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

The Princess and the Frog (2009)

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It feels like it’s been so long since I’ve watched a decent Disney film that The Princess and the Frog was a breath of fresh air.  After the less-than-stellar previous films the studio released, they seemed to want to return to their roots, building a huge promotional campaign around the fact that this would be a hand-drawn animated picture. Of course, that’s partially true. There are still computer generated graphics and backgrounds in the film, but the characters themselves are hand-drawn, lending a sense of classicism that has been missing from recent films.

The Princess and the Frog is loosely (very loosely) based on “The Frog Prince”. We all know the story: princess kisses frog, frog turns into handsome prince, they live happily ever after. Obviously, this would have been a pretty short movie if they stuck to the original tale, so Disney altered it quite a bit (after all, that’s sort of Disney’s M.O.).  In their version we meet Tiana, a strong-willed, driven young woman with dreams of one day opening her own restaurant. Enter Naveen, a spoiled and penniless prince who gets wrapped up with a magician who turns him into a frog.  Naveen seeks out a princess to turn him back into a prince, but instead finds Tiana. Mistaking her for a princess, they kiss, but Tiana is turned into a frog herself, leading the two to journey across Louisiana’s bayous in search of a way for them both to change back.

The premise alone is cute, but then most Disney films sound cute in theory.  What’s nice is that this one actually follows through on that cuteness, providing a fun and magically animated escape for viewers.  The animation, especially in the bayou scenes, is great, with fireflies flitting across the water and just enough magic sprinkled throughout to remind us that this is Disney.

What stood out to me most about this film was that Tiana is not a princess; she’s just a hard-working girl with a dream.  She’s not looking to get married or have someone take care of her.  Instead, she works two jobs to save up every penny she needs to make her dreams a reality.  It’s admirable, and a far better role-model for young girls than some of the earlier Disney princesses (looking at you, Aurora).

That being said,  both Mistah J and I admitted that we preferred the scenes that bookended the film; that is, the scenes where Tiana is human.  The frog portion is fun, but her human story is so much more compelling, and more about her.  As a frog she finds love and realizes there’s more to life than success, which is all well and good, but her drive towards her goal is what really gives the film heart. Not only is it a great story, but it’s so progressive by Disney standards that it can’t help but stand out.  I honestly would have preferred to watch an entire movie about Tiana working towards her restaurant opening, without any love interest being included (sorry Naveen).

All things considered, I really enjoyed this film. It’s not perfect, of course: the bad guy isn’t really fleshed out enough to feel like a real threat, and seems to just exist in the background so that the film has an antagonist.  Frankly, Naveen’s selfishness could have filled this role just as well, but I suppose we needed some explanation as to why people are turning into frogs… The Princess and the Frog is certainly a big step in the right direction for Disney’s animation.  By simply stepping back and reassessing what made them so popular in past decades, they were able to craft a film that has the perfect blend of magic and realism, hearkening back to the height of their film-making.  It’s a wonderful feeling, as though the company is returning to the classic storytelling methods of my childhood, making me excited to work my way through their newest films.

-Jess

Batgirl: Batgirl Rising

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I’m going a bit rogue, posting about comics out of continuity order, and ones I read quite a while back on top of that.  I’m taking a more lackadaisical approach to the blog, writing about whatever comic I feel like, regardless of its place in continuity. I’m still reading the comics in continuity order to keep up the overall narrative, but why limit myself to writing about everything in order? It keeps it more fun this way.

Okay, on to the comic at hand:

I really, really like Stephanie Brown as Batgirl.  Watching her begin as Spoiler, progressing to her all-t00-brief role as Robin, her death, the reveal that she was alive all along, and finally taking up the mantle of Batgirl has been quite a roller coaster.  I was hesitant when Cassandra Cain took on the role; I liked Barbara and wasn’t thrilled when Cassandra took over. Then Cassandra left and Stephanie adopted the role, which was likewise a bit troublesome.

Yes, I was a bit attached to Barbara as Batgirl, and given how violently Barbara’s role as such ended, how could I not be a bit upset that the character was moving on without her?

Stephanie’s story was the best of both worlds, with Barbara’s Oracle mentoring and helping Stephanie as she adopted her new mask.  The two shared a believable, sisterly bond, sometimes arguing and disagreeing but ultimately caring for one another and working together when it mattered most.  More than anything, both young women felt incredibly relatable and real, no easy feat when dealing with masked vigilantes.

Not only does Stephanie deal with being Batgirl, but she gets to address plenty of other issues that typical teenagers might face. Breaking up with her boyfriend (Tim Drake), wanting Batman’s approval (no doubt a substitute for her absent father): these are all realistic scenarios that readers can relate to, while still providing escapism in the form of nightly crime-fighting.  I’m a fan of this balance in stories, helping ground otherwise fantastical comics in our own reality.

Sadly, Stephanie’s tenure as Batgirl was all too brief.  There are only a few short trades collecting her run as Batgirl before New 52 hit, altering continuity and making Barbara Gordon Batgirl once again, and this is the only trade from that run collected on “the shelf”.  I haven’t come across any reference to Stephanie in the New 52 yet, either as Batgirl or otherwise, wondering if I will at all.  It’s too bad, really. Stephanie was such a great addition to the Bat family, flawed and unsure, trying to come to terms with her own identity even as she attempted to craft one for herself.  There was a humanity to her character that was all too real, and that went a long way in helping create a truly engaging, likable comic.  I’m hoping at some point down the road, perhaps Stephanie will return.  With Barbara back it seems unlikely, but I’m holding out hope that maybe she’ll come back in some capacity. She’s much dynamic to be kept out of the fray.

-Jess

Wonder Woman Volume 1: Blood

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Amidst DC’s relaunch with the New 52, every title in their collection was restarted at issue #1, with numerous changes to continuity being established and laid forth in the ensuing comics.  Some things have changed, many remain the same, and some characters and events are as yet unknown as to how they play into this new multiverse.

I’d already read the first three trades of the newest Superman, so I knew that even the most seminal of characters would be facing some changes.  That being said, reading this Wonder Woman trade has only further proven to me that there is an inherent flaw in the way writers choose to tell Diana’s story. There have been numerous continuity shifts throughout the run of DC comics, but for the pillar characters of Superman and Batman, much of their mythology remains unchanged.  Superman was sent to Earth from a dying Krypton by his parents; Batman watched his parents be gunned down in Crime Alley.  The minor details may shift over the years, but these basic tropes are kept in place.

…And then there’s Diana. Over the years her origin has been rewritten countless times. She was the shaped from clay, she was Hippolyta’s child brought forth by the Gods.  Now, it is revealed that she is the daughter of Hippolyta and Zeus.  These constant changes to the core being of a character as seminal as Wonder Woman have helped keep her from attaining the same mythological weight as her fellow heroes.   With so many changes, Diana’s history feels uncertain. Whereas Batman and Superman have certain facets of their history that remain unchanged, Diana’s is more blurry. Yes, she’s always an Amazon who travels to man’s world, but her motives and backstory vary enough to keep a clear image of her purpose from forming.  It leaves her character feeling uneven and ungrounded, something that is not true of the other key DC heroes. While Batman and Superman’s stories can generally be read as a single narrative despite the reboots and continuity shifts, Diana’s are often completely rewritten, making it difficult to align her stories into one cohesive history.

This leaves us with little choice but to approach each run on the title as self-contained. That being said, Brian Azzarello’s run so far has been quite well done. Wonder Woman, upon learning that Zeus is her father, strikes out on her own and attempts to defend a young girl (pregnant with Zeus’s child) from Hera’s wrath.  The goddess has vowed to destroy her husband’s mistress and unborn child (obnoxiously blaming the young girl who didn’t even know she was sleeping with a god rather than blame her philandering husband).  Diana does what she can to stop Hera, though facing off against numerous gods proves to be difficult.

I appreciate the fact that Azzarello enlists less common gods for his story. We get to see lesser names like Hermes and Strife, rather than solely focusing on the biggies like Ares and Zeus.  I enjoyed seeing Wonder Woman branch out within the mythology, acknowledging that there are more than just a small handful of gods to work with.  That being said, one minor issue I took with the story was the fact that Azzarello bounces back and forth between the Greek and Roman naming of the gods.  Within one scene, the same character refers to the king of the gods as both Zeus and Jupiter, and while both are technically the same name for one being, the inconsistency bothered me. Perhaps it was intentional to keep from locking in to a single mythology, pointing out that these are the gods of numerous civilizations. Nevertheless, it was a small detail that bugged me while reading, and took me out of the story a bit.

Overall Aazarello’s story was engaging and enjoyable, but at the same time I still can’t get over the fact that Diana’s story over the years is so disjointed. This is no fault of Azzarello’s, but rather the result of numerous writers reworking Diana’s origin, motives, and history.  Her story has a much less solid foundation than Superman or Batman’s, providing less for future writers to build upon.  Though one of the core three, Diana’s continues to remain the weakest of the three stories. It’s a shame, because it really feels like there is so much there to work with. No one can seem to agree on how she should be portrayed though: fierce warrior ready to fight at any given moment, proponent for peace who believes all life is sacred, or a combination of both?  Only when this motivation is worked out once and for all will her character be able to gain a more firm footing within the continuity.

-Jess

The Multiversity

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Have I mentioned how much I love Grant Morrison?

DC has gone back and forth with the concept of the multiverse for decades now. It existed, then it didn’t, then it did again. The idea was always interesting to me, but I must admit that at times I found it downright confusing.  The earliest hints of it, when all we had were Earths 1 and 2, was confusing enough, but at least could mostly be kept straight.  Once they threw in numerous Earths though, I got a little lost.  I’m on more firm ground now, but only after fumbling my way though multiple trades spanning decades of publication, constantly asking Mistah J to explain who is from which Earth or what makes that Earth different from another (the man has the patience of a saint).

I wish I could have had a collection like Multiversity earlier on in my readings.  Loosely interconnected stories about the various 52 Earths that comprise the multiverse, Grant Morrison’s Multiveristy attempts to explain just what the heck is going on in DC Comics after the New 52 launch.  Many of the issues collected here are just brief asides, meant to fill us in on what numerous obscure characters are up to in this new reality (Captain Carrot! You’re back!).  Occasionally people from various Earths will interact, reminding the reader that the worlds are all interconnected, but for the most part they exist on their own, and their stories merely help to flesh out this newly formed multiverse.

My favorite collection in this trade is smack dab in the middle, in which Grant Morrison puts together a handy-dandy compendium about each and every Earth in the multiverse.  He writes a brief summary of each world, noting who are the key heroes on that world, or what might set it apart from others.  He does this for EVERY Earth.

Well, almost every one. Since Morrison is a genius, he’s far too intelligent to shackle the entire DC writing team with his vision of the entire multiverse (at least that’s what I’m choosing to believe).  He left seven of the worlds as mysteries, saying that little is known about them at this time. This is brilliant, and you can’t tell me otherwise. Those worlds can remain mysterious until a time arises that a writer can make use of one of them, and create their own Earth within the multiverse that can play into a future story.  Much better planning that forcing a writer to work with what you’ve already roughly laid out, no?

They may not be super detailed, but the Earth descriptions are just enough to make me want to read more about many of them.  My favorite by far is hardly mentioned in this trade, sadly: Earth 11, a.k.a. the Girl Power Earth (that’s what I call it, at least) where women are the primary heroes.

Um…YES PLEASE. Somebody needs to write the heck out of an Earth 11 comic right now, thanks.

Given how obvious it is that DC wanted to create a natural jumping-on point for new readers, a series like Multiversity is only logical.  Morrison brought plenty of talent and creativity to it to keep the series from feeling stiff or encyclopedic, which I greatly appreciated.  There’s no doubt in my mind that many of these Earths will play into other New 52 comics (many already have, in fact) so I’m grateful for this primer on the various Earths I may encounter in my reading.

If only this existed back in my early days of reading “the shelf”, maybe I wouldn’t have been so utterly confused as to what the heck was going on. Oh well, if anything it shows me how far I’ve come, so I can’t really complain.

-Jess

Meet the Robinsons (2007)

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Well, I made a mistake and accidentally wrote these posts of out order. This was meant to come before my previous post on Bolt, but alas, I’m a dummy and reversed these two movies. Oh well, it may actually work in my favor, given what I want to talk about today…

Meet the Robinsons was the first Disney film in what felt like a very long time that I actually genuinely enjoyed.  In reality, it had only been a mere 5 years since I fell in love with Lilo and Stitch, but somehow those 5 years felt like a lifetime.  When I finally saw Meet the Robinsons, I felt as though Disney had finally found its voice again.  There had been plenty of memorable Pixar films released in that time, but as my previous posts outline, Disney’s films were a bit lackluster, to say the least.  Meet the Robinsons, at least for me, was a turning point.

The film tells the story of young Lewis, an orphaned boy fascinated by science who spends his time dreaming up inventions.  After a particulatly disasterous showing at the school science fair, Lewis is whisked away to the future by Wilbur Robinson, informed that he is the only person who can help stop the evil “bowler hat guy”.  What transpires after this is equal parts absurdity and heart. There are a handful of “reveals” throughout the film that I won’t spoil here, partially because I don’t want to give it away and partially because it’s a bit too elaborate to accurately summarize.  Without revealing too much, let’s just say that a dinosaur, singing frogs, and a meatball cannon are all involved.

This film is silly. There are numerous points that feel downright ludicrous and completely out of touch with reality. Why then do I consider this a great example of a Disney film? Because despite all of this, Disney manages to keep the film grounded.  Yes, there are fantastical elements, including time travel and sentient robots, and there are plenty of absurd elements that don’t scream “Disney”.  Even so, the heart of this film is about a young boy’s search for a family to call his own, and Disney keeps the tone light while never letting you forget that key plot point.

I’ve found that this balance is key to any great Disney film.  Aladdin has incredibly light-hearted, funny moments (mostly due to the genius that was Robin Williams), but at its heart there is a lesson about chasing your dreams and fighting for what you want in life.  Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King each have characters who serve as comedic relief, but each respective film still has darker, more serious elements. These not only make it more appealing to adult viewers, but to children as well, not bothering to pander to a younger audience but instead treating children with the respect and understanding that they can comprehend these deeper elements, at least on some level.

In addition to the overall tone, Meet the Robinsons surpasses its successor Bolt by being silly, but being earnest in its silliness.  Bolt was too self-conscious for its own good, poking fun at a character who would believe that magic powers were real.  Meet the Robinsons may switch out “magic” for “science”, but the same basic principle is at work.  The movie embraces its humorous and extraordinary elements, never apologizing for depicting something that may not fit into our “rational” world.  I find this to be far more endearing than watching Disney self-consciously stumble through a film as they worry that the magic we all loved as children isn’t catchy enough for today’s youth.

Meet the Robinsons is not a perfect film, but it is far better than many Disney churned out in this period.  Again, perhaps I’m biased, and am simply holding all films to the gold standard of the Disney heyday of my youth. Surely no future Disney movies could ever live up to my childhood nostalgia?  Probably not, but Meet the Robinsons does a great job of trying, and appreciate the ability to prolong my childhood by even the briefest of moments.

-Jess

Bolt (2008)

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I watched this movie once when it was first released on DVD. Of course, I was babysitting a 4-year old at the time who spent the whole film putting stickers all over my face, so I can’t say I remember much of it. I had thought that it was somewhat decent though, at least as far as I remembered. I was even happy to be out of Disney’s dreary slump, figuring this would be a step in the right direction.

Sigh. I hate when I’m wrong, especially when it means sitting through another Disney misstep.  The opening scene, though a bit surprising, grabbed my attention. It feels a lot like an action film, with a supe-rpowered dog battling bad guys and trying to save his owner.  About two minutes into the film we realized that Bolt was basically Krypto the Wonder-Dog, pondered why a studio didn’t just make that movie because it would be such an easy success, and then decided to just go with the “Bolt is really Krypto” thing because it made the film more enjoyable. I figured we were in for an odd but enjoyable ninety minutes.

…And then the first scene ended, and it’s revealed that the whole thing is all scripted for a television series.  For some unknown reason, the producers decided that they got a better reaction out of Bolt when the dog believed he actually has superpowers, and so never let him see the cameras/find out that it’s all fake.

Um…what the heck??  First of all, how do you hide an entire film crew from a friggin’ dog, and why would you even bother?  This is completely nonsensical and quite frankly turned me off from the movie early on. I’m totally fine suspending disbelief, but that’s generally for more fantastical situations. If we’re supposed to be watching this movie knowing full-well that there are no super-powered puppies running around, then the rest of the film should be equally rooted in reality.  Not so. Instead, an episode of the show ends with Bolt’s owner Penny being “kidnapped”, and Bolt, believing it’s real, runs away to try and rescue her.

What follows is painfully predictable. Bolt meets up with a couple side characters (a street-wise alley cat and a t.v.-addicted hamster) and slowly realizes that he doesn’t really have special powers after all.  The cat teaches him how to be a proper dog (fetching, drinking out of the toilet, etc etc) as they make their way across country to try to get back to Penny.

The climax of the film ends with Penny and Bold being trapped in a burning building, with a surprisingly ominous scene in which the two seem to resign themselves to dying in the fiery inferno.  It’s up to Bolt to use his “super bark” to save the day, alerting a rescue team to their whereabouts. The film abruptly ends with Penny and Bolt leaving the show in favor of a quieter, real life, complete with the newly adopted cat and hamster.

I wanted to like this movie, honestly.  After a slew of less-than-stellar films, I had high hopes that Disney would turn it around with this one. Unfortunately, it just feels like it misses the mark yet again.  Bolt at least attempts to instill a sense of heart into the film, a trademark of any true Disney classic, but it just doesn’t quite live up to the expected level of sentiment.  I think my primary issue with the movie is that it feels too self-conscious; had the film been a straight-up “superhero dog” movie, I probably would have liked it better. As it stands though, it’s as though Disney was too worried that something so basic would work, and so spend much of the film poking fun at Bolt for believing that his powers are real. A word to Disney writers: magic is sort of your bread and butter. People love your films because of the magical, fantastical element. We want to believe that anything is possible, no matter how far-fetched. The Disney crew on this film just didn’t seem to believe in their power to convince the audience that that magic was real, and so left us with a film that feels a bit flat and too condescending to be a true Disney classic.

Bolt is not the worst of the worst, but I had higher hopes going in. I’ve seen it, but I think once is enough for me. Knowing what films await me in upcoming weeks, I know Disney is capable of so much more, and that it’s not just my adult bias clouding my judgement.  Future films on the list of Disney releases will garner a great deal of praise from me, even though they were released in my adult years. Sadly, Bolt is not one of them. It’s missing the earnest sentiment and belief that anything’s possible that makes a Disney film truly great.

-Jess