Tag Archives: Walt Disney Animation Studios

Moana (2016)

(In French, In Theatres, December 2016) I’m sure that Dinsey Animation Studios aren’t infallible, but their hot post-Bolt streak isn’t ending with Moana, a terrific new entry in their Princess series. Taking on Polynesian mythology as a starting point, Moana follows a standard template that allows for a hero’s journey, vivid characters, picaresque adventures, musical numbers, comedy, empowerment and spectacular visuals. The quality of the animation is easily the best in the business, and the songs are terrific as well. (I’ll acknowledge that “How Far I’ll go” is positioned to be the Oscar-nominated one that everybody loves, but I’ll take the bouncy “You’re Welcome” and “Shiny” over it … in fact, I haven’t stopped listening to both of them in the week since watching the film.) Moana herself is a terrific heroine, self-reliant and sympathetic at once. While I watched the film in French, I could help but recognize two Dwayne Johnson visual tics (The eyebrow and the pec pops) in the character he voices in English. Moana is an effortlessly charming film, and it plays like a future classic Disney movie even on a first viewing. We’ll see in a few months whether it survives a twentieth viewing in the span of two weeks.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

(In French, on Blu-ray, September 2016) I’m usually a good daddy-audience for Disney movies, and it’s difficult to forget that Beauty and the Beast is widely acknowledged as one of the best. (It was, after all, nominated for a Best Picture Oscar) Plus, literature-loving Belle should align with my own preoccupations. Why, then, am I not so enthusiastic about the movie? I’m not sure, but I’m not feeling much love for the movie at the moment. Some of the songs are fine; others drag. Much of the “romance” material looks like an abusive relationship. There are some tremendously icky implications to the entire back story if you dig down a bit. At least the animation is gorgeous. I’m not sure if Disney has fiddled with the film for its 25th anniversary reissue, but the integration of the CGI with the traditional animation looks fantastic and the rest of the film also looks great. Otherwise, Beauty and the Beast feels simplistic and not-especially charming. I’m nearly certain to revisit this assessment, as Disney movies usually end up playing over and over again in my house. We’ll see if I grow fonder of it in time.

The Jungle Book (2016)

(In French, Video on-Demand, September 2016) Adapting Disney’s classic animated The Jungle Book to live-action cinema would have been impossible or underwhelming until recently. But, now that reality is infinitely malleable to big-budget Hollywood productions, it’s possible to film a ten-year-old boy running around in a downtown Los Angeles studio, then add everything else (jungle, animals, water, fire) in post-production. Billed as the most technologically advanced movie ever made, The Jungle Book is, behind the scenes, an incredible achievement. On-screen, it’s quite wonderful as well: While the film can never completely get rid of a slight uncanny-valley effect whenever protagonist Mowgli interacts with the rest of the environment, this jungle is luminous to a degree that would have been unachievable as live action. As a stealth animated movie, The Jungle Book is a joy to watch. Neel Sethi is pretty good for a ten-year-old kid asked to be at the centre of a massively complicated film, but the overall result is good enough that few will begrudge Disney for their nakedly mercenary program to remake much of their animated back catalogue. Story-wise, the film is a mixture of Kipling’s original stories and Disney’s own animated movie, although I’m wondering if the decision to keep Mowgli away from the human world by the end of the film has more to do with the possibility of a sequel rather than providing a definitive conclusion. The end-credit sequence is remarkably enjoyable. Watching the film in French does remove a few potential highlights of the original version, from the original voice acting to the two songs included in the film—I’ll try to revisit the film with its original soundtrack once it hits Netflix.

Zootopia (2016)

(In French, Video on Demand, June 2016) Disney’s Animated Studios post-Bolt renaissance is further strengthened with this latest entry in their filmography. Zootopia fully takes advantage of the possibilities of today’s cutting-edge computer animation to revel in its anthropomorphic vision. The prospect of a mystery set in a city filled with talking mammals is so obvious that it’s a bit of a wonder why it hadn’t been attempted so far, but Zootopia goes beyond the obvious cute-animal gags to deliver a surprisingly relevant story revolving around prejudice and self-fulfillment. A few comic set-pieces work well, but Zootopia does have enough substance to please the parents while the kids have fun with the cartoons. (Beware, though, that some of the darkest sequences may be a bit too intense for younger audiences.) The world sketched here is expansive and compelling—there seems to be a lot of potential for sequels and spin-offs. Still, what we see here though the likable Judy Hopps is bursting with energy and invention, with surprisingly sophisticated moral commentary on the corrosive nature of populism and prejudice. I wasn’t expecting emerging-Nazism metaphors to creep into my Disney cartoons, but there we are and the result is fit to make adults just as enthusiastic about Zootopia as the little kids loving the cute animals. While I could have shortened some of the more obvious moments (Hopps’ impromptu media briefing seems like a notable misfire in an otherwise deftly handled film, although I’m not too crazy about the excruciating sloth sequence), Zootopia is a big hit with broad cross-appeal and it deserves all the good press it got.

Treasure Planet (2002)

(Video on Demand, September 2015)  Of Disney Animation Studios’ fifty-odd animated features, some have become classics, while others languish as footnotes.  Fifteen years after release, it looks as if Treasure Planet is not going to be much more than a curiosity alongside much stronger works such as Tarzan and Lilo & Stitch.  That doesn’t make it a bad film, though: By 2015 standards, Treasure Planet gets extra points for a quasi-steampunk science-fantasy atmosphere that blends the plot of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island with just enough science-fiction details to make it interesting.  There are spectacular vistas, amusing details, clever anachronisms –this isn’t meant to be a serious SF film, after all, but a Victorian boy’s adventure transplanted in a deliberately retro notion of space.  It works pretty well at what it tries to do –it’s entertaining in its own right, occasionally thrilling and sweeping in scope.  The Long John Siler character is an interesting blend of antagonist and mentor, a bit of welcome complexity in Disney films.  On a technical level, there’s a lot to like about the integration of 2D characters with 3D environments: it’s remarkably successful and does expand the scope of the film quite a bit.  Treasure Planet, one notes, was a box-office bomb, its total revenues nowhere near equalling its lavish 140$M budget.  That may help explain why the film remains a less-known title even today… which means that it remains under-exposed and ripe for re-discovery even for those who think they know quite a bit about Disney movies.

Brother Bear (2003)

(In French, On Blu-Ray, August 2015)  One thing about watching Disney films as an adult is noticing how many of them have crippling tonal issues.  Brother Bear, for instance, is explicitly based on presenting different visions of the same world – at one point, our protagonist undergoes a transformation that expands his mind, something that is shown with a looser art style, more colors and a shift to wide-screen ratio.  That’s not a bad thing.  But what can be worse are the film’s jarring shifts from respectful drama dealing with death, family and responsibility, to a comedy with silly animal sidekicks hamming it up.  The comedy undermines the other more serious material and makes the film feel far more lightweight than it should.  But, of course, none of this matters to the very young target public of the film, who just experience Brother Bear (with its cute talking animals!) as if everything of-course happened that way.  The animation feels a bit lacking compared to other contemporary Disney releases, but is still pretty good in absolute terms.  The story doesn’t necessarily goes where one expects it to, although some of the plot points along the way are fairly predictable.  It amounts to a Disney feature slightly less impressive than other ones, but still relatively good family entertainment.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)

(In French, on Blu-Ray, August 2015) Disney’s Atlantis never measured up against the heavyweight animated features for which the studio is best known, but even today there’s a lot to like in this proto-steampunk (or rather; “Jules Verne-inspired”) adventure looking for a lost continent.  Protagonist Milo is a likable nerdy hero, and there’s quite a bit of plotting going on as he discovers the true nature of those who are helping him.  The visuals are impressive (partly thanks to Mike Mignola’s design), and the integration between traditional cell-based animation and the computer-assisted animation used to bring the machinery to live has seldom been better-executed.  The film has a few laughs, a few serious moments, a generally controlled tone (which wasn’t a given for Disney animated features at the time) It aims a bit older (and a bit more male) than usual for Disney, with no musical numbers and some striking images along the waythe .  (I’m still pleasantly surprised at the surprisingly noirish way that Helga Katrina Sinclair character is introduced)  Some of the plotting is awfully convenient, something that limits its appeal to adult audiences.  Still, the adventure is briskly-paced, and rather interesting –especially as a change of pace from other Disney features.

The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)

(In French, On Blu-Ray, July 2015)  At the time of The Emperor’s New Groove, Disney animated movies had an undeserved reputation for formal stuffiness, their quasi-mythic grandeur either being absent of comedy (Pocahontas), sweeping it aside (The Lion King) or being undermined by it (Mulan).  The overtly-comic Hercules is an important exception, but it too often struggled to present a solid dramatic framework as backup for its pop-culture gags.  So it is that The Emperor’s New Groove comes (still) as a refreshing change of pace, taking on a post-modern comic sensibility and minimizing the drama to its structural essence.  The sense of humor shown by the film is far hipper than most of its contemporaries, with a fast-talking narrator/protagonist and a slapstick narrative that feels far removed from the staid Disney brand.  It may not aspire to much more than a modest commercial success (reading about the film’s troubled origins clearly shows that its conception was of a hail-Mary move to recoup a huge investment in a failed project.) that won’t have the same staying power as most other Disney animated films, but The Emperor’s New Groove is still quite enjoyable fifteen years later and doesn’t seem to have aged a single second even at a time when most animated films are computer-generated.  I’ll note that the French version included on the Canadian Blu-Ray version has two recognizable voice actors, and features quebecisms (including accented turns of phrase) far more often than other translated Disney films. 

Hercules (1997)

(In French, On Blu-Ray, July 2015) Most Disney animation films tend to go heavy on sentiment with a bit fo comic relief built-in, so it’s not a bad thing to discover that Hercules inverts the proportions and ends up being a comedy with bits of heartfelt sentiment built-in.  A half-satirical take on Greek mythology, Hercules multiplies the pop-culture allusions, irreverent jokes, deliberate anachronism and a conscious take on the hero’s journey.  The characters aren’t bad either, especially if you already have a good background understanding of Greek mythology.  It helps that we also get a strong heroine to play off Hercules himself: I had enough bits of pieces of the film years ago to figure out that Megara was one of my favourite female Disney characters until that point, and a good beginning-to-end look at the film only confirmed that quick assessment.  The jokes fly fast, and while the film can’t avoid a bit of mood whiplash when the dramatic stakes get heavier (kind of Mulan in reverse, which suffered from it comic relief), much of the film works reasonably well.  As an outright comedy, Hercules will never be considered in the top third of the Disney animated features, but it’s a very enjoyable one, and a welcome change of pace for the studio.

Tarzan (1999)

(In French, On Blu-Ray, July 2015) For parents with Disney-addicted toddlers, there are a lot of familiar Disney-film elements in Tarzan: The jungle location, the animal characters, the dead parents, the musical numbers, the adaptation of a familiar tale… Fortunately, the way it all blends together is also classic Disney, which means that it works pretty well even when it’s following the rule book.  As an animated film, it does have the luxury of presenting much of Burroughs’ original story without compromises.  It certainly help that the animation is eye-popping, flawlessly integrating CGI environmental elements with traditional hand-drawn characters thanks to the vaunted “Deep Canvas” technology.  (In that, Tarzan shows its place in animation history – films completed two years earlier like Anastasia still had dodgy integration between the two animation methods, whereas Atlantis, two years later, would feature even more CGI elements well-integrated with the rest of the traditional animation.)  The three-dimensionality of some sequences is jaw-dropping (better than most live-action films), and the rest of the animation is as good as it ever gets.  Musically, the film is well-served by Phil Collins’ songs, with the “Two Worlds” anthem being instantly memorable.  (Interestingly enough, the French version also has Collins signing his own songs in French, although it’s obvious that he’s doing so phonetically, with a heavy accent peeking through.)  It all amounts to a pretty good adventure, albeit with a slightly weaker third act.  Still, it’s a pretty good example of late-era Disney 2D animation, aiming for the slightly older set of kids.

Big Hero 6 (2014)

(On Cable TV, July 2015) Disney Animation Studios have been on a roll ever since Bolt, and while Big Hero 6 is closer to Wreck-It Ralph than Frozen (in target demographics and to-the-moment hipness), it’s still a definite success.  Fit to make most kids dream of becoming an engineer, Big Hero 6 is about a teenager who goes on to have fun adventures with a team of genius-level friends and his own huggable robot called Baymax.  A fizzy mixture of science-fiction imagery, superhero theatrics and young-teen movie conventions (down to the hero being an orphan, aw c’mon Disney!), it’s both fun and heartfelt, colorful and grounded in emotional reality.  The connection with Marvel’s original comic book is kept low-key until the final mid-credit cameo, so there’s no need to feel excluded if you’re not familiar with the source material.  One of the best thing about the film is its San Fransokyo setting, the vivid east/west mash-up city in which everything looks possible.  The animation if state-of-the-art, with eye-popping detail and the layering of textures that distinguishes top-notch efforts from cheaper ones.  Big Hero 6 is, in other words, a pretty good time at the movies, with an inspirational message (go and develop robots!) and enough emotional depth to make things interesting.

Mulan (1998)

(In French, On Blu-Ray, June 2015) I may be late in seeing Disney blockbuster Mulan, but in other ways I was ready for it, having seen enough of the other “Disney Princess” movies to show how different Mulan is and isn’t.  The good news, and the reason to celebrate the film, is how much stuff it dares to tackle: Asian themes and setting, issues of identity, family, honor, actualization, cross-dressing, war… We’re quite a distance away from the simplistic motivations of Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, here.  The animation is impressive, the level of detail is astonishing and Mulan, as a heroine, is far more rounded than most of her co-princesses.  It’s a big story well-told.  On the other hand, I found the animal comic relief to be jarring: While Mulan will agonize about family honor during one scene, the animal sidekicks will ham it up one moment later.  The film would have been stronger without them.  Still, Mulan remains a remarkable achievement – it’s not part of the Disney Renaissance for nothing. While probably a little bit too much (too violent, too complex, too specific) for the younger kids, it’s often far more interesting to adults than most Disney animated features. 

Lilo & Stitch (2002)

(In French, on Blu-Ray, June 2015) One of the benefits of parenthood is the perfect justification to watch all sorts of good kids’ movies.  So it is that I’m going through the Disney catalogue, picking up what I’d never seen due to being a self-important contrarian young adult at the time.  Lilo & Stitch is one of the highest-profile Disney releases I had never seen, and watching the film now it’s easy to understand why it remains an evergreen reference: The Hawaiian look is distinctive, Stitch is a memorable creature (playing just right at the edge of what a dangerous protagonist should be in a Disney kid’s film), the use of Elvis-themed music is inspired (the end credit “Burning Love” cover is particularly spirited) and the thematic concerns about reconstituted families run deep.  There’s a lot of humor (the visual gag in which a robot character retches bolts after hearing a particularly vile alien swearword still has me smiling), but real emotional depth as well, making the film worth a look beyond the hyperactive quality of Stitch himself.  Lilo is a wonderful young heroine, and the blend of Science Fiction elements with more broadly comic or sentimental plot points is generally successful.  The animation is splendid, with a successful integration of classic 2D drawing with 3D elements.  Lilo & Stitch may have darker moments, but it’s ultimately a very likable film, and one that resists simplistic story elements.  It endures just as well today than it did nearly fifteen years ago.

Frozen (2013)

(On Cable TV, July 2014) Walt Disney Animation Studios have been on a roll lately, but with Frozen they move just above the already high level of Wreck-It Ralph and Tangled into a blend of heartfelt sentiment, fantastic animation, big laughs and successful musical numbers that evokes nothing short of the studio’s best pictures. The focus on the relationship between two sisters is unusual enough, but the script has a number of blatant curveballs and fake-outs that clearly signal that Frozen has more than the usual Disney Princesses in mind. The quality of the animation is astonishing, especially considering that much of the film takes place in a snowy environment –speaking as a Canadian, not every shot of snow is equally convincing, but there is a lot of nice work here. Frozen, more than any of the recent Disney films since The Princess and the Frog, leaves quite a bit of time to its musical numbers, and they work exceptionally well: Like everyone else, the past few months have drilled “Let it Go” in my head, but hearing the song isn’t nearly as effective as seeing it in-context, where it’s simply a thing of beauty and characterization. Much of Frozen feels like a tightrope act taking decent storytelling into more audacious and ultimately more rewarding territory: it could have been just another animated film, but it ends up being something more, like many of Pixar’s best productions. (For instance, Olaf the snowman could have, under many other circumstances, taken over the film as simple comic relief. Here, he’s used judiciously in a more complex fashion, being very funny but also bringing a bit of poignant naiveté.) I’ll try not to quibble about the strange anachronisms scattered throughout –for a film set in 1840ish Norway, it’s still definitely produced by 2013ish South Californians. Frozen remains an easy film to love, and why not? The lead characters are both interesting in their own way, and once you throw in a reindeer and snowman into the mix, well, it’s hard to resist the entire thing.

Lady and the Tramp (1955)

(First-through-fiftieth viewings, Toddler-watching, On Blu-Ray, April 2014) We’ve run through The Aristocats so many times in my toddler-dominated house that a dog-centric alternative imposed itself. What better one than Lady and the Tramp? This first wide-screen Disney animated movie still proves timeless once the dogs are on-screen, and while a finger on the skip button proves essential in going past the scary sequence in which Lady gets lost, or much of the thunder-and-lightning final scene, the rest of the film is a smooth viewing experience for any dog-fascinated toddler. The Blu-Ray version has been restored to a contemporary level of visual clarity, and the feature itself has survived just as well. Plot-wise, it’s a bit meandering (the beaver sequence still stands apart as curiously disconnected), but there is a lot of charm and wit to it all. The background story (with a firstborn entering the world) has a charming sweetness to it, and the dog characters are just as likable. Musically, our household can’t help humming “La La Lu”, “Bella Notte” and oh-this-is-when-it’s-from! “The Siamese Cat Song” (It’s quite a bit racist, but it’s catchy and the French dub has the genius-level lyric “Ce qui est à toi est aussi à moi”, playing off on the similarity between “mine and Siamese” in French) The spaghetti sequence is a lead-in to the beautiful Bella Notte sequence. Technically, I was fascinated at the (early) use of wide-screen cinematography, especially keeping low to the ground, focusing on the dogs and not showing the humans more than necessary. It amounts to a film that has admirably weathered the ages, and can be watched by the entire family… over and over again.