Saturday, December 29, 2012

D52 - Week 52 - Wreck-It Ralph

[NOTE: These reviews are fairly spoiler-free until the fair-warning section further below.]

Knit-it Amanda

I feel grateful for having lived through what I feel are two separate Disney Re-births. Wreck-It Ralph might not yet be as iconic as The Lion King and might not win as many awards as Beauty and the Beast (or maybe it will, time will tell), but it does feel well seated in a new era of quality.
It seems we're finally to a point where most computer animation is starting to look pretty high quality no matter who or what renders it.  The design and render team really did a terrific job making each video game world look distinct and separate and yet still make sense amongst the many other little worlds.  Each character also makes perfect sense within their worlds right down to the way they move.  The heavily pixelated characters make herky jerky movements but the realistic characters are smooth and perhaps overly agile, but it doesn't distract from the whole.  If you've ever played Super Smash Bros and thought nothing at all of how these characters would ever meet up and fit together, than you understand the weird okkay-ness of it.

I'll do my best to explain how enjoyable I found the story without spoiling it.  This was a challenge in making relateable conflicts in a fantastic world.  Who hasn't felt unfulfilled in their job or neighborhood?  Who hasn't felt a higher calling deep in their bones?  More than anything, this movie is about finding yourself.  On the one hand, some people find happiness right back where they started, and others find happiness when things change a great deal.  A couple of other coordinating themes are tucked in without fighting with the main story, and are equally moving, but I'll keep them to myself in order not to spoil the movie if you haven't seen it.  Whether changes occur within you or around you, you'll find happiness if you make peace with it.

I was thrilled with the soundtrack!  Once again, each character had a bit of a theme that followed them around and it was entertaining to hear a certain theme in the setting of another gameworld but also to hear how it was clearly scored with its original gameworld in mind.  There was a nice mix of catchy video game repetitiveness with subtle background music.

And let's not forget about the joys of the cameo appearance. I grew up with a controller in my hands and laughed every time I spotted a reference.  Sometimes they were subtle and sometimes they were flashy, but everytime it made me feel like part of the in crowd.

Favorite Character: Felix.  He's just such an everyman.  He's as naive and good as no man in the real world ever seems to be anymore.
Least Necessary Character: The repairman.  No, seriously.  You'll get it when you watch it.
Overall: I loved it and if you can stand a couple of gradeschool poop jokes, you'll love it to.

Rec'-It Kevin

This is the second "cheat" of our one-movie-for-each-week "rule." We had no DVD access throughout our honeymoon (would we have watched Atlantis at the hotel if it had one? ...maybe) so watched it the week after along with Lilo & Stitch. As for this Wreck-It-Ralph, we saw it on November 14th, partly because it looks unsure whether or not it'll still be available to see anywhere by the last week of December. If it is, I'd love to watch it again on that week! In case not, though, we're writing about it a couple of days after so that it's still fresh in our minds, but setting the post to show up in late, late December.

[LATER EDIT: It turns out we were able to see it in theaters during the 52nd week of 2012, and it was indeed worth seeing again anyway!

I probably have already started to sound like I'm obsessed with it or something, but I think it's appropriate enough to compare this movie to, yes, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit??" In WFRR's universe, not only do the toons exist and interact directly with humans, but Roger Rabbit  exists as an already-established character. Which is to say, Roger didn't exist in our world until that movie (or book. But even before that Roger Rabbit wasn't an "actual" comic strip character) was made. Fix-It Felix Jr. is obviously heavily inspired by the early Mario games - in the same way Roger is heavily inspired by Bugs and Daffy. And funnily enough Bugs and Daffy exist in Roger's world, which makes you wonder if Roger's "birth" (how exactly the characters in that movie come into existence could be a whole other blog post) was related in any way to Bugs and Daffy's existence. Now going back to the arcade universe, Mario exists along with Wreck-It Ralph and Fix-It Felix...are they aware of their games' similarities? Jumping back again, imagine if that other movie was instead "Who Framed Bugs Bunny?" It might not have worked as well, because the moviegoer would go into it already having certain perceptions of what to expect of the character. But because he or she had no previous frame of reference for Roger Rabbit, the character can be built and liked as the movie progresses and shows you on its own what he's all about. Now, back again: Because Ralph, Felix, and the other new characters as just that - new characters - it's again entirely up to the movie to get you to like them. And it does a great job at it. The "new" video games are such convincing pastiches that I genuinely want to play those games. Will the actual released multi-console Wreck-It Ralph tie-in game do any of them justice? I...wouldn't count on it, sadly.

To talk of it without spoiling much, I can say that I enjoyed it very much and I'm sure it'd make it onto the list of my top 5 favorite D52 if I were to make such a list, which I might. As a D52 movie, though, it's very...unlike the others. It's one of the funniest ones (the trailer jokes do not do it justice). It's surprisingly well-written...well, maybe not all that surprisingly given Rich Moore's Simpsons and Futurama cred. There are a lot of set-ups that pay off satisfyingly well later on. There's even one or two things that seem like an obvious set-up that end up not paying off, which I choose to take as an intentional red herring to keep you guessing what is and isn't a set-up. If that makes any sense.

The music is also pastiche'd very nicely. WIR is another of those few Disney movies where none of the characters sing (party whooping and chanting not counted), so the underlying soundtrack seems that much more significant. I particularly appreciated Sgt. Calhoun's theme, which surely must have been inspired by the music from the Metroid games. And "Sugar Rush" is a little too earwormy.

From the moment I saw the first trailer for the first time I was a bit skeptical that the movie would rely too much on simply making video game references for the sake of references (ahem, Scott Pilgrim vs the World), but it again parallels "WFRR!!" by indulging in a large dollop of recognizable characters (and some not-so-recognizable, to let the hardcore fans brag about being familiar with the obscure ones) near the beginning of the movie, but easing up on those references once it gets into the nitty-gritty of things. I appreciate that. It strikes a good compromise between appealing to the video game fans and appealing to those who would rather see new things. Heck, I think I like the new video game characters better than the "classic" ones.

All in all.... I'm gonna rec(commend) it.



The Toy Story movies are all great, but they still leave me with questions about the precise details of how things work in that universe. Like, what constitutes a toy, to the point where it's given a consciousness? In the third movie a keychain can talk. Also in the Toy Story Toon "Small Fry," there's a joke about a Buzz Lightyear Belt Buckle talking to a Zurg using only beeps..somehow. If someone fashions a paperclip into the shape of a bunny will it then be able to hop around when the humans aren't looking? How about a paper doll? What about Silly Bandz? Do they move on their own, and if so why not regular rubber bands? Where is the line drawn? At what point in a toy's assembly does it have a life? Was Mr. Potato Head able to see from his not-yet-connected eyes before they were packaged with his potato body?

Similarly, I'm wondering a lot of things about Wreck-It Ralph. Why exactly do the "retro" characters look pixelated through the arcade cabinet screen though they're less blocky "in-person?" Maybe it's a distance thing? A perception filter? Can the characters only jump to other games on the same surge protector or could they travel even further down the electrical line to other buildings? As little as I care for sequels in general I feel like there are a lot of possibilities here. What happens if one or more Fix-It Felix Jr. cabinets share nearby power circuits? Would Felix be able to meet himself? Would they be different in any way? Maybe that would be too similar to Buzz Lightyear meeting another Buzz Lightyear. But how about this. Sugar Rush is basically two game cabinets hooked up to the same multiplayer capabilities, right? What happens if one player starts a Sugar Rush game and afterward another starts their own new game while the first is still playing? They would both be playing the same game at the same time but the Sugar Rush characters would be doing different things. So which cabinet has the "real" Vanellope von Schweetz? Speaking of VvS, how's an observation that I can only now make in a spoiler-warning zone: Vanellope is the newest and youngest Disney Princess. AND she's the only one without a love interest, isn't she?

LATER THOUGHTS: It seems I was in the minority of those distracted by the SUBWAY brand cup in the arcade. It's one thing when real-life product-mentioning shows up in movies as a storytelling device - for which I believe NesQuik sand (I considered making a comic about how Felix Jr and Calhoun should've been really scared in that situation, since NesQuik was recalled recently, but who else but me would've gotten that?) and Laffy Taffy do indeed count, but there's no reason it couldn't have just been a generic cup. You just know the logo's only there because Subway had its Wreck-It Ralph promotion, and when a movie makes you think about how it's a movie, that crosses the line of distraction.

Considering that really is the only complaint I can think of, and it's something that you probably didn't or wouldn't even notice yourself, so that's saying something.
I'm already looking forward to the DVD release.

Favorite character:  I can't help but identify with Felix Jr.'s very square sensibilities. 
Least necessary character: Why the heck does M. Bison get movie theater cardboard standing poster front-and-center billing? I think he may have had, like, one line, maybe, but I don't remember what it was. And Street Fighter is already represented in the same scene by Zangief (letting aside the issue of whether or not Zangief really is technically a "bad guy"), who at least provides some comic relief.
Overall: This is exactly the kind of Disney movie that I've been wanting for .. as long as I've watched Disney movies .. and not even solely because it appeals to my video game fan sensibilities...though that does help.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

D52 - Week 51 - Winnie the Pooh


There's this annoying trend, fueled by the popularity of proliferation of computerized graphics, to adapt simple stories from picture books into full-length motion pictures. Meet the Robinsons was one. And The Polar Express. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. Where the Wild Things Are. The Dr. Seuss books. I can't think of one that I've seen and was happy with. Maybe Curious George, in that it didn't stink? The main problem is that almost all of them tend to pad out the story for the sake of making it long enough to be a theatrical feature. But surely if you aim to make a movie, the thing to do should be to make it as long as it needs to be, then feature it in a length-appropriate venue. Not the other way around. Take "How The Grinch Stole Christmas!" for example. The Chuck Jones adaptation tells the whole story in the amount of time that happily fits into a half-hour television slot. So why was a much, much longer version made late on necessary at all? Besides the obvious answer, anyway?
What I like about 2011's "Winnie the Pooh" is that it makes an excellent example of what a movie made out of a simple story - or stories, rather, should be like. No matter that this one isn't directly based on a particular storybook. The point is it could be. I imagine there's a simple storybook based on this that you wouldn't have been able to tell was a movie tie-in.
There isn't as much embellishment as those other movies tend to have, and the only padding present are jokes relevant to the story. They're reminiscent of Abbott & Costello routines and probably aimed at the audience young enough to not realize they're reminiscent of Abbott & Costello. The stories are simple, and the movie is fully aware that they're simple. It's very straightforward and I like that. If only more movies based on actual books were more like that. If I may digress a bit, my suggestion to the filmmakers who absolutely must adapt short children's books to the silver screen is: why not make a short feature compilation of it? Imagine not one but a series of Dr. Seuss 25ish-minute pieces, perhaps - and now I'm just fantasizing - each produced and directed by different talents, and ooh! in different media! A Steven Spielberg live-action motion-capture story followed by a Tim Burtony stop-motion one and then an anime and okkay I'm getting carried away now.

I like the execution, as a children's movie, is what I'm saying.

Now, to compare "Winnie the Pooh" to "The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh." Here we still have multiple stories (Eeyore's tail, The Backsun, Owl's Memoirs, Pooh's Quest For Honey), but they all interweave with each other. I'm not sure whether I prefer this over the "one-story-at-a-time" approach. I didn't get as much of the "Pooh-overload" as I remember getting with TMAOWTP, but on the other hand not having one "main" story leaves the ending feeling a bit flat. When a short is as short as a short, a set-up without much of a payoff isn't as disappointing as one stretched through an entire feature. At least it's a relatively short entire feature.
My main complaint, judging it as a Winnie the Pooh movie rather than just as a movie, is that it doesn't have enough of what I like about the original feature and the books on which they're based. It's something about the dialogue I can't quite put my finger on. It's not...unusual. Pooh mentions how he's a bear of very little brain, but it comes off more as a catch phrase that he has to say, and not much else he says is worded funnily like that. I just don't get the impression that the writers went through much trouble at all to copy the A.A. Milne writing style, which is a shame because that's my favorite part of Pooh stories. Oh, bother. It's more like they have this child-level story and are using the Hundred Acre Woods characters to tell it because, well, they're popular. I'm left to imagine: What would it be like if you took the same story and plot points but told it with entirely new and original characters? Would it be as "good?" Or what if this were the first time we had ever seen these characters. What would our impressions of them be then? Basically what I'm saying is Winnie the Pooh automatically gets a handicapped advantage for any of his movie on the merit that you already know what he's all about going into them. Same goes for Batman, by the way.

Man I'm going on too much for such a supposedly simple movie! I'll try to wrap things up.

The voice casting is....worth mentioning, certainly. Jim Cummings has earned his stripes as Tigger and Pooh, at least given that Sterling Holloway is no more. Is he a better Pooh than Stephen Fry? a hot button issue surely. I believe I ruined Rabbit for Amanda when I answered her question about who voices him. Once you get the connection, it's hard to "un-hear." I approve of Craig Ferguson as Owl and double approve of Bud Luckey as Eeyore. I wasn't bothered by Christopher Robin's voice as much as the fact that he had whites of his eyes now.
The music is very nice but nothing to be singing boisterously out the theater about. It's soothing and pleasant but not terribly catchy. But it doesn't really need to be for the purpose of the movie, which I guess is to wash over you rather than hook you in. Or something like that.
Animation-wise, I'm not sure if the newer character animation is an improvement exactly - it's cleaner and crisper but not quite as charming. Everything else works well, though, as honey for the eyes.

The short of it is that it's a "cute" movie. It's so unassuming and inoffensive that I can't find anything wrong with it, unless I compare it to The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, which is even cuter and still more charming. It makes me wonder, what with all of these other Disney films being re-released in theaters, why the same treatment couldn't have just been given to Pooh in lieu of a new movie. It would certainly be worth introducing it to the many in the target audience who haven't seen it yet.
But then still. If a new Pooh movie had to be made, and one had to be theatrically released, this is probably the best new Pooh movie without Sterling Holloway, the Sherman Brothers, or The Nine Old Men that you could hope for.

Favorite character: Maybe it's my perception affected by Bud Luckey's performance but it seems Eeyore is more self-aware and intentionally(?) funny than in any other "Pooh" feature. I liked his line to Tigger about how the best thing about Tigger is that he's the only one. Good one, Eeyore.
Least necessary character: Did Roo do anything other than act small and cute, a role already taken by Piglet?
Overall: "Stuffed with fluff" is certainly an very appropriate theme.


Doing an homage is one thing, but trying to add to an already well established franchise is something totally different.  Winnie the Pooh walks a very very fine line here and well, being made of stuff and fluff, he's bound to swagger off course once in a while.

The simple truth is that it's just not the same.  Don't get me wrong, it's cute, and it's well animated, and little children will love it, and it will be re-released by itself and with the first movie and perhaps even as a collection with the Heffalump Movie, Piglet's Big Movie, and A Tigger Movie.  It will make a lot of money and keep baby things on the store shelves for the next decade and longer.  But as far as artistic merit, is it destined to be a classic?  That remains to be seen.  For my taste, no.  It has a lot of interesting changes some of which are necessary (casting for example) and some of which are perhaps mere oversight.

For me, there was a certain artistry of animation that was missing from this new installment.  This is not to say that these new animators aren't up to snuff.  If anything, they are perhaps more accomplished as they have had so many years of experienced teachers as well as a flood of new technology and techniques at their fingertips.  Yet there is a certain way that characters moved and behaved in the older bits of film that felt more free, more childlike.  Pooh's walk for instance: In his many adventures, he had a way of walking that looked almost as if a child was holding him and bouncing one foot on the ground at a time, but more recently he is much more agile.  Piglet's stance for another:  He always appeared to be just barely balanced in place, ready to be blown over or fall forward at any moment.  Even the old, tattered stuffed animals in the original room looked quite a lot more loved than these newer, brighter, cleaner versions.

On the other hand, there's a story that continues throughout the movie.  There's new interesting animation styles such as the chalkboard line art and even the glistening honey pools.  There's the new idea of Christopher Robin growing up and going to school.  What do toys do when the children are away? (Shh, I know, I know, slightly less new)  Bah. I'm doomed to be conflicted by this one.

Favorite Character: Owl.  Of all the new casting, I think that CraigyFerg did the best job at walking the line between a totally new character and a respectful homage to the original.
Least Necessary Character: I dunno.  Even though she's a knitter, I just wasn't totally sold on the idea of Kanga as a motherly figure to the clan this time around.  There was a certain warmth and even a certain amount of intelligence missing this time around.

Overall: This was a silly ol' movie, but the kids'll love it.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

D52 - Week 50 - Tangled

Kevyn Rider
Aww, I'm not as interested in writing about a movie I actually like a lot! Usually I latch onto the flaws, but...I'm not sure exactly what's wrong with ...OH! I remember now. There is one thing that really bugs me about this movie. But I'll save it for the end.
Last week I talked about how "Princess & the Frog" seemed to embrace the old-and-even-older school style of Disney Princess movies. "Tangled" does a good job at retaining everything that makes those films enjoyable - such as the storytelling, vivid animation, catchy music, and engaging characters - and takes everything a step further by updating the sense of humor. Thankfully they're not updated in the annoying way (AFRO CIRCUS! BANA-NA! BANA-NANA! AFRO CIRCUS!). And the main characters equally have interesting and believable motivations and feelings. Flynn is humble enough to not come across as a complete Joey Tribbiani type, but yet cocky enough that he's not a bland Dave Seville/Prince Eric type. Rapunzel is a strong female figure and (wants to be) independent, but has perfectly understandable hesitations and doubts. Mother Gothel is a bit of a tricky one though. Has she, as a result of raising her, come to genuinely love Rapunzel after the fact of her manipulation? She may have evil motivations for keeping Rapunzel in the tower, but she's not evil to the point of beating her or starving her or depriving her of entertainment and nice things, and it's not like she has to be nice to her faux-daughter for magic reverse-aging's sake. I'm not saying any of this excuses what she's done, but it makes the idea of her character worth dissecting.When Gothel treats Rapunzel to her favorite hazelnut soup, is it really her favorite or has she just convinced her it's her favorite? If not for the kidnapping, inprisonment, lying, manipulation, and later on stabbing and such, could Mother Gothel have been the good guy? Maybe in an alternate fantasy where she doesn't steal Rapunzel away, she's just the best royal caretaker ever.
So yeah. Great music, great art and animation, great characters, great story (for one involving magic, at least), all packaged together quite nicely. So then what was it that I don't like about this movie? That one thing that bothered me enough that I drew a comic a year ago to address my complaint? Ideally my point came across well enough in it that I can just show you:

I just can't seem to get his nose right!

Favorite character: Max is best pony. Horse. Whatever.
Least necessary character: I didn't need old in-his-skivvies dude. I'm going with my "A character isn't funny just because he's wearing nothing but his underwear" stance here. I would've been okay with Mother Gothel having gotten the necessary information from, oh, anyone else, so that he wouldn't have to exist.
DVD Bonus: Part of what inspired this D52 project was the 50 Animated Features count-up on the Tangled DVD, which helped me realize, "wow, there really have been over 50, haven't there?" It's especially neat now to watch "the whole year" summed up in only a couple of minutes, and yet again notice how quickly the 80s come up.
Overall: If I were to nominate a best Disney Princess movie, this would quite possibly be it. It's a worthy contender with Beauty & the Beast, anyway.

As for my favorite D52 movie of all...well, we only have two left. Could there possibly be one I like even more of those two? Guess we'll just have to see, tee-hee!

Amanda Knows Best

 Yay! Number 50!  I'm so glad that the landmark 50th film in the Disney Animated Feature line-up is such a good one.  But Kevin's right.  Taking a good movie and explaining why it's good is an awful lot harder than taking a bad one or even just a flawed one and picking it apart. 

Tangled offers an excellent opportunity to analyze what makes animation good to a layperson.  Sure, the commentary tracks are always telling you what's hard technically (Hair, Fire, Water, Hair in Water, Explosions, Fabric, that sort of thing), but what about artistically?  To my mind, it's taking an image and clearly expressing emotion and motivation.  Here, it's best demonstrated by four nearly silent characters. Max and Pascal represent the very active and cartoonish end of the spectrum and the King and Queen are the most subtle end of the line.  Both are acted brilliantly and for different reasons.  The cartoonish animals dance a tricky dance between offering nothing but comic relief with their antics, and yet when they emote sincerely, it's still easy to relate.  Contrarily the King and Queen are animated so subtly that I'd say they spend more time being nearly still than they do moving at all.  The solemn stillness of their stance is enough to express one of the most complex emotions of the entire year.  Fear of disappointment and renewed grief mixed with disbelief, relief, and joy. 

As for the rest of the film, well, I've always been a fan of the Broadway Musical and this film would fit in with the best of them.  The theatrics are staged as if it were live action, the lighting is dramatic and flourishy, and the music is as catchy as Menken has ever written.  (In fact, this is the most memorable sing-along-able in nearly a decade for my taste.)

Favorite Character:  Bruiser knits and so does Rapunzel... need I say more?
Least Necessary character:  I hate to copycat, but Cupid thug could have been pretty much anybody else.
Overall: I LIKED IT.  I really really liked it!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

D52 - Week 49 - The Princess and the Frog

It's at this point in the D52 that Disney reminds me of Mega Man.
The first side-scrolling Mega Man games were consistently well-made, but the main problem with Mega Man 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and to an extent 7 and 8, and maybe even X through X-however many X games there were, is that each of them was too similar to the previous one(s). I remember that being the only negative criticism of them at the time, that there were all essentially the same game. So it's no wonder that the Mega Man games took a different direction after 8. There was the RPG-ish one, a card-battle-system-thingy, spin-offs with Zero, and such. Whether or not those games were worse or better is beside the point here. The point is that time would pass and years later, Mega Man 9 would be released. And praised! What did all the fans love most about it? Why, that it was so much like all of those earlier ones, of course! I'm not saying there's anything wrong with this kind of reasoning; it just strikes me as funny. Basically this is what Disney has done with The Princess & the Frog.
It's so obviously a call-back to the best of 90s Disney animated films (which themselves were partly call-backs to much, much earlier Disney animated films). It follows the formulas to such precision that it might well be taken as a parody of movies like Aladdin, Beauty & the Beast, and The Lion King. You got the handcrafted animation with a glowing quality (boy howdy does this one love glowing things), loveable and/or wise-cracking animal sidekicks, the corny sight gags, the peppy musical numbers, all that jazz. But I kind of like it for that, and imagine I would've appreciated it just as much if it came out while I was a kid (the movie wishes it was released back then). Could it be just because it's newer and it hasn't worn on me as much as The Lion King has? Surely it helps that it doesn't rely as heavily on the likeability of Robin Williams Genie as Aladdin seemed to. If anything it does follow everything the Disney "Renaissance" did right, while correcting those pesky annoyances. Imagine how highly I could praise it if Alan Menken and Howard Ashman wrote the soundtrack! Or, if I'm bringing up half-deceased dream teams anyway, what if Ashman and Menken collaborated with the Sherman Brothers? Too many cooks spoiling the broth....or mind-blowingly amazing?
Even its characters are like DR era characters, in that they're clearly more substantial and interesting than, say, Snow White and the evil witch, yet still not quite perfectly fleshed out when you...yes, dig a little deeper. Let's take Tiana, who as a black Disney heroine suffers from the same fate as the Pochahontas Native Americans, in that they're all too politically correct to the point of being made boring. Every main character needs a flaw, and Tiana's flaw is that she works too hard. Oh, geez, what a horrible person! I'd hate to be or be around someone like that! I'm being sarcastic here. Maybe I'm missing something. I've seen this movie a couple of times already and I still can't put into clear times what exactly it is that Tiana learns by the end of it. She says aloud a vague epitome about knowing you have people who love you and loving them or something, but ...I don't know. From the beginning I never got the impression that she didn't appreciate her loved ones.They all seemed very happy with each other. She loved her father; her father loved her; she presumably loved and was loved by the others. Don't see any problem there. Maybe if we saw scenes of Tiana spending too much time working up until the point where her father died, and if she concentrated more on working towards the restaurant than actually spending time with him, then that I would get. But my interpretation was that she worked hard for the restaurant after he died, to honor his memory. I don't get what's flawed about that. Unless the movie was going for a lesson about coping with a loss by remembering the good times instead of focusing too much on what could have been? If so, it didn't do a good job at that. Another certain Disney-released movie a couple years later would pull that off much better...
But if anyone can explain to me Tiana's lesson, I am all ears. In the meantime I can at least say that her co-stars at least had clearer flaws and motivations. Prince Naveen reminds me of Pépé LePew, but without the perviness. He's lead a charmed life but is at least willing to acknowledge it as a problem, openly confessing that he's never learned to do anything because of it. Oh, I don't know. He's learned how to dance and play the ukelele, at some point. That was probably after he left his parents, though, wasn't it? I can't imagine wealthy parents choosing the ukelele as the musical instrument to push their son to learn at as young an age as possible. So I figure, even if he had never met Tiana, he might have earned a living playing in a ukelele-and-banjo double act when he met another frog lazily strumming on a southern river. 
Would it be digging too deep into the race issue to notice that even the "bad" qualities any of the dark-skinned characters have are played up in a "good" way? What I mean is, is Prince Naveen lazy and arrogant...or is he relaxed and suave? Is Mama Odie crazy or just delightfully sassy? And the Shadowman is creepy, but in a cool way. I'm just wondering if, at any point, the character designers had a specific reason for Lawrence to be, um, not white. Could it have been to avoid having an irredeemable goofy doofus of a black guy? Was there anything wrong with Mulan having an Asian character as goofy as Chi Fu as long as he was outnumbered by respectable depictions? These as questions I do not expect to be answered, as I might be putting too much thought into it anyway.
Skin color scrutiny aside, they're well-crafted characters. Facilier/Shadowman, as I said, is pretty darn cool. I think a prequel would be justifiable as long as it's about him. Ray the Firefly somehow manages to make a snaggle-toothed stalker very endearing. By the way, if you think a person pining after a love he's never met is weird, consider that he must've taken it upon himself to make up his own name for her, and call her that lovingly. "She's beautiful! I wonder what her name is. Hmmm...Evangeline? Yeah, that sounds good. How I love you, Evangeline." Hey, with Ray, it's okay, 'cuz awww, he's just this cute li'l guy.
Speaking of glowing beautiful things, the animation is top-notch. I might've asked for a bit more stylization, but at least there's plenty provided with Charlotte (alternate voice casting of the week: Kristen Chenoweth)'s exaggerated mannerisms, Louis et al's hammy comedic distortions, and the various musical numbers.
The's Randy Newman, but at least it's Randy Newman as sung by people who aren't Randy Newman.

Favorite character: It must be Facilier, because I find myself wishing he'd been in much more of the movie.
Least necessary character: Louis, you didn't do anything to help move the main story along in any way, did you? There was even a point about how Tiana and Naveen were going the wrong way because of you, which means you did the opposite of progress the story! tag-along B-story you.
Overall: A carefully calculated attempt at recreating thought-to-be-lost Disney magic that...actually does work very well. I'm glad it was made.


Princess and the Frog wasn't a home run, but it was definitely a baseball game that your kid is in and you attend to support him, but it's at the varsity high school level, so it's still pretty competitive, and you still have a genuinely good time watching it, and it's hosted at the local pro stadium to help the athletic fundraising, so the parents are allowed to drink, and you get to have your whole family in a photo with the pro team's mascot, and it turns out great because they took all the pictures before the kids started playing, so they aren't all covered in dirt and sweat.

It's just one of those movies where the good so heavily outweighs the bad that you have to be a bit of a complete stick DEEP in the mud to really try and down it.  It's not to say that the bad isn't there at all, mind you.  I mean, the songs were all a bit repetitive and purile, but not all of Newman's work is going to be Toy Story (1) and at least he didn't sing them this time.  There was the half a sentence of Emeril's cameo appearance that no one recognizes because it gets lost in the action of the moment.  And for me, there was the homage paid to every New Orleans and Louisiana thing that ever was to the point that it becomes just cliche.

There.  DEEP in the mud. Now then.

I'm intrigued by the villainous plots of Dr. Facilier.  I find it interesting to think that he's not really the main villian here.  It seems to me like his friends on the other side are the real bad guys and he's just a poor pawn for them trying to work off his debt and most unfortunately having to do bad things to be set free.  He doesn't control them.  They're just the mafia and he's just the guy that got in too deep with the bosses.

I also really enjoy the complete lack of "love at first sight" in this movie.  Tiana and Naveen actually take what I see as the normal progression from strangers to friendship to love.  And it's clearly not just a physical attraction like in Little Mermaid.  They actually appreciate that each has something that would made the life of the other a little bit better.  I enjoy the little couples' counselor they get in Raymond and the skewed but tender love that he has for Evangeline.

In generally I think that what they got right here that was lacking in a number of other recent flicks was the sincerity of the emotions that characters were feeling.  Their reactions made sense if not to everyone else in the film, than at least to the audience and to themselves.

Favorite Character: Dr. Facilier... if only for his voice actor Keith David.  Nooooice.
Least Necessary character: The three swamp dudes.  Did that third guy seriously have to be drawn with just two fingers?  I mean, I'm sure it happens in real life in the bayou, but that seems like a rather bizarre distinction to make for his character.  Why not just call him Mumbles? He did that too.
Overall: I liked it. Eeyup.  I did.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

D52 - Week 48 - Bolt

Kevin (Molt*)

Plagiarism is a touchy subject. Sometimes you see two different peoples or companies create two different works within a certain time frame of each other and if there are enough similarities, it's easy to call "copycat." Remember when Dreamworks's Antz came out just a month before Pixar's A Bug's Life? Was one looking over at the other's desk instead of keeping their eyes on their own work? In most cases, unless it's completely obvious that one has the other's work in mind (like with "Kiara the Brave" and "Ratatoing" and those other shameless cheap CGI knock-offs), I'm willing to give the benefit of the doubt. It's likely enough that Pixar and Dreamworks, both working with not-yet-perfected computer technology, both independently decided to create a movie using insects, since they'd make reasonably comfortable digital models - not having fur or hair, and all.
But then there's self-plagiarism, which is interesting in another way. Sometimes it's intentional. Or do we think Nickelback actually believes their songs each sound completely different? It can also be unintentional, merely a result of lapse of memory. If you, for example, are a comic strip cartoonist, you might go through so many used and rejected ideas that you might end up reusing an idea for a gag without realizing until later that you had already drawn the same bit earlier on. You can only expect him to memorize so much of his own work.
What I'm building up to here, is...
How the heck did John Lasseter not realize he'd worked on this story before? Bolt is, in a nutshell, Buzz Lightyear. He incorrectly believes he is something that he isn't. A cynical forced road-trip buddy (who initially hates him but warms up to and becomes friends with him) directly tells him what he really is, but he's in denial until testing his powers to no avail. He goes through a period of self-doubt and sadness before ultimately accepting his "real self" and realizing that he doesn't need those powers to be important to his human. Also, Mittens is Jesse the Cowgirl: She tells her friend how much she resents humans because of the one that left her but later on finds a new human and figures, "Okay, yeah, I do like the comfort of a person."
The parallels seemed awfully obvious to me. And I'm not saying Mr. Lasseter isn't allowed to reuse a major theme or two, but you would think he...wouldn't, if he was aware of it. The audio commentary for Up mentions that Russell was renamed from Lewis because of the release of Meet the Robinsons. And then later on there was the Pixar film not-to-be, Newt, which was scrapped possibly because of similarities to other companies' Rio and Alpha & Omega. So should Bolt have been canceled altogether had someone spoken up and said, "You realize, John, this is a lot like Toy Story and Toy Story 2? Remember, those blockbuster movies you spent years working on just a few years ago?"
I don't know.
I do think that, on its own, in a hypothetical TS/TS2-free vacuum, it works well enough. At this point (after seeing Wreck-It Ralph) I can say I've seen every D52 movie, and I do think this is the point where the gradually starts a new upward pull in overall quality. It's not exactly a classic, and there's not much about it that I feel I want to see for repeated viewings, but it's easily more engaging and fun than Meet the Robinsons, Chicken Little, Home on the Range, and Brother Bear.
I am fond of the overall design and...aesthetic, if I'm using that word correctly? Bolt, the character, is cute but not too cute and still believable as a ruff-and-ready (I'm sorry. No I'm not.) action hero. The TV action scenes are campy yet would still be very watchable even if it was a real show (but man, imagine what its budget must be like!) and provide a fitting contrast to the "actual" dramatic scenes. While I didn't cry at the scene where Bolt feels betrayed, it does tug at me a little more than I'm comfortable admitting. Hey, there's some nice subtle animation work there.
I don't have anything substantial to say about the music other than that Miley Cyrus sure does sing for it. That brings me to the voice casting. Which I'm afraid is a low mark of the voice. Miley, John, and Susie are just so...uninteresting, as far as voices go. Sometimes celebrity voice casting works wonders (I could go back to mention the Toy Story films). Other times, you think...hnm, no, your voice should've been a professional voice actor instead of a well-known actor. Looking on the bright side, at least Nicolas Cage wasn't one of the voices.
In the end, is it good? Is it bad? It's in a weird grey area where I can't quantify its quality with an actual grade or rating. As it happens the Disney Channel was apparently showing Bolt over the Thanksgiving holidays, and that does seem a very apt place for it. It can appeal to anyone in the family, and if it doesn't appeal to you, have some more turkey and cranberry sauce and try again.

HOME STATE PRIDE: Hooray! This is the first Disney animated (or general?) feature that undoubtedly takes place - albeit partially - in Ohio! Yaaay! Granted nothing particularly Ohiocentric is seen (aside from the state signage) or happens, and it really only serves as a rest stop for the characters. So I guess Ohio is a representative of...the type of place you would stop at for a little while before moving on to someplace more interesting? Erm. Anyway, GO BUCKS!

Favorite character: I know Amanda is going to pick them too, but come on: The pigeons. They're funny simply by acting exactly how a talking pigeon should act. Also, hey. Since I was talking about accidental copycatism, have you ever seen the Goodfeathers segments from Animaniacs? You know, with the Brooklyn-accented pigeons who are involved in a mafia-esque arrangement? I mean, okay, it's only natural that pigeons from New York would talk like tough New Yorkers. But I can't help but notice that there are three: one green, one blue and one purple. And one of them is named Bobby...
But if I had to pick someone else that Amanda isn't picking: The cutesy version of Rhino seen in the credits. You know, I think I'd like him even more if he was designed as a typically cute hamster. The idea of an adorable little bright-eyed hamster with that much gusto and fight in him - and named Rhino - is pretty dang beyawesome.
Least necessary character: I love how much detail went into creating the fictional franchise of Waffle World, but I feel like the mascot, whatever its name is, was a wasted opportunity to make a unique fictional mascot, because he looks too much like Spongebob Squarepants.
Overall: Though marred by an unshakeable sense of deja vu, Bolt carries itself well enough in its own right to prove that non-Pixar CGI Disney movies need not be complete wastes of good 1s and 0s.

*oh man why wasn't there a pigeon self-parody a la Super Rhino but with one of the pigeons being called Molt

Amanda (Knittin's)

This is SOOOOO a family movie.  You know that movie I'm talking about.  That family gathering when everyone has chatted as much as they cared to and now they all want some silence but there are kids in the room so Fast and Furious 5 would have naughty language and everyone's feeling too relaxed to want explosions anyway and the game is already over.

Wait are we experiencing Deja Vu?  Yes, I'm talking about Thanksgiving just like Kevin did, but it's to prove a point.  Just because the end result is the same doesn't mean you can't enjoy the somewhat different scenery.  It's the exact reason that Dad sometimes hops in the car to go someplace familiar and says "Let's take the scenic route."

The one key difference here is that Bolt unlike Buzz learns to love being himself whether there was a person to find or not.  Buzz on the other hand realizes that he is only complete when he has a person to love him.  Bolt chooses to go back to his person in order to make her happy, but it seems clear to me that the hamster, cat, dog trio would eventually have found satisfying happiness out on their own.

Am I happy that they all came together as a family in the end? Sure.  Do I think the same theme has been done better by other studios and in other ways? Sure. Does that mean I don't enjoy this particular scenic route? Nope.  I like it just fine.  I got to my destination.  I only wish that I had a waffle at every rest stop on the way.

Favorite Character: Yeah, Kevin read me right. The New York Pidgeons.  I almost wish that all the animals were played with more animalistic motions instead of anthropomorphized. I see that head bob just a little bit, I just GET the character.  Not another word needed.
Least necessary Character: That agent.  Let's just take his whole character and Pop. Put a pin in him.
Overall:  Utterly inoffensive and with lots of predictable cute, but it manages to pull it off. I liked it!