Category: Family Animation


FantasticMrFox1

If ever a film represented the fine line between “kids’ movie that adults can also enjoy” and “adult movie that kids may enjoy,” it’s Wes Anderson’s debut animated feature, Fantastic Mr. Fox. The Iron Giant might have dealt with the Red Scare and McCarthyism but it’s a children’s tale in the E.T. vein at heart. Up dealt with old age and the death of our loved ones, but it was also a children’s adventure tale to its core. On the opposite side of that spectrum, Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are was a film about childhood specifically directed at adults, and I can’t imagine any children enjoying it. 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox constantly straddles the line between children’s aesthetics and adult content, and it makes for one of the most magical animated films of the aughts.

My relationship with Wes Anderson films is complicated at best. While I consider Rushmore to be one of the defining comedies of the 90s and think The Royal Tenenbaums is a lesser but still great film, I often find his works wearisome. Anderson plays hopscotch with the line between endearingly eccentric and obnoxiously artificial like a teenaged hipster on PCP. Moonrise Kingdom was a surprisingly powerful meditation on young love and the essential loneliness of childhood, but the general aesthetics of the film almost felt like a parody of the increasingly 50s pastiche aesthetic that has come to define Anderon’s career. But in Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson’s general taste for the zany and outre hits the nail right on the head.

FantasticMrFox2

Crafted in gorgeous stop-motion animation (ala Paranorman), Fantastic Mr. Fox is an adaptation of the Roald Dahl book of the same name (with many liberties taken with the story). The titular Mr. Fox (The Descendants‘ George Clooney) is a retired chicken thief. Leaving his job as a professional burglar when his wife (One True Thing‘s Meryl Streep) becomes pregnant with their first child (Jason Schwartzman), the film picks up 12 fox-years later with Mr. Fox as a newspaperman struggling with the doldrums of his day-to-day life. Mr. Fox has a happy and loving wife, and his son, Ash, is a basically good kid even if he’s no athlete and a little bit “different” (read: homosexual). Also, his nephew, Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson) comes to stay with them. As a last ditch effort to feel alive while he still can, Mr. Fox buys a new home, and it nearly spells the destruction of his entire family.

The tree is near three different produce farms: a chicken farm, a cider factory, and a turkey farm. And being that close to a treasure trove of seemingly easily stolen goods is more temptation than Mr. Fox can resist. With the help of his opossum friend Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky), Mr. Fox begins stealing en masse from the three farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean (one of which is Harry Potter‘s Michael Gambon). And although Mr. Fox and Kylie are successful at first, their thievery quickly attracts the attention of the vicious and cruel (but rightly angered) humans who threaten the ecosystem of the entire animal kingdom in order to hunt Mr. Fox down.

FantasticMrFox3

If all of that plot description seems much darker than your average children’s movie, that’s because it is. Fantastic Mr. Fox is PG and earns every last inch of that rating. Alcohol is explicitly referred to as such; violence isn’t implied. It’s shown; characters curse frequently but say “cuss” instead of the actual curse word; the main character is an unrepentant thief; guns are fired with reckless abandon. In an age where so many children’s movies are neutered and focus-driven to blandness (how I felt about much of Frozen), Fantastic Mr. Fox aims for the older kids in the audiences and isn’t afraid to offend a few stuffier parents in the process, and thank god for it.

But, beyond its willingness to play with slightly darker material, Fantastic Mr. Fox has a distinct visual style all its own. While many elements of the film are clearly drawn from Wes Anderson’s wheelhouse (the yellow colors, the title cards, the general 1950s feel), most stop-motion films don’t look like this. Although the humans have the typical Wallace & Gromit claymation feel, all of the animals in the film are gorgeously constructed. Because of the film’s stop-motion style, you are constantly aware of the endless little details that go into each character, and it becomes a fun game watching Mr. Fox’s fur shift around as he’s moved between shots. Also, because Anderson used actual figures instead of CGI, there’s a tactile sense that the film’s world is lived in and it allows Anderson’s camera to really explore the film’s spaces.

FantasticMrFox4

And to top it all off, Fantastic Mr. Fox has an absurdly deep ensemble cast. In addition to the stars already mentioned, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, and Adrien Brody all make appearances. The two standout performances in the cast though are George Clooney’s Mr. Fox, which is basically an exaggerated spin on the typical Clooney charmer but with just the right amount of insanity to be an Anderson character, and Jason Schwartzman as Ash, the neurotic and self-conscious teenage son. Ash actually holds much of the emotional weight of the film, even when he’s being an asshole, and Jason Schwartzman gives one of his best performances since Rushmore in the pivotal role.

Fantastic Mr. Fox may be too weird for some. There are moments of total absurdist genius in the film (a deliciously anti-climactic pay-off to a series of jokes about wolves in the film springs immediately to mind), and that willingness to deal in surrealism may alienate viewers more accustomed to the more typically market-driven, focus-tested children’s fare. But for anyone with a taste for the truly original, Wes Anderson crafted a love letter to heist films, classic animation, and the genuine magic of childhood wonder in what is surely one of the best films of his career.

Final Score: A

 

Advertisements

TheIncredibles1

(A quick aside before I start my actual review. I am on a comically absurd amount of cold medicine at the moment and “high as a kite” is the best description of my state of mind. So, this review may be bad. My apologies.)

Occasionally, I will tell people that I think The Incredibles is the greatest superhero film of all time; they think I’m crazy. And when I say that the film adaptation of Watchmen is the only one that comes even close, they start looking for mental institutions to house me in. But, I also believe those two statements whole-heartedly, but having not seen The Incredibles since high school, I was worried that the film wouldn’t have aged as well as my exceptionally fond memories. Thankfully, it’s like fine wine. It’s only gotten better. With a dark and mature thematic complexity that manages to exceed even director Brad Bird’s earlier masterpiece, The Iron Giant. Though the film doesn’t reduce me to a sobbing, blubbering mess like Up and Toy Story 3, this earlier Pixar entry marked the beginning of the peak of Pixar’s new Golden Age and represents one of the finest children’s films of the 2000s.

More than any traditional comic book superhero film (even the best ones like The Avengers or Spiderman 2), The Incredibles not only captures the spirit of modern heroic storytelling and the grandiose mythology inherent therein, it becomes a meta-commentary on superheroes in general and both deconstructs and then reconstructs society’s need for heroes and those who are truly exceptional. With an explicit as well as implied body count that rivals Titan A.E., Brad Bird doesn’t shy away from examining the consequences of one of the most sadistic and evil villains in the Disney or Pixar canon. It creates a thrilling story that offers a lesson on the nature of truly being special without talking down to the audience or offering artificial, feel-good plaudits. The Incredibles succeeds as a spectacle-fueled children’s adventure tale as well as a philosophical examination of family and potential for the older members of the audience.

TheIncredibles2

In a situation not entirely dissimilar to Watchmen, The Incredibles takes place in a world where all superheroes have been forced to retire by a government and public distrustful of their powers and their place above them in society. Before he was forced into retirement, Bob Parr (Poltergeist‘s Craig T. Nelson) was the super-strong Mr. Incredible but now his job entails him being the opposite of hero, working as an insurance claims adjuster where he’s yelled at by his boss (My Dinner with Andre‘s Wally Shawn) for not screwing over their customers as much as humanly possible. Before Bob retired, he married fellow super, Helen/Elastigirl (Raising Arizona‘s Holly Hunter), and post-retirement the pair are not-so-happily married with three children, the ultra-fast Dash, the shy Violet (with Sue Storm’s powers from the Incredibles), and the seemingly non-super-powered infant Jack.

Bob does not adjust well to civilian life and whether he hates himself for his job or is simply bored sitting in his cramped car on his commute to work. And though Helen has come to terms with her new life, it’s clear that the life of a stay at home mom isn’t for her either and forcing her children to hide their superpowers is causing tensions at home as Dash acts out in class cause he has no way to vent his energy. Bob has even taken to, in a story meant to parallel marital infidelity, sneaking out with an old friend from his superhero days, Frozone (Django Unchained‘s Samuel L. Jackson), to fight crime while telling his wife he’s out bowling. But, when Bob gets an offer to break out of the doldrums of retirement, it’s not long til he discovers it’s a trap from a mistake from his past that has now put him and his entire family in danger.

TheIncredibles3

The voice performances from all of the principal leads are all (lame pun incoming) incredible. Craig T. Nelson’s career has been, to put it gently, non-existent since Coach got off television with only some small bit parts here and there, and it’s probably not much of a stretch to call Mr. Incredible the role of his career. He captures the frustration and ennui of an exceptional man forced into a life of mediocrity. Holly Hunter is an excellent and accomplished actress in her own right so clearly Elastigirl isn’t The Piano or Raising Arizona but she too finds herself railing against her domesticated lifestyle. And there are great supporting turns from Jason Lee as the villain of the piece and Sam Jackson as Frozone. Though, let’s face it, is it ever possible to hear Sam Jackson’s voice and not get excited?

Alright, you know what. I’m too buzzed on cold medicine to do this review justice right now. I thnk I’ve been working on it for like two and a half hours now and I’ve only written 800 words. I would usually have written two reviews of comparable length in that time. Needless to say, The Incredibles is not just one of the best children’s films of the last ten years but arguably of all time and few superhero movies get superhero storytelling as well as it does (if any). The movie is unremittingly dark for a Disney film and when many of its sugar-coated peers will start to fade into the mist of memory, The Incredibles will be around for a long, long time. I just wish I’d had the chance to review it when I was capable of stringing more than two coherent sentences together without subsequently staring at the ceiling for about five minutes in a medicinally-induced haze.

Final Score: A

 

Paranorman1

(A quick aside before my actual review. I watched this movie a week and a half ago. I’ll let that sink in for a second. It’s been like ten days since I watched this film. So, there is an unusually healthy chance that this particular review will be awful. I wouldn’t usually let that happen but there’s this national campus film festival that’s at WVU this week and I decided to compete in it, and I’ve spent the last two weeks working on my entry into the competition. And, I specifically spent last week doing principal photography and post-production for my short film which was due Monday. Throw in the fact that Grand Theft Auto V came out Tuesday and it’s any wonder that I found time to do this particular review right now. So, I apologize if this review sucks)

Had 2012’s Academy Award-nominated children’s film Paranorman came out when I was a child, it seems apparent to me that I would have adored this film beyond almost all others. That’s not to say that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy it as a grown-up (I did), but it’s stop-motion animation, macabre aesthetic, and general quirkiness would have made it fit right in with many of my favorite pieces from my childhoodAnd that fact becomes bizarre upon further introspection because it is abundantly clear to me that this eccentric gem seems designed primarily to appeal to older children at my most generous interpretation or teenagers and young adults at my most honest. Despite it’s consistently mature sense of humor and storytelling (relative for a nominal children’s film), Paranorman only fails to reach the pantheon of the greatest of children’s film because of a lack of the cathartic emotional payoff that defines classics like Toy Story 3 or The Iron Giant.

Paranorman2

Which is not to say that Paranorman suffers from the thematic staleness of the most recent Best Animated Feature winners, Rango or Brave. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Paranorman tackles heavy and often disturbing subject matter head-on. That statement about the cathartic pay-off of my favorite children’s films refers to their ability to leave me a sobbing, inconsolable wreck by film’s end despite the fact that I’m less than six months shy of being 25 years old. At no point in Paranorman was I over-run with uncontrollable emotion though I also doubt that was ever director Chris Butler’s intention. So, thankfully, Paranorman mostly made up for its lack of any sort of satisfying emotional pay-off with what is, once you dig beneath the surface, one of the darker children’s films of recent memory, dealing explicitly with bullying, loneliness, social alienation, and persecution.

Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a pre-teen loner who spends his days watching old B-zombie movies. He has no friends and everybody at school thinks he’s weird because Norman has a special power that is a non-secret in town even if no one actually thinks it’s true. Norman can see and speak to dead people. He is constantly berated by his own father for Norman being able to speak with his dead grandmother and Norman’s father doesn’t believe him. What his family believes to be Norman’s delusion also runs in Norman’s family and he has an uncle (The Big Lebowski‘s John Goodman) who can also speak to the dead. And Norman’s uncle believes that Norman is the town of Blithe Hollow’s only chance to be protected against a centuries old curse from a witch who was burnt at the stake and cursed the town with the threat of raising the dead before she died.

1900.1280.fin.002._L.0033.jpg

And I’ll leave it at that for fear of ruining the fun path this film takes over the course of its 90 minute running time. Though the film goes plenty of the places you’d expect, it also tends to at least momentarily subvert those expectations in ways that are as brutal as humanly imaginable. In much the same vein as The Iron Giant, Paranorman becomes a commentary on group hysteria and paranoia and who you think are the bad guys is twisted and warped until clear moral lines can’t actually be drawn. In this film, the line between good guy and bad guy is more ambiguously drawn than many films for grown-ups and Paranorman could serve as a suitable parable on the dangers of revenge and misunderstanding for children for years and years to come.

I’m going to draw this review to a close just because it’s been so long since I’ve actually watched it and I’m actually starting to not feel very well today. Clearly though, I could write so much more about this truly excellent children’s film. It’s visual aesthetic is perfect. It’s cut from the same cloth as children classics like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline and is wrapped in countless shout-outs to classic horror films for the adults (i.e. Norman’s cellphone has the Halloween theme as its ringtone). Though I’m not sure if this film is particularly well-known at the moment, you have my personal guarantee that over the next ten years, an intense cult fandom will develop around this movie and all of the hip parents will be showing it to their soon to be hip children.

Final Score: A-

 

PussInBoots1

Besides the moments where I watch true cinematic masterpieces for this blog (Annie Hall, Chinatown, The Tree of Life), it may be true that the best moments on this blog where I watch a film that isn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be. That may seem like a sad statement, but when you’re expecting to loathe a film, and it turns out to be at least a little enjoyable, that’s a victory. It’s the opposite of that terrible feeling when you know a movie is going to be awful (The Help) and it stays awful (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close). I’ve got a pretty set view now (after having reviewed 400 odd films for this blog) of what I like and I don’t like, and it’s gotten easier and easier for me to tell when a movie will be something I will like or not. 2011’s Puss in Boots (a spin-off of the Shrek franchise) seemed like it would be torturous, but it was, thankfully, a pleasantly surprisingly enjoyable children’s film.

For those unfamiliar with the Puss in Boots character (Antonio Banderas) from the Shrek films, he is a suave, womanizing feline thief that is the cat embodiment of the smoldering Latin lover archetype (one of many areas in which this film scores some decent jokes for the grown-ups). In his own self-contained story, Puss is his nation’s most-wanted outlaw and its most notorious lover and thief. At a bar (where he orders “leche”), Puss hears about magic beans being held by grotesque spin on Jack & Jill which are the key to a giant’s kingdom in the sky with a goose that lays golden eggs. Puss makes it his mission to steal these beans when he encounters Kitty Soft-Paws (The Faculty‘s Salma Hayek), a female cat who is an even better thief than him. Kitty is working with Humpty-Dumpty (The Hangover‘s Zach Galifianakis), a friend of Puss’s from his childhood in the orphanage but now there’s bad blood between the two and Humpty may turn out to be (awful pun incoming) a bad egg.

PussInBoots2

Antonio Banderas is essentially playing an exaggerated version of his typical film persona (that of the smolderingly sexy Latin lover) so it shouldn’t be surprising that he voices Puss well. Puss’s addition to Shrek 2 was generally considered one of the high points of that particular film, and although I’m not sure if he deserved his own spin-off film, Banderas’s deliciously hyperbolic performance and the writing’s sense of the character give him enough presence to hold the attention for the whole film. Salma Hayek is thoroughly unremarkable as Kitty, but she’s mostly a thoroughly unremarkable actress (her talents as an actress. not her physical looks which are god damned perfect). Zach Galifianakis has the chance to show off a more low-key performance for him as Humpty and he makes the parts work.

What’s most surprising about Puss in Boots is that it is a legitimately, no qualms in saying this very funny film. From the opening sequence where the film doesn’t even attempt to subtly imply that Puss just had a one night stand with a female cat, Puss in Boots blends typical children’s slapstick humor with plenty of tongue-in-cheek pop culture references and almost outright adult humor for the parents. That seems to be Dreamwork’s thing since both Shrek and Rango utilized that same set-up (Puss in Boots falls somewhere between Shrek and Rango in terms of overall quality). And sometimes, it isn’t even the biggest jokes that worked the most for me. Sometimes, it was the tiny little visual gags hidden in a scene. Particularly, Humpty’s map to the giant’s kingdom looks like a children’s map. The gorgeously animated film is full of those little touches.

PussInBoots3

I’m going to keep this review short. Puss in Boots lacks the emotional context or thematic richness of Toy Story 3 or The Iron Giant, but I had a good time for the 90 minutes I spent in its world. Much like last year’s Oscar-winning Brave, this particular Oscar-nominated children’s film is not going to wind up part of the required canon of modern animated cinema in the way that Up and other children’s classics are. You don’t need to go out of your way to watch this film if you don’t have kids. But if you have children or nieces and nephews or a young sibling and are looking for an entertaining way to pass the time with them, Puss in the Boots will get the job done and you won’t be miserable while it happens.

Final Score: B

 

SnowWhiteAndTheSevenDwarfs1

The day that I get too old to enjoy children’s movies will be the day that my heart stops being capable of having simple, innocent fun. Anyone who’s read my reviews of Toy Story 3, The Iron Giant, or Howl’s Moving Castle know the fondness I hold in my heart for great children’s film-making, and when Pixar or Studio Ghibli are involved, we’re living through a family film renaissance. But, the mark of a great children’s movie is how much the adults in the audience can appreciate it, and though 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a remarkable technical achievement as the world’s first full-length animated film, sitting through it’s actual story was an absolute, almost unbearable bore.

When I was watching the Blu-Ray re-release of Snow White (which impressively decided to not futz with the original film’s 4:3 aspect ratio by not awkwardly forcing a 16:9 schematic into the film), I was bowled over by the film’s artist attention to detail and the sheer scope and gamble that movie surely represented for the Disney studios. No one else had done anything like it before. Cartoons were meant for shorts, not movies, but Walt Disney wrung 90 minutes out of an animated story. And, the backgrounds and characters (except for the hideously drawn Snow White herself) are exquisite and well-crafted in a way that Disney rarely does anymore. Sadly, that didn’t make the actual plot of the film itself any more enjoyable.

SnowWhiteAndTheSevenDwarfs3

If you are somehow unfamiliar with the plot of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, you’re either an amnesia just waking from a decades long coma or you’re an alien intent on infiltrating the human race. But, here goes. Snow White is a beautiful princess whose evil stepmother, the Queen, fears her stepdaughter’s beauty. With a magic mirror constantly telling her that she’s the most fairest woman in the land, the Queen is content to make her daughter’s life hell and to dress her as a hideous maid until one day the mirror changes its tune and tells the Queen that Snow White is now the fairest of them all.

The Queen, being the psychotic narcissist that she is, doesn’t take the news well. She orders the royal huntsman to escort the young Snow White off to the woods and then to kill her and remove her heart as a trophy. But, when the time comes, the huntsman can not do it and shows mercy on the young Snow White. Snow White is forced to flee into the woods away from the watchful eyes of her evil Stepmother, and in those woods, she stumbles upon the company of seven strange but lovable dwarfs who vow to keep her safe. But, the Queen’s vengeance knows no limits and she devises a plan with a poisoned apple to end Snow White’s life once and for all.

SnowWhiteAndTheSevenDwarfs5

Words can not properly describe how irritating Adriana Caselotti’s voice is. That’s the woman who voiced Snow White, and it’s like if they took everything that made Judy Garland’s voice so iconic and wonderful and then made it grating like Jean Hagen in Singin’ in the Rain. She thankfully doesn’t talk all that much, but by the end of the film, I was cheering for the Evil Queen to feed her the poisoned apple because I didn’t want to hear her treacly sweet voice ever again. Her singing voice is alright, but most of the enjoyable musical numbers from the film were performed by the dwarfs anyway, but more on them in a second.

The movie’s story is so broad, the characterizations so thin, and the innocence of it so frustrating that it’s difficult for anyone bred on the Disney films of the 90s (like me) to be able to sit through the simplicity of this film’s tale. Until the dwarfs arrive, it lacks much of the trademark humor of a Disney film, and it’s painfully obvious that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was made for young girls and absolutely no one else was likely intended to enjoy it. Alongside the film’s artistic craftsmanship, the dwarfs are the only consistently enjoyable part of the film, and they add a much needed levity to the whole affair. There’s a reason why “Hi Ho” is still a classic of the children’s genre.

SnowWhiteAndTheSevenDwarfs6

As dull and uninteresting as I found most of the film, I was able to sit through this thankfully brief film because of how gorgeous the artwork is. For what was the very first full-length animated feature, Disney already knew what they were doing, and their dedication to getting things right in an age before computers is incredible. I can’t even imagine the man hours that went into making this movie. So, although I have no intention of watching this film ever again (unless I have a daughter someday who forces me to), I can appreciate the momentous undertaking that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs represented for Disney. And it’s that ambition that keeps this score from being even lower than it alraedy is.

Final Score: B-

 

AliceInWonderland1951-1

It is one of the great tragedies of the modern age that an entire generation of children will grow up with their primary knowledge of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass coming from the abysmal Tim Burton adaptation from 2010. That film fails to capture, even for a second, the wit, magic, and surrealism that has made Alice in Wonderland one of the most enduring children’s tales of all time. And while nothing will ever quite compare to the original source novel, Disney’s 1951 musical adaptation of the two books remains one of the most simply enjoyable films of Disney’s Golden age, and even as a 24 year old man, slipping back into this magical world and it’s colorful cast of characters was an undeniable delight.

I find it almost astounding that this film predates the psychedelic movement and isn’t, instead, a product of a bunch of completely stoned animators. The hippie movement, and especially the acid-fueled subset of that group, took so many of the symbols and motifs of the book and film and incorporated them into the hippie iconography, and it’s not difficult to see why. There’s a moment early in the film where Alice is falling down the proverbial rabbit-hole where, for no discernible reason, the screen swiftly changes tints and hues in total disorientation. Grace Slick directly quotes the film in “White Rabbit” which is one of the most beloved songs of the psychedelic era. Though it makes sense within the context of the film, Alice in Wonderland‘s dedication to absurdity and constantly surreal overtones is present in every scene, and it’s easy to see why the “heads” of the 60s and 70s loved this movie so much.

AliceInWonderland1951-2

For those who have somehow never seen the film or read the book, Alice in Wonderland is the story of the adventures of young Alice (Kathryn Beaumont) and her journey into the insane, magical, incomprehensible Wonderland. After growing bored with her studies, Alice spies a talking White Rabbit muttering about being late and follows him into a rabbit hole where she falls down to Wonderland. And there, she stumbles upon an increasingly bizarre cast of characters ranging from the homicidal Queen of Hearts, the positively insane Mad Hatter and March Hare, and the obfuscating Cheshire Cat. And, she finds herself in one misadventure after another usually involving food that makes her grow or shrink depending on the side she eats, and before long, it’s clear that all Alice wants to do is get home.

The animation in Alice in Wonderland is truly superb, and although I love pretty much the entirety of the Pixar canon (there are one or two exceptions), I do find myself missing the type of hand-drawn cartoons that I grew up on, and part of me thinks that’s one of the reasons why I enjoy anime so much. Alice in Wonderland is just stunning to look at from beginning to end, and it’s sad that movies that look like this are almost never made anymore. From the way that the film regularly plays with perspective to the imaginative creatures that inhabit Wonderland (such as a rocking horse fly and a dandelion that is half lion and many others) to constant kinetic action and animations, Alice in Wonderland is one of the Golden age animated films that should set the standard for what hand-drawn animation should look like .

AliceInWonderland1951-3

Not only is this film the introduction many kids my age (and for the thirty eight years before I was born) had to post-modernism, it was also likely our first introduction to weird, antiquated political satire that we were too young to understand (and are now too far removed from the people and figures being satirized to comprehend as adults either). It pokes fun at the comedy of manners and class snobbery (the scenes with the flowers) but it also pokes fun at the political establishment and the futility of certain promises of political elites (the moments with the Dodo where they all run in circles) and also how the rich exploit the poor (the Walrus and the Carpenter). Those aren’t the types of things that kids watching the movie would notice (or even enjoy) but it adds another layer to what was already one of Disney’s best films.

If there’s any legitimate complaint to make about Alice in Wonderland, it’s that the musical numbers aren’t up to the par set by the Tim Rice era of the late 80s and early 90s, but let’s face it, Tim Rice is in a class all his own as a songwriter for children’s movies. The songs aren’t bad (and a couple are memorable enough), but as a musical, it lacks a stand-out hit tune. It’s a minor flaw in an otherwise timeless Disney classic. If I ever have children some day (which seems unlikely cause I don’t like kids), it is a certainty that this will be one of the films from my childhood that I foist upon them, and it is my sincerest hope that there’s never a day where this movie isn’t considered a wonderful delight.

Final Score: A

Brave1

(A quick aside before I begin my review proper. It’s been a relatively busy weekend for me. After having essentially all of last week off, I actually worked Friday and Sunday, more or less the whole day. And on Saturday, I went to the movies with my little sister and her roommate [there will be two movie reviews in quick succession since I allowed myself to get backed up like  a dumbass]. We went to go see the new Evil Dead movie. More on that in it’s review. Anyways, I watched 2012’s Best Animated Feature Oscar winner, Brave, in the wee hours of Friday morning so forgive me if this review is shorter/hazier than what you usually expect from me).

When Don Bluth’s films disappeared from the public eye by the end of the 90s, Pixar was there to pick up the slack with increasingly thematically complex and mature children’s entertainment. If films like All Dogs Go to Heaven and An American Tail were the definitive children’s movies of the 1980s, Disney had a brief resurgence in the 1990s with Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King before Pixar arose from their umbrella to define modern American animation. Toy Story 3, Up, and The Incredibles aren’t just the best children movies of the last decade; they’re some of the best movies period of the last ten years. The first 15 minutes of Up is arguably the most emotionally powerful sequence in the last five years of cinema. One almost has to pity Pixar at this point because they have set the bar so impossibly high for themselves. Any thing short of making me curl up in a ball and making me sob uncontrollably becomes a disappointment. 2012’s Brave is a good film, but it’s high on the adventure and low on the emotional impact that has grown to define the best of the Pixar experience.

Brave2

Following the well-trod path of rebellious princesses unhappy with the arranged marriages set up by their parents, Brave forges its own identity with a cast over-flowing with memorable characters and a stunning visual sensibility. Merida (Choke‘s Kelly MacDonald) is the bushy-haired tomboy daughter of the boisterous Scottish King Fergus and the strict but loving Queen Elinor (Stranger than Fiction‘s Emma Thompson). Merida would rather be in the woods with her horse Angus shooting her bow and arrow and exploring the wilderness than learning how to be a proper princess. And when she learns that her mother and father have arranged suitors from the three most powerful clans in the kingdom to seek her hand in marriage, she quickly runs away where she encounters a witch in the forest which grants her a wish to change her fate. And clearly, that wish comes with a price.

Let me get my biggest compliment towards the film out of the way because it is a massive reason why this score isn’t lower (that and Kelly MacDonald’s performance and the movie’s consistent sense of humor but I’m getting ahead of myself). Brave is one of the most beautifully animated films that I’ve ever watched. Apparently, Pixar had to completely remake their animation software (which they had never done before; it had simply been upgrades not a complete overhaul) for Brave and it shows. While the character animations are par for the course for Pixar (though the hair, obviously, is exceptional in this film), the consistent scenic panoramas of the Scottish countryside are just stunning. I could watch this movie with the sound off at times because it was just that gorgeous. The film never stopped stunning me with its sheer beauty.

Brave3

And Kelly MacDonald remains a criminally under-appreciated talent (though her recent turn on Boardwalk Empire seems to be raising her level of American pop culture infiltration). Still, for anyone who’s seen Trainspotting, Choke, or The Girl in the Cafe (an indie film that my dad weirdly really enjoys), you know she’s a supremely talented actress. You only hear her voice in this film, but she does a wonderful job of bringing Merida to life (although she sounds very grown-up in her opening narration though I forgot about that as the film progressed). Emma Thompson is just one of the greatest actresses of her peer group, and she brought a wonderfully subtle interpretation to Queen Elinor. And there was a whole host of great performances although another shout out would be for Harry Potter‘s Julie Walters as the Witch whose powers have a higher price than Merida could have expected.

The film could also be very funny. Merida has triplet little brothers, and they are perpetual comic motion machines. There was barely a second where they were on screen where they didn’t have me laughing my ass off (and the film used them for some surprisingly dirty jokes for a kids’ movie). There’s a brilliant set piece halfway through the film where Merida has to sneak something out of the castle (I can’t say what for fear of spoiling some of the major twists in the film) and the triplets serve as the distraction. It could have came out of a classic Benny Hill routine for sheer slapstick value. And it’s a shame that the Witch had such small time on screen because she was without question the liveliest and most hysterical part of the whole film.

Brave4

Sadly, the the film’s plot has been done to death. How many Disney princesses (of which Merida is certainly one although she may be the first Disney/Pixar princess) have been upset about being forced to marry someone they don’t want to? Way too god damn many is the correct answer, and there’s not much that Brave does differently (well, there’s one big thing at the end but I can’t say for fear of spoilers, yet again). Merida just seems like the cliche tomboy fantasy princess, and it’s only her mother, Elinor, that seems to break the major genre conventions. Up until the film’s final climactic encounters, Brave failed to elicit even the most remote emotional reaction/sympathy, although the final moments did wind up bringing a tear to my eye. Ultimately, Brave is a film about the relationship between mothers and daughters, and perhaps that is why I failed to connect to it. That would be a fair argument.

I’ll draw this to a close since I have to review Evil Dead tonight (it’s now one of a handful of remakes I’ve reviewed where I’ve also reviewed the original but I’ll talk about that in my Evil Dead review). Let me simply say that it isn’t that I didn’t enjoy Brave. It is a passable and highly enjoyable kid’s movie. However, Pixar has trained me to expect more from their movies. They have trained me to expect films that are as enjoyable for the kids in the audience as they are for the grown-ups. Brave fails to meet that standard. However, as far as children’s adventure movies go, Brave is an exciting and often frighteningly dark tale. One only wishes that the emotional stakes had been higher.

Final Score: B

 

We have a (necessary) habit of looking past many of the traumatic moments of our childhood. We learn our lessons but our mind has the common sense to not let us dwell on the things we found most terrifying or emotionally scarring. My mind must have been especially scarred by 1987’s children cult classic, The Brave Little Toaster, because when I popped it in my DVD player today, I remembered very little of the film (which I hadn’t seen since the early years of elementary school) other than thinking that I thought it was a good movie. It is… but it’s also one of the darkest and most terrifying children’s movies this side of Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland. With an on-screen suicide, evil demon firefighter clowns, and countless deaths of ancillary characters, The Brave Little Toaster was a quick reminder that many of my favorite older children’s movies used to downright horrifying.

On its surface, Brave Little Toaster is just another children’s fantasy involving talking and adventurous inanimate objects, and in fact, it is now painfully obvious that a significant portion of Toy Story 3‘s plot was “borrowed” from Brave Little Toaster. However, beneath the shallow observations of a film about common household appliances going on a grand adventure to find their master is a surprisingly prescient meditation on loneliness, abandonment, and becoming obsolete. Since several future members of Pixar were involved in the film’s creation, it’s thematic maturity shouldn’t be all that shocking. I lost track of the number of times in the film that my sister and I broke out in uncontrollable “awwws” because something especially heartbreaking had just happened, and that’s not even getting into all of the pure nightmare fuel that The Brave Little Toaster is built on.

After being abandoned for ten years by their former master (who is now about to leave for college), five talking appliances in an abandoned cottage pass the day away desperately hoping for the return of their Master. Led by the moral leader of Toaster (Deanna Oliver), the group of the childlike Blanky (Timothy Day), Kirby the vacuum (Thurl Ravenscroft), Lampy (Tim Stack), and Radio (Jon Lovitz) wile away a meaningless existence in isolation, all knowing that their Master will never return but praying that he will. After discovering that the cabin is for sale and witnessing their air conditioner (Phil Hartman) intentionally kill himself, the group goes on a quest to find the Master, but crossing a dangerous forest and run-ins with a maniacal appliance shop means that their grand journey will be more dangerous than they anticipated.

I can’t emphasize enough just how scarring this film is. It’s the only children’s film I can think of where a character commits suicide (it wasn’t just the air conditioner either. One of the cars in the infamous junkyard scene intentionally drives on to the conveyor belt where he’s crushed into a cube). There’s a scene (with Phil Hartman playing another character with a spot on Peter Lorre impersonation) in an appliance shop from Hell where appliances who have been driven mad by witnessing their peers turned into scraps sing a macabre musical number full of terrifying imagery. Toaster has a nightmare with the above demon clown firefighter that morphs into a smoke monster that whisks his Master away. The junkyard scene has cars who are being compacted sing about how pathetic and worthless their lives have become. The Brave Little Toaster is probably much more emotional and disturbing for the adults who actually grasp what is happening. The children will most likely just be scared by the more frightening images.

There were two (semi) big names in the voice cast, and unsurprisingly, Jon Lovitz and Phil Hartman stole the show. Jon Lovitz’s Radio provided the film with many of its best comic moments, and his rendition of old 50s/60s style radio broadcasters was great (and the writing peppered his rapid yammering with enough pop-culture in-jokes to please the grown-ups in the audience including an especially clever North by Norhtwest reference). However, it was Phil Hartman in his two roles that was the most impressive. Who knew that Phil Hartman was such a great impressionist (well I’m guessing anyone who watched Saturday Night Live in the late 80s and early 90s). The air conditioner was an obvious Jack Nicholson impersonation and the hanging crazy lamp was an obvious Peter Lorre (Casablanca). For the older people watching the film, it was a good nod to the adults watching it with their kids (or grown-up now and watching it for nostalgia’s sake).

I’m always shocked to find just how well many of the children’s films from my youth have aged or at least the animated films. I don’t know what happened at Disney after the mid-90s but their game really went downhill (though Disney only produced this film. They didn’t actually make it) over the last 15 years or so. If you’re thinking about showing The Brave Little Toaster to your kids, they’ll survive it. All of us who grew up in the 80s and early 90s did. Just be prepared that they may not be able to sleep for the next couple of days afterwards. Although don’t be surprised if you find yourself to be more affected by the movie than your children. Much like Toy Story 3 which was all about growing up and moving past the so-called golden years of your youth, the themes of abandonment and loneliness will be much more important to the grown-ups watching the film.

Final Score: B+

I am way too excited about the upcoming days to really do any more meaningful writing this week. Every time I’ve sat down to the typewriter for the last week (I don’t know why I said typewriter there since I use my computer and its keyboards) I’ve been distracted by thoughts of Bonnaroo. It’s a miracle I’ve been able to churn out any meaningful reviews. I leave tomorrow (around 11 AM) to head down to Tennessee and I am excited beyond words about the possibilities of my exciting adventure to the coolest music festival (after Coachella anyways) this year. This will be my last movie review until at least a week from now. I might get one more review of a TV series done. That depends on whether or not I decide to watch another episode of Mad Men tonight and at a reasonable enough hour that I have the energy to review the first disc of the show before I go to bed. Considering the fact that my Mad Men reviews have started to get as in-depth as my Game of Thrones reviews, I don’t see that happening just because I don’t want to make that mental commitment. There’s going to at least (with certainty) be one more Song of the Day post before I go, and then this blog is going on a week long hiatus. I’m going to write an official hiatus post later though. Anyways, I just finished watching Shrek and while I didn’t really enjoy it as much as when I was a kid (though I certainly caught more of the dirtier jokes this time around), it was still a fun children’s movie which has earned its place in cinematic history as being the first kid’s movie to win the Best Animated Feature category at the Academy Awards.

Based off of William Steig’s children’s book (though the film franchise will be remembered far longer than its source material), Shrek is an affectionate parody of nearly all of the children films to come before it. Shrek (Austin Powers‘ Mike Myers) is a solitary and irritable ogre living by himself in the swamps surrounding the kingdom of Duloc. When the evil Lord Farquaad (Dexter‘s John Lithgow) of Duloc relocates all of the fantasy creatures in the kingdom onto Shrek’s swamp, the stolid but basically decent ogre sets off on a quest to get his swamp back for just himself. Reluctantly dragging along the talking donkey, named Donkey (Eddie Murphy), Shrek agrees to rescue the Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) from a treacherous and dragon-guarded castle for Lord Farquaad in exchange for getting his land back. After Shrek and Donkey rescue the beautiful and feisty Princess Fiona, it’s only a matter of time before Fiona and Shrek begin to bond, and we learn that ogres aren’t the only ones like onions (i.e. they have layers. That joke only worked if you’ve seen the movie), and that Princess Fiona may have some secrets of her own.

I have complicated feelings about Shrek. I’m not going to lie. I remember this movie being so much funnier when I was little. Unlike say Up or Toy Story 3, I don’t feel like this film aged as well as I did. You can put in the best Pixar movies, and they’re going to turn me into an emotional wreck by the end of the film regardless of how old I am. Seriously, if you play that opening montage of Up at any point in the rest of my life, I will cry like a baby without fail. I understand that Shrek was meant to be more of a comedy than a serious film, and while I picked up on a lot more of the jokes directed to the grown-ups during this particular sitting (there was a lot of sex and penis jokes in this movie. Like wow.), I didn’t necessarily think all of them were that clever. Most of the adult-themed humor in the film was as broad and obvious as the jokes geared towards the kids. There were some subtle pop-culture nods here and there that I thought were fairly clever. But, if I want to watch a Shrek film with an endless stream of pop-culture allusions, I can put Shrek 2 in. Still, perhaps as a film meant to be enjoyed by children, my memories of how funny I thought it was as a kid are more than enough to recommend showing it to a whole new generation of children.

The film’s animation though has aged much better than I expected. While all of the people look like plasticine dolls ripped out of the in-game engine of a particularly mediocre current-gen videogame, everything else about the film dripped with style. Shrek is an intentionally ugly world, yet there was a surprising amount of beauty in the landscape work as well as some really exceptional particle effects during important scenes. Much like Rango (though ultimately a far better film), Shrek revels in perverting (in a fun way) and subverting all of the standards of children’s animation. That to me will always be the film’s ultimate legacy. It has become one of the most influential children’s films of the last twenty years simply thanks to its art style alone (well also its occasionally adult sense of humor). Shrek and Donkey were especially well-animated and while the script certainly gave the pair plenty of life and character, the animation team must be given an extraordinary amount of credit for their iconic status in the animated pantheon. Many films have aped Shrek‘s style but few have come close to matching its original magic.

One last comment before I draw this to a close (and do my song of the day post). With the exception of the original Beverly Hills Cop, this was probably the best comedic performance of Eddie Murphy’s career. He was the only part of the movie that was still able to consistently make me laugh and his non-stop zingers, non-sequitors, and neurotic ramblings were always able to keep me in stitches. If you’re a young adult like myself and considering re-watching Shrek for the first time in years, it’s still an enjoyable film even if the years might tarnish your cherished memories of this movie. My sister and I still somehow managed to know all of the words to the movie and were calling them out as the film was happening like we were watching Rocky Horror Picture Show. It definitely has the best soundtrack of pop and rock music in any kids movie I can think of whose name isn’t Fantastic Mr. Fox. This was the film that introduced me to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (though it’s performed by Rufus Wainwright in the film and my favorite version is Jeff Buckley). And if you’re thinking about showing it to your kids for the first time, you have my whole hearted approval. Just come up with a clever distraction if they ever ask you to explain some of the dirtier jokes.

Final Score: B+

There’s nothing more disappointing than when a film has a ton of individual pieces that seem like a recipe for success but it turns out to be a near total dud instead. 2011’s Rango, directed by Gore Verbinski (which should have been the warning sign that it wasn’t going to be very good), seemed like a surefire success. It was a big budget animated feature from Dreamworks Studios (the studio behind Shrek when they were still a subversive and cutting-edge take on the animated film and not a formulaic cash cow franchise) that won the Best Animated Feature Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards. It starred Johnny Depp (who had worked with Gore Verbinski when creating arguably his most iconic role as Captain Jack Sparrow in the original Pirates of the Caribbean). It was a children’s take on the Western genre. It has an astonishingly original art style and looks amazing despite the intentional ugliness of the characters. Yet, despite all of this, the plot and humor in Rango often falls unfortunately flat, and in the wake of the mature and deep characterization offered in Pixar films like Toy Story 3 and Up, Rangois far too shallow to be the most celebrated animated film of 2011.

Rango (Johnny Depp) lives a perfectly “ordinary life” as a lizard inside his terrarium. Along with the props in his homes, he explores his desire to be an actor by putting on low-rate theatrical productions that even he realizes are crap. His life is turned upside down though when his terrarium is accidentally jettisoned out of the car it was traveling in and he finds himself without food, water, or shelter in the middle of the Nevada desert. It’s not long before he winds up meeting Beans (The Wedding Crashers’ Isla Fisher), another lizard, who drops him off in the ironically named town of Dirt. Dirt is suffering from a water shortage though the shady Mayor (Deliverance‘s Ned Beatty) claims to have everything under control. When his manhood is questioned at the bar, Rango constructs a series of elaborate lies to embellish his image (and to practice his acting), and after he accidentally saves the town from a murderous hawk, his legend only grows and the Mayor makes Rango the sheriff. It’s not long before Rango finds himself drawn into the investigation of where the town’s water has gone and into an adventure well beyond his control.

Let’s start with the good. The art style makes for one of the best looking and most intriguing (artistically) CGI films ever made. I love the Pixar films, but everything (and everyone) in their films has to be cute. Even Monsters Inc. was full of adorable and huggable “monsters.” Rango isn’t afraid to make its characters a little more stylized and ultimately more distinct. A lot of the characters are downright ugly, but the attention to detail (and the obvious western stereotypes they were drawing on) makes the character art seem much more lively than your average homogenized children’s fare. The characters are animal versions of iconic roles from Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns and more modern fare likeDeadwood, and if I forced myself to forget about the film’s forgettable story and characters (in terms of their personalities), I could just bask in how well done the film’s visuals were. There are also several explosive action sequences, and Gore Verbinski’s experience directing live-action epics really shows in how thrilling and well-choreographed those scenes were.

The voice acting is also top-notch. Johnny Depp is great in every film of his I’ve seen (except for The Nightmare on Elm Street but that was his debut and doesn’t really count. It wasn’t really a demanding role), and while his interpretation of Rango could get a little too kiddy for me at times (his voice took on the annoying high-pitched trait that I associate with poor English dubs of anime on some occasions), he was able to infuse the film’s rare dramatic moments with considerable heft. Johnny Deppy is very much a physical actor in the vein of Dustin Hoffman, but it still impresses how much he can accomplish with his voice alone. Ned Beatty made as a particularly sinister villain (and Bill Nighy disguised his voice supremely well as one of the smaller antagonists). However, the really shocking voice-acting discovery of the film was Timothy Olyphant. He essentially played Clint Eastwood’s character from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and I actually thought it was Clint Eastwood voicing the character for a minute before I realized I was hearing Raylen Givens. Who knew that Timothy Olyphant could do such a pitch-perfect Clint Eastwood impersonation?

Unfortunately, the film’s story and characters were utterly predictable and completely forgettable. Outside of Depp’s Rango, none of the animal’s made enough of an impact to be remembered as anything other than “the cat,” or “the dog,” or “the mouse.” Maybe, I’m expecting too much from a children’s film but the main cast of Toy Story 3 felt very well-fleshed out (and not just because there were two films preceding it to craft their backstories). By the film’s end, you were taken on a very specific (but still plot-driven) emotional journey that left me in tears. Similarly, think about how much character-based storytelling was accomplished in the first twenty minutes of Up when there were hardly any words spoken? Rango may serve as a passable children’s adventure and comedy (though most of the jokes for the kids fell flat), but in two or three years, no one will be speaking about this film again except perhaps to mention its dazzling artwork. In actuality, the only jokes in the film that really found their marks were meta-textual references to Johnny Depp’s career (and other Western in-jokes) such as Rango flying into the windshield of a car that was obviously being drive by a Raoul Duke stand-in from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Even with my weighty complaints, Rango still has its moments, and its surrealistic art style was a revelation. I don’t think I’ve seen a children’s film loaded with more pop culture references since Shrek 2 blew my “freshman in high school” mind with its never-ending stream of meta jokes. Still, in this Pixar age, I expect more from my children’s films especially one that is deemed the best animated film of the year by the Academy Awards. I’m a Western film fanatic, and I still couldn’t invest myself in the bare-bones plot in Rango. This film has generated a very polarizing response among audiences, and at the end of the day, I have to throw my hat in with its critics. Still, it showed a remarkable amount of potential, and I hope that it’s team of animators go on to do great things in the future. They just need a better script to truly fashion a classic.

Final Score: B-