Category Archives: Disney

‘Zootopia’ a deeper Disney flick

The theme of just about every Disney movie is “follow your dreams.” It’s sweet, timeless and, by now, pretty boring. So it is great that with “Zootopia”, the filmmakers haven’t abandoned that concept but added a much-needed dose of reality and racial diversity into the equation.

“Zootopia” tells the story of Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a young bunny who dreams of being a police officer in the sprawling city of Zootopia, a place where predator and prey live together in peace. There has never been a bunny cop before, and she faces all sorts of prejudice for being perceived as less than bigger animals. As she tries to prove herself, she meets a sly fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a con artist she enlists to help her get to the bottom of a case of disappearing predator animals.

The story takes a film noir approach (with a child-appropriate tone) towards the investigation and examines some poignant race-relation issues in the world today. The discrimination of predator to prey and prey to predator imbues the story with a deeper level of meaning than that of a standard Disney film. The characters must work through their own prejudices of the world to gain true understanding.

Real time and energy went into making the film not only fun and entertaining, but also different and deeper. It’s great to see an animated film, especially from Disney, tackle some prominent modern-day issues.

“Zootopia” is one of the better films of the modern Disney era. It is fun, insightful, heartfelt and memorable.

‘Moana’ beautiful, fun

Boasting beautiful animation, an engaging (if familiar) story and strong musical numbers, Disney’s Moana is an enjoyable cinematic experience.

Moana (voice of Auli’i Cravalho) is destined to lead her Polynesian island community, but the island’s resources are drying up. The sea calls to Moana, who must embark on a quest to return the heart of the goddess Te Whiti before the darkness overwhelms her home. She enlists the help of the demigod, Maui (voice of Dwayne Johnson).

Directed by the duo of Ron Clements and John Musker (past credits include Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, The Princess and the Frog among others), the film features several of the traditional Disney tropes: a princess, the bumbling sidekick, the quest, nature as a guide, the biased father-figure, the helpful grandmother. But while the story is rather so-so in terms of creativity, the songs and the visuals are great. The water in particular looks terrific and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tunes are sure to stick in your head for better or worse long afterwards.

The film does an excellent job of really utilizing its location to tell its story. You can practically smell the sea-breeze off the screen. It is to Musker and Clement’s credit that they imbue the film with such energy and really bring Polynesian culture to life.

When given the choice between the familiar told well or the unfamiliar told poorly, telling stories smartly always wins. While Moana is nothing that new, it is fun, it is enjoyable, and it is another strong Disney entry in its recent revival (started not-so-coincidentally when John Lasseter took over as head of Disney animation).

‘Rogue One’ explosive but lacks soul

Are you ready for a “Star Wars” movie every year until the end of time? Disney is. After rebooting the franchise last year with “The Force Awakens”, the next film in the series deviates from the Skywalker storyline and focuses on a Rebellion troop who manage to secure the plans for the Death Star and deliver them to Princess Leia.

The story follows Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a renegade whose father, Galen (Mad Mikkelsen), was forced to build the Death Star by the Empire. Meeting up with Cassian (Diego Luna), a member of the Rebel Alliance and a few other allies, she intercepts a message from Galen that contains information on how to destroy the weapon. She and her team must retrieve the plans before the superweapon is operational.

The action is strong and exciting, the last thirty or so minutes of the film a breakneck war film that recalls memories of “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Dirty Dozen.” It is refreshing to see a darker tone and something a little bit different.

However, when confronted with a story where the audience pretty much knows the ending, the filmmakers have to establish a basis for the audience to care. That starts with strong and empathetic characters, but there is nothing particularly compelling about Jyn. The story is a simple stop-the-bad-guys type of affair, which by itself is pretty boring. Jyn and her rebel friends really need something to drive them internally.

For example, take a look at “Guardians of the Galaxy.” The film’s conclusion is about an army trying to save a planet from a warlord trying to destroy it, but that is not really what it’s about it. It’s about a team of losers who have been alone for so long and have found friendship and are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for each other. We are given time to really know them and to understand their fears and desires, what has held them back, what they want in life and they build off each other.

In “Rogue One”, we are rushed through from scene to scene, never quite identifying with Jyn or Chirrut (Donnie Yen) or Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whitaker) or any particular character. We don’t really understand their past or why they are fighting for the Rebellion so the resolution to the story lacks meaning and emotional punch.

Perhaps Jyn’s father was a loyal Imperial and she has to correct his evil deeds (similar to Luke in “Return of the Jedi”). Or she has been running her entire life from responsibility and ditches the fight only to be lured back at the end (similar to Han in “A New Hope”). Perhaps Cassian was a stormtrooper who couldn’t stand the killing anymore. Perhaps Chirrut and Baze (Wen Jiang) lose their home to the Empire after it begins ethnic cleansing and want to take revenge. We just need a little backstory to care.

It’s a shame because there is so much that “Rogue One” does right. It’s direction and visual style are strong, it’s action scenes are top-notch, the premise is precise and interesting and it elaborates on the “Star Wars” mythos. But without a heart behind it all, it is just a pretty facade.

Oh please, Disney. Don’t…

After the success of “Maleficent”, last year’s “Cinderella” and this year’s “The Jungle Book”, Disney has revamped their efforts at turning their animated classics into live-action films. So, if you’ve always been dying for a live-action version of “The Fox and the Hound”, hey, that is now a distinct possibility.

While the quality of these movies is not terrible, they are still unoriginal cash-grabs meant purely for reliving the glory days of yesteryear, not creating original and exciting films.

Which of the future planned live-action reboots is the worst idea? In this edition of “Oh please, Disney. Don’t”, let’s count them down.

14. Mulan

Admit it. You want to see a live-action Mongol horde attack an ancient Chinese city where the villain is blown up by fireworks. And the chance to see a strong heroine with a small, CGI dragon companion at her side. Unlike a lot of the entries on this list, “Mulan” is rife with possibilities of exploring Chinese culture and giving us something different than the whimsical fairy tale, sing-a-long so often exploited by Disney. Will they actually create something unique out of the source material? Who knows, but the possibilities are stronger than with any other property.

13. The Jungle Book 2

“The Jungle Book” was a fine, if unoriginal, film. It was one of the biggest hits of the year. A sequel’s been planned because, you know, more money. Of course, there wasn’t really a sequel to the original “Jungle Book” film. So maybe that means there’ll be new things, new adventures, new characters, you know, something, anything new. There’s hope in that.

12. Prince Charming

Sure, why not make a movie about Prince Charming? Nobody even knows his real name. Maybe Charming is his name. If it is, that’s unfortunate. If the film is tongue-in-cheek, it could be a hoot. If it’s taken seriously, it’ll be a bore.

11. The Sword in the Stone

King Arthur has been done so many times. There doesn’t really need to be another movie. But Disney’s animated “The Sword in the Stone” isn’t really a classic so you can give some leeway to the creative team to make the material it’s own. Plus there are lots of opportunities for strong visuals and a solid story of a boy king and Merlin.

10. Snow White

Sure, why not. Remake Snow White. The dwarves will be cool. I’ll bet that evil queen will be badass. At least rinse the taste of the “Huntsman” movies out of our mouths.

9. Aladdin

Ugh. Remake “Aladdin”? How are you going to keep this from being racist? And who could possibly do Genie with Robin Williams gone? This is one of those, “If they’re going to do it, make it different.” Make the Genie evil and do some forty thieves stuff.

8. Beauty and the Beast

This one has the potential to be just plain creepy. Hermione falling in love with a hulking CGI bison? Sure, it looks pretty, but what could this possibly add that’s different?

7. The Little Mermaid

How are they going to make this work? Like how? I don’t understand.

6. Tinker Bell

Oh, dear God. Just… the horror.

5. Pinocchio

Anybody remember that Jonathan Taylor Thomas movie? Yep.

4. Winnie the Pooh

There’s talk that it will be an adult Christopher Robin. Having him chatting with a CGI Pooh bear and friends won’t give anyone nightmares…

At this point, how can any sane person think any of these are a good idea? This isn’t even fun to joke about anymore.

3. Cruella

Maleficent got her own movie to show her good side, so of course the next logical choice goes to… Cruella deVille! I’m sure it will be easy to empathize with a psycho who wants to murder animals and then wear them. With Emma Stone set to star, what could possibly go wrong?

Seriously, what could happen in this movie? Does she have a secret heart of gold or something? Is she the villain? Wouldn’t that just make this a straight up remake like the Glenn Close one? I don’t get it. How could this possibly work?

2. Dumbo

Reasons this will be terrible other than the obvious: This movie has Tim Burton attached to direct it (mic drop).

1.The Lion King

Has Disney really sunk this low? One of their most beloved animated classics, a film that has practically no flaws… sure, let’s go ahead and remake it with a bunch of fake-looking CGI animals. This one has already caused an uproar (ha ha) because no good can come of it. It’s almost unfathomable what a poor decision to remake “Lion King” is; the only question anyone can fathom is, why?

 

‘Cinderella’ pretty but a snore

Disney’s latest entry of Cinderella closely follows the familiar tale. A young girl named Ella (Lily James) becomes orphaned and is forced to live with her uncaring stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and stepsisters Drisella (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) while dreaming for Prince Charming (Richard Madden). Her only chance at hope comes in the form of her Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter).

Director Kenneth Branagh, a strange choice to helm such a project considering his previous directorial efforts (Thor, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Hamlet to name a few), does not excel nor fail in directing. There does not seem to be much flair to really make the film stand out. Shots are static (except for the ball scenes) and the editing is rather bland. On top of this, some of the CGI effects look downright porous which is peculiar with Disney’s acumen.

What the film lacks in style it makes up for in lavishness. Sets are intricately designed and costumes gorgeously rendered. There are so many glowing lights and absorbing cinematography that the film is visually memorable, but narratively dull.

Overall, the film goes by rather quickly, hitting each familiar story beat calmly and without great emotional involvement. Blanchett, though perhaps miscast for being a bit too pretty for an evil stepmother, shines in a cast that does not pose a lackluster performance. Lily James contains just the right amount of bubbly energy and wanton desire, though she does seem a bit old for the role. Helena Bonham Carter provides a few laughs as the Fairy Godmother in a film sorely lacking in humor. Richard Madden as Prince Charming is, well, exactly as you’d expect him to be.

The problem with making fairy tale films with live actors however has always been the translation from simple stories into 90-minute long features. There’s just not a lot of depth and internal conflict for the characters to go through. The problem of one-note characters (the stepmother is evil, Cinderella is innocent and good) leaves the film emotionally uninteresting. Cinderella is almost too good for us to empathize with and the Stepmother is too evil for us to do so as well. Without a personal stake, Cinderella is all icing, but no cake. Some sort of internal dilemma would have greatly helped the story.

This is not to say Cinderella is a bad film. It is reasonably entertaining and sweet. But the greatest fault with the project lies in why it was even made. Do audiences really need another Cinderella movie? The film tells the exact same story exactly as we have seen it before. It does not present us with anything new or offer a different take as last year’s Maleficent (2014) did by telling a story from the villain’s point-of-view (though in fairness that is borrowed from Broadway’s Wicked) and offering a different interpretation of the story’s themes by changing the ending. Cinderella is nothing new and could have been so much more.

Just for ideas, why not a tale of Cinderella’s two stepsisters and how they look upon the world? Or a conflicted evil stepmother who must grapple with personal love, love of her children and perplexing hatred for this new stepdaughter? Or even a Cinderella-focused narrative that takes place in a different location, say India, or a different time period such as the the depression? Just something different or an interesting take would have added something to a story that we have seen over and over again.

‘The Jungle Book’ gorgeous

Despite the fact that it is a nostalgia-driven marketing endeavor, Disney’s latest live-action foray based off one of their animated classics works because it is filled with heart and gorgeously animated.

Much like its predecessor, “The Jungle Book” focuses on the young boy Mowgli (Neel Sethi) raised by wolves. When the tiger Shere Khan (voice of Idris Elba) threatens to kill him, his panther guardian Bagheera (voice of Sir Ben Kingsley) leads him on a quest to the man village where he’ll be safe. Along the way, they meet the villainous Kaa (voice of Scarlett Johansson), the gigantic King Louie (voice of Christopher Walken) and the lovable Baloo (voice of Bill Murray).

Much of the plot remains intact from the animated film with one huge change near the film’s conclusion meant to make way for a sequel (it is not terrible, but not great either). The characters are magnificent CGI representations, full of identity, grace and beauty, and all of the voice actors are excellent (Idris Elba in particular).

The theme of man as a disease to nature works well and respect towards each other across species is a metaphor to our current culture. With a fully realized world in the Indian jungle, the film is engrossing, entertaining and full of Disney charm.

Two detriments to the story are inherent however. One is that the movie can not help but exist in the shadow of its predecessor. It tries to push out and be its own film at times, but with every rendition of “I Want to Be Like You” the film reminds viewers that it is essentially a remake. The film then works as a companion piece to the original, but one can’t help but wonder what the final product would have looked like if director Jon Favreau had been able to create Kipling’s tale independent of the animated film.

The other is the manner of the making of the film. There is no actual jungle at all. Everything was shot in a Los Angeles sound studio. Every creature, tree, mountain is all computer-animated. It is the height of hypocrisy for a film whose moral is the preservation of nature to not actually feature any real nature in it. The film lacks grit and a sense of reality because of it. It is a shame.

But overall, the film is enjoyable, well-made and strong. It is the best live action from animated film released by Disney and an argument can be made that it is even better than the original.

Guardians of the Galaxy Review

Even five years ago, the idea of a Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) film would have been ludicrous. They were B-list superheroes at best. Most people had never heard of them. But with Disney now determined to churn out a superhero film every few months to hold onto their current popularity for as long as they can, it was only a matter of time before something near the bottom of the barrel was given a $200 million budget just for an open summer timeslot. None of this is meant to disparage the fun film, but it is interesting to think about how we have reached a certain apex in superhero film fashion where a ragtag team of losers that includes a giant tree and a talking raccoon with a machine gun is now a major motion picture.

Peter Quill, also known as Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), begins the film as a rogue thief looking to make a profit until one of the items he snatches turns out to be an object with immense power that is coveted by an evil warlord, Ronan (Lee Pace). Through his adventure, he meets allies in Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket Racoon (voice of Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voice of Vin Diesel). With each working through their own complex pasts involving betrayals and strange lab experiments and heartbreak, they learn to move on from their needs for money or power or revenge and work together to accomplish a greater good. If this sounds somewhat similar to The Avengers (2012), that’s because it is, but with more bizarre, sci-fi elements at play it does distinguish itself. In fact, if you pay close enough attention, you will also see striking similarities to Star Wars (1977) in character types and plot structure.

In difference to other superhero films (though this film barely qualifies in that genre and should be considered more of a sci-fi comedy), Guardians focuses more on humor and action than heart and emotion. The aliens and costumes are bizarre and colorful, the characters and species are plentiful and there are so many laws and devices and objects of immense power that it is difficult to keep track of what may be going on at any particular moment in terms of plot. The filmmakers, director and writer James Gunn and writer Nicole Perlman, understood this bizarre dynamic inherent in the comic book and instead of attempting to create a serious work with sci-fi elements embraced the lunacy of the team, working in jokes and gags that not only mock the characters, their world and the plot, but also the conventions of the superhero film in general (the team deciding to work together, nobody trusting each other, the epic conclusion just to name a few). The result is the world’s first multi-million dollar, superhero cult film.

While the film is nothing truly original, it is a lot of fun along the way, full of colorful images, humor and above all, memorable characters. Marvel and Disney have found a formula that works to produce upmost audience satisfaction, and while it is not earth-shattering art, it serves as enjoyable entertainment.

SPOILERS

The film opens with the death of Peter Quill’s mother, a moment seemingly out of place with the rest of the film. One assumes this was meant to serve as some sort of motivation for his character for the rest of the film, but this falls flat as aliens, magic stones and epic battles begin to overrule the plot. With its somber tone and with it being seemingly the only scene that requires no visual effects, it starts the film off on the wrong foot.

The film then transitions to Quill stealing artifacts and selling them on the black market and this is where things really take off. We learn about his character as he uses strange froglike creatures as microphones and converses with guards who have no idea who he is. This should have been the true start to the film and perhaps a mention that he was of earth and cherishes his music as a last remembrance of his mother would have worked stronger. The music is used very effectively throughout the film, not only highlighting the plot but also Quill’s attachment to Earth and to his mother while also representing his own renegade personality.

Many of the plot elements of Guardians of the Galaxy are confusing. If viewers were not familiar with previous Marvel installments, they may be completely lost in terms of who is who, who hates who, what are the different species and who has treaties with whom. In the end, the film ultimately decides that the plot doesn’t matter that much and focuses on the characters and their relationship with the MacGuffin (Hitchcock’s term for whatever the characters want- in this case a stone that can destroy worlds). Once it is established that this bad guy (Ronan) wants this object that will destroy innocent people and the Guardians have to stop him, the film becomes a very straightforward heroes must save the world(s) narrative and this serves the film better.

The true strength of the film relies on the characters and the actors portraying them. Quill is charismatic and cocksure if incompetent, Gamora is deadly and looking to redeem her past, Rocket Raccoon is immature and greedy, Drax is angry and vengeful and Groot is just fun to watch interact with the others since he can only say three words. Each of the actors (and animators in some cases) brings them to life with vitality that makes the audience understand them and empathize. Watching them interact is fun and keeps the action and humor flowing even when the plot stumbles along.

In the end, Marvel and Disney deliver exactly what you’d expect: laughs, action and strong characters. It seems that the formula for the Disney/Marvel movies has been pretty much set in stone now: flawed heroes who need to learn to work with others against stereotypical villains who are seeking an object that will cause great harm to others. In comparison to great films that we can compare to fine Italian culinary, Disney/Marvel has perfected the sit down family restaurant: filling, full of fun, but nothing particularly memorable or moving. This would be suitable for comic book films in general as popcorn fare until you compare these Disney/Marvel films with other superhero films such as The Dark Knight (2008) or X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) which seem to push the envelope on the emotional range of what superhero films can be. A little more emotional depth and boundary pushing would truly elevate films such as Guardians of the Galaxy further.

As the superhero film has progressed to an assembly line of various entries per year, Guardians represents a move towards the obscure as mainstream. One can only imagine with the multiple sequels, obscure franchises and hundreds of characters how long this current stretch of films can continue to generate revenue. History has taught us that superheroes have always gone through periods of death and rebirth, from the censorship of the 1950s with the Comics Code Authority to the Batman television show (1966-68) to Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) to Batman and Robin (1997) all crashing various waves of superhero popularity. Guardians of the Galaxy is not that crashing point, but it does represent a stretch towards a lack of ideas for Hollywood big-budget films. One hopes that studios recognize the need to change and adapt to superhero overuse and at least change some of the formulaic nature of these films before another crash hits us soon (I’m looking at you, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2015)). For now though, we can enjoy Guardians of the Galaxy as a fun, humorous adventure romp and rest assured that superheroes aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.