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Entries in Disney (6)

Friday
Mar132015

Cinderella

Nobody captures magic as well as Disney. For decades, they have delivered some of the most memorable and wonderful films time and again with rarely a stumble, at least when looking at their impressive animated filmography. No matter if you’re a child or an adult, it’s difficult not to gaze at the screen in imaginative awe and be transported to a world unlike anything you’ve ever seen. That’s why one’s hesitance towards taking a much loved animated film and turning it into live action is understandable, but they knock it out of the park with “Cinderella.” Based on the classic fairy tale, but borrowing heavily from the 1950 film, “Cinderella” is enchanting, a wonderful and stylish film with a charming lead and emotional narrative.

And that narrative should be well known by now. Ella (Lily James) is an orphan. She grew up in a warm household with a mother and father that loved her very much. Unfortunately, they are now both dead and she has found herself in the care of her stepmother (Cate Blanchett), an evil woman who treats her terribly, which includes forcing her to clean the fireplace, leading her stepsisters to give her a cruel nickname: Cinderella. Meanwhile, the Prince (Richard Madden) is throwing a ball and the entire kingdom is invited and even though her stepmother initially forbids her from attending, Cinderella is granted the opportunity by her Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter). So she jumps in her pumpkin carriage and slips on her glass slippers to meet the Prince.

And we know what happens from there. Certain things are changed from the well-known tale, like Cinderella and the Prince meeting prior to the ball, but the story plays out basically the same. So while there are little surprises in store, the film nevertheless remains mesmerizing. The story is brought to life with imaginative vigor, with a passion that similar animated-to-live-action films like “Beastly” severely lack. Unlike that film, this isn’t a pandering tween adaptation, but rather a loving tribute to one of the greatest and most hopeful stories of all time. Director Kenneth Branagh brings his usual stylistic flare, but downplays it when compared to something like the bombastic “Thor” and allows his actors and the inherent wonder of the story do the heavy lifting.

Even with that, this story hinges on a lead actress able to pull off the title role and create an empathetic character and they couldn’t have cast anyone better than Lily James. Before Cinderella’s mother died, she told her that there were two things she always needed to remember: to have courage and always be kind. They’re words to live by, but they also serve as a foundation for James to craft a character that is impossible not to fall in love with and root for. Not since 2007’s “Enchanted” have I felt such a strange connectedness to such an optimistic person, a perspective that remained unchanged in her even as she faced extreme adversity.

In fact, all of the performances are stellar, as each performer brings exactly what is needed to each respective role, except for, oddly enough, the typically great Cate Blanchett. While the costume design and occasional silliness of prior iterations of the story can be blamed for some of it—she’s naturally decked out in all dark, evil colors and accompanied by a cat whose name is, get this, Lucifer—her exaggerated mannerisms and dramatic tone do little to ground what is otherwise a captivating tale. If the aim was to make her unlikable, then she succeeded, but not because of her actions in the story, as it should be, but rather because her performance really is that annoying.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot of wonder in this version of “Cinderella,” and it’s captured in an extravagance that doesn’t overtake the story, but enhances it. With a beautiful score that complements its already timeless story, “Cinderella” cements itself as a modern day classic, a film that boys and girls of all ages will adore.

Cinderella receives 4/5

Friday
Nov072014

Big Hero 6

When Disney acquired Marvel in 2009, one’s imagination couldn’t help but go wild. What stories in the existing Marvel Universe could be told with the talented Disney affiliated minds behind them? The possibilities were endless, which makes it that much more depressing that their first animated film based on a Marvel property is a dud. “Big Hero 6,” based on the comic book series of the same name lacks personality, a heartfelt story or even decent laughs. It’s not a terrible movie by any means, but neither is it very good. It’s just kind of there.

Hiro (Ryan Potter) is an engineering prodigy who graduated high school at age 13, but hasn’t done much since aside from hustling people in underground robot fighting. However, his brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney), understands his potential and helps him harness it in an environment that could allow him to change the future with his inventions. After a successful exhibition of his nanobots, he is accepted into a school for the scientifically gifted, but he ends up not attending, as his brother is killed in a tragic fire shortly after. His brother’s invention, an inflatable medical robot named Baymax (Scott Adsit) is all Hiro has left of him. One day, when Baymax wanders off, Hiro follows him and discovers something he didn’t expect to find: someone wearing a kabuki mask is manipulating his nanobot technology for evil. So he, along with his brother’s school friends, use their engineering prowess to turn themselves and Baymax into superheroes and set out to identify the masked man and bring him down.

Despite its source material predating its release, “Big Hero 6” feels like a poor imitation of “The Incredibles.” It has a similar visual style, eccentric characters with crazy superpowers and the same dark-but-not-too-dark-so-as-to-appeal-to-the-kiddies narrative. Unfortunately, the narrative here isn’t particularly interesting, as it breezily moves from here to there with few moments of consequence in between. The only character worth caring about is Tadashi, primarily due to the wonderful sibling relationship he has with Hiro. Their relationship leads to some heartfelt and, eventually, heartbreaking moments, but he leaves the picture so early on that the rest of the film feels lackluster in comparison.

Once he leaves, the relationship angle is primarily centered around Hiro and Baymax, but it’s rudimentary at best. While not impossible to create a meaningful relationship between a human and machine, “Big Hero 6” squanders it by focusing less on the human qualities of Baymax and more on the fact that he’s a machine capable of upgrading. The more it focuses on the latter, the more the viewer realizes that whatever limited personality he has can be replicated. When Baymax finds himself in precarious situations later in the movie, it doesn’t matter. If he’s destroyed, it won’t be difficult to build another.

Luckily, there are a couple interesting twists in the movie to keep viewers interested, even if they don’t necessarily raise the stakes in any meaningful way. In particular, the finale is thrilling and goes in a direction that, at least visually, is wonderful. These final moments show the real beauty that this type of filmmaking is capable of imagining up, which goes a long way in making up for the rest of the film’s good, but typical aesthetics.

“Big Hero 6” is a movie without an audience. Older viewers with more distinguished tastes will be able to see through its thinness while younger audiences may find themselves too frightened by the admittedly menacing kabuki mask wearing enigma. But in the end, it simply lacks the personality, humor or charm of Disney’s other films and while it doesn’t offend in any way, neither does it impress. “Big Hero 6” is 102 minutes of pure mediocrity.

Big Hero 6 receives 2.5/5

Tuesday
Nov262013

Frozen

It’s hard not to love Disney animation. For many decades now, they’ve captivated the hearts and minds of all ages with sweeping musical numbers, beautiful visuals and endless imagination. With heart and wit always seemingly at the center of each tale, their movies are timeless and will continue to be watched for many more generations to come. Their latest, “Frozen,” rests comfortably alongside the rest of Disney’s collection, even if it doesn’t quite reach the wonder of those that have come before.

Anna (Kristen Bell) is a spunky girl. She was always close to her sister, Elsa (Idina Menzel), as a child, but in their older years they’ve grown apart. This is because Elsa has powers of ice that she can’t control and when they were young, she accidentally harmed Anna, an event Anna no longer remembers. By distancing herself from her sister, she ensures she’ll never harm her again. However, Elsa is about to be made queen of her kingdom, which forces her to open up the castle doors to the people. This leads to a circumstance that reveals her powers, frightening the people and forcing her to rush off into the mountains. Determined to get her back, Anna jumps on horseback and rides away to find her, eventually enlisting the help of common man Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his deer, Sven, and a magical snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad).

Just in terms of visuals, “Frozen” is a marvel. It’s absolutely beautiful to watch, perfectly capturing the aesthetic of a childlike imagination that mixes exaggerated views of reality with magic. With our technological advancements in animation, it has never been a better time to revert back to your childhood and enjoy an animated movie and this works as a perfect example of that. Its songs, too, are wonderful, echoing Disney’s 2010 hit, “Tangled.” Sung beautifully and written with care (with a few jokes thrown in the lyrics for good measure), combining them with the pleasing sights are sure to bring goose bumps to all but the hardest of cynics. In these ways and more, “Frozen” is a Disney movie in all the best ways.

Perhaps uncharacteristically of a Disney movie, however, is its surprisingly uneven story. The story itself is grand with neat ideas and real emotion (the opening, in particular, packs more emotional punches than most movies do in their entirety), but it breaks the cardinal sin of storytelling: it doesn’t follow its own rules. The most egregious example comes shortly after Elsa flees the kingdom. Her whole life, she has been unable to control her powers, isolating herself so as not to harm anyone else. Her bedroom is covered from the floor to the ceiling in ice and when she picks something up with her bare hands, it immediately freezes over. It’s this lack of control that creates the primary conflict for the film’s main story arc, but the first thing Elsa does when she reaches the mountains is build an elaborate ice palace, complete with spiraling staircases and giant swinging doors.

This moment doesn’t necessarily leave a huge stain on the story as a whole, but it’s a contrived set-up, existing as a means to give the other characters a location to reach and making moot the film’s previous rules. One late movie twist, that I unfortunately won’t be able to talk about in depth, only adds to the perplexing inconsistencies of a movie that would have been fantastic otherwise. After the true motivation of a certain character is revealed, it calls into question nearly all of the events that led to it. Writers, above all, need to ensure their characters do things that make sense and that they follow their own established set of rules. In these regards, “Frozen” fails miserably.

But there’s so much more to the film than those admittedly glaring blunders. Olaf, in particular, is a treat. With energetic voice work by the underappreciated Josh Gad, he shows up just in the nick of time, picking the movie up from its midway slump. He’s ever the optimist, smiles incessantly and never misses the opportunity to make a joke. He’s one of the most charming and hilarious Disney characters in quite some time. If that doesn’t sell it for you, “Frozen” is opened by a spectacular Mickey Mouse short that cleverly blends old school 2D black and white animation with the new colorful 3D visuals we’re accustomed to today. It alone is worth the price of admission, but the good news is that the movie that follows, while not a new Disney classic, is a pleasant experience in and of itself.

Frozen receives 3.5/5

Wednesday
Nov242010

Tangled

Disney has a long history of producing quality animated movies. They’ve stumbled a few times along the way, but their impressive list of bona fide classics that include The Lion King, Fantasia, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Bambi and Beauty and the Beast, among others, keeps most viewers optimistic that their next movie could be something special. Their latest release, Tangled, which also happens to be their 50th animated feature, is not the newest animation classic, but it’s a fun, exuberant joyride that will leave a joyous lump in your throat by the end.

Tangled is essentially a modern, expanded update on the classic “Rapunzel” story. The wonderful Mandy Moore voices the girl with long blonde hair who has been locked up in a tower for her entire life by the woman she thinks is her mother, Gothel, voiced by Donna Murphy. Little does she know, she was actually stolen by mother Gothel as a baby because of her magical golden hair that has healing powers when she sings. Gothel has used Rapunzel’s ability to keep her young, but now Rapunzel is turning 18 and wants to venture out into the world. Every year on her birthday, her true mother and father send up hundreds of lanterns into the sky and she wants to experience this up close, oblivious of the fact that the event is meant for her with the hope that she will someday return. When Flynn, voiced by Zachary Levi, stumbles on her tower, she finds her chance to escape as he reluctantly agrees to escort her to the castle where it takes place.

I consider myself a child at heart. I adore animation and Disney movies strike an emotional chord in me today just as strongly as they did when I was young. There’s a certain feeling of happiness I get when these characters burst into song and the ones here are terrific. Led by Mandy Moore’s downright beautiful voice, they all exude warmth and fun and I found myself loving the movie more and more as it went on.

Tangled is not "adult" in the way a Pixar movie with themes and messages that reach out to the older crowd can be. In fact, there didn’t seem to be any themes and messages outside of the most basic to be found anywhere. But whether it’s the music or the gorgeous animation, which is colorful, rich with detail, and pleasing to the eye, Tangled is charming all the way through. It’s funny, cunning and smart, though it doesn’t quite go far enough with its send-up of the classic “Rapunzel” story, opting merely to use the story as a set-up and then go on a completely different adventure.

As with nearly all animated movies these days, Tangled uses 3D to improve on its animation (and to make more money by charging a premium price for the glasses). But unlike films like How to Train Your Dragon or Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, Tangled doesn’t seem to do much with it. While far from bad, the 3D, like most movies in the format, doesn’t enhance Tangled in any significant way, with the exception of one late scene set on a rowboat out on the water.

But 3D is almost never the deciding factor in whether or not a movie is good. With the extra dimension or without it, Tangled works because it doesn’t want to be any more than it is—a sweet, goofy movie for the whole family. There really isn't much to say about it because it is so simple in its purpose. It's that fact that made writing this review so hard, but it’s also what makes a recommendation so easy.

Tangled receives 3.5/5

Friday
Oct082010

Secretariat

As a critic, I’m faced with many different choices each week. You’d be surprised how much my inbox is flooded with invitations to movie screenings each and every day. Naturally, some of them overlap and, being only one man, I am unable to attend them all. Because of this, I sometimes I have to pay for a movie that I missed. Secretariat is the latest example. It screened at least four times leading up to today, its release date, but I somehow managed to skip every one. With no theaters doing midnight screenings in my immediate area, I had to go out of my way to see it and the outcome is the worst possible one. I’m not upset I saw it, but there certainly wasn’t a need to.

You see, if I’m going to stay up late and force in a movie, I want there to be something substantial to say about it, but Secretariat is exactly what I thought it would be. It’s the true story of a horse who won the Triple Crown and this film shows the events leading up to each of those three races. It’s a Disney movie through and through, where good people do good things and fight for good no matter what. It’s a feel good, if a bit hammy, story about overcoming adversity and putting faith in something despite sometimes overwhelming odds.

I suppose the main difference this time around, however, is that it’s more dramatic than your typical Disney fare. Laughs run light in this thing and in it no less than three people die, chance occurrences that are usually followed by an over exaggerated sadness. This is the type of movie where nobody should ever have anything in their hands because they’re liable to drop it when told bad news.

In fact, much of it plays out like a badly written TV movie, complete with long, remorseful speeches at the foot of a loved one’s deathbed and frivolous arguments full of theatrical rhetoric that are solved on the spot and never brought up again. It fails so hard when trying to be serious that it comes off as laughable. At one point, Secretariat falls ill and his owner, Penny, played by Diane Lane, quietly stares into his eyes and more or less cures him. While the filmmakers were no doubt going for a type of understanding between the two, where the owner can sense whether or not her horse is healthy, it is nevertheless more likely to conjure up chuckles.

Even with all of that, Secretariat is an upbeat movie—these Disney dramas never go too dark—and the happiness onscreen rubs off on the audience. You’ll cheer as the horse rounds each turn and your heart will pump ferociously as he attempts to take the lead. Somehow, this movie makes horse racing exciting, though it goes too far in its jockey point of view shots where there is a noticeable dip in visual quality.

I’d love to use the phrase, “What it all boils down to…” right now, but I can’t because the truth is it doesn’t boil down to much of anything. For every one thing it does right, it does three things wrong. Examples include unexplored side plots detailing Penny’s daughter’s foray into political protesting and a timeline that flies by carelessly. Before I knew it, three years had gone by and I wasn’t aware we were even through the week.

I’ve spent little time detailing the actual story of Secretariat because you either know it or you don’t. If you do, this will entertain you. If you don’t, it’s just another middle-of-the-road picture that isn't worth your time. Sure, what Secretariat accomplished is impressive if you care about this sort of thing, but horse racing isn’t the most popular of sports and by the end, if you’re like me, you’ll be asking yourself, “So what?”

Secretariat receives 2/5