveal much of the plot here because, unlike the older films of my (and likely your) youth, this is a much newer release, and it’s possible fewer people of my generation have seen it yet. I don’t want to ruin the whole story (although spoiler!: there’s a “happily ever after” ending, because this is Disney and that’s what you do).  Suffice it to say that Tangled marks a turning point in my view of Disney’s animated films.  After years of searching for the perfect balance between fun and sentiment (and let’s be honest, chasing after the brilliance that is Pixar), the studio finally managed to produce a truly great story.  I actually feel bad for Tangled, as it seems to be too often overshadowed by the insanely popular Frozen, released just a few short years later (but more on that in another post).  This is a sweet, funny, entertaining film that finds the perfect blend between magic and reality, classic and modern.

The “too stinkin’ cute for words” chameleon is just a bonus.

-Jess