Home Video Round-Up: 9/22/2017

Song to Song (8/13/2017)

Terry, buddy, you really need to check yourself before you wreck yourself.  I’m about as big a fan of Terrence Malick’s early films as you get and I even defended him through To the Wonder but his last movie Knight of Cups lost me in a big way and while I like this follow up a little bit more I still think the path he’s been going down is proving to be a stylistic dead end.  I think part of the problem with these last two films may simply be that making movies about the idle rich brings out the worst in him.  Seeing these people float through the life of luxury has the effect of making his usual style look less like poetry and more like a perfume commercial.  The film is a bit more structurally understandable and coherent than Knight of Cups, which does make it a bit more enjoyable to watch, and it does also have all the usual beautiful photography and imagery you’d expect from a Terrence Malick film.  Eventually film historians are going to have to reckon with this era of Malick’s filmography and I suspect that these movies are going to have their defenders.  I’m not completely closed off to the idea that there isn’t something to these last two films I’m missing, but one first viewing they really just seem like these aimless if pretty montages that were cobbled together in editing rooms.

**1/2 out of Five

Free Fire (8/19/2017)

Free Fire has been described as a movie long shootout, which is both true and kind of misleading.  The film is about a group of criminals in the 70s who meet up at a rundown warehouse for a weapons deal but things go south and people start shooting.  The rest of the movie does involve a lot of shooting but it doesn’t necessarily play out like a frantic action scene.  Characters quickly take cover at various points of the building and start taking shots at each other a few at a time and occasionally yell at each other.  It’s sort of like if Reservoir Dogs dispensed with the flashbacks and most of the talking and went straight to the Mexican standoff and had the shooting go on for a hell of a lot longer.  It’s not a terrible idea but I can’t say that the various characters really grabbed me and some of them (looking at you chronic over-actor Sharlto Copley) are downright annoying and when bodies start hitting the floor it never quite had the impact it was supposed to.  Also, the sheer amount of endurance a lot of these guys have seems a bit ridiculous and at times it was hard to even tell which of these mutton chopped 70s guys was on which side.  I still think Ben Wheatley is an interesting filmmaker but each movie he’s put out since Kill List has kind of been a letdown in some way or another and I hope he can turn things around soon.

**1/2 out of Five

Ghost in the Shell (8/27/2017)

It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen the original anime version of Ghost in the Shell and I actually remember not being a big fan of it (Akira is my sci-fi anime of choice, thank you).  To my eyes, this live action version in many ways plays to both the original film’s strengths and weaknesses.  Most notably, the film does a pretty good job of translating the anime’s visuals to live action in some interesting ways and the action scenes mostly work.  Oh the other hand this remains a fairly cold and humorless narrative with themes that somehow seem both on the nose and rather muddled.  The anime remains the superior product both because it did it first and because it’s a bit tighter and just comes off a bit more naturally in that format, but this isn’t necessarily the hatchet job that some people will make it out to be.  Ultimately I kind of wish they’d just used all the effort they put into creating this elaborate science fiction world and put it towards creating a different, better, and more original story.

**1/2 out of Five

The Fate of the Furious (9/17/2017)

There was a certain sense of finality in the way that the last Fast and Furious movie, Furious 7, ended.  Brian was leaving the crew, and events that occurred while the movie was filming made that seem particularly true, but it looks like the show is going to go on and they are continuing to make films into the post-Paul Walker era.  Truth be told I don’t know that I missed Paul Walker too much here as this is enough of an ensemble franchise at this point but I do think that soldiering on so quick was a mistake just the same if only because this is a franchise that could use a break.  This is the third straight movie they’ve made which has more or less put Dom’s crew in the position of being super spies working for the government for various reasons, and while I do think there’s an opening for such a franchise given what’s been happening to James Bond lately, I do think the pressure of making each of these movies bigger and crazier than the last is starting to get to them.  This one in particular is really pushing that line between “fun stupid” and just “stupid stupid.”  There is enough silly energy here to keep it from being a true failure though and there was enough in the way of standout action sequences that I certainly wasn’t bored by watching it.  Still if I’m comparing it to the Bond franchise this is more of a Tomorrow Never Dies than a Goldeneye and they’re going to need to do better if they’re going to give this thing some real longevity.

**1/2 out of Five

All Eyez on Me (9/22/2017)

Since his death in the September of 1996 Tupac Shakur has basically joined the ranks of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Kurt Cobain among the martyred young American musical icons and even without that mystique he’s widely been considered one of if not the greatest rappers ever.  I think a big part of his appeal is that he has something to offer to pretty much any kind of Hip Hop fan.  If you go to a rapper looking for biting social commentary he had something for you, if you want gritty street stories he had those, and if you just wanted some party songs he had some of those too.  He was the son of Black Panthers and a student at an art academy but also someone who sported a “thug life” tattoo and got involved in various violent confrontations including the one that ultimately ended his life.  The man was multi-faceted and filled with contradictions, and the biopic All Eyez on Me isn’t unaware of this but it also doesn’t illuminate it in a particularly interesting way either.  Critics seem to have picked up on this and the movie currently sits at 17% on Rotten Tomatoes because of it, and that seems a bit harsh to me.

The film certainly has a number of strong elements, not the least of which is Demetrius Shipp Jr.’s really strong performance as Tupac which is really uncanny in its imitation at times.  The movie also does a pretty decent job of fitting the many events of Tupac’s life into a reasonable running time and it’s generally pretty competently made.  That said, this kind of straightforward “birth to death” musical biopic seems a bit redundant at this point.  Unlike Straight Outta Compton, which was set over a shorter period of time and could feel more like a story and less like a character study, this film feels a bit too surfacey and a bit lacking in real creativity.  The movie also seems oddly disinterested in Tupac’s actual music and doesn’t really spend a whole lot of time actually showing him performing or recording much of it.  Still, I do think the movie fares better than the Biggie Smalls biopic Notorious from a handful of years ago, in part because it seems less interested in smoothing over the rougher aspects of its subject’s life and does as good a job as one could expect of keeping it from descending into hagiography.  Over the years there have a litany of Tupac products released so I suspect that this won’t be the last movie that gets made about him and I hope the next one finds an approach that’s more worthy of his legend, until then this one will do well enough.

*** out of Five



Warning: Review contains plot spoilers

In the abstract, it’s often assumed that directors working in the indie space ultimately want to use their small scale successes in order to convince Hollywood studios to finance their bigger and more expensive visions.  Darren Aronofsky at one point seemed like he was destined to do just that after the increasing successes of his micro-budget debut Pi and his indie classic Requiem for a Dream.  In fact he was actually approached to pitch ideas for Batman movies around the same time that Christopher Nolan (a guy who has very much succeeded in blending his vision with Hollywood sized budgets) was, but unlike Nolan Aronofsky style and vision proved to be a little too weird and intense for general audiences and he didn’t seem interested in making a compromised commercial work like Insomnia as a stepping stone to bigger things.  Instead he put all his efforts towards The Fountain a crazy little movie made on a lower budget than he probably wanted and which likely baffled the few general audiences who went to it.  From there he went back to indie ambitions and made a pair of small movies about obsessive performers called The Wrestler and Black Swan, the latter of which became an unexpected hundred million dollar hit with the mainstream.  With that clout it seemed like Aronofsky was finally going to enter the world of blockbuster filmmaking but the big budget movie he chose to make with his clout was of all things a biblical epic called Noah which did make some money but was seen more as an oddity (and not the good kind of oddity) than as any kind of artistic triumph.  As such he’s back to the world of small budgets and seems to have picked up where Black Swan left off with his new film mother!.

mother! is set entirely within a large house in the country in an unknown state and features characters who aren’t given proper names, for simplicity’s sake I will largely be referring to characters by the names of their actors.  It begins with a character played by Jennifer Lawrence waking up and looking for her older husband, a poet who’s been experiencing writer’s block played by Javier Bardem.  The two are childless and the wife is in the process of renovating the old home that they live in.  Everything changes one day when a man played by Ed Harris shows up at their door and the husband quickly invites him to stay with them, in part because he seems to be a fan of the author’s work, without consulting with his wife.  Harris quickly proves himself to be a bore who smokes in the house and overstays his welcome, especially when his wife played by Michelle Pfeiffer shows up and proves to be even more intrusive than her husband and things very quickly escalate from there.

As you might guess from the business with the names and a few other rather surreal aspects, mother! is not a movie that you should necessarily take literally although this isn’t readily apparent from moment one.  Right away it becomes apparent that, like Black Swan before it this is a film that draws heavy inspiration from some of Roman Polanski’s more paranoid early films like Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby and much of the film’s tension lies in the way its protagonist finds herself in situations she finds sinister while everyone else seems nonplussed.  However, there are other elements of the film which feel surreal in ways that a Polanski thriller wouldn’t and there are elements that go entirely unexplained like an open wound she spots on Ed Harris’ back and the medication that she takes throughout the film and as things progress it becomes more and more clear that this film is set in a sort of world of the mind rather than conventional reality.

That the main character here is a woman is integral and not just because of the title.  The Jennifer Lawrence character here is in a very decidedly unequal marriage to a domineering husband who is twenty years her senior, views the home they’re living in as his rather than theirs, and doesn’t seek her permission or advice when making decisions that affect both of them.  In some ways she almost feels like a woman driven mad by the “benevolent” control of her husband like the protagonist of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” and it might not be a coincidence that one of the first things we see her do in the movie is paint one of her walls yellow.  There is also the element here that Bardem’s character is a celebrity of sorts and that adds a certain element to their relationship.  Aronofsky was married to Rachel Weisz from 2001 to 2010, perhaps this is an expression of what it’s like to be married to a movie star who has people constantly trying to find out more and more about their personal lives.  Alternately the movie could be something of a confessional effort expressing his own guilt for having subjected the various women in his life to the pressures of being married to someone who’s perhaps more dedicated to their work and the inspiration thereof than they are to their marriage and who constantly has people coming in and out of his life telling him how much of “genius” he is while ignoring the woman next to him.

So far I’ve looked at ways to interpret the movie when looking at it as a somewhat straightforward narrative, things get even crazier when you start looking at it as an elaborate biblical allegory.  Perhaps Bardem is a stand-in for God (the creator), perhaps Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer are Adam and Eve, the study is Eden, the crystal is the fruit from the tree of life, and the sink breaking which transitions the film into the second half is the great flood that occurred at the end of Genesis.  The second half can similarly be interpreted as the New Testament and its aftermath with the child being Jesus, the published poem being the bible, and the finale being a stand-in for the apocalypse.  The parallels are pretty hard to deny once you spot them.  What isn’t so clear is what Jennifer Lawrence’s role in this allegory is supposed to be.  Her role as the mother of the child who is killed and whose flesh is then eaten to save people would suggest that she’s Mary, but she’s no virgin and her presence in the first half would seem to clash with this interpretation and so would the timing of the Messiah’s birth and her place in the film’s ending.

It is more likely that her role ties in with another coded allegory embedded in the film involving environmentalism.  In this view of the film she is playing “mother earth” or a sort of spirit of and personification of nature.  Someone who looks on with disgust as Bardem/God lets loose humanity upon her paradise and watches powerless to intervene as they wreck things and generally abuse the freedoms they’ve been granted and get it into their heads that they own the place.  This would certainly explain her general ineffectualness in stopping all the unwanted guests and under this framing the film’s climax would perhaps be a stand-in for global warming causing humanity’s extinction and the rebirth of sorts at the end would perhaps suggest the Earth persevering eventually after humanity has died off.  The spirit of the earth, of course, is not really part of the bible so this fusion of Judeo-Christian stories with a strong environmental message is certainly reminiscent of what Aronofsky was trying to do with Noah and the vaguely new age idea of the Earth spirit perhaps points to The Fountain.

Either way, the fact that he’s mixing his allegories like that is certainly audacious if perhaps a little messy.  All that said, I don’t want all the search for interpretations to overshadow the fact that mother! simply works as a piece of cinema.  The early scenes are tense in the way they put you in the middle of Jennifer Lawrence’s frustration and they way things get increasingly crazy in the second half is pretty thrilling.  That second half reminded me a little bit of the ending of Ben Wheatley’s High Rise but I think it works better here, in part because it establishes a point of view character better and it “goes there” in a way that feels more organically interesting.  The film also reminded me of Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist with it’s unnamed protagonists, religious imagery, dips into surrealism, and occasional interest in shock value during its second half.  What the film is not really is a horror film, which is what the film’s trailers make it look like.  That misleading advertising is probably a big part of why there have been a number of reports recently about angry audiences leaving the film confused and unsatisfied.  That reaction is unfortunate, but perhaps not unexpected.  If Luis Buñuel had somehow gotten Paramount pictures to finance The Exterminating Angel and made it with major movie stars and got it released nationwide in-between screenings of Dr. No and How the West was Won I’m guessing that wouldn’t have gotten a great Cinemascore either, but sometimes filmmakers need to break out of their usual mold and if they’re able to do it on a scale like this that’s something that should be celebrated.


If there’s any one profession whose practitioners I find some amount of sympathy for it’s that of the professional clown.  These poor sons of bitches have dedicated their lives, at great personal sacrifice, to a trade they must genuinely think brings laughter and joy to children when more often than not it does the exact opposite.  Personally I never had much distaste for clowns when I was a child but I can totally understand how in the mind of a small child it would be more than a little unsettling to have a strange man intrude on one’s birthday party and doubly unsettling to have this man wearing garish makeup and bizarre dress and perform mysterious magic tricks like pulling scarfs out of their mouths and exiting en masse from tiny little cars.  It’s a strange and rather outdated form of performance art and people have been interested in the dark side of these demonically painted jesters at least as far back as an 1849 Edgar Allen Poe story called “Hop-Frog” and has continued through such creations as the operatic “Pagliacci” and Batman’s arch nemesis The Joker.  However, the idea of the evil clown got a huge boost in the 70s and 80s by the one-two punch of the John Wayne Gacy murders and the 1986 publication of Stephen King novel “It” which is sometimes considered to be that author’s magnum opus.  In fact, the World Clown Association has recently released a press release blaming the 1990 mini-series adaptation of King’s novel for causing the fear of clowns in children and putting their trade at risk, a position that perhaps ignores the many many many other reasons kids have for finding guys frightening.  That press release was of course created in response to the release of a new theatrical adaptation of It which is set to be a major hit and which will at the very least cause a couple more cases of Coulrophobia.

I read a great number of Stephen King novels when I was in high school, but “It” was not one of them.  I’d heard it was great and I always wanted to get around to it but given that the thing is literally over a thousand pages long it just seemed a bit too daunting.  I never watched the ABC miniseries adaptation either, in part because I still hoped to read the book some day and in part because I’d heard mixed things about it.  Some people seem to think that TV version is really scary, others seem to hate it.  I’ve heard it theorized that the positive assessments are mostly the result of people having seen it when they were young and that it’s actually pretty bad outside of Tim Curry’s performance, and that explanation of its reputation makes sense.  In retrospect I was kind of glad I missed that adaptation because it meant this more ambitious screen take would be my first experience with the story, though I should note that this was not fully uncharted territory for me.  Through cultural osmosis I did know a decent amount about the original novel’s basic story and structure as well as its most iconic images like the paper boat going towards the storm drain and the sight of Pennywise’s teeth and hands.

My understanding is that the novel is set in two timelines; looking at the characters dealing with this threat as children in the late 50s and the then as adults in the then contemporary 80s, and that it intercut between the two through flashbacks and the like.  This movie adaptation ignores this structure and focuses entirely on the characters as children and that they plan to deal with the adult material in a potential sequel.  The setting has been moved to 1989, which would put a sequel right in 2016 and which has the added bonus of placing the movie squarely in the sweet spot of nostalgia for Spielbgergian adventures of children with free reign to travel extensively by bicycle without adult supervision with other projects like Super 8 and “Stranger Things” have been riding as of late.

Set in the fictional town of Derry, Maine (which shows up in a lot of Stephen King books) the film follows a group of outsider kids called “The Losers Club.”  The most prominent of them is probably Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), whose younger brother disappears one day after being scene peering into a storm drain, one of many children who have disappeared in this town recently.  In fact the rate of disappeared people in Derry is off the charts high but the adults seem to be in denial about this.  Over time everyone in “The Losers Club” start seeing frightening visions of the things they fear the most and at the center of most of these visions is the frightening figure of a clown called Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård).  Soon “The Losers Club” is joined by other children who’ve had these visions like Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), who is ostracized at school and is forced to contend with an abusive father, and Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) who lives with his uncle on a farm outside of town.  Soon, through the research of a group member named Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor) they learn that this evil force seems to surface in this town every twenty-seven years and the group resolves to face this monster rather than back down in fear.

I mentioned earlier that the movie is in many ways latches onto the look and feel of the Amblin movies of the 80s, but I don’t really think this is (entirely) a case of cynical nostalgia peddling.  After all, this childhood nostalgia element was clearly present in the original novel and King adaptations of the time like Stand by Me clearly contributed to the wave of movies that the “Stranger Things” of the world were aping from.  The decision to move events from the 50s to the 80s also seems logical enough and the movie doesn’t seem too shameless about throwing in tributes to the pop culture of the time and I like that they made these kids of some kind of lame relics of that era like The New Kids on the Block and Nightmare on Elm Street V rather than making them implausible fans of The Clash and The Thing (though showing one of them playing the original Street Fighter in an arcade, which wasn’t nearly as popular as its eventual sequel, is a bit odd).  More importantly I think the aim here is a little different.  Spielberg made movies about these cadres of suburban child bicyclists because his target audience could relate to them (and the adults in the audience could nostalgically relate back to them) and excitedly want to go along with them on their whimsical adventures.  Here I feel like the goal is more to make you like them enough to want nothing bad to happen to them and build suspense that way, not unlike John Carpenter envision the protagonist of Halloween as someone who could be a stand in for everyone’s sister, girlfriend, or daughter and create a sort of paternalistic protectionism between her and the audience.

Indeed one of the film’s great strengths is its ability to establish its characters in a very short period of time and make you like each of them.  Granted, there’s not a whole lot of depth to any of these people and most of the kids are identified by one simple quirk: Bill misses his brother, Ben like history and has questionable music taste, Richie talks too much, Eddie is overly pampered, Mike lives on the other side of tracks, and Stan is the most cautious.  When the movie actually does try flesh some of these characters out a little more it can feel a bit rushed and awkward like when it tries to establish that Mike’s parents were killed in a fire and then does very little with this information.  The character who’s given the most in the way of unique characteristics is Beverly, who is plainly the boldest member of the group and who (along with Mike) comes from the most adversity and has the most tumultuous home life.  Some of the supporting characters fare worse.  For all of his strengths as a writer Stephen King is kind of bad at writing human villains and often turns them into these insanely over the top creations that don’t ring true in the slightest.  You see that here both in Beverly’s abusive father and in this teenage schoolyard bully named Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) who seems extreme in his almost psychotic cruelty even for a bully in the 80s.

The other character I’m not so sure about is actually Pennywise himself, whose motivations seemed a bit unclear.  In the film’s opening sequence Pennywise seems to have taken the form of the clown as a means of luring children into his grasp.  He gives the boy at the beginning a false sense of security before lunging in for a quick kill.  Makes sense, but he completely switches up his M.O. for the rest of the film.  Every other time we see him he seems to have taken the form of the clown specifically for the purposes of scaring the crap out of the kids he’s elected to target for unknown reasons and he spends a whole lot of time playing largely ineffective mind games with them and seemingly putting himself in danger by giving away hints of his identity.  There’s some talk late in the movie of him feeding off their fear, which makes some sense outside of the way it clashes with his behavior in the opening scene, but I still ultimately just find the rules of this world a bit muddled and unclear.  I suspect that this is explained in more detail in the novel and may be explained more clearly in a potential sequel, but looking at the film as a self-contained work I do think this is a bit of a problem.

This iteration of It was directed by a guy named Andy Muschietti, a Guillermo del Toro protégé whose previous film credit was a 2013 horror film called Mama which I frankly didn’t really care for.  Muschietti, like Del Toro, is a guy who is perhaps a little too in love with monsters and is overly excited to show them on screen at times.  Del Toro gets away with this because most of his movies aren’t really horror movies and aren’t really trying to scare the pants off his audience, but Muschietti’s are and his over-eagerness to show his CGI ghosts ultimately made Mama a rather deflated experience.  Muschietti does fare a lot better here because he’s working with much better material and has other things to fall back on, but when this is trying to be an actual suspenseful horror movie I think it ultimately does still have that same weakness.  At times the film shows its hand with Pennywise a little too quickly and never quite lets the mystery of this entity play out as long as it could.  The opening scene is a good example of this: a weird freaky clown in a sewer turning a kid into a puddle of blood should have been enough, we didn’t necessarily need to see Pennywise’s semi-convincing CGI teeth as he bit into said kid’s arm that early in the film.  In fact questionable CGI is kind of a problem throughout the film; there are some effect in it that work really well but there are other shots that are pretty weak and kind of undercut the suspense a bit.  An approach more akin to Jaws where the big shots of the shark were saved until later would have been helpful.

This is not to say that there aren’t some legitimately great scenes and images to be found in the movie because there certainly are, possibly even too many of them.  When this movie is on it really cooks, but I ultimately think it works better as an adventure movie than as a pure horror film, and as an adventure film it seems kind of incomplete.  The movie ends with a title card that all but says “to be continued” and there are elements of it like the Henry Bowers sub-plot which I would criticize as being superfluous and in need of cutting if not for the fact that I suspect it will come up again in the sequel and there are other things like that which I’m not quite sure what to make of until I see how all this plays out.  In many ways it feels like a movie I feel like withholding judgement on until that second part comes out.  That could be an issue because that sequel is not going to be easy to pull off.  A lot of the appeal of this first movie comes from the charming cast of child actors and from its period setting and the sequel will have to eschew both.  If the second part is able to stick the landing I think it will make the original that much more meaningful as a setup and if it shits the bed I think that could tarnish the first film’s legacy completely.  That’s the long term assessment, in the short term I don’t want to come off like I’m damning this thing with faint praise, if I’m critical of it it’s only because of how much potential it has.  This is plainly has a lot more to offer than most major studio horror movies and anyone whose been intrigued by the trailers should give it a shot.

Good Time(8/26/2017)

I feel like we need to stop being surprised when actors from disreputable YA adaptations suddenly turn out to be decent actors when given legitimate material to work with.  I can’t tell you how many people seemed to be downright gobsmacked when Kristen Stewart, star of the Twilight franchise, managed to win a César Award the second she started working with a respectable director like Olivier Assayas.  Maybe if I’d actually seen one of those Twilight movies I’d be similarly impressed with how much she had to climb to get to respectability, but really it just seems unfair to judge someone’s whole acting career when they can’t spin gold from material like that.  Her Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson has had similar difficulty getting respect has he’s moved on from that franchise.  In many ways he’s in the same position that Leonardo Di Caprio and Ryan Gosling were in recently: forced to prove that he’s a real actor and not just a pretty boy who’s famous because teenage girls swooned at him.  In my eyes he’s had a bit of a tough time doing this, in part because some of his first attempts at respectability came from his work in a pair of David Cronenberg movies that didn’t really work and were so weird in tone that they didn’t give Pattinson a lot of room to humanize himself.  Outside of that his most prominent roles have been in David Michôd’s The Rover and James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, which both showed some growth but which weren’t quite fully convincing star turns. Of course those were ultimately supporting performances and he has a much bigger showcase in his latest high profile indie Good Time from a pair of upstart directors named Ben and Josh Safdie.

In Good Time Pattinson plays Constantine Nikas, a petty New York criminal who early in the film tries to rob a bank alongside his mentally handicapped brother Nick (Ben Safdie), but the two are captured in the process.  Constantine makes bail but Nick doesn’t and Constantine soon finds he isn’t able to obtain the funds to get Nick out from his upper middle class girlfriend Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh) as he planned.  When he learns that Nick has been beat up in jail and transferred to a hospital Constantine comes up with a scheme to break his brother out of his hospital room, and much of the rest of the film looks at how the aftermath of this plot plays out over the course of a single crazy night in New York.

Good Time is a bit reminiscent of Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin in that it’s a crime narrative that follows a criminal who’s kind of bad at his job but not so bad that he fails right away.  Unlike that movie, the protagonist isn’t a guy who’s been pushed to the edge by actual wrongs against him but is in fact a total bag of dicks with very little in the way of redeeming qualities.  I’m trying to put my finger on what it is about this guy that I despise so much but I was really disgusted by him.  It’s not that his actions are all that horrible, at least by the standards of movie gangsters.  He doesn’t kill or (successfully) rape anyone over the course of the movie and he doesn’t exactly go out of his way to hurt anyone.  I think what gets my goat about him is the total indifference he shows towards everyone else around him with the possible exception of his brother.  He’s like a sociopath who doesn’t feel compelled to kill necessarily but who will take hurt, cheat, or swindle anyone who gets in his way and gets downright offended whenever they resist.  He doesn’t really seem to be a “product of his surroundings” and doesn’t really have some twisted noble end he’s working towards, and the real kicker is that you can tell his plans are probably doomed and that he’s probably not even going to get much out of these schemes himself, it all just seems futile.

The film was directed by a pair of upcoming sibling directors named the Safdie brothers, whose previous project was a film called Heaven Knows What, which looked at the rather hellish life of a drug addict.  I didn’t really think the Safdie’s penitent for stylization really worked well for that movie and I especially thought that film’s Tangerine Dream style synch score by Paul Grimstad and Ariel Pink seemed especially out of place.  That directorial style and the not dissimilar score by Oneohtrix Point Never make a bit more sense here given that the film has more genre elements than Heaven Knows What did and I do think they’ve improved a bit between movies and benefit from the film’s increased budget.  In fact I worry that they may have swung too far in the other direction.  This is a movie that walks and talks like a hard edged gritty movie with a lot to say about modern crime, but I’m not really sure that it has much of anything to say.  At times it will hint towards some kind of societal failure in the lives of these people but these things never really connect and the movie ultimately feels kind of pointless both as a statement and as a story.  After a night long romp the characters end up in the same place as they began and not in a way that’s particularly profound either.  Frankly I think the Safdie’s would do well for themselves if they’d just sell out and make something for Hollywood because making these hard edged indies doesn’t really suit them.  Still, I don’t want to come down too hard on this, it is a crime yarn that’s ultimately fun to watch and there are some well rendered scenes.

Atomic Blonde(8/20/2017)

The summer of 2017 sure seemed like a great one for Hollywood. Marvel kept doing its thing, DC actually seemed to get things back on track a little, franchises that had delivered before kept delivering. Granted, there was some crap like Transformers 5 and The Mummy out there, but no one really expected much from those and the movies people actually had high hopes for really did deliver. In fact, by the time Dunkirk came out Hollywood had managed to go four straight weeks putting out really high quality big budget films like Baby Driver, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and War for the Planet of the Apes. Fun as it all was, it sure seemed to come to an abrupt and early end. In fact, August has been downright dismal. We’ve mostly been treated to disappointing bombs like The Dark Tower and unambitious nonsense like Annabelle: Creation. Clearly someone in Hollywood got their papers mixed up as they clearly should have spread out their solid July movies a bit more evenly across the summer. It’s in this vacuum of options that, late in August, I decided to go back and give a shot to a film that had been out for a couple of weeks already called Atomic Blonde which hadn’t seemed overly interesting in the film’s advertising but which had its clear defenders who had mentioned a couple of cool action scenes that I felt like I needed to give a look.

The film is set in 1989 right around the fall of the Berlin Wall. As the film opens a British agent named James Gasciogne (Sam Hargrave) is killed by a KGB agent named Yuri Bakhtin (Jóhannes Jóhannesson) who then steals a microfilm he was carrying which contained a list of all the active field agents in the USSR. The film then cuts to ten days later, after the main events of the film, to a framing story where our protagonist Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is being debriefed on her mission to retrieve this list by an MI6 leader named Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and a CIA agent named Emmett Kurzfield (John Goodman). From here she tells a story about her interactions with Britain’s head agent in East Berlin named David Percival (James McAvoy), a French agent named Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), and a Stasi defector known only as Spyglass (Eddie Marsan).

The first thing that strikes me about Atomic Blonde is that it isn’t as action driven as its advertising, credit font, and silly title would have you believe. At its heart is a fairly gritty espionage story that takes the cold war pretty seriously and seems to be heavily inspired by the writing of authors like John le Carré. The film is also really confusing. It’s the kind of twisty spy story where people are constantly double and triple crossing each other and you’re never really sure who’s on what side and quickly lose track of what the McGuffin is and why you care about it. I’d be lying if I said I kept it all straight on one viewing, and I do think some of that confusion is on the movie. Director David Leitch (one of the duo of directors who made the first John Wick film) seems a bit out of his element here and doesn’t really tell this complex story with the same skill and clarity of someone like Brian De Palma making the first Mission: Impossible movie. What’s more, I think there are elements in this script that genuinely don’t make a lot of sense. For example, as far as I can tell this list everyone is chasing around is an MI:6 list that had fallen into KGB hands and needed to be retrieved lest the KGB use it to murder all of Britain’s undercover assets. So why the hell does Broughton end up spending a great deal of effort trying to move an asset who’s memorized this list out of East Berlin? Would it not be in her interest if this guy died? Wouldn’t that be a much more effective way of ensuring the Russians never get the list that’s confined to this guy’s memory?

Whether or not it makes sense for Broughton to be smuggling this guy out of East Germany (a country that will cease to exist a week later, making this mission seem… premature) there’s no denying that it provides us with a great action scene. The film is clearly at its best when it drops any pretense of being a serious cold war thriller and just lets Charlize Theron kick some asses. I’m not usually one to prefer mindless violence over storytelling ambition but its plainly obvious that David Leitch is more in his element when our heroine starts fighting fools than when she’s tracking down sources and determining the loyalties of the people she encounters and I don’t think he has quite the touch to make this the stylish 80s movie he seems to want it to be either. At the end of the day this is a movie that’s undone by the fact that its style and genre ambitions are at odds with its screenplay. It’s a movie that doesn’t know what it wants to be and that’s something that escapist action films desperately need to pin down. That said there are things to enjoy here. That aforementioned fight scene is awesome and so is a car chase that follows shortly thereafter. For some that dessert will be worth the at best middling main course.

Disneyology 101: The Rebuilding Phase

It’s reasonable to believe the people at Disney were in something of a state of denial during the early 2000s.  They knew that the formula that worked so well for them in the early 90s was losing its appeal and that they’d have to find a new way of making movies but I don’t think they realized immediately just how much trouble they were in.  Over the course of the last phase I looked at you could see Disney trying to find new ways to thrive through slight adjustments before realizing that they were in such a deep hole that they’d essentially have to burn everything down and start over, this time as a CGI animation studio.  In this Eighth and final installment of Disneyology we’ll look at an era that was almost certainly Disney’s lowest point, lower even than the so called “Disney Dark Age” that would eventually bring on the “Disney Renaissance.”  In this era Disney would exhaust the last of its traditionally animated films before making some unsure baby steps into the world of CGI animation and slowly start to make more respectable films in that format while also taking one last look at what came before.

Brother Bear (2003)

When Treasure Planet failed spectacularly the writing was on the wall: Disney’s animation division needed to change and once again Roy Disney emerged to and started another “save Disney” campaign.  That is a long story that would eventually result in the ousting of Michael Eisner from his position as CEO of Disney, but what’s most relevant is that it made it clear to all involved that the animated film division was not going to be able to keep doing traditionally animated movies for much longer.  Of course major conglomerates don’t change overnight, especially not when they were working at a pace fast enough to put out multiple movies a year previously, so there were a couple of traditionally animated movies that were deep enough in production that they would still be finished and put out while the company charted out its new course.  One of those movies was their 2003 release Brother Bear, which was first conceived after the success of The Lion King and was meant to be a sort of North American version of that blockbuster.  Eventually it was retooled into a story not dissimilar from The Emperor’s New Groove where someone is turned into an animal in order to learn… something.  This one is less comedic than that movie and is meant to be more of an earnest look at a handful of Inuit characters and their connection to the spirits and nature or whatever.

Certain elements of Brother Bear work pretty well.  The animators clearly did their homework and put together some decent landscapes and made some animals that look pretty good.  They also employed a trick where they had the film play out in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio for the first half hour or so and then expand out to a 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio once our hero turns into a bear and the film also takes on a brighter more storybook like color scheme when this happens.  That’s an idea that displays some visual creativity, but I’m not sure this was the greatest idea given that the first half isn’t exactly a claustrophobic experience and replicating this on a TV, even in the era of big widescreen televisions is kind of tough.  There’s some of the usual annoying comic relief here including a bizarre reunion of the Strange Brew guys to voice a pair of moose who talk with stereotypical Canadian accents and a little bear cub voiced by one of the kids from The Bernie Mac show who I’m pretty sure is supposed to be annoying in a funny kind of way but who is mostly just annoying.  The film has also musically resorted back to getting Phil Collins songs in order to recapture the “magic” of Tarzan but it works even less here and the decision just kind of screams of laziness.

Where the movie starts to lose me is probably in its wishy washy message in which the main character is judged for having gone after the bear that sort of caused the death of his father and by becoming a bear himself he sees the animals’ side of what hunting feels like.  This sort of works if you take it as a very general fable about the ways that people misunderstand each other and the problems with acting out of anger and out of the desire for revenge, but taken at face value it’s kind of silly.  This is a post-ice age Inuit community, in that society sometimes you’re going to have to kill some bears and sitting back and thinking about how the bear would feel about in some fantasy environment where bears have human-like intelligence and personality is childish silliness.   In general though, this movie isn’t really half bad.  I get why it had a hard time competing with the likes of Finding Nemo that year but if it had come out in a time when Disney was better positioned to market it and people were more interested in movies like this it might be better remembered.  As it was the thing just kind of came and went.  I don’t think it lost any money and given that Disney seemed about ready to just write the thing off as a loss they probably thought they gotten away with something.

Home on the Range (2004)

I remember back in 2004 looking at an article on the internet which was laying out all the potential nominees for the then still new Best Animated Feature Category.  It listed each movie like The Incredibles and Shrek 2 and included a blurb outline the pros and cons of each film earning a nomination and then way down at the bottom of the list was an entry for the movie Home on the Range with a caption that simply read something like “Disney needs to rethink its animation division.”  That’s how much of a non-entity this thing was in 2004, it barely even registered and when it did it was little more than an emblem of Disney’s irrelevance.    Today it has, bar none, the worst reputation of any movie that Disney ever made and in some ways it almost feels like an act of self-sabotage; an attempt to force their 2D animation division to hit rock bottom just so no one would miss it when it was gone.  I’d like to think that, it certainly fits the narrative, but there’s one bit of evidence that suggests that isn’t the case: this damn thing cost $100 million dollars to make.  That’s over twice the cost of Brother Bear and even a little more than the cost of The Incredibles.  I don’t know how this can possibly be true, it may have been partially due to a reworking not dissimilar to what happened to The Emperor’s New Groove, but still, there’s no way a major corporation sinks that kind of cash into a movie unless they do believe in it on some level.

Going into the movie I had nearly subterranean expectations and that probably did effect the experience a little because as I was watching it I came to realize that the movie wasn’t really “bad” so much as it was wildly misbegotten.  It’s really unambitious, it doesn’t feel like Disney at all really, and it also doesn’t feel like a big budget movie made in the 21st Century, but it isn’t necessarily a failure at what it set out to do.  The film is trying to be a send-off of westerns but told from the perspective of the animals, specifically a trio of cows voiced by Roseanne Barr, Judi Dench, and Jennifer Tilly… because the only thing modern kids like more than westerns is Rosanne.  The plot is this insane thing where cows, actual quadrupedal cows, try to hunt down an infamous bandit to collect a bounty that will save their homestead.  Again, this is a movie about motherfucking cows saving the day.  The film’s animation is also… I don’t want to say dated because in part I think it was intentionally retro, but it certainly didn’t have that Disney look that people are looking for from this studio.  In fact, if you had told me that this was a Disney Channel special from 1995 rather than a theatrical release I probably would have believed it give or take a few celebrity voice actors and a CG show or two.  But still, there are aspects of the movie that are a little… cute, I guess.  It’s not a movie that overwhelms you with badness, it’s just a thing that should not be coming from who it’s coming from and when it came from.  I’m sure if you showed it to a very small child they’ll enjoy it but I also don’t really know why anyone who’s not doing a Disney retrospective will have watched the damn thing in the last ten years.

Chicken Little (2005)

By 2005 Disney Animation was clearly in deep shit.  They’d made three straight movies which were more or less considered embarrassments and hadn’t made a single movie that really captured the public’s interest in any kind of big ways in the 21st Century.  So finally they decided their only recourse was to ditch traditional animation and begin trying to compete with the Pixars and Dreamworkses in the CGI arena and began assembling a team dedicated to that format.  I’m pretty sure they knew that there would be some awkward growing pains along the way and that they didn’t want to waste their best ideas and concepts on this novice team so their first few forays into the medium were a bit… odd.  It would, however, be a mistake to assume that Disney was ready and willing to just take a loss on the project.  On the contrary there was actually a lot of pressure on the movie to perform at the box office because, at this point, Disney was in the middle of some rather heated negotiations with Pixar.  Pixar’s distribution deal with Disney was about to run out in 2006 and it was an open question as to what the future of that relationship would be.  Both Disney and Pixar wanted the two to merge but they would have to settle on terms and the success or failure of Disney’s first CGI movie would say a lot about how much they needed Pixar and give one side or the other leverage.

The first thing that jumps out about Chicken Little is how awful its animation is.  Now granted, it can be a little tough in 2017 to gauge the extent to which the awfulness of this CGI is just a fuction of the era it comes from, but comparing this to the trailer for The Incredibles (a movie which reportedly cost $50 million less to make) the difference is stark.  The character designs here are all really ugly and the world of the movie doesn’t cohere very well at all.  Obviously this is a modernized take on the Chicken Little story but it also seems to completely misunderstand that fable as well.  In the film Chicken Little gets in trouble because he thinks the sky is falling and no one believes him.  Then it turns out that, while the sky isn’t actually falling, reflective pieces of alien spaceships are falling and no one is believing his warnings because his initial claims seemed to be false.  That is the opposite of what happens in the original story, the whole point of the Chicken Little story is supposed to be that the title character’s warnings are ridiculous and they lead the fools who follow him to ruin: the moral is supposed to be that not everything you hear is true and that you need to exert some critical thinking lest you get caught up in a panicking mob.  This initially seemed like it was replacing that with a “boy who cried wolf” scenario, but that doesn’t really fit either given that Chicken Little turned out to be right from the very beginning.

Instead the moral of this movie is some bullshit about the kid reuniting with his father, who has not been terribly supportive.  I can’t say I cared all that much and the movie uses some of the most contrived silliness in order to force these people to deal with one another.  The movie is constantly begging Chicken Little to talk to this shitty father to solve these problems but never seems to accept the possibility that he could maybe go to some other adult authority figure with his problems or maybe have one of his friends go to one of their parents.  One could say this is just a movie for kids, but what kind of message does this thing send to that audience?  That if they make one mistake the whole world including their parents will be incredibly cruel to them for the rest of their lives and that the only way out of this hell is to redeem yourself in a major way?  That would just create some neurotic kids.  Oh and did I mention that the comedy in this is truly awful?  Basically nothing in this movie works.  It might not have the awful reputation of Home on the Range simply because no one remembers it but it’s noticeably worse.  In fact it’s the worst thing Disney has ever made and by a wide margin.  But here’s the real kicker: despite this being a truly inept and horrid movie it still made bank.  In fact it gave Disney its best opening weekend since The Lion King before making over a hundred million and becoming the fourteenth highest grossing movie of its year.  I don’t know how to explain that except that sometimes family movies can make a lot more than they deserve simply by virtue of opening on the right date sometimes, especially in 2005, a year that didn’t have  a Pixar movie but did see a whole lot of garbage like Robots and Hoodwinked make respectable box office.

Meet the Robinsons (2007)

Disney Animation Studios didn’t release a single movie in 2006, making it the first year since 1993 to be entirely without a Disney movie but things were hardly uneventful for them.  In 2005 Michael Eisner stepped down from his position and named Bob Iger as his successor and finished negotiations with Steve Jobs to acquire Pixar.  As part of this merger John Lasseter was named as Chief Creative Officer of both Pixar and Disney Animation and with Disney Animation being the squeaky wheel he immediately set out to fix it and bring it back to its former glory.  While all this was going on Disney did have a film in production while Lasseter wasn’t there for its inception he did have some input on it apparently and gave notes to a rough cut of the movie which resulted in 60% of the movie being scrapped and re-tooled.   That movie is called Meet the Robinsons and it is decidedly not Disney’s most famous movie.  Seriously thing just came and went real fast and hardly generated any kind of buzz.  I sort of remember there being some talk about the fact that it was released in impressiveish 3D (despite Avatar getting a lot of the credit for the 3D craze Hollywood was definitely working towards 3D before) but that was about it, prior to this viewing I didn’t even know what the movie was about outside of its blurb on the Netflix mailer I got and its characters and imagery are hardly iconic.

For all its flaws, Meet the Robinsons is definitely a huge leap forward from Chicken Little.  The animation here is competent, it’s not mind blowingly great or anything but it does seem to be up to the same standards as their competitors and it has a better grasp of basic film grammar that that earlier effort lacked.  I still think there are design elements here that don’t really work.  They seem to have taken a lot of visual inspiration from old television cartoons like “The Jetsons” and especially “Rocky and Bullwinkle,” specifically the “Peabody and Sherman” shorts from the later and the film’s villain bears a bit of a resemblance to Snidely Whiplash.  I didn’t particularly care for the look of the main character and the actual “Robinsons” also just seem like a strange assortment of weirdness without much of a rhyme or reason.  Still, it’s mostly progress on the visual front.  Narratively, not so much.  The movie’s key flaw is that its protagonist is really annoying.  This kid is completely out of control and just does the stupidest things to make things harder for all involved and a lot of the movie’s time travel logic does not hold up to scrutiny.

The movie’s other big problem is its preachiness.  The message here is that you shouldn’t be discouraged by failure and should instead keep trying until you succeed at what you want to do.  I know this is the film’s message because characters say exactly that out loud early in the film and repeat it often.  The movie is not very subtle about this message and isn’t really confident enough to just let its story impart the message on its own and feels the need to really lay it out.  That said, there could be a bit of a meta level to all this; a suggestion that Disney has failed a lot recently but that it’s going to pay off eventually.  In fact I know this interpretation was intended because the movie straight up puts a title card at the end which more or less confirms this.  Again, not a subtle movie.  I don’t really think this movie is good enough to be the rebirth of Disney but it is a clear improvement, in fact it feels like this should have been Disney’s first CGI movie instead of the abomination that was Chicken Little (a movie that truly shouldn’t exist).  Here’s the real kicker though: as much as this feels like a comeback of sorts for Disney it actually made less money than Chicken Little, which may be a function of how much that awful movie hurt their brand or may just be a quirk or when it was released and how it was marketed (that title probably didn’t help).  John Lasseter still had a lot of work to do.

Bolt (2008)

They say that reputations are hard won but easily lost and by 2008 Disney was getting a hard lesson in this. In the time that they were floundering Pixar had unquestionably taken their crown as the king of feature length animation while Dreamworks and arguably a couple of other studios had also lapped them. They had been making some steps to get themselves back in the game but these had widely gone ignored by the film community, who were consumed with love for Pixar, who were at the peak of their talents in the late 2000s. I certainly remember Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons being almost entirely ignored by everyone except for parents of small children, but by the time their 2008 film Bolt came out I did at least hear some rumblings that Disney were making something of a comeback. These rumblings were faint and were almost entirely overshadowed by the overwhelming critical support for Pixar’s Wall-E, but they were there. Much of this credit was applied to John Lasseter, who had just come on board after the merger and who had more extensive influence over this than he did with Meet the Robinsons. This apparent respectability certainly came as a bit of a surprise to any outside observers who wasn’t familiar with the personnel changes at Disney.

The thing certainly looked pretty lame from its concept and advertising as it looked like it was about some kind of dog superhero or something. As it turns out the movie is actually about a dog (voiced by John Travolta) that merely thinks he’s a superhero because he stars on a stange looking TV show along with his child actress owner (voiced by Miley Cyrus back when she was still a Disney employee and not someone who made a point of swinging naked on wrecking balls) and goes on a cross country adventure with a gangster cat and a wacky hamster to return to her. This is probably where the John Lasseter influence becomes a little more clear as this plot bears more than a striking resemblance to Lasseter’s breakthrough film Toy Story what with the plot revolving around an underclass of people who exist to please human children, one of whom isn’t in on this and thinks he’s an action hero like Buzz Lightyear did. There are enough difference here to keep the movie from looking like a total rip-off, but the similarities are noticeable. The plot is also a little formulaic in general, and anyone over six is probably going to be able to guess pretty early on how this is going to play out and what lessons are going to be learned by the end, but moment to moment it does play out with confidence and avoids some of those cringey moments as much as it can.

The animation in the film is quite good, a clear step up from Meet the Robinsons and a giant leap over Chicken Little. The movie is almost a decade old now and does show its age a little and it doesn’t have quite the “wow” factor of something like Wall-E but in general it’s definitely up to the standards of the competition of the time. What the movie didn’t have so much was much of a real Disney Animation feel, though one wonders what exactly that even meant in 2008. Back in the day a movie like Lady and the Tramp or The Jungle Book could be said to have a “Disney feel” because of their animation style (and the fact that they were the only ones in the game making animated features on this scale), but that style doesn’t really carry over to the CGI era and as such they kind of just felt like one more studio making movies about talking CGI animals. Without Princesses and the like there really wasn’t a lot there to make movies like this jump out and scream “Disney’s back bitches!” and get people excited again and start looking at these movies as events.

The Princess and the Frog (2009)

By 2008 Disney was pretty much back in action, they’d brought in new management vis-à-vis the acquisition of Pixar and they’d built up a CGI animation department that could compete with the big boys. For all intents and purposes they were once again a modern and formidable animation studio but there’s one thing they still hadn’t gotten back: class. Meet The Robinsons and Bolt didn’t feel like Disney movies, they just felt like movies that were competing with the pack. To really officially be worthy of that “when you wish upon a star” fanfare over the Disney logo they’d need to recapture that “magic” and prove that they could once again adapt fairy tales and create a new “princess.” They did have a CGI version of this in the works, but before they could pull the trigger on that they’d have to experiment and the way they decided to do that was by going old-school and make another 2D hand drawn animated movie that would try to do everything it possibly could to replicate that Disney Renaissance feel and see if 2D really died because audiences weren’t interested anymore or if those movies from the early 2000s actually would have succeeded if they had someone like John Lasseter guiding them. The movie they decided to do this with was an adaptation of “The Frog Prince” relocated to 1920s New Orleans and with Disney’s first African-American Princess.

The Princess and the Frog is partially a “princess/fairy tale” movie but also something of a talking animal movie as much of the plot has our heroine and her prince transformed into frogs and trying to escape the bayou alongside a Cajun firefly and an alligator who resembles Louis Armstrong (in case you haven’t guessed, the movie is unapologetic in featuring a litany of Nola stereotypes which checks off everything from voodoo to Mardi Gras). On a basic storytelling level it isn’t exactly the most original movie that Disney ever made, but it isn’t really trying to be. Instead it’s like the animation equivalent of something like The Artist or The Good German which intentionally tries to reverse-engineer an earlier filmmaking style right down to the formulaic plot, but the difference is that this isn’t trying to replicate something from decades past but something that was relatively recent though perhaps not so recent to the film’s target market. The movie is not half bad in its ability to check off some of the hallmarks of Disney old. That aforementioned jazz-man/alligator is not nearly as annoying as he could have been and the movie’s cackling villain, a voodoo man called Dr. Facilier, is a lot of fun in no small part because some genius decided to cast Keith David as his voice actor. The movie is also the first true “bursting into song” musical since Mulan, and while Alan Menken was busy working on their next movie Tangled they brought in frequent Pixar composer Randy Newman to do the music here, which makes sense given his knowledge of American roots music and of composing for family movies. I don’t know that any of the songs here are stone cold classics but they work well and the movie finds some creative ways to present them.

If there’s anything wrong with The Princess and the Frog it’s that it feels a bit calculated and inorganic, which can be said about a lot of Disney and Pixar films but especially this one given how hard it’s trying to be a very particular kind of Disney movie of yore. The film also feels a bit sanitized. This is, after all, a movie about an African American woman living in the 1920s and yet there isn’t even the slightest hint of racism in the air and everyone seems to be living in perfect harmony. Granted, New Orleans has a slightly more complex relation to the rest of the South when it comes to racial mixing but the portrait the movie paints is inauthentic. I suppose I can see why the movie wouldn’t want to force the realities of segregation on children but they maybe could have solved this by cutting the white characters out altogether rather than making them in to happy people devoid of prejudice. That’s not a huge problem though, and for the most part the film is actually quite successful at recapturing what made some of those earlier movies work while adding some unique touches of their own and made a movie that fits pretty well into their overall cannon.

So why didn’t they follow this up with more new 2D animated movies? Well, it’s not that the movie bombed exactly, it made $250 million on a $100 million budget which wasn’t too far off from the profit margins of movies like Bolt, but it didn’t really generate the attention and buzz that would have dissuaded the corporate suits who were probably skeptical about John Lasseter’s little experiment in the first place. Of course the movie had certain disadvantages holding it back, for one thing it’s been speculated that having “princess” in the title scared away a lot of the boy market, which is the reason their next princess movies would be called Tangledand Frozen rather than “Rapunzel” and “The Ice Princess” respectively. The bigger problem though was probably that the damn thing came out five days before the release of James Cameron’s mega-blockbuster Avatar which proceeded to dominate the market and the conversation. Critics weren’t much help either. Most gave it respectful notes but it was largely viewed as a curio rather than the triumphant comeback Disney might have hoped for. 2009 was the year of UpCoralineThe Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Where the Wild Things Are, which were all very critic friendly family movies and in that environment something like The Princess and the Frog didn’t feel like the refreshing breath of fresh air worth championing that it might have in other years. In general I think the movie might just have ironically been just a bit ahead of its time; the peak of 90s nostalgia and by extension Disney Renaissance nostalgia was still a couple of years away. That’s too bad because I do think Disney 2D animation is a tradition worth keeping alive and that they might have given up on a little too easily. That said, Lasseter did manage to use his clout to make it so Home on the Range would no longer be Disney’s final traditionally animated film, and that alone probably makes the whole endeavor worth it.

To the Present

And that brings us up to the present and to the Disney movies that I’ve already seen and analyzed either in my usual film criticism routines or in previous family movie retrospectives. However, given that Disneyology is as much a history of the Disney company as it is a look at the movies themselves I do think I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least touch on what Disney has done since the 2010s began. Times have been good for Disney and they’re in the middle of what they’ve been calling the “Disney Revival” but which might perhaps be better dubbed the “Disney Enlightenment” given both that the historical Enlightenment came after the Renaissance and that general “wokeness” is something of a running theme in what they’ve been doing lately. Disney’s recent output can be divided into two camps: movies that continue their tradition of adapting fairy tales and more experimental movies that are trying to compete with the wider world of animated movies and which generally tend to target the interests of the young boy demographic.

In the latter camp they started with a movie called Wreck-It-Ralph (2012) which was meant to be about the inner working of a universe of videogames. That movie fell well into “nice try” territory and had some cute moments, but was neither a particularly authentic look at the world of video games (it’s slander of Zangief will not be forgotten) not a terribly original adventure unto itself and the moral at its center was rather muddled. Their next attempt at a standalone title looked at another interest of modern little boys: Superheroes. That movie, Big Hero 6 (2014), took an obscure title from the now Disney owned Marvel catalog and turned it into a big CGI extravaganza. It was a fun movie and it looked really good, but it had some weak side characters and ultimately didn’t prove to be the most memorable of movies once you got some distance from it. The most recent movie down this lineage was Zootopia (2016), which was less obviously pandering towards little boys than the aforementioned movies but it is ultimately telling a cop story. That was possibly the movie overtly political movie that Disney has ever made and more or less exists to provide an imperfect but age appropriate allegory to teach kids modern ideas about how intolerance works and how diverse people can co-exist.

Of course where Disney really makes their money is off the princesses and they’ve certainly served that crowed in abundance as of late. They first brought the princess thing into the third dimension with Tangled (2010), which adapted the Rapunzel story into almost an action story. It had the usual combo of scheming villains, musical sequences, and the like but it leaned into some rather lame comedy a bit too much and ultimately just didn’t prove to really be much of a meaningful twist on the genre otherwise. In retrospect that movie proved to be something of a warm-up (no pun intended) for what is by far their most popular movie since their Renaissance heyday: Frozen (2013). That is in many ways a movie that probably doesn’t need an introduction but in its adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Ice Princess” it added some interesting twists like having two bickering sibling princesses instead of one and is particularly notable for having some particularly strong music. I thought that Frozen was only about half of the step forward it portrayed itself as and that its first half was a lot stronger than its second half, but it nonetheless was a clear win for them and left little remaining doubt that Disney was back to being the dominant animation studio, especially given that Pixar was having kind of a rough time at this point. Disney’s most recent princess was brought to us in the film Moana (2016), which followed the usual formula pretty closely but did it with gusto and differentiated itself by being set in the world of Polynesian folklore and followed its predecessor’s lead and upped its musical credentials.

So, Disney Animation seems to be in quite a place of strength right now, but if the history I’ve gone through for the last two years has taught me anything it’s that “happily ever after” has always proved to be something of an illusion for this studio and that no matter how strong they get the pendulum always swings the other way eventually. I don’t know when that will happen for this current incarnation of Disney Animation but they need only look towards their sister studio Pixar’s recent slide into relative mediocrity to see how things can go wrong. Pixar in many ways actually seems to be something of a victim of Disney’s success, it rested on its laurels while Disney was the squeaky wheel getting all the grease and they suffered because of it. Apparently there’s only so much John Lasseter to go around. What’s more, there are some disconcerting signs on the horizon. The studio’s next two films are both sequels: Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-it-Ralph 2 and Frozen 2. These will be the first theatrical sequels that Disney will have made since The Rescuers Down Under which was until now their only attempt at doing one. It’s really kind of extraordinary that this bastion of cinematic capitalism has avoided Hollywood’s obsession with sequels as long as it did, but it’s happening, and as such they won’t have another original film until their Jack and the Beanstalk adaptation Giganticcomes out. Lasseter has proven that he’s capable of guiding respectable sequels over the years, but if they’re not careful they’re going to end up making the same mistake that Pixar did.

In Conclusion

So I’ve now more or less seen every single fully animated Disney movie since the studio’s inception in 1937. Was it worth it? Well, I’d say my thoughts are largely mixed. I saw some good movies, I saw some bad movies, I saw some ugly movies. I saw a studio go from hand drawn animation to xerography, to various forms of computer animation, to mounting fully CGI productions. I’ve seen them rise and fall, rise again, fall again, and rise yet again. In many ways I think the overall narrative of the studio’s history kind of took over the whole column in a way that I didn’t expect it to and this overshadowed a lot of the actual movies, but that may simply be a reflection of what ended up interesting me the most about the movies. I certainly appreciated their older movies simply for their animation quality, but I’ve got to say, looking back at how simple some of the narratives have historically been in these Disney movies may have had the net effect of giving me a much greater appreciation for how much Pixar did to raise the bar on storytelling in animation. I can pine for the golden age of hand drawn animation all I want but if I’m given a binary choice I’m kind of glad they don’t make them like they used to.

Beyond that the various “eras” of Disney largely played out the way most people said they did. There were certainly individual movies that I break with consensus on (like Peter Pan and 101 Dalmatians) but for the most part the movies that are considered “classics” have stood the test of time for a reason. Disney really was at its best during the “golden age” and during the “Renaissance” and is on a bit of a roll right now, and when they were bad it was usually pretty apparent. I’d be lying if I said doing the last couple of eras wasn’t a bit of a chore. It’s not so much that the movies they made between 2000 and 2009 were awful movies per se, in fact I liked some of them more than most, it’s just that they put out a lot of uninspired movies that no one cares about and which I didn’t have much to say about. On the upside I feel like there are going to be a lot of pop culture references that will make more sense to me and I’ll be a lot more prepared to look at the studio going forward, especially as they make pointless live action remakes of all these movies. Could all this time have been better used? Probably, but I made my choice and I’m glad I saw it through.