Sunday, 16 December 2012

New Disney

Being a fan of animation does have its darker days. Recently, I realized that I hadn't seen any of the films produced by the Disney Animated Classics series in years. That branch had some new life breathed into its rotting corpse when Disney purchased Pixar, and subsequently gave John Lasseter the helm of the animation studio back in 2006. He, if anyone should be the man up to the task. So let's take a look at how Uncle Walt's legacy is being kept alive today.

Wreck-It-Ralph (2012)
Director: Rich Moore

Disney panders to fans of old-school video games with this epic tale that takes place in various old arcade games. While the film's marketing and opening scenes offer mouth-watering cameos from classic game characters and tropes, sadly the film is quite not the Roger Rabbit of video games. When it works, it's super effective! When not, well, it's princess is another castle.

Wreck-It-Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is the Donkey Kong-alike villain in the 30-year-old arcade classic Fix-It-Felix Jr. The game is housed in a huge arcade that houses everyone's favorite games from all decades and has a steady influx of young customers every day (did I mention that this is clearly a fantasy movie?). While the gamers play their games, the characters in the game act accordingly. Yet when the arcade is closed, they can go and mingle at each other's worlds just so they are back home at work in the morning.

Ralph is tired of his part in life. He wrecks a building day in, day out, while Felix Jr. (Zach McBrayer) comes and fixes his damage and gets an award for it. Ralph is then dropped face down to the mud and t the end of the day, has to go and live in a dump. So, one day Ralph leaves his home game and ventures to other games for awards and glory. But this puts the entire Fix-It-Felix Jr. game system and its occupants in jeopardy, so Felix has to go fetch the big guy back.

 For all the video games in the world, the film's opening seems like it's filled with opportunities on where to go next. The awe of seeing game grand central and plenty of blink-and-you'll-miss-it geeky in-jokes make the opening pure bliss. All game worlds and characters are not licensed. The FPS space marine parody world is about as funny and accurate as it should be. Jane Lynch as a tough-as-nails female soldier, who has a tragic past, is one of the best characters in the film.

Unfortunately, about halfway through the film gets stuck in a single video game world. It probably won't be spoiling too much if I reveal that it's one of those cutesy 90's mini carting games, this one set in a candy land. So geeky jokes turn into candy jokes which wear out their welcome way too quickly. Ralph's trophy works as a deus ex machina, which I suppose is another tribute to classic gaming. Gaining it requires Ralph to (among other things) build a race cart, save the world and learn the power of friendship.

With the racing world, the plot goes to auto-pilot and starts to resemble other Disney movies way too closely. The whole latter part of the movie seems like unnecessary pandering to girl audiences. There's a secret princess and a tacked-on romance that are way too textbook Disney, and certainly don't serve the whole. Alan Tudyk's (Wash!) delightfully bonkers main villain does get a few scenes to shine, but he can't salvage the movie crumbling beneath him.

Director Rich Moore comes from the Simpsons, and it shows. The balance between funny stuff and relationship stuff is done well enough, even if either side is underwritten at times. And at least the script tries hard enough to fill its quota of jokes at every given time. For the first 15 minutes alone, the film is recommendable for any fan of old-school gaming. All-in-all this is one of those rare movies that don't quite meet their expectations, yet you would gladly watch a sequel with the same characters. Let's hope they'll finally go to Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat world in that one.


Tangled (2010)
Directors: Nathan Greno, Byron Howard

The modern way of conceiving Disney animation seems to be to take a classic fairy tale and to give it a thoroughly post-modern, comical, cutesy twist. Case in point is this piece of work that attempts to update the story of Rapunzel for new audiences. The Princess Bride is a clear inspiration in the tale of dashing rogues and lost royalty. For what I've heard, this was quite successful at the box office as well.

The witch Gothel (voiced by Donna Murphy) discovers a magical fire flower at the woods. She uses it to help nurse the king's ill newborn daughter back to health, which also grants the baby long hair that has magic abilities. But the greedy old witch doesn't return the child, but to takes her into her tower and raises her as her own. The magic granted by the hair also restores the crone's youthful looks and beauty.

When Rapunzel (Mandy Moore), the missing princess, is 18, she is somewhat a shut-in in a tall tower. Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi) is a notorious thief who figures that the locked up, super-high tower must have something valuable worth stealing. Once he scales the tower, he's taken captive by Rapunzel. She makes a deal with the thief for him to work as a guide for her in the outside world so she can see all the wonders it has in store for her in one day. But when Gothel realized her step-daughter is missing, she calls an all-out initiative to capture her before Rapunzel realizes the truth about her lineage.

This film has plenty of ingredients that would make for a good fairy tale movie. The computer animation blends the classic Disney style and more modern stylization quite comfortably together. The movie has a solid, classic story line with the usual parts of princess, evil stepmother, dashing rogue and animal friend filled out quite easily. Some cutesy barbarian warriors are also featured, although their joke does feel kind of old already, since it's been done in other animations before.

The film also has a scene-stealing sidekick, with the sarcastic-looking and tempered Maximus the horse. For once they didn't give the animal the voice of a famous motormouth comedian, but left his comedy silent, him being kind of like Gromit's grumpy cousin. But while many of the ingredients do work, there are plenty of stumbles along the way. Much of the story is brought forward by musical scenes, and they are, in a word, horrendous. They sound like parodies of typical Disney tunes, but done with people with no talent for scoring musicals. As with Wreck-It-Ralph, this one also gets more and more familiar as it passes, hitting every one of your basic Disney princess story etaps along the way. A valiant effort, then, but not quite cigar.

★★ 1/2

The Princess and The Frog (2009)
Directors: Ron Clements, John Musker

So far, the last traditionally hand-drawn effort from Disney is this New Orleans-set fairy tale. It fares a lot better than Tangled into breathing new life into page-long classic fairy tales, but suffers somewhat from the same problems, although less noticeably.

Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose) is a feisty waitress, wishing hard upon a star to be someday able to own a restaurant. She has no time for romance, even though her best friend fawns over the dashing Prince Naveen of Maldonia (Bruno Campos), who has come for a state visit (read: to party at Mardi Gras). Unfortunately, a wicked voodoo priest Dr. Facilier (Keith David) has plotted a foul plot against the prince, and casts a spell that turns his manservant in the prince's image, and the royalty himself as a frog.

Naveen knows his fairy tales and that he must find a princess that would kiss him back to being human. He finds Tiana, dressed as a princess for the Mardi Gras festivities and convinces her to kiss him. Tiana does so in the condition of getting a loan for her new restaurant. But since she's not an actual princess, the spell backfires and turns her into a frog as well. The pair must escape the wrath of Facilier and his army of Shadow Demons into the swamp and find the help of the mystical voodoo lady called Mama Odie.

The hand-drawn animation is a marvel to behold, developing the style of films like Aladdin and The Little Mermaid confidently into the 21st century. Painted backgrounds look astonishing, the characters vivid and expression-filled. Randy Newman's jazzy dixieland score works quite well and the songs have that Lion King quality of while not exactly advancing the plot that much, they don't at least stop it altogether, either.

The film's cast is mostly likable. The main couple have enough quirks to be called personalities. Dr. Facilier is a worthy Disney villain, conceived to be the love child between lively old-schoolers Captain Hook and Cruella De Vil, but having a lot of voodoo god (and Bond villain) Baron Samedi thrown into the mix as well. While the villain controls fearsome powers, he is at core a coward, and both these sides are featured as well. Louis the jazz alligator and Mama Odie are good characters as well, but a cast so well always has to have a weak link.

I hate you, please die.

In this case it is the buck-toothed cajun hillbilly firefly, Ray. I could die happy if I never have to witness another hillbilly joke in a cartoon ever again. The fly is constantly making butt jokes, acting disgustingly and never, ever, shutting the hell up. Jim Cummings is a wonderful voice actor, but this time he really worn out his welcome. It's strange how the film so well managed to avoid any racial stereotyping in its black main characters, yet threw them all together for this sorry excuse for a joke. The screen time that such a disgusting insect has in the film is also baffling. He has little relevance to the plot, bringing everything screechingly down whenever he's featured. Without him, the film would be a lot better. Now, he's just a Jar Jar Binks thrown into Disney Animation's New Hope.


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