Movie Review – Big Hero 6

Big Hero 6 (2014)
Written by Jordan Roberts, Robert L. Baird, and Dan Gerson
Directed by Don Hall & Chris Williams

In 2004, Pixar released The Incredibles, a superhero film ahead of the curve with Iron Man and the MCU not launching until four years later. My first thoughts after the end credits rolled were that Brad Bird and company had succeeded in making the best Fantastic Four film, which would be proven correct when Fox released the groaningly terrible FF live-action movie in 2005. Bird understood the core essence of these characters and about the fundamentals of what drives kids of all ages to lose themselves in an afternoon of comic book reading.

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My Favorite Underrated Disney Movies

With the release of the CG Lion King remake, I got to thinking about which Disney movies I love that don’t get that love in return. Here are my thoughts on my favorite underrated Disney animated flicks.

The Sword in the Stone (1963, dir. Wolfgang Reitherman)
While you might think this Disney version of the legend of King Arthur is just based on general stories it is, in fact, an adaptation of T.H. White which was one volume of four in The Once and Future King series, which was in turn a more modern updating of Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. Not only that, Walt Disney was inspired to approve the project as the studio’s next feature after seeing the Broadway musical Camelot in 1960. Instead of a high adventure film, The Sword in the Stone is a light comedy, focusing purely on Arthur’s adolescence and the first few months of training with the wizard Merlin. The primary arc of the film is not about Arthur becoming the king but finding strength and bravery within himself. Along the way, there’s lots of great visual comedy, especially when Merlin and his rival Madam Mim start breaking out the spells.

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Movie Review – The Lion King (1994)

The Lion King (1994)
Written by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, and Linda Woolverton
Directed by Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff

I just never saw the original Lion King. I was 13 when the film came out, and in our large family, we couldn’t afford a lot of theater trips. My siblings watched Beauty and the Beast to an absurd level so that film dominated the Disney obsession our home. With the release of the computer-animated remake this weekend, I thought it was a good time to finally watch this seminal animated movie, which is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary this year.

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Movie Review – Moana

Moana (2016, dir. Ron Clements, John Musker)

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Moana is captivated by the stories her grandmother tells about her people and their mythology. The story of the demigod Maui particularly inspires a sense of exploration in the young woman. However, she is the daughter of the village leaders and is expected to maintain life on the island as it is. The ocean begins to communicate with Moana, and she learns from her grandmother that their people used to sail across the ocean living on different islands. When Maui stole the heart of Te Fiti, the island goddess, darkness began to spread across the world. That darkness has reached the shores of their island and Moana cannot stay put any longer. She sets out to find Maui and restore the heart of Te Fiti, saving her people.

In 1989, Disney released The Little Mermaid, a film that would serve as the template for princess movies to come for the next 25+ years. Moana very closely follows that formula: A young woman expected to follow the expectations of her parents, she feels a yearning to travel beyond the borders of the land she knows, an event occurs that pushes her beyond the boundaries, she has a weird/silly/funny pet, she conquers a great evil despite feeling apprehensions. It is the traditional hero’s journey story that has cleverly replaced the original Disney style of princess stories. If you haven’t seen movies like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty recently then you may have forgotten how annoying the characters are. Those earlier animations seem more like an exercise in animation technique more than a story about characters with arcs. So, while I greatly appreciate Disney presenting stories about more active rather than reactive princesses, I hope that we continue to see diversity in character but also in the way stories are told and the types of stories being told. Zootopia highly impressed me as a kind of story I haven’t seen from Disney before.

Moana is a lot of fun, but I know I am not the intended audience for this film. It’s a children’s film and thus the story arcs are very evident and classical. There’s not a lot of character complexity but that wouldn’t be appropriate for the intended audience. One element I greatly appreciated was that the film doesn’t have a villain that follows the characters through the whole movie. This lets the movie feel like an actual myth being retold and keeps the focus on Moana’s arc rather than subplots. There are some antagonists who show up, my personal favorite being the Kakamora, animated coconut pirates. The sequence where these monsters attack has been revealed to be a direct reference to Mad Max: Fury Road and it is just subtle enough that it doesn’t come across as a crass pop culture reference. The film’s final obstacle in the form of Te Ka the lava demon has a clever twist that shies away from the act of killing the “final boss”. Lately, I’ve found myself drawn more and more to films that don’t follow the traditional black/white good/evil dichotomy. And it is very refreshing to see this in a children’s film.

I was very impressed with the level of computer animation. It took me awhile to be sold on the aesthetic as a replacement to classic cel animation for Disney pictures, but at this point, they have really perfected it. I’m not one who expects CG to be “realistic,” I’d rather see the technology be used to create the fantastic and impossible. Why recreate something we can already see in the real world when you can make something look real that could never be. While watching Moana, I was captivated by the texture and weight of objects. The previously mentioned Kakamora looked more like stop motion animation than something that was flat and two dimensional. People still look flat to me, but the world around them (grass, trees, water, man-made objects) looked like you could lift and hold them.

With Moana and Zootopia up against each other at the Oscars, I would still have to give it to Zootopia. This is not a slight to Moana, but an acknowledgment that Zootopia was a kind of story we have never had in as much depth and relevance from Disney before. Moana, while an excellent example of Disney creating more diverse characters, follows a very traditional and unsurprising story arc. It’s a film I’m sure kids and parents will enjoy watching again. Zootopia is a larger statement that I suspect will be remembered and studied in a way Disney films don’t traditionally do.

The Jungle Book (2016, dir. Jon Favreau)

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If you’ve seen the original animated Jungle Book then you pretty much know the story: Mowgli, the man cub adopted by the wolves and watched over by the panther Bagheera, pals around with Baloo the bear, has some misadventures, and ends up in a life and death battle with the brutal Shere Khan. This live-action with CG animals adaptation by Jon Favreau is the latest in Disney’s new trend of remaking past animated films with real people. They have had mixed success: Maleficent did add a lot of unseen story to Sleeping Beauty while Cinderella felt like a banal retread of familiar territory. The Jungle Book is somewhere in the middle. While not the first live action attempt at the story (see 1994’s version with Jason Scott Lee as adult Mowgli) it is very entertaining and the effects are done well enough that you don’t have to travel the uncanny valley for an hour and a half.

Neeli Sethi as Mowgli is our singular human presence (save for one flashback) of the entire film so he immediately has a ton of weight to carry. He does a champion’s job though there is the occasional “act-y kid” moment which can be forgiven when you realize he was playing to some simple hand puppets and green screen. The voice work is great and each actor matches their role. Bill Murray is a perfect Baloo and Ben Kingsley sounds just like Bagheera should. I was not a great fan of Christopher Walken as King Louie though. His casting in anything just feels like a stunt at this point. Lupita Nyong’o voice Raksha, the wolf mother of Mowgli and brings a lot of emotion to the role. My favorite of them all was Idris Elba as Shere Khan. Both his vocal performance and the work of the animators created such a terrifying and insidious villain.

The songs are minimized from the 1967 animated picture to this one. The closest we get is Bear Necessities and just a hint of King Louie’s “I Want to Talk Like You” number. Scarlett Johansson voices Kaa the Serpent and just touches on “Trust In Me”. The personalities are all as you remember them and the plot beats pretty much hit the same as the animated original. The one big divergence and my one major hang up is the way this film chooses to conclude. In the original Rudyard Kipling “Mowgli” stories he ends his time in the jungle upon discovering his birth mother and in the animated original he leaves after seeing a girl about his age come to get water for the village. This version decides to forgo Mowgli ever having a real struggle between the jungle and the village. There’s some brief tension but it ends with him playing around with his pals in the jungle.

For me, Disney’s bittersweet endings like The Jungle Book, Winnie the Pooh, The Fox and The Hound, and others were important. These are metaphors for transitioning from the innocence of childhood to learning about the difficulties of life as an adult. Now, maybe they didn’t need to have Mowgli go back to the village but I never felt like the character struggled with it as much the script would have liked me to believe. The village ends up serving as a convenient plot device for the third act but then is forgotten about. Maybe they have plans for sequel to revisit this more, but I went from really loving this film to feeling a little off at its conclusion.

Zootopia (2016, dir. Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush)

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Zootopia is the story of Judy Hopps, a bunny who travels from the farm to the big city with one dream: to become a police officer and make the world a better place. The force is made up of much larger beasts (lions, tigers, bears, etc.) and Judy is put on meter maid duty. This innocuous job leads her into the path of con-fox Nick Wilde and on the trail of a missing otter. The duo explore the various boroughs of Zootopia and travel deeper and deeper down a winding trail of mystery and political intrigue. Along the way, they discover the harmful power of stereotypes and work to recognize each other as unique animals.

The world of Zootopia, a place where predators and prey live in harmony, is well built. A lot of time was spent on worldbuilding and it shows. Much like Pixar films where every frame is filled with details, Zootopia gives us a city that is populated to the gills. I started to think about how much fun it would be to explore this world in a well made video game and see all the corners the film didn’t have the time to reveal to us. We spend most of our time in Savanna Central, the most diverse borough. However, we also visit Tundratown (hope to an homage to the Godfather), the Rainforest District (which features one of the most thrilling action sequences of the film), and Little Rodentia (a miniaturized version of Greenwich Village, home to mice, shrews, and voles).

About halfway through the film, I immediately began to think about Black Lives Matters. The main plot of the film is touching upon current events: Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, the continuing violence and racial profiling of police against black people. The film does this in an unexpected way. Traditionally, predators have been presented, not just in Disney productions but all media,  as bloodthirsty villains (Shere Khan, Scar, The Big Bad Wolf, the list goes on). Zootopia clearly wants to challenge that assumption as a way to talk to adults and kids about the destructive effects they have on individuals. All Foxes are crafty and liars, right? Lions just want to tear apart the closest gazelle. It would have been so easy for the film to become heavy handed and obvious with its themes, but the screenplay handles them masterfully. You’re not being preached at, you’re being told a well developed story about two individuals whose perspectives are changing.

Disney Animation doesn’t seem to have the prolific output of Pixar, but when they do release a film it’s of the highest quality (Tangled, Frozen). Zootopia is definitely one of the best and fully realized films that have released to to date. The film never panders to its audience and adheres to presenting a well developed narrative with a rich cast of characters. While the film isn’t art house animation, it never backs down from dealing with difficult and complex ideas.