Coco (2017)

Coco (2017) movie poster

director Lee Unkrich
viewed: 12/02/2017 at the Balboa Theater, SF, CA

My kids are both teenagers now, so all Disney or Pixar movies are no longer mandatory screening. I was actually a little surprised when my daughter asked if we could go see Coco.

After the atrocious and annoying Frozen “short”, the double-branded Coco begins. Patting itself on the back for its innovations in CGI and its due diligence to Mexican culture, the film opens up on the story of a long-lost patriarch and the remembrances of the Day of the Dead.

My daughter said her Spanish teacher had encouraged seeing it. And she was pleased by how many words she recognized (though I frankly knew about as much of the  Español myself.

It’s vividly-realized. I mean, this is Pixar, after all. The land of the dead is gorgeously depicted with meticulous details abounding in shot after shot.

Still, I wasn’t enthralled in it. I’m still trying to weigh exactly why this was. My daughter did enjoy it.

And I enjoyed going with her. I don’t know how many more of these we’ve got.

How old were you the last animated film you saw with your parents as a child? What was it?

Zootopia (2016)

Zootopia (2016) movie poster

directors Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush
viewed: 03/06/2016 at Century San Francisco Centre 9 and XD, SF, CA

Disney bought Pixar in 2006, and since that time, the two studios, under leadership of John Lasseter, have cross-pollinated significantly.  This cross-pollination, though, has borne better fruit for the venerable Hollywood animation titan than for the upstart Emeryville, CA studio that made digital animation great and viable.  Disney has been on a roll again, the latest rebirth of a studio with a long history of change and redevelopment.  And Zootopia is their latest very good animated feature.

Digital animation only gets better, so it seems.  Every year, each new film, looks slicker and more amazing in its rendering of these vividly detailed fantasy universes.  You can actually sit in awe of the fur on a characters wrist (if you are so inclined, as apparently me and my now 12 year old daughter are).  But looks are certainly not everything.

Arguably, character and storytelling make up a much larger percentage of everything, but the beauty of the renderings should never be glossed over.

Zootopia is a parable about racism and sexism, set in a universe where all mammals have come to evolve into a happy urban fantasy, where “anybody can become anything”.  I don’t know how biting or mordant the social criticism stands, but the story shoots a bit higher than the average animated feature in themes, so that is worth noting.

It’s a buddy comedy about a bunny cop and a fox con-man who wind up having to solve the mysterious disappearances of several animals, all of former predatory classes, which uncovers an even deeper, darker, more divisive mystery below.  For the most part, Zootopia eschews big name stars in recognizable voice roles, and allows the characters to be developed as unique beings.  Thus Officer Judy Hopps and “Nick” Wilde’s humorous relationship and partnership works.  It’s easy to forget that was Jason Bateman behind the latter of the two.

It’s a funny, entertaining, at times a bit thrilling and scary (for little ones), another fine film from Disney, probably my favorite since Tangled (2010), who knows maybe longer than that?

Big Hero 6 (2014)

Big Hero 6 (2014) movie poster

directors Don Hall, Chris Williams
viewed: 11/23/2014 at the Presidio Theater, SF, CA

Big Hero 6 is Disney’s latest very good digitally animated feature.  The run of success that the studio has been on since Tangled (2010) isn’t necessarily unprecedented, but given where the studio sat in relation to other animation studios, most namely Pixar, as the turn to digital animation became so dominant, it’s still very impressive and worth noting.

Disney and Pixar are of course at this time virtually the same animal.  Pixar’s John Lasseter sat in as producer on this Disney film, Disney having absorbed Pixar a few years back has caused me to wonder about the branding and prioritization at the studios in recent years.  Pixar has been stuck in a sequel-churn while Disney has had successes with digital princess films like Tangled and Frozen (2013) as well as more (dare I say it?) boy-oriented fare like Wreck-It Ralph (2012) and now Big Hero 6.  It’s kind of like you can see where the talent and dollars have been spent over the last few years…and it’s paid off.

It really makes me wonder about Pixar’s future.  They do have an original film due out next summer, Inside Out (2015), which at least “looks like” an original Pixar film, not just another knock-off sequel (of which I’ve also read they have a few due out (Finding Dory (2016), Toy Story 4 (2017), The Incredibles 2 (TBA), Cars 3 (TBA)).

Big Hero 6 is the best film of its kind since Pixar’s The Incredibles (2004).  It’s a more action-adventure style of animated feature.  Like The Incredibles, it’s also a superhero film, as well.  Though in this case, it’s adapted from a Marvel comic, an established set of characters and storylines (perhaps thusfar the ultimate of the massive Disney enterprise of its multitude of pop cultural holdings, fusing together into commercial products for us and our families).

It’s slick and entertaining.  Clara totally loved it.  Felix thought it was pretty good.  Me, at first I was really, really enjoying it, but by the end the magic had worn a little thin and clichéd.

The animation, particularly the character animation of Baymax, the big balloon-like robot, is terrific.  It’s all set in San Fransokyo (a San Francisco/Tokyo mash-up world of the story), which is also wonderfully rendered (I was actually struck how cool it is to watch a movie with a set so beautifully imagined that is essentially the city in which we are watching the film.  SF-local bias.)

It’s the story of robot-maker nerds and their passion for science and technological advancement.  Hiro (the movie’s “hero”) is the younger brother to Tadashi, who inspired his younger sibling to go to college, meet his peers, turn his passion for invention into a professional career with positive goals.  Only Tadashi gets killed early on (proof that this isn’t exactly the soft-and-fuzzy little kid-friendly Disney-type story but one with vaguely more adult themes and villains.  Tadashi has left Baymax, his non-threatening medical professional balloon ‘bot behind.  Eventually Jiro groups the college science nerds and Baymax into a superhero team to fight a Kabuki-masked villain.

The first part of the film is its best, especially the scenes with Baymax in various states of inflation, working his way around the 3D environment.  It’s the scenes with Baymax that have the real flair of beautifully-rendered digital animation that we’ve come to expect from Pixar.

In the end, the adventure and thrills are still a lot of fun.  At least there are no musical numbers that tweens will be singing for the next millennia to come til we all go insane and stab our ears out.

The Rescuers Down Under (1990)

The Rescuers Down Under (1990) movie poster

directors Hendel Butoy, Mike Gabriel
viewed: 07/02/2014

Ever since watching The Rescuers (1977) a couple weeks back, Clara was begging to watch the sequel, The Rescuers Down Under.  Made over a dozen years after the original, it was one of the first Disney sequels, certainly the only sequel to get a big theatrical release.

Though it brings back the very likable Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor, the film is a wholly different animal from the original.  I’ve always been terribly cynical about it and I don’t know that I ever saw it.  I’m pretty sure that I hadn’t.

Set in the Australian outback, the film opens with a small boy who rescues a giant golden eagle from a trapper’s net.  In a fantasy world of incredible talking animals rescuing children, this little boy scaling immense cliffs to free this bird, and then fly off on its back sets new levels of incredulity.  I honestly thought it must be a dream sequence.  But no.

The boy is then captured by the evil poacher, voiced by George C. Scott, and must be rescued by Miss Bianca and Bernard.  The film ups the adventure aspect, forsaking the quiet charm and whimsy of the first film.  Really, the first film is a sweet, gentle thing, driven by character, and quite simple by contrast.  The Rescuers Down Under suffers from the adventure film sequel disease of bigger, better action.

As much as I didn’t care for it, it still features some nice animation sequences.  But I must admit, I have a real personal dislike of certain computer-animated elements, like cityscapes or landscapes in flying sequences.   These are personal issues.  I shouldn’t belabor the point.  The film was made at a time that Disney was transitioning traditional cel animation into a more digital production.  The film certainly bears the feel of 1990’s Disney animation like DuckTales or whatever else it had going back then.

Clara enjoyed it.  Though she readily admitted it being no comparison to the original.

The Rescuers (1977)

The Rescuers (1977) movie poster

directors Wolfgang Reitherman. John Lounsbery, Art Stevens
viewed: 06/13/2014

The Rescuers is another Disney film that I actually grew up with.  I was 8 when it came out and had probably already moved on to Star Wars (1977) forever after, but I remember seeing it and actually, remembered being kind of disappointed and annoyed with it.  I’m not sure why.

I watched The Rescuers with my daughter and her friend, ages 10 and 11, and from right off the bat, they were totally into it.

It’s an interesting contrast with both Robin Hood (1973), which we’d watched only a week or so before, and The Black Cauldron (1985) which we saw last year because it falls in between those two films in the Disney oeuvre and may be one of the best of its era.  No matter my thoughts on it as a kid, it’s a genuinely good film, with some excellent character animation, some lovely backgrounds, a very good voice cast, and an engaging, melancholy story.

I’ve always loved Bob Newhart, who voiced Bernard (a fact I had oddly forgotten) and I actually always liked Eve Gabor, who voiced Miss Bianca.  These are the two mice, the titular rescuers, who go out to find a lost orphan, Penny, who has been taken to a dark bayou to spelunk for a pirate’s treasure, an enormous diamond called “the Devil’s Eye”.

The villainous villainess, Madame Medusa, voiced by Geraldine Page, may not have been so wholly original of a character as some Disney baddies, but she’s very good.  With her bumbling assistant and two massive alligators, she’s a slovenly, nasty piece of work, manhandling a poor little orphan.

Well, I enjoyed the film more than I remembered.  The girls loved it.  LOVED it.  They are already begging to see the sequel, which I don’t think I ever saw.  But I give it credit (and from reading up on it, am far from alone) as the high mark for the studio in the 1970’s.

Robin Hood (1973)

Robin Hood

director Wolfgang Reitherman
viewed: 06/07/2014

Disney’s Robin Hood was one that I grew up with which makes good sense.  I would have been four when it came out and so I don’t know when or how many times I’d seen it, but I remembered liking it quite well.

Clara had requested an animated film for our weekly movie.  And I obliged from my Netflix streaming queue.

The thing is, Robin Hood is pretty weak movie-making.  When we’d recently watched Disney’s The Black Cauldron (1985), I had noted that it came from a low ebb of Disney creativity and quality and aesthetics.  I guess that the build up to that time had been long coming.

While the character design is quite decent (if not overly imaginative), the production values are on their lower rungs.  Little John, voiced by Phil Harris is a real reprise of his Baloo the bear from The Jungle Book in just about every way.  And even Sir Hiss, voiced by Terry-Thomas, is a snake very much like Kaa from the same film (a better film).  And the story is sort of three or four sequences strung together without a cohesive logic to it.

But the sequences have their charms.

You still had some of the old talent from Disney, like Ward Kimball and Ollie Johnston, but it seems like the days of Walt’s lavish spending and production values had taken a backseat to the cheap style of television cartoons from Hanna-Barbera, groundbreakers of cheap animation production.

It’s not quite what you expect from a Disney cartoon.  But it has some baked-in, if not too original charm about it.  Clara liked it.

Alice in Wonderland (1951)

Alice in Wonderland (1951) movie poster

directors Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske
viewed: 02/22/2014

For most families, a flick from the Disney canon wouldn’t necessarily be a change of pace, but for us, that’s what it is.  We have been sort of working our way through the Disney feature films, but very slowly and sporadically.

Disney’s 1951 version of Alice in Wonderland is perhaps not accordingly true to the original text, but it is a lush, gorgeous Technicolor fantasia of its own.  The colors and designs are vibrant and alive.  And while the film’s more or less picaresque narrative keeps it from really becoming quite a great movie, it’s indeed a very fine one nonetheless.

Oddly enough, my kids aren’t all that familiar with the story or the source material, and resultingly, Felix described the movie as “weird.”  Well, yes, Alice in Wonderland is weird, an absurdist fantasy world that has become shorthand for when things get strange.   I tried to explain the term “down the rabbit hole” to them, but I guess they’ll have to wait to hear someone else use that term somewhere to appreciate it.

Favorites of mine include the Cheshire cat, the Mad Hatter and the March Hare, and more.  There are a number of good tunes as well, most specifically, “The Unbirthday Song”.  There are lots of nice sequences.

I’ve always found Alice a little discomfiting in that her whole world, while nonsensical, is also sort of rude and uncaring.  It’s not that I intellectually have a problem with it, but it’s the overall tone of the story that is sort of discordant and sort of disturbing.  If anything, that may well be to the merit of the story, it’s just how it sits with me.

The last Alice in Wonderland (2010) I saw was the Johnny Depp/Tim Burton one, which is quite the departure from the text as well.  I don’t know that one needs a definitive version of Alice.  I quite like Jan Švankmajer’s Alice (1988).  Maybe I’ll have to queue that one up too.

The kids did enjoy it, this Disney film.  It’s quite lovely in its way.

The Black Cauldron (1985)

The Black Cauldron (1985) movie poster

director Ted Berman, Richard Rich
viewed: 01/04/2014

This movie just ain’t no good.

Well, actually, the kids thought it was okay.

When I was 13, I read Lloyd Alexander’s, The Chronicles of Prydain, his five book series about Taran, an assistant pig keeper.  At the time, I also read Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy.  I really liked them a lot.

So, when Disney was doing The Black Cauldron, the second of the books, as an animated film, I was kind of jazzed.   It was a dark time for animation.  TV animation, via Hanna Barbara, had cheapened the style and production values of animation terribly.  And Disney hadn’t had a hit animated film in years.  The news at the time suggested that they might shutter animation production altogether.

The Black Cauldron is emblematic of the problems of animation at this time.  For a feature Disney film, it looks remarkably cheap.  The characters are not terribly interesting or well developed.  It actually looks a bit like a Disney reaction to some of Ralph Bakshi’s fantasy films.  On the positive side, there are no musical numbers.

What seemed like it could have been great material seems to have reached the screen in a muddled manner.  Much darker than most Disney films, it also lacks a distinct vision.  The villainous Horned King is scary-looking, but is underdeveloped.  So he wants to take over the world?  What evil skull-faced villain doesn’t?

The cutesy/comic sidekick character of Gurgi reminds me of something.  Not sure what.  I recognize his voice.  But he’s obvious for what he’s supposed to be while inobvious for what he really is.  The material is a mash up of at least the first two books of the series.  I vaguely recall thinking that it seemed to have elements of the final book too.  I don’t recall.

I do recall seeing it in the theater and being quite disappointed.  This refresher viewing proved out that my vague memory was rooted in the truth that this was one of the Disney studio’s nadirs.  It is interesting that this was the one feature film released from the time that Tim Burton toiled as an animator very unhappily at Disney.  The great irony of this malaise in animation is how prevalent and ubiquitous the form is today.  Alas, the dark times of the 1980’s.

Dumbo (1941)

Dumbo (1941) movie posterI

directors various
viewed: 12/28/2013

It was funny when I queued up Dumbo for the kids.  When Felix asked me what we were watching, I told him Dumbo and he had no idea what I was talking about.  I told him it was about an elephant with great big ears.  It was clear he hadn’t any idea about it.  Clara had a comic/storybook with the story so she knew it somewhat.

Me, I hadn’t seen it in gosh knows how long.  I think I clearly avoided the situation of inundating my kids with Disney, the whole “Princess army” and so forth, but I am an aficionado of animation and we’ve seen our fair share of the Disney canon.  I do think we’re being a bit selective here.

Dumbo, for my generation, was one of the tearjerkers of Disney.  When they take the little, insulted, ostracized elephant from his mother…well, that’s where Felix commented how “sentimental” the movie was.  I gotta admit, it’s heavy-handed.  And I probably saw it more around the age of five than twelve.

For my money, I always liked the crows and “When I See an Elephant Fly”.  It’s a good bit, a catchy tune with lots of funny puns.  Sure, the crows verge heavily into stereotypes but they are also good characters and fun and funny.

Really, the best part of the film is the “Pink Elephants on Parade”, the drunken, surreal sequence that is the film’s break with reality.  It’s actually slightly protracted, which as a discerning animation fan I think is cool.  It’s stark and much more two-dimensional, morphing and poppy, quite a contrast with the rest of the film.  As a child, I think it struck me as weird.  Again, as a very young child.  It is weird.  That’s what’s cool about it.

Dumbo was the fourth feature film from Disney and it reflects the cheaper budget in comparison with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940), and Fantasia (1940).  The lush, extravagant era of Disney feature animation gave way to a leaner product.  Still, the staff was top-notch.  It’s no hack-job.

It wasn’t a favorite for either Felix or Clara, but, you know, it’s a sweet film.  Only 64 minutes.

Frozen (2013)

Frozen (2013) movie poster

directors Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
viewed: 12/01/2013 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA

Frozen, the latest from Disney’s digital animation crew, has been getting a lot of praise, some suggesting that it’s Disney’s best since The Lion King (1994), and maybe they just mean best “musical” since The Lion King, I’m not sure.

In my opinion, it’s not even as good as either Tangled (2010) or Wreck-It Ralph (2012), though perhaps I am skewed a bit against musicals.  Well, skewed against bad or mediocre musicals, not musicals in general.

I was noting to a friend that the challenge of making a movie musical is that not only are you trying to make a good movie (hard enough) but then you have to write and perform good music (also no cakewalk).  You are basically doubling your challenge and probably complicating the odds against success by degrees much more steeply.

Frozen falls closer to Tangled, also taking a single word past participle title and reworking a fairy tale quite freely.  Frozen re-works Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen”, turning it into a story of estranged sisters, one cursed with magical powers, the other cursed with a sister with magical powers who doesn’t want anyone to know that she has them so she keeps the castle the live in all locked tight.  All goes well until the coronation and exposure to the rest of the kingdom and the releasing of her powers over snow and ice.

The kids weren’t too bothered about seeing Frozen but I told them that it had gotten good reviews and that it looked worth seeing.  Apparently I didn’t tell them it was a musical.  Felix felt that there was too much singing.  Which is fair.  None of the numbers in the film would be hummed afterwards, or remembered even now much later.

The songs all express the characters’ feelings and tend to push the narrative forward in explicating their feelings.  They are very obvious and fit in contemporary popular style.  While musicals aren’t what they used to be, a truly popular genre of film, they still rule Broadway and popular television shows indulge some of the same.  Not everybody appreciates the Musical as a genre, but I would argue that contemporary pop culture does.

Sadly, as noted above, the music just doesn’t cut it.  And when it doesn’t cut it, it cuts the film.

Frozen is okay.  It has its charms.  But it has a lot of unmemorable, emotive, and obvious musical numbers.  None of us was too impressed.