Tag Archives: Disney

Inside-Out (2015)

Inside-Out-Pixar-Post-1

Pixar used to be the reliable go-to studio when it came to animation. For ten years they didn’t make a bad film. These days with their last great original film was Up back in 2010, which was followed by three sequels and the dubiously received Brave. With another three sequels scheduled for the years to come, things aren’t looking up. Pete Docter’s Inside-Out, even despite the fabulously uninteresting short that precedes it (Lava), shines out like a beacon in the wasteland of unsuccessful Pixar films. I want to make it clear that I, like everyone else, am human, and as such loved this film and cried from about the point that a certain pink fluffy character leaves the story to the end, however:

Inside-Out sees a union of the new capabilities of photo-realistic CGI with a more retro, colourful style thanks to its dual story structure. The action takes place simultaneously in a realist grey-toned San Francisco where 11-year old Riley suddenly finds herself after a house move and also in her head. Her mind is run by five emotions, personified into glowing fibrous beings. The film is essentially one short narrative about Riley accepting her new home accompanied by an incredibly intricate allegory of the same story. The allegory in fact is so powerful that you come to care about these figments of a fictional character even more than the fictional character herself. The journey of Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) through the furthest reaches of Riley’s mind controls the “real-world” action but is more colourful, more poignant and more alive than the San-Francisco streets that Riley so hates.

The emotional punch of Inside-Out comes from its grace and delicacy. From being an over-bearing dictator in the film’s first act, rejecting anything that isn’t happy, Joy slowly learns to understand and appreciate the value of the other emotions, especially Sadness. It’s a sweet way to understand the loss of childish innocence and the emergence of a subtler, wider personality in the young girl. In one of the best scenes Joy reassures herself by playing an old memory of Riley skating and dances along. Quite apart from the beauty of the shot this scene demonstrates a real care and attention to detail as Riley practices genuine Ice-Skating moves in a very realistic way.

Yet there’s something unsettlingly familiar and safe about this fantastical world of the long-term memory. Who can forget the great chase sequence through airport conveyor belts in Toy Story 2, or for that matter the door warehouse in Monsters Inc.? Well, if you liked complex, illogically large, multi-coloured mechanisms you’re in for a treat because that’s exactly what the long-term memory looks like. Furthermore, while Bing-Bong is undoubtedly the unsung star of this film, his story arc of the loveable companion who accepts that he must leave for the heroine’s own good can’t help but remind us of Sulley and Boo and an altogether more creative and original time.

  • Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:             4/5
  • Intellectual:      3/5
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Frozen – 2013

Frozen-image-frozen-36270007-1920-800You may remember that some time ago I was definitively outraged at the announcement of Frozen. I won’t go into detail here but if you want to know my reasons they can be found HERE.

However, given the Frozen frenzy that has taken over the world recently and the announcement that Frozen is now the highest grossing animated film of all time I figured I should give it a watch.

I was actually pleasantly surprised by Frozen. I remember watching Princess and the Frog and Tangled through half covered eyes at the cringingly awful, dumbed-down dialogue and animation. They were both so inherently unenjoyable and disappointing. Frozen, on the other hand was genuinely fun to watch. The story is interesting and the songs really carry it, the film even have the old-style musical motif that accompanies each character and here it’s used to great effect. The duets where Elsa and Anna’s melodies merge are truly beautiful moments with great writing. What’s more, the opening seems to be returning to the format of the Disney Renaissance films (Everything between The Little Mermaid in 1989 and Tarzan in 1999) which included a musical prologue of sorts, outlining the themes of the film. It’s a hopeful direction and I’m glad to see a little of the old Disney sparkle.

However, Frozen is narratively weak. Anna is our main character, she’s mildly clumsy and giggles a lot but is otherwise a totally bland female whose goal in life is to find a man. Literally. Disney tried to poke fun at the whole Disney Princess trope but absolutely, utterly failed. The assumption is that us, the audience, will cry out with joy every time someone repeats, “You can’t marry someone you just met.”, which they do repeat, many times. No one told the writers that self-referential humour doesn’t work when it’s delivered with a sledgehammer. In Addition, Anna is significantly more weak and anti-feminist than any of the princesses who “married a man they just met”. Even Snow White and Cinderella had to endure parental abuse before breaking away, defying standards, so they could live their life and eventually getting a Prince Charming as well. Anna wakes up one day and decides she wants a man, sings about it and gets one. That is the conclusion of Frozen and I fail to see how that is progressive in any way. Besides, the two men that she ends up falling for both bring along a debatably credible side plot. The merchant rivalry and magical trolls don’t really add much to the story and serve to confuse the message and narrative more than anything else. Kristoff, particularly seems to have been shoved in because they wanted Anna to get a guy, rather than actually learn that maybe there is something more valuable than marriage. She could have trekked off alone into the wilderness to fix her relationship with her sister and save Arandelle but instead she runs crying to the nearest burly male to help her. No hope of a positive message there.

The story structure of Frozen just doesn’t work. The driving force of the plot is Elsa, not Anna. Elsa is making changes and dealing with a personal struggle, Anna is just reacting to these things as she bobs along. There’s really no journey for her. At the beginning of the film she loves her sister, despite Elsa’s behaviour, and she wants a husband. By the end of the film she has not changed either of these views or learnt anything new. The character who grows in the film is Elsa. She discovers how to deal with her problems, how to let love rule her life, instead of fear, and becomes the ruler she was born to be. I think the fact that Elsa’s song ‘Let it Go’ is considered the definitive song of the film is proof that something is wrong. If the audience is in complete agreement that the best moment of the film is the song that doesn’t even include the main character there is a problem.  Elsa is strong, independent and feminist. She is a queen, a fighter but still a young girl dealing with growing up through the metaphor of her powers. Surely that is the story young girls want to hear? Not the story of being ditsy and idiotic until eventually someone much stronger and more interesting than you gets to take over?

I stand by many of the things I said in my original post. Idina Menzel does play basically the exact same character as she did in Wicked. Yet, unlike Wicked, Frozen refuses to actually focus on this clearly interesting and relatable character: The type of character that made a Broadway musical a cool thing for teenage girls to watch. It’s not an adaptation of The Snow Queen, it’s a vague allusion with some bastardisation thrown in. This is epitomised in the fact that the character they named after Hans Christian Anderson actually turns out to be pure evil. Way to respect the original work, Disney. The animation is better than I expected but there are moments where it is impossible to tell which female character is which when you can’t see their costumes. The character design is deeply flawed. The comedy aspects take the form of not one, but two anthropomorphic sidekicks, both of which are relatively unnecessary alone but certainly don’t need to both be around.

  • Entertainment: 3/5
  • Artistic:              2/5
  • Intellectual:       0/5

The Prince of Egypt – 1998

prince of egyptToday I had the rare luxury of re-watching a childhood favourite due to an unindentified malaise which has left me sofa-bound – Dreamworks classic “The Prince of Egypt.” I want to explain why I find this film to be such an achievement of cinema. I suppose, by this point, even a casual observer of this blog will have come across my passion for animation. Surprisingly, however, I find this film equally interesting for the fact that it is animated as for the fact that it is viewed as a “children’s film”. I say this advisedly since I do not believe there should be such a strong division between entertainment for children and adults. But that’s a whole other topic.

What is fascinating about children’s cinema, when done well, is that it can communicate difficult ideas to a child, while still having the emotional impact for an adult audience. As an example let’s take Mufasa’s death in “The Lion King”. Death is undeniably traumatic and not, by modern standards, “child friendly” viewing. Yet “The Lion King” effectively communicates this difficult concept. In fact, the sequence shows us the cub Simba understanding and processing his father’s death before Scar confirms it in words. In other words, a Disney film can communicate the shock and sadness of death to anyone, of any age or nationality, since the sequence is almost wordless. This is an art lost to modern conventional filmmaking, which often relies too heavily on a script and fears silence. It has reason to fear; when no one is speaking the visuals must stand alone and all too often they are not strong enough to do so. Silent cinema never had this problem. Buster Keaton’s films are still funny whatever language you are in. You can appreciate the bumbling inefficacy of the keystone cops even without intertitles. Without a script films had to be demonstrably funny or tragic on visuals alone. This is why these days, it is far more common to find true, global cinema in animated films. Films where, by their very nature, the visuals are strong because every single frame has been hand crafted to perfection over a period of weeks.

Returning to “The Prince of Egypt”. My admiration for this film results largely from the animating style. The film bridges a gap in the animation timeline and represents a merging of hand painted backgrounds, hand drawn line animation and computer generated special effects. The result is, that despite the huge number of special effects shots, the film retains the organic feel of earlier, line drawn, hand-painted animated features. This visual depth is positively enthralling. All that can be done by hand has been done, and so the computer images do not invade upon the visuals, but are more like the icing on the cake than anything else. The artistic style is shockingly different from that of, for example, contemporaneous Disney films. While Disney was relying on cultural stereotypes and caricatures to make Mulan (made in the same year), The Prince of Egypt portrays accurately and sensitively three different ethnic groups. While a lot of this is represented through location and costume design choices it is undeniable that all three of Egyptians, Hebrews and the Midian people are shown fairly and without generalization. These cultural details leak into the narrative, the Egyptian handmaidens trying to take the baby moses as their own, the traditional Midian dress style, even Moses’ hair colour. Moses is the only one among the Egyptians shown to have brown eyebrows, displaying his identity as an outsider, even as he is revered as their Prince. Also, I would like to call attention to the masterly use of traditional Egyptian art as a dream sequence.

Traditional art and culture played a huge part in the production of this film. Biblical and historical scholars were called in to ensure the film was accurate to all narrations of the Moses story. That is not to say that the director (Brenda Chapman) strayed away from any bold decisions. Quite the opposite, the voice of God in The Prince of Egypt is provided by Val Kilmer, the same voice as Moses. The subtle implication being that every man would hear God’s voice as their own. In some interpretations of the Bible that decision alone marks this film as heresy. This opens the film out to not just being a religious film. The Prince of Egypt adapts a Biblical story and, while it pays its dues to the version held dear by each Abrahamic religion, it does not alienate an audience who believes in one or none of these religions. Despite the religious themes even the most famous song “When you Believe” (Schwartz’s great Oscar winner) is at best an ambiguous exhortation of confidence and perseverance.

Powerillustration

Another brave decision is to present Rameses sympathetically. While he is clearly the antagonist, the film clearly steers away from making him the villain. This is of course this is helped enormously by Ralph Fiennes vocal performance. He is hot-tempered, yes, blinded by his hoodwinking priests, yes, but he is not evil as so many people are in children’s films. In fact, he is shown to truly care about Moses. It is only when he is totally rejected by his long-lost brother that he turns against Moses and his mission. The sorrow in Rameses voice even until the very end, shows us the pain of a man rejected by his father, then abandoned by his brother, who finally forms a family only to have his son stolen from him. Visually he is even assigned the colour blue, his headdress, horses bridle’s and jewellery are consistently sapphire, a colour with connotations of weakness and fragility as opposed to Moses’ robust red.

Returning to my earlier point about communication, this is one of the ways in which The Prince of Egypt transcends the barriers of comprehension. By showing Rameses in blue, and portraying him in despair as often as in anger it is impossible to come away from the narrative with an impression of evil or villainy. Both Rameses and Moses are true Aristotelian tragic heroes. Neither is guilteless in their fight, Moses even stoops so low as to send the plague upon the first borns – the very act which so disgusted him earlier in the film. It is a fantastic vote of confidence in the audience for the director to allow such contradictory portrayals to exist within a “children’s film”. Chapman does not simplify or remove the difficult aspects of the story for the sake of the childish audience but guides them to make their own conclusions from the subtle characterization. This trust in the audience is so strong that years of character development and a death can be explained in a single shot of Rameses standing where his father stood, dwarfed by the twin statues of himself and his father. The musical score adds to this communication more than words could in places, Schwartz gives us a score coloured by traditional instruments, gospel style musical patterning, and an emotional thrust unlike any other. The Hebrew interlude in “When you Believe” is almost a direct quote from the Hebrew bible and the framing of the film in the same musical motif in both “When you Believe” and “Deliver Us” lends weight to the narrative conclusion and makes the story a more coherent whole.

There are few films which achieve brilliance in visuals, soundtrack or storytelling. When I come across one which delivers on all three, I cannot write it off because it’s an animated children’s film. Any piece of filmmaking which can communicate in such a concise way on such a fundamental level is a film which brings humanity out of the gutter. . It is our ability to create art, and with it define emotion, which sets us apart from animals.

Disney’s releasing a new film….

So, the teaser trailer for Frozen has finally been released. I would like everybody to bear in mind that Frozen was originally an adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytale The Snow Queen. Two years ago, when this project was pulled back out from the Disney gutter where it had lain since 2002, I was ecstatic. You see, I was born in the mid-90’s. When you say “The Snow Queen” to me I get a mental image that looks like this:

Snow Queen

The story of Kai and Gerda moved me so much as a child; and while I knew that it was never going to look exactly like the pictures in the book I grew up poring over, I was excited. The original concept art was promising.Snowqueen2

snow_queen

Over time, I lost faith in the machine of Walt Disney studios; but after Paperman earlier this year, I had hope for this project as Disney’s saving grace. After all, early in production, rumour was that it was going to be traditional animation. Even after that was debunked, it could still have been Paperman-style mixed media. But it was not to be….

Gone also is the tragic story of bravery, love and redemption and instead, this is our plot synopsis.

“a prophecy trapping a kingdom in eternal winter. Anna (Bell) must team up with Kristoff, a daring mountain man, on the grandest of journeys to find the Snow Queen (Menzel) and put an end to the icy spell. Encountering Everest-like extremes, mystical creatures and magic at every turn, Anna and Kristoff battle the elements in a race to save the kingdom from destruction.”

I hate to say this, but that’s not really an adaptation. That’s taking the name of a character from a fairytale, putting them into the Narnia plotline and removing all the religious allegories to allow for a romance. Also, is it just me or does that sound like exactly the same character as Idina Menzel played in Wicked? She’s going to get type cast as estranged evil sorceress if she’s not careful.

The film has been described as a “cool comedy”. I simply don’t understand how they can still claim that this film is anything to do with the source material they worked from. Yes, Disney has always lightened the stories they adapt to make them more child friendly. However, The Little Mermaid still had a price to pay for her legs, Cinderella’s mother was still cruel to her and Esmeralda was still given the choice between rape and death.

Furthermore the trailer states proudly “From the creators of Tangled and Wreck it Ralph”
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Rapunzel – Tangled

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Vanellope – Wreck-It Ralph

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But you can’t tell that from the art style or anything.

So now, without further ado I give you the Teaser Trailer.

This tells a short, quirky story of a CGI creature trying desperately to get to a loved artefact against fierce, but altogether unexplained opposition.

Where have I seen that before?

Of course, Ice Age 3, that well-known classic animated film which inspired generations and stunned critics alike. We all remember how great that sequel was….. It’s good to see that Disney is following the example of the true greats in the animation world.

Animation after Disney

Now I want to just make something clear here. I LOVE Disney films. I grew up with them. I watched them so often as a kid that there was at one point a ban on the Tarzan VHS because I wouldn’t stop watching it. I would also be willing to bet a lot of money that (as a kid born square in the middle of the Disney Renaissance) the first film I ever watched was a Disney film. I also consider a few of them to be truly great films. I probably owe a lot of why I still watch films to those brightly coloured loveable films.

However I have realised recently that Disney has not produced an animated film that I thought had genuine merit since Treasure Planet. That was in 2002. (I’m not counting Pixar films here, they work under different creatives) How is it that the pioneers of animation have not made a good animated film in over 10 years?

Firstly I blame the transition to computer-generated imagery. Disney simply is not as good with computers as other animation studios. Here is the main character from Meet the Robinsons

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And here is the closest comparison in a Pixar film.

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The Pixar character is clearly superior, the hair is more natural, the skin is shaded better and the character is all in all more attractive. The Incredibles was released three years before Meet the Robinsons. Until Pixar and Disney merged, Disney simply did not have the technology to keep up with 3D animation.

But why was it trying to?

It’s very fashionable to talk about how traditional animation is dead. However this is a lie. 2D animation is thriving, even Disney’s Paperman proved this! Yet in feature films Disney has not touched upon pure hand-drawn animation since The Princess and the Frog. In fact they just earlier this month laid off nine of their top 2D animators.

Sadly I think this means that Disney has had its heyday as an animation studio. While this marks the end of an era which influenced a great number of films and left a huge mark on popular culture the demise of Disney allows for a much wider variety of animation to make it into the public eye. In the interests of the future of animation I want to recommend to you my top 5 animated films of the past ten years.

Persepolis – 2007persepolis

5 Centimetres Per Second – 20075 Centimeters Per Second

The Secret of Kells – 2009kells

L’illusioniste -2010illusioniste

Ernest et Celestine – 2012Ernest and Celestine

 

What do you think? Is 2D animation dead? What hidden gems of animation are just waiting to be discovered?

A comment on CGI

Recently I have watched two films which aptly demonstrate the great potential in both range and beauty when CGI is used sensitively and responsibly. Life of Pi and Paperman.

If you haven’t seen Paperman yet you should really go check it out.

What’s so fascinating about these two films is the difference of approach. Life of Pi has used CGI to create some of the most realistic and believable water ever seen on screen, as well as pushing the boundaries of creating lifelike creatures. Paperman however uses the same technology to create a whimsical portrayal of New York rendered in the style of paper cutouts and charcoal. The whole film, partly due to being in black and white seems to be an ink or charcoal drawing brought to life.

Life-of-Pi-Bioluminescent-Water

I feel like this is a step forwards for film; the pinnacle of realism has been reached for CGI. It no longer needs to be a slave to capturing photorealism but can now move gracefully into being a tool towards a much wider and more beautiful future. I can’t wait to see what appears in the next few years, we can now use computers to make the impossible totally lifelike or to capture the beauty of a charcoal line in motion.

As a sidenote: Paperman has given me much more hope for the future of Disney/Pixar who I’d largely lost faith in given their propensity to throw away their heritage in 2D animation and make mediocre CGI films and even yet more sequels for their classics (The Little Mermaid 3 we’re looking at you). Paperman is not only a brave step forward but a look back into the golden age of Disney.

Fantasia 2000

Fantasia 2000