The Journey Continues: Skeptical Inquiries into Family Cinema- Cars 2/Monsters University

Cars 2-Monsters U

The following is the final installment in an ongoing series of blog posts analyzing contemporary family films that the author has previously resisted seeing.  This series is a sequel of sorts to a previous series called Finding Pixar: A Skeptics Journey, which applied the same treatment to the films of the Pixar Animation Studio.

Nothing left to do now but take us full circle.  I started examining family movies in 2011 when I kicked off my original “Finding Pixar” series.  My initial goal was simply to get people off my back about this whole Pixar phenomenon.  That was back when the studio was on their legendary four movie winning streak and were routinely showing up on critics top ten lists and earning Oscar nominations and it felt like it was simply irresponsible to call myself a film buff without at least giving them a chance.  Besides, I thought my skeptical outlook might bring an interesting perspective to them.  Since then I’ve tried to further broaden my knowledge of family films by watching a decent sample of the better reviewed animated movies of the 21st century and I think it’s worked out pretty well.  I feel like I have a pretty good grasp of the major trends in family films and I have a pretty good idea of how to review them.  A funny thing happened though, pretty much the second I got caught up on Pixar the studio almost immediately started to lose a lot of relevance.  The year I was doing the Pixar series the much derided Cars 2 came out, and they followed it up with moderately successful but still disappointing Brave, and then they made Monsters University, which was met with collective indifference.  Oh how the mighty have fallen.  Still, now that I’ve taken a survey of the rest of the landscape it seems right to go back to where I started this series and finally watch the last two Pixar movies I haven’t seen: Cars 2 and Monsters University.

Cars 2 (2011)

It’s no secret that the original Cars was one of the least beloved movies that Pixar made all through their first fifteen years of existence.  It was a blemish on what was otherwise considered a pretty spotless track record and while it definitely did make money it wasn’t necessarily one of their biggest hits, at least not comparatively.  At the time it was only their fifth highest grossing movie and today it sits as their ninth highest grossing movie.  However, from Disney’s perspective the project as a whole probably still sits as one of their biggest successes for two simple reasons: 1. kids seem to love it and 2. it’s very easily merchandisable.  Actually, I think there’s a third point as well: As much as the critics and the usual Pixar boosters might hate the movie it actually probably pretty well liked by parents in middle America.  The movie is more or less about NASCAR and it is pretty overly about what you’d call “small town values.”  Could a sort of cultural elitism be what’s to blame for the movie’s reputation as opposed to a true absence of quality?  Well, there’s probably a little of that going on but only a little, for the most part I think it is fair to say that it’s one of Pixar’s poorest outings.  It’s too long, its plot is clichéd, it has some really annoying characters, and the whole “talking cars” thing just really didn’t seem to work.  I probably disliked A Bug’s Life more, but at least in the case of that movie Pixar had inexperience to blame for its shortcomings.

Still, Pixar saw the writing on the Disney ledger books and Cars became the first, but decidedly not last, Pixar movie outside of the “Toy Story” franchise to get a sequel.  In fact, sequels are something of a running theme throughout the “downfall of Pixar” narrative.  Cars 2 was going to be their second straight sequel after Toy Story 3, a film that was obviously very well received but that was different; Pixar had already proven that they could successfully sequelize Toy Story and besides, they had already earned a lot of cred by waiting over a decade to make a third installment in that series… and it wasn’t a series that everyone already hated.  To me it’s an open question whether Pixar really should have been rewarded as much as they were for Toy Story 3.  Personally, I thought that third installment was kind of a retread, a movie that probably existed for monetary reasons more than a lot of its fans probably wanted to admit, but for all the free passes that this studio seems to get they clearly found the limits of the critical establishment’s goodwill when they decided to make a Cars 2 because it was the first Pixar movie to receive outright negative reviews and then some.  On RottenTomatoes the movie got a 39%, a number that sounds average-ish but which is actually really low given how charitably critics tend to receive big budget animated movies.  To put that in perspective, the one and only DreamWorks movie with a lower score than that was the ill-conceived 2004 Finding Nemo ripoff Shark Tale.  That’s right; all four Madagascar movies got better reviews than Cars 2Turbo got better reviews than Cars 2Bee Movie got better reviews than Cars 2.

Did the movie deserve to be received with that much disdain… maybe.  I certainly would have given it a “rotten” review but when I finally watched the movie it seemed surprisingly… inoffensive.  Truth be told, it probably wouldn’t have taken much to make the movie seem “better than I expected.”  I went into the movie with subterranean expectations and anything remotely watchable would have felt like a success to some extent.  Of course I had two advantages that the early critics didn’t have: 1. I never thought that Pixar was a goldenboy miracle worker, and 2. I knew going in that this was a doomed enterprise.  The early critics on the other hand had just gone through a period of four straight supposed “Pixar masterpieces” and they needed to begrudgingly give the studio some benefit of the doubt despite all signs to the contrary and the fact that they had such high expectations for Pixar almost certainly played a big role in the critical backlash to Cars 2.  There was however a certain contingent of critics, a sort of backlash to the backlash, which insisted that Cars 2 wasn’t really that bad and that if any other animation studio had made the film it wouldn’t have been as poorly received.  Honestly, I think they might have had a point.

If Cars 2 has one major advantage over Toy Story 3 it’s that it couldn’t really be called a retread.  Instead of making another story about a rich car stuck out in a small town when he wants to be out on a NASCAR track, this film goes international and indulges in an unexpected sub-plot inspired by the James Bond movies of all things.  Two of the new cars are Bond style rigs equipped with gadgets like machine guns and oil slicks and on a whole the occasional spy movie set pieces are pretty well choreographed and are probably one of the more fun elements of the film.  It doesn’t hurt that, for all the film’s storytelling shortcomings, Pixar has not skimped on the animation budget here and have done a pretty good job of making this into one of their better looking films on a technical level outside of the fact that they play a little too much into the 3D effects they seemed to be going (this was made right in the middle of post-Avatar 3D boom).  Additionally, John Lasseter and his team seem to be having a lot of fun imagining what a car version of Tokyo, Paris, and London would be like.

That’s about where the positives end unfortunately, much of the rest of the film is about as problematic as I had heard.  One of the worst things about the original Cars was a character called Mater, a rusted tow truck voiced by one of the most hated of all pop culture figures: Larry the Cable Guy.  To say that Mater was annoying in the first movie would have been an understatement so you’d think that they’d have learned their lesson and eliminated this guy from the sequel.  Instead of doing that, they expanded the character to the point where he’s pretty much the main protagonist.  Think about that for a second: this is a $200 million dollar project fronted by the hippest and most critically acclaimed entity in Hollywood and at the center of it all is the dude who popularized the phrase “git-r-done” and starred in the film Delta Farce.  Yeah, bad sign.  I will give them this though, in the original film Mater was just a horrible side character dropped in to pander to rednecks, here there actually does seem to be a legitimate thematic reason to be including such a character.

Like the first Cars, this sequel is a sort of meta-commentary about the culture wars and the state of relations between urban and rural and features a hopeful/naïve vision of city people and country people setting aside their differences and becoming friends.  I’m not sure how John Lasseter (who directs both movies and seems to be personally sheparding this franchise) came to care so much about small town America.  The dude was literally born in Hollywood, California and grew up in a Los Angeles suburb and most of his co-writers also appear to be city slickers, but he does genuinely seem to romanticize the pastoral life and seems to think we should all have more respect for the hayseeds of the world and has developed a multi-milllion dollar animated franchise about talking cars in order to express this.  There’s something oddly respectable about this, but I also think the whole thing is kind of profoundly misguided.

The first movie was all about preserving small town America… it didn’t make much of an argument as to why small town America needs to be preserved outside of its general glorification of the inhabitants’ sense of community, but I guess the message is inoffensive enough for the most part.  This second movie is more about America’s image abroad and specifically about the way the more sophisticated Americans try to sweep the “ugly Americans” under the rug in order to look more cosmopolitan to our friends abroad.  Here that’s represented by Lightening McQueen’s friendship to Mater as he embarks on a world tour to race against an Italian F1 racer.  Over the course of this tour Mater quickly starts acting like the buffoon that he is and starts embarrassing McQueen via a variety of misunderstandings just generally dumb behavior.  After he screws up one of his races because he’s too stupid to turn off his microphone while he’s bumbling through some spy antics he’s gotten himself in through a series of ridiculously stupid misunderstandings (such are the weaknesses of this film that I don’t even have time to get into how dumb the film’s mistaken identity plotline is) and McQeen blows up at him.

Later McQueen comes to regret this because friendship is important or something and Mater’s IQ conveniently seems to magically rise a couple of points at the end so that he can be made into something of a hero at the end and we can all learn a lesson about how we shouldn’t judge people by appearances.  Give. Me. A. Break.  No one was judging Mater on his appearance and they also weren’t pre-judging him because he happened to come from a rural area.  They were judging him because the script does everything in its power to make him look like and ignorant motherfucking buffoon who screws everything up and leaves a trail of destruction everywhere he goes.  You cannot spend two movies doing everything in your power to try to make your audience laugh at a character only to then try to turn around and make that same audience feel bad for having laughed at him.  I don’t know why McQueen was friends with this clown from the beginning nor do I know why we as an audience should respect him in any way. If imparting that message was John Lassater’s goal then he failed and given that this is all meant as an allegory for modern society then he’s also failed at saying anything meaningful about that.  I’ll grant you, I’m an urban sophisticate so I’m predisposed to hate this guy and am probably the kind of person this movie is trying to chastise for being a judgmental ass but if you’re going to try to set me straight about that you’re going to have to come with better ammunition than this.

Questionable messaging and humor aside, the movie still suffers from the same basic problem as the original: this whole talking cars concept is a fucking loser of an idea.  These characters just look really weird and the world they inhabit just doesn’t make sense.  I still don’t know whether these things are built on a conveyor belt or whether they exist because the cars are fucking each other, but it doesn’t make sense either way.  There is no evolutionary reason for them to have developed to be just the right size for humans to fit in them and there’s also no reason for cars built by cars to have doors and shit.  Also, why do the cars have tounges and why do they seem to eat and drink? John Lasseter was clearly a madman for thinking that this was a good idea in the first place, and if this series had been the pet project for anyone else at Pixar I don’t think it would have gotten a sequel sooner than The Incredibles or Wall-E or any number of other movies that people don’t hate.  Aside from some small subset of children I don’t think anyone was really asking for this movie and the box office numbers seem to bear this out.  The movie made about $191 million domestic, which is less than its production budget.  The movie was saved by international audiences, who ironically seemed to take to the movie more than Americans (possibly because Larry the Cable Guy was mercifully dubbed over in foreign markets) but the fact remains that it’s the second lowest grossing Pixar movie and if you adjust for inflation it is the lowest grossing by a rather significant margin.

But this brings us back to the question I started with: “would the film have gotten so much bad press if any other studio had made it.”  It’s a complicated question because I do think the movie deserved the bad reviews it got but I also don’t really think it’s that much worse than your average DreamWorks-style kiddie movie.  Maybe the problem isn’t so much that Cars 2 was over-bashed so much as all those other animated movies have gotten a free pass because they’re cute and provide rudimentary entertainment for children.  Additionally, maybe some of Pixar’s other movies have been over-rated because this is definitely a step down from their usual high standards but the gap isn’t quite as vast as some people make it out to be.  It’s not that much worse than A Bug’s Life and while I do think it’s inferior to the first Cars it does improve on it in some ways simply by being a bit faster paced and a little less clichéd than its predecessor. So I guess at the end of the day I agree that this movie sucks but I don’t feel the same sense of betrayal.

Monsters University (2013)

Pixar lost some goodwill from Cars 2 but I’m pretty sure most critics would have been more than happy to forgive and forget if they had come out blazing with their next movie.  Prior to that Pixar had had an amazing winning streak and it wouldn’t have been hard for most people to say “well, as long as they’re not wasting their time with that ridiculous franchise they’re gold,” but it quickly became apparent that their problems were deeper.  Their follow-up, Brave, was certainly a financial success (the general public never seems to have really abandoned them) but it was met with a sort of critical indifference that no Pixar film had ever been met with.  Granted, it did still win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, but that almost certainly had more to do with a lack of competition that year than anything.  The movie certainly wasn’t hated but almost no one was putting it on their top ten lists and there certainly weren’t any people demanding that it get a Best Picture nomination.  So those were two straight movies that weren’t up to Pixar’s high standards and unfortunately they weren’t going to bounce back with their next project, a sequel to one of their previous successes that was met with an even bigger shrug than Brave.

First and foremost, Monsters University was to be looked at with suspicion simply because it was a sequel or rather a prequel.  For the longest time Pixar was viewed as a bastion of integrity for their stubborn refusal to make unnecessary sequels and suddenly it seemed like they wanted nothing more than to pimp out their beloved movies in search of that franchise money.  Monsters University was their third sequel in four years and as of this writing they’ve also announced plans to make four more sequels including continuations of the Toy Story, Cars, Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles franchises.  This sudden zeal for franchise cannot possibly be a coincidence, these guys were selling out and of all the movies they decided to make into a franchise Monsters Inc. seemed like the strangest choice.  Monsters Inc. was certainly one of the better movies of the studio’s early days but it was a flawed movie and as far as I could tell not an overly beloved one, at least not by the lofty standards of this studio.

I don’t hold a lot of reverence for the original Monsters Inc., which was a somewhat enjoyable film that was undercut by a concept that doesn’t really hold up to a lot of scrutiny and its prequel suffers from the same problem.  The whole idea of scaring as an energy source always seemed a bit contrived to me, but the notion that such an occupation requires a degree from a four year university strains credulity even more.  Frightening small children is not a difficult thing to do even if you’re not a monster.  This is the same demographic that thinks it’s scary as hell to say “bloody Mary” three times into a mirror, scaring them is not a difficult task… hell, Pixar themselves seem to have gone to great lengths simply to avoid making their monsters too “scary” for their target audience.  I remember the scare factory workers in the first movie having more of a blue collar/lunch bucket ethos, not an educated white collar feel.  What’s more it’s never exactly clear what these monsters are being taught about the subject of scaring, in the final test at the end they all just more or less seem to jump out and growl at the kids at various volumes and are assigned relatively arbitrary scores.  Not to mention the fact that the movie never seems to bring up that this subject that Mike is so passionate about and which the film never questions is determined to be evil in the earlier film that this is the prequel to.

Ignoring all that, the idea of making a Pixar college movie was probably misbegotten regardless of what these monsters are studying.  The Animal House-esque college comedy is probably one of my least favorite movie genres even when the stars are humans and to make one into a G-rated animated movie seems like a particularly misbegotten idea.  I think what I hate the most about this genre is that the universities in these movies seem to bear no similarity to my own college experience and probably doesn’t bear much relation to anybody else’s experience either… or maybe they do, I don’t really know.  I lived off campus for most of my time at college and if fraternities play as big a role on campuses as they seem to in movies it’s something that I managed to completely miss.  At the very least I feel like most of the aesthetics of the stereotypical college movie are really dated and that’s certainly the case with the tropes this movie plays on.  This is set in a university that’s filled with overly perky people wearing letter jackets (as if this were a high school) and making bets with the crusty dean who is way too concerned with the minutia of individual students.

The characters in this movie have neither the vocal patterns nor the basic attitude and mannerisms of modern college students nor their busy ambition. This probably isn’t helped by the fact that the main characters are being voiced by a pair of actors who are 63 and 67 years old respectively.  Granted some of the datedness of the film could be justified by the fact that, with this being a prequel, it could be seen as a period piece of sorts.  Also, one could argue that the culture of the monster world simply evolved differently than it did in the human world, but I don’t quite buy either of those excuses simply because they don’t really do enough to make this university for monsters all that… monstrous.  The actual campus in the movie looks like a carbon copy of any number of small town colleges; they do absolutely nothing to customize the architecture to match the fact that this institution was built by monsters.

This is not to say that this movie isn’t enjoyable at times because there definitely are some witty moments to be found in it.  While a lot of the “extras” in the movie just kind of look like generic mascot type things, some of the more prominent characters are pretty interestingly designed.  I was particularly fond of the university librarian with giant Kraken-like tentacles and the Helen Mirren voiced dean who as a sort of centipede-bat thing.  I was also really amused by a side character called Art, who was voiced by Charlie Day and has this sort of elongated shape but with limbs.  In general I think what’s most interesting about the movie is just how low-stakes it is.  Most animated films seem to feel like they need to justify their $200 million price tags by adding a bunch of adventure elements that make them more in line with how $200 million dollar live-action movies play out.  That makes sense (why pay all that money just to make something you could make with humans for $30 million) but it sure can make a lot of these animated movies feel awfully samey and there is something refreshing about seeing someone make one of these movies that doesn’t end with a big fight at the end against a snarling bad guy.  Then again, at the end of the day this is probably more of a liability than a strength, this just feels more like an idea for a direct-to-video prequel or cartoon series that has somehow gotten the full Pixar treatment even though it probably doesn’t deserve it.

At the end of the days I don’t really know whether I really dislike this movie or not.  I have plenty of problems with it, but I’d be the first to admit that some of them are a bit nitpicky, and it wasn’t necessarily unpleasant to watch.  At the end of the day its biggest crime is just being insubstantial.  In final analysis it’s pretty much exactly what it sounded like in the first place: an unnecessary sequel.  There were probably a million better things that Pixar could have been doing with their time and most critics seemed to agree.  The movie did manage to get a 78% on Rotten Tomatoes, but that score is probably a bit misleading, judging from the general tenor of the conversation I’d be willing to bet that most of those “fresh” ratings were of the three-star “I guess it’s okay” variety.  The film also became the second straight Pixar movie not to garner a nomination in the Best Animated Feature category, a loss made all the more embarrassing by the fact that the likes of The Croods and Despicable Me 2 did manage to make it.  Odds are it did probably deserve to get in ahead of those two, but I approve of the animation branch making a statement that they weren’t going to let Pixar get away with laziness and judging by the general reception of it and the two movies that came before it neither were the rest of their fans.

In Conclusion

When I started this series I had a pretty good narrative I was working off of: the decline of Pixar giving way to the rise of a renewed Disney Animation.  Thing is, it turns out that it wasn’t that simple.  The Pixar movies I saw certainly bore out that storyline, they were a pale imitation of that studio’s former self, but the Disney movies I saw didn’t really feel like they were quite good enough to replace them.  But what’s really thrown a wrench in the gears of that narrative seems to be Pixar themselves, who released a movie called Inside Out a few months ago and by all accounts it’s a return to form.  That movie is sitting at 98% on Rotten Tomatoes and will most likely be a fixture of year-end discussions.  I don’t know that this means Pixar is back for good, they still have a lot of questionable sequels on their docket but they also have some original stuff planned including a second movie for 2015 called The Good Dinosaur. I’ll definitely be checking out Inside Out when it comes out on Blu-Ray, until then though I’d say my distaste for later-day Pixar stands but I’m certainly hopeful about that development.

The Short Program

For old time’s sake I thought I’d step back and take a look at some of the animated shorts that have been attached to some of the Pixar and Disney movies I’ve been watching for the series.  As soon as John Lasseter gained control of Disney’s animation studios one of the first things he did was announce that he’d start following Pixar’s lead by attaching short films to their theatrical releases because he “sees [that] medium as an excellent way to train and discover new talent in the company as well as a testing ground for new techniques and ideas.”  I first noticed this when Disney’s shorts started getting nominated for Oscars.  For the longest time I’d been killing it in my Oscar pools because I’d always bet against the Pixar shorts that everybody else blindly predicted.  I had long assumed that this losing record would carry over to Disney but surprisingly enough it didn’t: not one but two of Disney’s shorts actually won the Best Animated Short Oscar in the last three years.  Why was that?  Were Disney employees engaging in block voting?  Why didn’t they also do that with Pixar?  As it turns out, the explanation is a lot more simple than that: Disney is just better at making shorts than Pixar is.

The first of the Disney shorts I saw (but not the first one chronologically) was “Get a Horse!” which was attached to Frozen.  This was a very light-hearted and gag oriented short which used new technology while looking way back into Disney’s history.  The film stars Mickey Mouse himself but actually uses the style from the original short that made Disney the studio that it is today: “Steamboat Willie.”  The catch is that this short plays around with 3D and has the characters jumping in and out of a screen within a screen.  It’s certainly not the most emotional or substantive of shorts, but it’s a lot of fun and was probably a good choice to put in front of one of their most popular movies.  The next Disney short I saw was the Academy Award winning “Paperman,” which was in front of Wreck-It Ralph.  This short is really cool.  The film is set in the 40s and has a pair of young Urbanites flirting with paper airplanes and eventually coming together out of fate.  It uses this really cool 2D/3D hybrid black and white animation and is just extremely classy as far as these things go.  That it was attached to something as silly as Wreck-It Ralph is pretty weird.  Finally there’s Feast, which was attached to Big Hero 6 and also won an Academy Award and while I didn’t like it as much as “Paperman” it was still pretty cool.  It basically showed the evolving courtship between a man and a woman through the eyes of a dog that just wants to get better food from his owner.  It’s a pretty cute little high concept thing with a heart.

The two Pixar shorts I watched, by contrast, seemed pretty lame.  The short attached to Cars 2 is actually set in the “Toy Story” universe and is meant to be a sort of coda to Toy Story 3.  That’s pretty lame, firstly because these short films should be an opportunity to do something a bit more creative and experimental than that and secondly because Toy Story 3 would seem to have been a pretty good place to simply let that series be… of course there’s also a Toy Story 4 in the works so that closure was probably going to get fucked over either way, but whatever.  To be fair, Disney isn’t above this sort of thing either.  There was a follow-up short to Tangled that was attached to the 3D re-release of Beauty and the Beast and a Frozen follow up attached to Kenneth Branagh’s live-action Cinderella.  Still this is not a great sign for Pixar and is emblematic of their general decline.  The short attached to Monsters University is at least a little more interesting in that it blends animated elements with live action footage.  However, the short’s story is a super simple “boy meets girl” story in which the boy and the girl happen to be umbrellas which is… just a really weird idea.  I don’t begrudge them for making what is essentially a glorified tech demo, but it still sort of pales next to some of the stuff they did in the past.  I guess Pixar’s shorts have always been these simple little high concept experiments like that, but it feels like Disney has taken the short game to a new level and Pixar just hasn’t caught up.

Final Thoughts

And that will be the final installment of this series.  When I embarked to watch the first eleven Pixar movies in my original series my goal was to catch up with a set of movies that people thought were great and to wrestle with weather or not I could get on board with this particular form of supposed greatness.  Having done that I embarked on this follow-up series less out of an intense curiosity about the films at hand (although I was highly curious about a number of them) so much as a desire to become well versed enough in the trends and patterns of modern family films so that I’d have the vocabulary to write about them as well as I feel I can about more traditional films.  I watched 32 movies in that quest, and I do think it’s fair to say that I’ve now seen most of the major mainstream titles in this genre and I do think I’m a lot more equipped to deal with these movies going forward although my idiosyncratic skepticism about the genre certainly isn’t going anywhere.  There are definitely gaps in my knowledge; I’ve avoided most of the mediocrities of the Dreamworks variety and I’ve hardly looked at contemporary live-action family movies at all.  Still, I feel like I’ve done my homework and it was fairly rewarding.

One of the big differences between this series and my Pixar series is that I was very much on the attack during the Pixar series.  Those movies had been posited as masterpieces of cinema and it felt like I had a duty to really scrutinize them and decide if anything made primarily for six year olds can truly be described with such hyperbole and came to a conclusion along the lines of “probably not, but there’s certainly some good stuff there.”  With this series I was mostly dealing with movies that hadn’t had unrealistic expectations built into them and I guess I was a little more open minded as I explored the works of the various studios and filmmakers involved.  Over the course of the project I definitely encountered a handful of movies that were really good, a few that really sucked, but mostly I encountered a lot of three star “good” movies that never quite managed to be something truly memorable.  As time went along I started to notice certain patterns emerge and some of these animated movies really started to seem like regurgitations of the same movie with different coats to paint put on top of them.  I don’t know that that was the majority but it was distressing.  In fact, this experience may have given me a bit of a renewed appreciation for some of those Pixar movies I nitpicked like mad before and maybe better recognize how different some of them are from the rest of the animated field.  Anyway, my education about this genre certainly isn’t over, but now that I at least have a grasp on this stuff I do think this essay series has outlived its usefulness.  So, I’ll leave you all with one final thing, a ranking of all 36 non-Harry Potter movies I’ve watched over the course of the two series along with “out of five” Letterboxd ratings:

  1. Wall-E ****1/2
  2. Ratatouille ****
  3. Coraline ****
  4. The Incredibles ****
  5. Big Hero 6 ****
  6. Toy Story 2 ****
  7. Monster House ***1/2
  8. Up ***1/2
  9. How to Train Your Dragon ***1/2
  10. Toy Story 3 ***1/2
  11. Fantastic Mr. Fox ***1/2
  12. Frozen ***1/2
  13. Monsters, Inc. ***1/2
  14. The Lego Movie ***1/2
  15. Rango ***1/2
  16. The Iron Giant ***1/2
  17. Frankenweenie ***1/2
  18. ParaNorman ***
  19. Brave ***
  20. Chicken Run ***
  21. Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Wear Rabbit
  22. Toy Story **1/2
  23. Finding Nemo **1/2
  24. Cloudy with a Change of Meatballs **1/2
  25. Monsters University **1/2
  26. Wreck-It Ralph **1/2
  27. The Prince of Egypt **1/2
  28. Kung Fu Panda **1/2
  29. Corpse Bride **
  30. Tangled **
  31. Cars **
  32. A Bug’s Life **
  33. Cars 2 *1/2
  34. Where the Wild Things Are *1/2
  35. Happy Feet *1/2
  36. The Polar Express *
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The Journey Continues: Skeptical Inquiries into Family Cinema- Wreck-It-Ralph/Big Hero 6

Wreck-It Ralph-Big Hero 6

The following is an installment in an ongoing series of blog posts analyzing contemporary family films that the author has previously resisted seeing.  This series is a sequel of sorts to a previous series called Finding Pixar: A Skeptics Journey, which applied the same treatment to the films of the Pixar Animation Studio.

In my last installment of this series I talked about the current state of Disney; about the poor state of the studio’s output during the 2000s and what they were trying to do to solve it.  In particular, I focused on Disney’s doubling down on their “Princess” brand; the way they noticed the appeal of the princess as a figure of great interest amongst little girls and how they increased their marketing efforts around them and then added to their library of princesses with new films providing modernized versions of the characters.  These films were massive successes, but they were hardly uncharted territory for the company, they simply took an audience that the company already had (little girls) and found new ways to reach (or, less charitably, exploit) that audience.  The other more challenging goal that the company has long had was to finally reach another audience that they aren’t so sure they have a grasp of, little boys.  This is a market that has proven elusive to Disney (and the wider entertainment industry) for years if not decades, and it has never been a secret.

Looking back I feel like my own experience seemed to back up this situation.  I’m not sure why I didn’t notice it before but it’s interesting that the two movies that came out during the window in which I was going to see their films in theaters as a child just happened to be the most masculine success stories out of the Disney Renaissance: Aladdin and The Lion King. But when they put out their next film, Pocahontas, I instantly became less interested.  Part of why I skipped that film had to do with the fact that my parents thought the film was disrespectful to Native Americans, but I have a hunch that if I was really truly pumped to see the film I would have talked them into it, but because I thought it was “for girls” I wasn’t going to fight their verdict.  By the time they again tried to reach the boys market with The Hunchback of Notre Dame I passed because it looked like a bastardization of Victor Hugo’s novel (though I kind of doubt that was the main reason any of the other nine year olds passed on it) and by the time Hercules came out I felt too old for that shit and moved on.  This pattern does seem to jive with the widely held conclusion about boys’ buying habits in this sector. This AP story from 2004 seems to suggest that “Boys are more elusive, in part because they outgrow particular characters more quickly as their attention shifts to sports and other interests.”

The company has certainly found some isolated success in its quest to sell shit to boys.  In their Pixar division they had the Toy Story and Cars franchises (both of which were highly merchandisable, it’s no coincidence that they were the Pixar franchises that got sequels) and a handful of other Pixar films like The Incredibles, but there didn’t really seem to be a united formula that they could really exploit out of them.  They also had some success in the live action division with Pirates of the Carribean and would eventually try to buy their way to a solution by acquiring Marvel and Lucasfilm.  However, as far as Original Recipe Disney went things went a lot less smoothly, in fact many of the company’s woes during the 2000s could be directly attributed to Disney chasing misguided attempts to capture that market.

Their two most notable failed efforts to create masculine action movies out of the Disney Animation formula were Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet, two attempt to movie away from Disney’s usual fairy tale milieu and into science fiction trappings.  It didn’t work.  Boys looking for science fiction action just shifted their attention to real action fare like Star Wars which gave them what they wanted without the stigma of going to a “baby movie.”  Instead of retreating back into princess stuff they just spent the next decade making slightly masculine but ostensibly unisex fare like Home on the Range and Meet the Robinsons while Pixar held fort.  But, as was the case in Princess division, things started to change as we moved out of the aughts and into the teens things started to change.  John Lasseter started to take things over and while he did restart the production of princess stuff, he wasn’t about to give up on making Disney Animation relevant for boys.  From there they started alternating between CGI movies for boys and CGI movies for girls, and while their recent films for boys haven’t been the clear commercial homeruns that their princess movies were they have managed to make some strides where other Disney movies for boys have simply stumbled.

Wreck-It Ralph (2012)

Being as they are always trying to get in on what’s big with “the kids” Disney has long been somewhat interested in videogames.  Videogames have been made out of Disney properties as far back as the Atari era and today they have their own video game division in Disney Interactive.  The influence has also gone the other way, most noticeably with the interesting-ish 1982 movie Tron.  I think part of the reason Disney has remained so interested in video games is their aforementioned inability to reach the boy market.  Video games have (for better or worse) long been seen as a rather masculine pursuit and up until fairly recently have been seen as toys for children.  The idea, I suppose was to leverage young boy’s interest in video games in order to get them interested in Disney.  Makes sense I guess, and Disney had reportedly been working on another film set inside a videogame way back in the late 1980s under various titles like “High Score,” “Joe Jump,” and “Reboot Ralph” but wouldn’t actually be made until 2013 under the title Wreck-It Ralph.

There is of course one huge obstacle that anyone needs to deal with when trying to appeal to gamers: video game fans are extremely distrustful of outsiders and know a poser when they see one.  I recently read the book “Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation” by Blake J. Harris and remember an anecdote from it where an advertising agency was focus testing a commercial they’d developed for “Sonic the Hedgehog” with the basic premise of taunting the kids’ parents for the fact that they couldn’t get past the fourth level of the game.  To the advertisers’ surprise they were told in no uncertain terms by the gamers that the ad “sucked” in part because they noticed that the footage in the ad wasn’t from the fourth level, it was from the first level.  The takeaway was that it was insulting to the market they were trying to reach that the people putting together the ad couldn’t tell the difference between different levels in the game.  In other words, if you want to reach gamers you damn well better know games and that’s a big part of why it probably took so long to get this movie out of development: they needed to wait for the video game generation to come of age so they could finally have a qualified director.  The director they went with was named Rich Moore, who interestingly was not a homegrown Disney talent but rather someone who came from a geekier branch of the animation world: “The Simpsons” and “Futurama.”

The film is certainly not shy about showing off its gamer bona fieds and fills itself to the brim with references and jokes about actual videogames.  The three main games that the movie focuses on (“Fix-It Felix, Jr.,” “Hero’s Duty,” and “Sugar Rush”) are clear parodies of actual game genres but are none the less fictional.  Just about everything else in the world of the movie, however, is taken from an actual video game.  It’s filled with “cameos” by actual game characters like Bowser, Kano, and Q-Bert and other little Easter eggs like a scene where someone’s password is the famous Konami code.  The thing is, a lot of these references seem to be a bit past their sell-by date and its not all that clear if the people writing this really know much of anything about videogames made after 1992.  That’s no small thing because this film’s target audience consists of people who were, you know, born long after that year.  I’m sure rights issues had something to do with why there weren’t any cameos by modern game characters, but the disconnect does run a little deeper and probably starts with the fact that the movie is ostensibly set at t goddam arcade.  Arcades are dead, like, deader than Blockbuster Video.  You can still find a couple of old cabinets in movie theaters and laundromats I suppose and I’m sure there are a couple of arcades out there serving the retro market but to have kids casually going to a video arcade in 2013 is a little hard to swallow.  There are a couple of other moments that ring false as well, like the fact that “Hero’s Duty” is a full-on First Person Shooter even though those have never been part of the arcade scene (the thing is a light-gun game, those don’t feature hands holding guns onscreen) or the fact that they seem to think that Zangief from “Street Fighter II” is a villain.

I’ve focused mainly on the Videogame reference part of this because, well, that’s kind of the only thing about this movie that’s really interesting.  Below that surface this is at best a really average family movie.  It follows the usual CGI cartoon formula pretty closely: establish a high concept world, send protagonist on a quest, end with an action scene, make sure everyone learns some sappy insincere message about self-acceptance.  Speaking of that message… it’s kind of lost on me.  The movie starts with Ralph being depressed about his role as the bad guy in a videogame and about the stigma that’s been attached to him.  By the end of the movie he’s decided that he should be happy in his role as villain (you know, because he makes life interesting or something) and I guess people have decided to be nicer to him now that he’s saved the day.  What is this a metaphor for and what is its relevance in the real world? Videogames are pretty much the only field in existence where being a villain actually makes things more fun for anyone so I don’t think that has much relevance.  If I’m being really really charitable I suppose that this could be a metaphor for people working in disrespected blue collar jobs, but “be content with your shitty job” isn’t exactly an uplifting message.  I suppose you could say that the film shows how (inadvertently) going on strike for a couple of days can make your employer realize how much they need you and lead to better treatment, but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the intended message and if it was that would seem like an odd point to be making in media intended for eight year olds.

Of course there is a more obvious message that emerges in the film’s second half, but that’s kind of a problem of its own.  After a silly but somewhat enjoyable first half where the film goes from video game to video game and reference to reference it suddenly gets bogged down for an hour in a single game cart racing called “Sugar Rush.”  Here he meets a rather annoying side character named Vanellope von Schweetz, who has been ostracized because she glitches.  It’s clearly a disability allegory, it ends with her turning her disability into an asset and proving it’s “alright” to be difference and to accept yourself yada yada yada… it’s pretty standard kid movie stuff but it feels particularly awkward because it doesn’t start until an hour into the movie and kind of feels like a movie within a movie.  From there we’re introduced to a bug infestation that carried over from “Hero’s Duty” (interesting that while Ralph gets to be misunderstood, these bugs are depicted as truly horrible even though they’re both villains) so there can be a climactic battle at the end.

The more non-Pixar family movies I watch the more a lot of them seem kind of the same except with certain superficial differences to give them the illusion of originality.  Wreck it Ralph seems like a good example of this.  The whole video game motif gives the movie a certain amount of flavor but otherwise it’s animated kids’ movie 101.  What’s more, the film feels very decidedly un-Disney.  A few more fart jokes and it would have been virtually indistinguishable from something Dreamworks would have made.  It’s not a bad movie so much as an excessively mediocre one.  With a $189 million domestic gross (plus $281 million international) the movie certainly made money at the box office when it came out in 2012 but it wasn’t a phenomenon.  It was the twelfth highest grossing movie of the year but only the fourth highest grossing animated movie of the year after Pixar’s Brave, Dreamworks’ Madagascar 3, and Universal’s The Lorax.  I suppose Brave has some relevance in pop culture but it is definitely viewed as lesser Pixar and those other two movies were largely dismissed irrelevancies.  That’s Disney’s big effort came in behind this kind of competition showed that they still had a lot of work to do if they wanted to return to being the leader in the field.

Big Hero 6 (2014)

The elephant in the room whenever people talk about Disney trying to reassert their dominance of the boys market is that in many ways the larger Disney corporation already solved their weaknesses in that Market the second they bought Marvel Comic and probably solidified it further when they bought Lucasfilm.  At this point Disney is in many ways only making male skewing animated movies so that their main brand doesn’t get to be so identified with princesses that it comes to be seen as a girly brand like Barbie.  The big question of course was whether or not Disney Animation was ever going to try to take a piece of that Marvel pie or whether they were just going to let Marvel Studios keep doing their own thing.  This was a pretty big predicament because the people at Marvel Studios almost certainly didn’t want another division screwing up one of their marquee characters and even if the Animation division was guaranteed to do a great job they’d still potentially be sidelining a character that could otherwise be used to headline a live action film and fit into the Avengers universe.  Also, they had the added pressure that any CGI animated superhero movie was probably going to have to live in the shadow of Pixar’s The Incredibles.  The solution they eventually reached was to let the animation division make a movie based on a Marvel character but one that was even more obscure than Guardians of the Galaxy and to de-emphasize the properties Marvel origins during the promotion of the film.  In fact, if you look at the film’s trailer you find that it downplays the superhero material almost entirely and sells the film almost entirely as a sort of science fiction/adventure film.

The comic book the film is loosely based on was a minor Marvel title from the late 90s about a group of Japanese superheroes built around a character called The Silver Samurai.  That character (who was depicted in the movie The Wolverine) was the only element of that group I’d heard of and he’s not even in this movie… in fact as far as I can tell very little of this movie was actually taken from the comic book, but that’s not a big deal.  The film is set in a city called San Fransokyo, presumably envisioning some sort of future where trans-Pacific borders have been blurred.  We know from Blade Runner that this fusion of East and West created a dark hellscape in L.A. but Northern California seems to have taken to their Japanese overlords better.  The city looks cool and I also like the sci-fi elements that the filmmakers bring to the table.  The film is set in a world where fourteen year olds can theoretically graduate from college young and be accepted into a group of college aged inventors… yeah, definitely some wish fulfilment there for the kids in the audience, but there’s nothing too wrong with that and I like the way the film makes its child protagonist into something of a streetwise punk at the beginning.  As the movie opens this kid is doing the futuristic equivalent of poolhall hustling, and isn’t really something you’d expect from the usual squeaky clear Disney protagonist.

I was a little less fond of the film’s supporting characters, specifically the rest of the film’s superhero team which are built out of the members of the protagonist’s engineering team.  Normally in movies like this it’s the children who are annoying but, in keeping with the film’s wish fulfillment bent, here it’s the older characters who are kind of insufferable.  There’s the nerd pseudo-stoner named Fred, then there’s Wasabi who is characterized by his general cowardice when faced with the comic book craziness around him, and Honey Lemon who is this sort of neurotic nerd girl and is just generally kind of annoying.  Then of course there’s a character named GoGo, a tough no-nonsense action hero in the middle of an engineering team who frankly just seems like a really strained attempt to wedged a strong female characterTM into a group that is otherwise unable to keep up with a fourteen year old kid.  I was a bit more fond of the robot Baymax, who was nicely able to inject humor into the movie without resorting to the kind of obnoxiousness that usually characterizes comedic sidekicks in family movies.  I also loved the movie’s villain, who just looks incredibly dope wearing all black and sporting a tough looking kabuki mask.  Just one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in an animated family movie.

For much of the film’s runtime it doesn’t really seem to be a superhero movie at all, and I actually kind of wish it had stayed that way.  The superhero material in the movie isn’t terrible exactly but we aren’t really lacking for superhero movies right now and I’m not exactly sure that we needed another one and the superhero elements in this one are a little weak.  I certainly like the way that the animators were able to show light reflecting out of the heroes armor, but otherwise that armor looked kind of lame, they kind of looked like some kind of roller derby team and the stoner dude’s dinosaur looking costume doesn’t really fit that well.  I also found the origin of the group a bit rushed.  The heroes all acclimate to their powers over the course of a single montage which seemingly takes place over an afternoon, which is just way too easy.  That said the actual superhero actions scenes aren’t half bad, at least by animation standards.

Looking back I feel like the big difference between the Disney that gave us Wreck-It Ralph and the Disney that gave us Big Hero 6 is that the former studio was taking a lot of its cues from Dreamworks and the latter studio was getting more of its cues from Pixar.  You can see it right in the voice casting.  The former movie is loaded to the brims with celebrity stunt casting while the biggest names in the latter are Maya Rudolph, James Cromwell (or, “that guy,” as he’s known to the public), and a second generation Wayans Brother.  More importantly the film doesn’t indulge in Dreamworks style obligatory moralizing.  Yeah, there is perhaps some messages to be found in the movie about the correct way to handle grief, and about friendship, and about rising up to your potential, and whatever, but the movie never paints this stuff on too thickly. For the most part it’s content to just be an adventure movie which is probably its biggest strength and its biggest weakness.  The film does remind me a bit of how I felt about the other famous CGI animated superhero movie, The Incredibles, in that I thought it was a pretty well-conceived action movie that nonetheless kind of lacked that additional depth to really push it into the realm of the truly special.

Domestically, Big Hero 6 actually only made about $30 million more than Wreck-It Wralph but it certainly felt like a bigger success.  Part of that might have been that it won the Oscar for Best Animated Film (albeit in a victory that was arguably marred by the surprise omission of The Lego Movie from that year’s list of nominees), another part might be that the movie grossed more than any other animated movie that year aside from the aforementioned The Lego Movie.  Also, the movie was even a bigger success at the international box office where it made close to $200 million more than Wreck-It Ralph but still never got to the point where it was making Frozen money.  Still, $600 million dollars is nothing to scoff at under any circumstances, more importantly the film is an obvious and drastic improvement in quality.  The movie certainly didn’t have quite what it took to function as some sort of Disney classic and also isn’t particularly creative but it executes on a really high level and is pretty damn entertaining.

In Conclusion

The trajectory of these two “Disney for Boys” movies was certainly not unlike the trajectory I noticed when looking at the recent “Disney Princess Movies.”  They put out one rather shaky effort that didn’t do enough to elevate itself from the animated movie pack and another one that felt more like something special.  Of the two “improved efforts” I liked Big Hero 6 more than Frozen but I also get why the latter was a grand slam with the public while the former was more of a ground rule double.  For all its flaws, Frozen felt a lot more in line with the Disney legacy and had a certain gradeur to it because of it which Big Hero 6 lacked.  For all their attempts to encroach on the boys market Disney still hasn’t really established what a Disney film marketed to boys is supposed to look like.  With Wreck-It Ralph they borrowed a lot from Dreamworks, with Big Hero 6 they borrowed from Pixar, but they never really broke the code for how they could bridge the Disney of old with the modern tastes of ten year old boys.  I’m not exactly sure how they could fix that or if they’re even going to try, but I’m sure they’re going to keep experimenting.  Walt Disney Animation studios doesn’t have anything on the docket this year, but they’re planning to put out two movies in 2016, one seemingly directed towards each gender.  The non-princess movie is called Zootopia and has something to do with a city populated by talking animals and the other movie is a musical about the adventures of a Princess in a South Pacific tribe called Moana.  I’d say the latter film sounds a little more promising, but we’ll see.

The Journey Continues: Skeptical Inquiries into Family Cinema- Tangled/Frozen

Tangled-Frozen

The following is an installment in an ongoing series of blog posts analyzing contemporary family films that the author has previously resisted seeing.  This series is a sequel of sorts to a previous series called Finding Pixar: A Skeptics Journey, which applied the same treatment to the films of the Pixar Animation Studio.

It’s interesting, at this point I’ve watched and analyzed over 35 movies for this essay series and my previous series focusing on Pixar and yet there’s a certain mouse in the room I haven’t addressed: Disney.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  Pixar is a subsidiary of Disney, I guess you could count all of those if you wanted but the mouse house has been pretty adamant about treating that as a separate brand.  Also, Time Burton’s Frankenweenie was technically a Disney release but I think everyone can agree that doesn’t really count either.  So why have I avoided the mainline Disney movies in this little survey of contemporary family flicks?  Same reason everyone else has, the movies they put out in the aughts are by all accounts sub-par efforts unworthy of most people’s attention.  Maybe it was because they didn’t want to distract from the Pixar cash-cow, maybe it was because they just couldn’t adjust to CGI animation but for whatever reason Disney followed up their 90s renaissance with what is easily their worst era since the days of Oliver and Company.  It was a decade that gave us disasters like Home on the Range, Meet the Robinsons, and Brother Bear.  These were movies that didn’t even have the dignity to be memorable disasters, they were just sort of there, and they certainly couldn’t compete with what Pixar and Dreamworks were putting out.

Then something changed in the 20-teens.   It didn’t happen overnight exactly but as Pixar has waned Disney proper seems to have stepped up.  There are probably a lot of reasons for this, the most obvious one seems to be that John Lasseter took over as a creative chief after Pixar was formally bought in 2006 and that it took a little while for his input to manifest itself in the form of actual films.  Lasseter seemed to have a handful of different ideas of how to restore Disney to its former glory and the first and perhaps most obvious was a sort of back to basics return to fairy tale adaptations.  It’s a decision that was such a no-brainer that I’m not sure why it wasn’t done sooner.  In the decade since Mulan was released in 1998 Disney had turned the female characters in their back catalog into a unified marketing brand dubbed the “Disney Princesses,” a canny business decision that boosted sales at the Disney Consumer Products division from $300 million in 2001 to $3 billion by 2006 and it was only logical that they would want to play into that success.  Really though, it doesn’t take crassly corporate reasons like that to see why making more princess movies would be a good idea.  The simple fact  is that the studio had had clear success with fairy tale movies in the past and had found nothing by failure by moving away from them.

There was one major hurdle though: gender politics.  Disney has always been in a under intense scrutiny because of their position as a media empire believed to have major influence over young people and has long been mired in the middle of culture wars.  In the last fifteen years there seems to have been more debate about “Disney Princesses” than about Net Neutrality, the Patriot Act, and the Darfur crisis combined.  As such, most of the talk about movies like Tangled, Frozen, and Pixar’s Brave have had less to do with the actual films than whether or not their protagonists are good role models for girls.  Personally, I don’t care too much.  I’m not going to completely ignore the gender issues going into these movies (the filmmakers certainly haven’t) but it’s worth remembering that my goals in analyzing movies for this essay series has never been to judge how the movies will work for their “intended audience” and it definitely hasn’t been to decide if these movies are going to mold young people’s self esteem.  This series has always been about my own personal selfish response to these movies, to put them to the test and see whether they’re actually “for everybody.”

Tangled (2010)

I don’t like to think back to this stage in my life but when I was working my way through college I had a soul-sucking job at a big box retailer which will remain nameless (it rhymed with Parget).  The you tend to notice when you have a job like that is how much of a bubble you live in, especially when you hear your co-workers talking about pop culture in the break room.  It certainly wasn’t lost on me that not everyone was into the kind of movies I liked, but it wasn’t until I worked at that place that I came to realize how many people’s viewing habits were completely subservient to what their children and in some cases grandchildren were into.  Case in point, there was a middle aged woman who worked in that place (she was a high ranking employee actually, the head of HR on site) and anytime anyone in the breakroom brought up the topic of movies she’s suddenly say “ooh, have you seen Tangled?  My grandchildren love it!” often seeming oblivious to the fact that twenty-something childless employee she was talking to maybe didn’t have a reason to be interested in such things.  I always secretly rolled my eyes when I heard her say this, it just seemed like such a lame thing to get that enthusiastic over and not just because it seemed odd for an adult to default to a Disney movie as an exemplar of fine cinema.  This particular Disney movie just sounded particularly… un-noteworthy.  It had a lame title and… that’s about all I knew about it.  I was getting some decent reviews but it certainly wasn’t getting the Pixar treatment and it didn’t even get the often perfunctory Best Animated Feature nomination at the Oscars.

At first glance the film just seems like yet another in a long line of fairy tale adaptations by Disney, but if you think about it that’s actually kind of unusual.  As heavily associated with fairy tales as Disney is, it’s interesting that before they made Tangled they’d done a pretty admirable job of not going back to that well for the longest time.  In fact, they hadn’t made a movie based on a traditional European fairy tale since 1991’s Beauty and the Beast.  In the time since then they certainly made some movies adapted from non-European folk tales (Aladdin, Mulan), as well as certain European novels (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Treasure Planet), and a handful of other sources like Greek mythology (Hercules) and even historical stories (Pocahontas) but never a regular-ass prince charming saves a motherfucking damsel fairy tale.  In fact, for most of the movies they made during their not so beloved stretch during the 2000s had abandoned source material altogether in favor of telling original stories, usually to less than stellar ends.  So, with Tangled they decided to take a back-to-basics approach and adapt the German fairy tale of Rapunzel.  Kind of an odd choice of story given that much of the original Rapunzel story is set at a single tower, and that the original Grimm version involves such pleasantries as unplanned pregnancy and eye gouging, but this adaptation has been expanded with extra adventure elements and as is often the case with Disney movies is quite different from the folklore.

Going into this I expected it to be a very conscious attempt to recreate the magic of those Disney Renaissance movies and while there is some of that going on here there is a key difference: irreverence.  Now I may be completely misremembering those older Disney movies but I remember them being fairly sincere efforts that played things straight more often than they didn’t.  There was certainly comic relief in those movies, but I feel like it was mostly contained to certain silly side characters like Iago the parrot or Pumbaa and Timon.  These were annoying characters to be sure, but they were just individual characters.  I might just be misremembering this and some of the stuff in those movies might have just felt less silly to me as a child than it would if I was watching the movies today, but that is the impression I’m left with.  This movie on the other hand seems to bend over backwards in order to produce a dumb laugh ever ten seconds.  Some of this was done through dedicated comedic characters like Rapunzel’s lizard, a seemingly sentient police horse, and a gang of thugs led by a ruffian who really just wants to be a concert pianist.  The humor isn’t just contained to those characters though; the whole movie seems to be filled with silliness, including a number of scenes where the movie plays with editing in order to get laughs. It doesn’t quite descend into Shrek levels of tomfoolery but I really disliked these comedic elements, which were more stupid than funny and which really robbed the movie of the classical feel and epic sweep that they should have been going for and kind of cheapens the whole experience.

An interesting side note about the film is that it had a somewhat troubled production which ended up going way over-budget.  The movie is thought to have cost over $260 million, which would make it the second most expensive movie ever made up to that date (fifth most expensive of all time today) and to this date the most expensive animated film ever made.  To put that in perspective, Brave only cost $185 million and freakin’ Avatar only cost $237 million.  I find this fact kind of staggering if only because the film’s animation mostly just looks kind of average.  The character models have the same basic style and fidelity of most CGI animated films and the backgrounds don’t look that much different than most medieval set animated flicks.  The one standout effect that must have cost all that money was Rapunzel’s hair, which does indeed look pretty good.  In fact this hair effect is one of the more memorable aspects of the film beyond its technical fidelity in that it’s simply an interesting image even though the movie frequently cheats and makes it shorter or longer depending on the needs of a given scene.  The hair tech in Pixar’s Brave was probably better, but that movie had an extra two years to develop said hair tech so I guess that’s to be expected.

Speaking of Brave, watching this has maybe given me a better appreciation for that movie and perhaps for the Pixar approach in general.  At the very least that studio seems to know how to integrate humor in a slightly more dignified way and it also doesn’t feel some need to integrate musical numbers.  This film is a full-on Disney musical, which I believe does differentiate it from most of what they were making in the 2000s and likens it more to the Disney Renaissance material.  The film’s music was written by Alan Menken, who did the music for a number of famous Disney movies in the past, with lyrics by the frequent Andrew Lloyd Weber collaborator Glen Slater.  That would seem like a pretty heavy hitting team for this sort of thing but they really didn’t seem to weave that much gold out of it. Admitedly, I’m not much of a fan of this kind of broadway style music in general but I do know a memorable song when I hear it and none of this stuff is memorable in the way that previous Disney showstoppers like “Can You See the Love Tonight” or “A Whole New World” have been.  The one song that did sort of stand out was the song “Mother Knows Best,” and while I know next to nothing about Broadway music even I can tell that that song is a blatant ripoff of the song “Master of the House” from “Les Misérables.”

But perhaps I’ve gotten into the weeds too quickly, let’s step back and take a look at the story itself.  Like the original fairy tale, this is a story about a princess being held captive by a witch named Mother Gothel who needs the princess’ magic hair in order to keep her from aging.  The exact rules of how this magic works are poorly explained and not logically consistent throughout the movie, but we’ll get back to that later.  There is a kernel of a good idea in this setup because Gothel keeps Rapunzel in the tower not through force but through manipulation and claims that the outside world is too dangerous.  I’m pretty sure this is supposed to be a metaphor for the parental fear of the empty nest, but that would have been a lot more interesting if it felt for a minute like Gothel actually believed some of her bullshit and had actually formed some kind of real bond with Rapunzel but instead her motivations are almost entirely selfish and she’s a pretty unambiguously villainous.  The whole concept of parents refusing to allow their children to leave a single building was explored much better that same year by Yorgos Lanthimos Dogtooth, and in the realm of children’s film parental over-protection was also addressed better in Pixar’s Finding Nemo.

The film also really begins to fall apart in its final thirty or forty minutes or so when its many logical leaps come back to bite it in the ass.  The fact that Rapunzel’s birthday is a big clue about her identity is a little ridiculous to begin with (why the hell would Gothel let Rapunzel know her real birthday if the king and queen are going to use it to release lanterns?) but the way she uses some sort of subliminal sun symbol to firmly realize her identity is simply ridiculous.  The way she’s also able to resurrect her dead soon to be boyfriend with a single tear post magical hair cutting is also completely out of nowhere and inconsistent with everything we’ve learned about this magic so far.  Finally, it’s not clear at all how Rapunzel is able to so easily be re-united with her parents at the end who don’t seem to do much of anything in order to verify her identity.

But I’m getting lost in the weeds again, let’s take another step back and look at the characters.  Despite her questionable captive keeping abilities I would say that Mother Gothel is a pretty decent twist on the evil stepmom character given that she’s manipulative rather than openly nasty. I also sort of see where they were going by making the main male protagonist a roguish thief rather than a valiant prince but I don’t really think they go far enough with it.  This guy is so tame and has had so many edges removed that it’s hard to really think of him as having ever been a criminal at all and he may as well have been a prince charming the whole time.  Had he actually had some real danger to him at all that would have made his interactions with Rapunzel a lot more interesting.  Of course the main thing that many commentators are going to be interested in is the main character and whether or not she qualifies as a Strong Female Character™.  The short answer is: not as much as the feminists want her to be but moreso than the story really merits.  The film does go out of its way to give Rapunzel a lot of spunk and to not just make her a helpless character that needs to be saved over and over… but I’m not exactly sure if that makes a lot of sense for a character that’s been stuck in a damn tower for eighteen years.  If she was such a Strong Female Character™ this whole time why did she stay in that tower for so long?  I get the desire to put stronger women in these movies but there seems to be a certain degree of helplessness baked into this character’s DNA and the attempts that Disney makes to fit this square object into a round hole just kind of come off perfunctory and half-assed.

So, for the most part I’d say that Disney kind of stumbled coming out of the gate in trying to bring their patented Princess format to the Digital age, at least from an artistic point of view.  With the general public the film seemed to be liked but not loved.  Granted, the movie did make $591 million dollars worldwide and that’s a lot of money any way you cut it and does qualify as a hit but compared to the $1 Billion plus that Toy Story 3 made that year it seemed a lot less impressive and it was also outgrossed by Shrek Forever After in the world market that year and domestically by How to Train Your Dragon and Despicable Me.  In short the movie just kind of seemed like another fairly successful family movie that earned moderately respectable reviews and got an Oscar nomination for a song.  What we didn’t know was that this was planting a seed for a Disney comeback that would grow into a major hit a few years later just as Pixar was about to start showing signs of weakness.

Frozen (2013)

Moderate hit though it may have been, Tangled did not leave much of a cultural impression.  That is most certainly not the case with Disney’s next princess movie: Frozen.  Critically the movie was really well liked but never quite hit Pixar levels of affection.  It wasn’t a top ten list fixture come year end and there weren’t too many people demanding that it become a Best Picture nominee, but boy oh boy did the public go for it.  The movie made over 1.2 billion dollars at the worldwide box office making it the fifth highest grossing movie of all time by the time its theatrical run finished.  Of course Iron Man 3 made almost as much money and even outgrossed it domestically, but Frozen clearly left the much bigger cultural impression than it or any other movie that year.  For proof you need not look any further than the fact that you could not go anywhere without having the song “Let it Go” shoved in your face.  The song managed to reach the top five on the Billboard charts despite not getting any radio airplay outside of children’s music stations and propelled the film’s soundtrack to go Quadruple platinum (no easy feat given the state of album sales).  The bigger testament to the song’s immese popularity though is the sheer number of interpretations and parodies were inundated with that year.  We saw versions of the song about driving in inclement weather, about the polar vortex, about taking final exams, about Game of Thrones, about how there are too many “Let if Go” parodies… almost always sung by people with none of Idina Menzel’s vocal abilities and with an endless craving to get attention by jumping on a pop culture fad.

Funny thing is, for all I heard about “Let it Go” I feel like I knew very little about the actual movie that it came from and wasn’t really sure what to expect out of it.  I wasn’t expecting much out of it and as the film started I was actually pretty pleasantly surprised by what I was watching and by how successful the movie was at using its musical sequences to advance the story.  The first forty or so minutes of the film are actually quite good.  The film grabs the audience early on with a musical number called “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” that really effectively sets up the strained relationship between the main characters and sums up the passage of time much more interestingly than the narrated opening of Tangled did.  It also does a pretty good job of establishing an adult Anna as the film’s protagonist and actually finds a semi-believable if slightly satirical means of setting her up with a prince charming named Hans via a pretty well written song called “Love is an Open Door.”  This in turn leads to a fairly natural freakout by Elsa leading her to flee into the mountains, culminating in now iconic “Let it Go” scene.

That is a hell of a setup and minus a couple of forgivable family movie moments the movie more or less had me at that point.  Unfortunately, I don’t think the movie ever really lives up to the promise of its first third and quickly starts making some pretty big missteps from there.  Actually, I wonder if “Let it Go” itself is kind of the first misstep.  Honestly, I kind of liked the song better when I was hearing it out of context.  Idina Menzel certainly belts out the notes well on the song but she also doesn’t really sound much like Elsa while she’s singing it.  She no longer sounds as young as she does in the rest of the character and kind of seems to drop the voice.  She sounds less like Elsa the princess on the mountain and more like Idina the Broadway star in a soundstudio.  That’s a nitpick though, the bigger issue is that the film itself almost seems to be intimidated by the song and almost concedes that it’s peaked early.  Even though there’s another hour left of movie there are really only two more musical sequences after “Let it Go” and one of them is purely comedic (more on that stupid shit later).

The film’s losing steam at this point is hardly confined to the sudden downtick in musical numbers (that’s just a symptom).  The movie also really seems to rush this whole middle section.  One problem is that Elsa’s curse doesn’t really seem all that onerous.  The movie appears to be set in a facsimile of Scandanavia, a place that isn’t exactly unaccustomed to a little snow and having them stuck in a perpetual winter just doesn’t seem like it would be all that devastating, at least not for the incredibly short time that this curse seems to last.  I feel like the movie would have been a lot stronger if it had flash forwarded a couple years at that point so that the kingdom would be more desperate, the sisters would become more estranged, and Elsa would have more time to stew and go into isolated hermit mode up on the mountain.  This would have made the twist about Hans and his scheme impossible, but that whole sub-plot was misguided (for I’ll get into later) anyway, so that’s no big loss.  Instead we have Anna rushing right away on her own to find Elsa and talk her down from the mountain, even though as a princess she probably would have had the means to bring a whole host of guards and guides in order to make her journey less perilous.

Along the way she runs into a talking snowman named Olaf and… oh boy did I not like this character.  When I looked at Tangled I mentioned that my memory of previous Disney movies was that they often funneled all their comic relief into designated “comedy characters” like Pumbaa and Timon, and Olaf the snowman is certainly part of that tradition.  I also said that Tangled would have been better off if had contained its dumb joke to a single character rather than letting to pervade the whole film and I do still think that.  Frozen definitely benefits from the fact that it mostly restrains its silliness when dealing with the main characters, so if they absolutely had to put some stupid shit into this movie to entertain some of the dumber kids in the audience I guess I’m glad that Olaf is there to bear that burden but that doesn’t make him any less annoying and in some ways it’s actually worse because his antics feel so out of place.  What’s more, the character seems completely unnecessary outside of his role as a designated comic relief character.  He seems to add almost nothing to Anna’s journey to the castle and the pretty much just pick him up because the Disney execs knew that kids would enjoy his antics.

Then there’s the three-quarter twist that Hans has been a malevolent force the whole time.  This is a twist that is somehow both eminently predictable and also kind of disappointing when it happens.  The second that Anna and Hans “fall in love at first sight” I had a pretty strong hunch that he wasn’t all that he seemed, but I will give the movie credit: for a short brief moment it had me doubting that first impression.  In fact, during the scene where Hans leads his men into Elsa’s ice fortress and goes out of his way not to have them kill her on sight I even wrote down “wow, they aren’t going the clichéd route of making the first prince an asshole.”  Not ten minutes later they revealed that they were going to do just that and it was pretty disappointing.  What’s more, Hans proves to be a rather inept usurper and generally isn’t much of a threat to either of the Strong Female Characters™ that Disney has set him up against.  His scheme (to pretend to marry Anna before leaving her to die and then execute her sister) seems pretty convoluted and reliant on certain coincidences. That he reveals it in one of those movie scenes where villains explain their evil plans for no reason is forgivable, but the fact that he leaves Anna alive before going out and claiming she was dead makes no sense, and neither does the fact that the rest of her court just takes his word that they exchanged wedding vows when the goddamn throne is on the line.

When Hans finally does start simply going after Elsa with a sword at the end just doesn’t seem all that threatening, but really the bigger issue with that scene is the film’s rather jumbled take on the rules behind Elsa’s powers.  The film’s plot is based around a rather convoluted spell requiring Anna to lose her memory for some reason.  When put in this “frozen heart” spell Anna’s physical state seems to behave exactly the way the script requires it to, particularly when forces her to turn into ice at just the right moment to block Hans’ sword blow before it can fell Elsa.  Then she’s magically resurrected by love at the perfectly convenient moment, which is dumb firstly because it’s saccharine bullshit and secondly because it’s basically a deus ex machina that lacks internal logic and the fact that it seems to solve both Anna’s death and Elsa’s emotional trauma for no particular reason really seems like a big cheat.

Now, having said all of that, I actually don’t want to come off too negatively towards this film.  If nothing else this is a huge improvement over Tangled.  CGI animation technology noticeably improved in the three years between but more importantly the team making this clearly had more of a cinematic eye than the ones who made that previous Disney effort.  Tangled was a movie that was very comfortable being a mere cartoon, but Frozen clearly aspires to be more and you can tell by the “camera moves” and detailed “sets” and “costumes” that they want this to be something a bit more akin to a “Game of Thrones” style fantasy environment than the more fairy tale-ish world of Tangled.  The film also has a notably restrained voice cast with Kristen Bell as the only celebrity voice in the whole film, a stark contrast to the M.O. of Dreamworks and even Pixar to some extent.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m not mad at the film so much as I’m disappointed.  There seems to be some special talent being put into the film and that first third of the film really seemed to be setting up something and I could see this rather dark story beneath the surface that the movie seems to be running away from as fast as it could.  If the movie hadn’t gotten bogged down by stupidity like talking snowmen, singing trolls, and lame twists it really could have been something.  As it is, it’s still a pretty good movie for what it is and I do think it more or less got the reception it deserved.  If people had been giving it the Pixar “oh my god, this thing must win Oscars!!!” treatment I would have balked but it does fit pretty well in this sort of middlebrow between Pixar’s best and Dreamworks’ nonsense.

In Conclusion

So between these two movies and this decade’s other main princess text, Pixar’s Brave, what have we learned about princesses in the 21st century?  Probably not that much.  Honestly the women in these movies don’t really seem all that different from the princesses in the 90s. Mirada from Brave is objectively the strongest of these Strong Female Characters™ and the film she was in is the only one that’s really engages in the roles that existed for women in medieval Europe, but she’s also arguably only strong in so much as she was a tomboy and the whole film kind of felt like it was trying a little too hard to be the opposite of the traditional princess story when it was in fact not really doing much of anything that the Mulans of the world hadn’t already done.  Rapunzel in Tangled by contrast just felt like a standard helpless princess who was given a bunch of extra spunk in some late draft of the screenplay so that they wouldn’t get yelled at by people on the internet.  It’s actually the ladies in Frozen who seem like their relative strength was actually come to organically rather than out of some sort of obligation to create good role models for girls.

That’s probably a big part of why Frozen is probably the best of the three overall.  Brave is probably the most mature of the three films and makes the fewest obvious missteps involving lame comic relief and confused writing but Frozen has higher highs to go along with the lower lows and just generally seems like the most memorable of the three. As for Tangled, well, the less said about it the better.  That movie seemed lame when I watched it and even lamer when I had a much better Disney movie in Frozen to compare it to.  If that movie is remembered at all ten years from now it’s only going to be as a stepping stone for a studio trying to get its footing after a difficult transition.  All this having been said, I don’t think any of these movies are homeruns and I kind of feel like the Disney princess formula is never really going to be my cup o’ tea and given how much money it’s made the company over the years I don’t think the Disney executives are going to be losing much sleep over that.

The Journey Continues: Skeptical Inquiries into Family Cinema- Happy Feet / Rango

HappyFeet-Rango

The following is an installment in an ongoing series of blog posts analyzing contemporary family films that the author has previously resisted seeing.  This series is a sequel of sorts to a previous series called Finding Pixar: A Skeptics Journey, which applied the same treatment to the films of the Pixar Animation Studio.

I can’t help but wonder if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences realized that they introduced a category for animated features just in time for a sort of golden age in the form.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess why it took so long for them to introduce the category in the first place: up until very recently it was kind of a foregone conclusion that Disney would just win every year.  Yeah, maybe Don Bluth or someone might have walked away with the award every once in a blue moon, but Disney’s dominance in the field was pretty much uncontested for decades.  Hell, even with this renaissance of diverse animation voices the award has still been won by Disney, Disney subsidiaries, or foreign movies distributed by Disney in ten of the fourteen years that the award has existed.  Still, it’s a fairly fascinating category in many ways and in recent years it’s actually been producing one of the most diverse and adventurous nominee classes of any Oscar category.

That wasn’t always the case of course.  The very first year the award was given out proved to be somewhat indicative of their M/O for the first decade or so.  That year they nominated Shreck, Monsters Inc., and Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius… yeah, one of these things is not like the other (hint: it’s the one no one has ever thought about since 2001 when not looking back at this award category).  Generally speaking the category tends to have Disney/Pixar battling it out with Dreamworks at the top of the ticket, semi-profitable but slightly artsier movies by companies like Aardman and Ghibli hoping to squeeze in, and all too often some second rate kiddie flick that gets haphazardly thrown in to pad things out.  Very recently we’ve also seen a number of more obscure foreign projects getting in, but that pleasant trend has not been prevalent in the category through most of its history.

That having been said the category has, generally speaking, been a pretty reliable indicator of which animated films have entered the zeitgeist.  In fact, despite my general apathy for family movies I’ve still managed to every single one of the movies to win this award between 2001 and 2012 with only two exceptions: 2006’s Happy Feet and 2011’s Rango and those two films will be the subjects of today’s article.  Outside of their basic identies as large budget CGI animated family movies, these two films would seem to have very little in common on the surface.  One is seen to be one of the most adventurous and exciting high profile animations of the last decade and the other… isn’t.  And yet curious, if perhaps irrelevant, similarities to exist between the two films.  For one, both movies were made outside of the usually dominant Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks systems.  Happy Feet was made by the Australian visual effects studio Animal Logic and distributed by Warner Brothers while Rango was animated by Industrial Light and Magic and distributed by Paramount vis-a-vie Nickelodeon Movies.  Also, the films were not helmed by career animation directors and were instead directed by a pair of filmmakers who are perhaps best known for making live action adventure movies. And of course both films are about talking animals living in extreme environments, one in the arctic and the other in a desert.  Between the two I want to get a good idea of the right way and the wrong way to go about winning an Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

Happy Feet (2006)

Generally speaking, I’ve tried to make this essay series a sort of trial by fire for films that have been heavily hyped.  An attempt to take a skeptical look at the films that many people claim to be modern classics of the type but which I had reason to think had been given a free pass.  Happy Feet, on the other hand, is something a bit different.  The movie got mildly positive reviews when it came out in 2006 and it was a box office success (having famously come in ahead of Casino Royale in its opening weekend), but the people who praised it mostly did so in a shrugging “eh, it’s an inoffensive way to entertain children” kind of way.  This is not one of the “cool” family movies that end up on top ten lists and were 2006 not an incredibly weak year for the category I doubt it would have won its Animated Feature Oscar (it was up against Cars and Monster House, the former was noticeably below Pixar’s usual standards and the later just wasn’t seen by enough people).  In the years since it came out the film’s reputation has only shrunk and it generally only comes up for the purposes of mocking the Academy and pondering just what the hell happened to George Miller’s career in the years between Mad Max movies.  Still, I have my reasons for wanting to see the movie beyond just checking off an Oscar winner.  The thing is, I think part of the reason my reaction to some of the family movies I’ve seen is that I’ve only really seen the ones that are really well regarded and I wonder if that has thrown off my standards a little.  If I’m really going to survey this genre I feel like I do need a better idea of just how bad these movies can get, or at least get an idea of what would be considered a mediocrity and this movie seems like just the thing to do that.

Happy Feet came out one year after a rather curious phenomenon where a French nature documentary called March of the Penguins had become a sleeper hit at the box office.  I think box office pundits are still scratching their heads about that one.  The film, which did have some really beautiful nature photography, seemed to have hit some sort of nerve in middle America because it showed penguins having a strong family bond despite being wild animals.  However it happened, that documentary was a hit amongst family audiences and when Happy Feet came out a year later the public was in the midst of penguin-fever.  This probably helped the movie to gross $200 million but it was a bit of a mixed blessing because it sort of made the movie look like a hastily made cash-in.  Obviously that perception was a bit off, large scale animated movies don’t get made that quickly and George Miller couldn’t have known about March of the Penguins when Happy Feet was green-lit, but the optics were still kind of poor and that’s probably part of the reason that the movie is sort of considered the worst choice the Academy ever made in the Animated feature category.

If the film has a saving grace it’s probably the animation, which is a little dated today but still looks pretty good most of the time.  The snowy Antarctic environments look really good and could almost be mistaken for genuine nature photography at times.  The adult emperor penguins at times look a little too smooth and also lack certain features that would allow the audience to distinguish between them.  The younger penguins look pretty good though and the animators do a really good job of adding textures to some of their fuzzy feathers.  At times the action director in George Miller also lets loose and you can tell that he’s having a lot of fun with the freedom of camera movement that animation allows him.  The highlight of the film is a chase scene where a young penguin tries to elude a leopard seal and Miller does a great job of making this otherwise incredibly cute animal look like a frightening predator.

I might go so far as to say that Happy Feet would look like a great movie if only it was on mute the whole time.  The problems set in whenever the penguins open their mouths (er.. beaks) and start to speak.  The film’s voice cast looks pretty good on paper but there are some really misbegotten decisions that were made when directing some of these performances starting with the rather bizarre decision to make a father penguin played by Hugh Jackman sound like a bad Elvis impersonation.  Yeah… and that’s not the only strange accent choice in the film.  A rather large number of the voice performances here seem to take the form of ethnic stereotypes.  This is especially problematic when the protagonist comes across a group of Adelie penguins who all have Latin accents and all have fiery passionate tastes (except for their leader who sounds like an African American preacher for some reason).  I get what they were going for, these were supposed to be the equivalent of foreigners in the story (much as the Elephant seals are made to be Australians and the flock of predatory birds sound like Italian-American gangsters), but the broadness of the performances are really jarring.  The worst of the voices almost certainly come from Robin Williams, who voices the fieriest of the Latino Adelie penguins and the inexplicably black preacher penguin.  Williams does both of these voices in his usual caffeinated improvisatory way and it really just doesn’t play very well at all.

The movie’s other auditory sin is almost certainly the music selection.  A plot element of the film is that penguin society is based around singing as a form of mating call.  To the audience this translates to a number of musical sequences, but instead of featuring original songs this movie takes the form of a jukebox musical.  As a general rule of thumb I think jukebox musicals are kind of horrible ideas.  They take popular music, remove it from the context that made it popular to begin with and has it performed by milquetoast musical theater performers.  Even if I was in the mood to see popular hits sung by flightless arctic birds the song selection here is really random and terrible.  For whatever reason Hollywood has long operated under the assumption that young children are really crazy for disco music and movies like this frequently end up with a bunch of music from the 70s in them.  I’m hesitate to say that this, or any, movie would be made better if it had been filled Disney style original ballads, but it at least would have been more dignified than what they went with.

Beyond that this is really just kind of a typical animated kids movie.  The movie is about a penguin who’s a misfit because he likes dancing more than singing, the other penguins used to laugh and call him names.  They never let poor mumble join in any penguin games.  Then as tends to happen in these movies, mumble comes to learn that he is special in his own way and everyone learns a lesson and shit.  At least that seems to be how this is going to go, but the movie takes a turn for the cray-cray about a third of the way in, stops being about the usual self-acceptance shit and starts being about penguins using their magical anthropomorphic powers to start dancing and thus convince the humans to stop fishing in their waters… yeah, that happens.  It’s a rushed and kind of messy ending that kind of feels like it was added late in production when everyone realized that the self-acceptance stuff was kind of boring.  I remember this being a minor controversy with the Fox News set who thought Hollywood was trying to brainwash their kids or something.  I don’t personally care that the movie is trying to teach kids about the environment, but I care that the movie seems oddly split between two sets of themes.

Anyway, yeah, this movie is pretty bad.  Truth be told it wasn’t quite as painful as I thought it would be, then again my expectations were positively subterranean.  At the very best you could say that it’s a mediocre movie made that was rendered pretty terrible by some disastrous and decisions along the way.  It’s probably a coincidence, but I do find it telling that the next two movies that Pixar made seem like a response to it given that they were respectively a movie about a talking animal misfit with a talent his brethren don’t appreciate (Ratatouille) and an environmental parable about a plucky little thing saving the world (Wall-E).  I also don’t have the slightest clue why George Miller decided to do this.  He was the producer of Babe and the director of Babe: Pig in the City before this, so I guess he hit a point in his career when he just wanted to make movies for his kids, or maybe he just wanted to go for the easy cash-out.  Either way it’s kind of fucked that this is what he ended up winning an Oscar for.  In a weird twist of fate 2006 is one of only two years where I’ve seen all of the movies that were nominated for Best Animated Feature and I can conclusively say this is the worst of the three nominees, yes, even worse than Cars.

Rango (2011)

 After the much derided win by Happy Feet it would be another five years until another non-Pixar film would win the Best Animated Feature Academy Award.  That film was Gore Verbinski’s Rango and by the time the award was handed out it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that it would be the victor.  Pixar’s movie that year was the much-derided Cars 2 which had the dubious honor of being the first Pixar feature not to garner a nomination in this category since its inception.  With that studio out of the way Rango’s only competition that year were a mostly forgotten Shrek spinoff (Puss in Boots), an underwhelming Dreamworks sequel (Kung Fu Panda 2), and a pair of respected but underseen foreign productions (A Cat in Paris and Chico and Rita).  Rango was the only nominee with anywhere near the combination of critical respect and popular support to have a shot at this award and when it won it was mostly celebrated.  But why?  Honestly I wasn’t sure what to expect from the film, it didn’t seem to fit in many of the other trends in animated family films and I didn’t really remember the specifics of why it was so well received.

Unlike most other movies I’ve looked at thus far this movie was not released by an established animation house.  The logo in front of the film is for “Nickelodeon Movies” but as far as I can tell that isn’t actually a production company per se so much as a brand name.  They are primarily a film arm of the children’s TV network of the same name which releases theatrical spinoffs of that network’s shows, but it’s also a brand name that Paramount Pictures slaps on to any given family film they happen to put out.  There’s no real “house style” among their output and the logo can be seen in front of everything from Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin to the Michael Bay produced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  For all intents and purposes this film instead seems to have been assembled and financed more in the way a live action studio film is with Verbinski’s Blind Wink production company being the main creative force and the animation itself being provided by the famous ILM special effects company.

Gore Verbinski was not exactly a stranger to making family entertainment.  His first Hollywood production was a live action 1997 family film called MouseHunt, which wasn’t overly well received when it first came out but which has gotten something of a cult following over the years as the kids who saw it in the 90s have grown up.  Aside from his mostly forgotten 2001 film The Mexican and his underrated 2005 film The Weather Man he has mostly made a career of walking that PG-13 line between family entertainment and movies for adults.  His 2002 film horror film The Ring (probably his best work) wasn’t exactly marketed as a family film but did cannily widen its audience by avoiding the gory violence previously associated with the genre, making it something of a Poltergeist for the aughts which has almost certainly made for a number of memorable slumber parties over the years.  Then his career really took off in 2003 when he worked with Disney to turn one of their theme park rides into a large scale action movie.  The resulting film, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, was a huge hit and the ensuing ten plus years have mostly seen him make bad sequels to that film and of course the disastrous effort to recapture that magic in the form of The Lone Ranger.

Rango in many ways seems like an oasis in the middle of an otherwise very disappointing and very Johnny Depp dominated decade for the director.  Johnny Depp is of course on board for this project as well and is probably one of its weakest elements.  I’ve mentioned before (while reviewing The Corpse Bride, which was directed by Depp’s other BFF Tim Burton) that hiring Johnny Depp to be a voice actor is kind of insane.  The guy’s entire appeal is rooted in his vaguely Keaton-esque physicality and his commitment to odd makeup choices.  Vocally, his performances are middling at best and he’s completely out of his element when he can only work with his vocal chords.  I can sort of see what they were thinking by casting him given that the Rango character is kind of meant to look like Depp’s take on Hunter S. Thompson, but he really doesn’t do much to give the character a likable personality and the character as written kind of needed as much help as he could get because he has a fairly clichéd arc and doesn’t have much of a personality beyond his rather transparent attempts to act tough.

As a whole, the film’s story is nothing too special.  We’ve seen these movies where characters sort of accidentally fall into being treated as saviors by communities before being revealed to be frauds only to then save the day anyway through their strength of personality or whatever.  The element that almost certainly made the film stand out is the strange world it takes place in and the creative ways that it’s brought to life.  The film is an extended riff on the western genre, especially the spaghetti western, but with a handful of other cinematic references as well which for the most part actually seem clever rather than cheap.  The catch of course is that all of the characters are desert animals like lizards and chickens and buzzards rather than humans and they all live in a little mini town out in the Nevada desert.  These character designs are really quite good with just about every American desert animal being incorporated into the film as some sort of western trope whether it be a crow Native American, a turtle which resembles Noah Cross from Chinatown, or a rattlesnake that somehow manages to be a spitting image of Lee Van Cleef.

From a purely visual standpoint Rango himself is also a very interestingly designed character in part because he’s pretty ugly for a Hollywood protagonist.  It doesn’t take a lot of courage to make a family film about a cute animal like a penguin or a panda bear but it does take some cajones to make an animated film about a reptile with oddly uneven eyes.  It’s actually instincts like that which in many ways account for the film’s success, it’s doesn’t have the same pandering sensibilities that family movies of this kind usually do.  It pushes the PG rating pretty far to the limit and isn’t shy about engaging in innuendo and gunplay or killing a couple of characters off.  The film also garnered some controversy in 2011 because a handful of characters are seen smoking in it, which is something that has generally been scrubbed even from movies that are decidedly made for adults.  Also, with the obvious exception of Johnny Depp the film is pretty restrained with its voice cast, opting generally to use characters actors like Bill Nighy and Ray Winstone rather than movies stars.

Honestly, I don’t really have a whole lot to say about Rango.  It’s well put together and I certainly had some fun with it but there’s really not a lot there beneath the surface even when compared to some of the family movies out there.  It’s a movie with Pixar-like attention to detail, craftsmanship, and general dignity but more of a Dreamworks level of actual storytelling.  Had this story been told as an actual live action western with human actors there would simply be nothing there of interest at all, everything to be enjoyed about it are rooted in the execution.  Still, I did like a lot of what Verbinski was doing with this world and he does a  much better job of conjuring the spirit of the old west with this film than he would go on to do with The Lone Ranger.  The animation in it is great and that rattlesnake is pretty fucking dope.  In general, animation seems to suit Verbinski, a fact that probably shouldn’t be surprising given how cartoonish the Pirates of the Caribbean films were (in a good way, mostly) and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him making another animated film in the future.

In Conclusion

I’ll be the first to admit that this was kind of a random pairing.  I guess I found quite a few commonalities between the two, at least on paper, but really they aren’t movies that are linked together at all in the public eye.  I will however dig up one last thing that seemed to link my experience watching both of them: the effect of expectations.  I expected Happy Feet to be dogshit but was somewhat pleasantly surprised to find it watchable and I expected Rango to be a real cut above and was consequently disappointed that it was just kind of another family film (albeit one with a handful of pretty cool elements).  In the grand scheme of things I don’t know that either movie have that much of a legacy.  Happy Feet is a joke that no one cares about anymore and while I’m sure there are still plenty of people with nice things to say about Rango, I don’t see it isn’t a movie that seems to come up much in film discourse and doesn’t seem to have the staying power of some of the better family films I’ve seen thus far over the course of this little journey.  As far as the Oscars they won, well; let’s just say George Miller and Gore Verbinski are the only people on the planet over the age of ten to be thankful for the Cars franchise.

The Journey Continues: Skeptical Inquiries into Family Cinema- Coraline/ParaNorman

Coraline-ParaNorman

The following is an installment in an ongoing series of blog posts analyzing contemporary family films that the author has previously resisted seeing.  This series is a sequel of sorts to a previous series called Finding Pixar: A Skeptics Journey, which applied the same treatment to the films of the Pixar Animation Studio.

In 1964 a former track runner and aspiring entrepreneur from Oregon named Phillip Knight was in Kobe Japan while on a post college trip around the world and while there he discovered a line of running shoes made by the Onitsuka Tiger company that so impressed him that he went out on a limb and bought distribution rights for these sneakers for the Western United States.  He then went home and showed the shoes to his old University of Oregon track coach, Bill Bowerman, who offered to join together with Knight to sell them and they eventually formed a company called Blue Ribbon Sports.  Long story short, the company worked out pretty well for them.  By 1971 they started designing and manufacturing their own sneakers and changed their name to Nike, Inc.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Why am I talking about a sneaker company?  Well, decades later Phillip Knight met another Oregonian businessman, an animator named Will Vinton who had a small but growing animation studio.  This studio was probably most famous for having done work on the movie Return to Oz and for making the Fox TV series “The PJs.”  Vinton needed a new investor and that’s where Phillip Knight came in.  Knight’s son Travis was an aspiring animator and it seems like getting him a job was a large motivating factor in him making an investment in the company.  Will Vinton Studios continued to struggle though and eventually Knight purchased the studio outright, placed Travis Knight on the board, had Vinton himself leave the company (with a severance package), and rebranded it as Laika animation.

So, we’ve got a rich entrepreneur buying a company for his son and placing him at its head out of sheer nepotism and pushing out the artist who started it.  That’s not exactly the most inspiring origin story for an animation studio and poetic justice would probably demand that the company’s output would be soulless product devoid of artistic merit, but that isn’t what ended up happening at all.  Instead, Laika has become something of a specialist in making “alternative family films.”  They use stop motion to make films that are still more or less for families but which are a little edgier and more offbeat than what gets made even in quality animation studios like Pixar.  That’s not to say that they’re making movies that are wildly transgressive or uncommercial, they do get wide releases after all, but it is telling that they’re distributed by Universal’s Focus Features imprint rather than the parent company.  Their films have so far had a creepier, more horror tinged tone, and that tone was established by their breakout first feature: Coraline.

Coraline (2009)

For their debut feature, Laika turned to two people with an established track record in dark fantasy: Henry Selick and Neil Gaiman.  Selick is an animation pro most famous for being the director of the Tim Burton produced The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. However he was also responsible for the film Monkeybone which was a pretty big flop and could have ended his career as the director of feature length films.  He spent most of the 2000s in the wilderness; he did the practical effects work on Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou in 2004 and in 2005 he met up with Laika and directed their Annie nominated CGI short film “Moongirl.”  The collaboration seemed to work out and for their first feature film Laika and Selick decided to adapt Neil Gaiman’s 2002 young adult novel “Coraline.” Gaiman is of course a pretty ubiquitous name in the world of dark fantasy and even today is perhaps best known as the creator of the “mature readers” comic book series “The Sandman.”  Some of his work is meant for children, some is made squarely for adults, but everything he does maintains a certain sense of dark whimsy and if the film is any indication that’s certainly true about “Coraline.”

Coraline came out in 2009, a year that I’ve talked about a lot over the course of this series.  It was easily the biggest year for “mature” family films like this and Fantastic Mr. Fox and Up and so on and so forth.  The film from that year that it reminds me of the most is probably actually Where the Wild Things Are in that both films are about attention-starved little kids who need to escape to a fantasy world because their parents don’t want to entertain them.  Both films are perhaps playing off of Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 film Pan’s Labyrinth, which did something similar within more R-rated trappings and each film does so with different levels of ambiguity.  I interpret the fantastical elements of Where the Wild Things to be entirely within the child’s imagination for example while I think Pan’s Labyrinth is supposed to be pretty ambiguous.  I think Coraline, by contrast, is supposed to be taken literally for the most part but like the other two movies you can kind of see how a similar adventure could fill a void that the protagonist needs at this point in her life.

Come to think about it, the movie is also kind of similar to Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.  Both films have their child protagonists trying to save their parents, who’ve been captured by a malevolent force, and both are forced to explore a strange parallel world filled with wonders and terrors.  However, all this talk of other movies perhaps makes the film sound more derivative than it really is.  In fact, this is a pretty damn creative movie by family film standards.  The film doesn’t use stereotypical Halloween ghouls (vampires, witches, ghosts, etc.) and instead gives us an abstract demon with a unique looks and modus operandi which never quite loses its mystery.  The film uses dollhouses as a motif and manages to use the image of people who’ve had their eyes replaced with buttons to good effect.

In general, the film doesn’t feel much like The Nightmare Before Cristmas at all.  That film tried to feel like a funhouse rollercoaster with its songs and scattershot horror ideas, while Coraline is significantly more focused and subdued.  The character models look relatively realistic by stop-motion standards and, at least while the film is in the real world, and it’s a lot more relatable than the fantastical realms of Tim Burton’s stop-motion films. Selick seems to have grown a lot as a filmmaker in the nearly twenty years since he made TNBC; he’s developed an eye for interesting tilted camera angles and uses them judiciously and to good effect.  At times the film does seem to break the immersion with an off choice here or there.  For instance, there’s a character named Mr. Bobinsky who seems completely out of place, firstly because he’s a large personality and secondly because he’s inexplicably blue.  For the most part though, the film has a very good grasp of tone and rarely makes stupid mistakes to dumb things down for the audience.

One thing that did sort of disappoint me about the film was actually the character of Coraline.  From the film’s advertising I’d kind of gotten the impression that Coraline was something like twelve or thirteen years old, but she was actually more like eight or nine, and that makes a pretty big difference.  Frankly, she sort of seemed like a brat.  I did not particularly like Dakota Fanning’s voice performance in the film and I couldn’t really relate to the character’s general immaturity and gullibility.  When the alternate world presents itself, we as an audience are already well aware that it’s evil and it’s a little frustrating that the character doesn’t see through the façade.  Still, this is less of a problem during the second half of the film after the villain has presented herself and is in full-on witch mode.  It’s at that point where the film moves from being merely unsettling to being what is about as creepy as it gets in a PG rated animated film.

I don’t know that I’d call Coraline “great” by any means, but it did impress me a lot more than most family movies and I totally see why it stood out as much as it did when it came out.  Like a lot of movies, it attempts to be a modern fairy tale and does it in a very smart and highly literate way.  There’s a creativity to it that’s all too often lacking in family films and its execution feels fascinatingly uncompromising.  This is not the kind of movie you make when you’re trying to set your studio up as the next Dreamworks or Pixar, it’s the kind of movie you make when you’re trying to become the next Studio Ghibli.  Laika clearly wants to carve out and dominate a niche and Coraline was the perfect calling card to build that niche.  If I had seen this when I was a kid I probably would have loved it, and I suspect there’s a whole cadre of fourteen year olds around today who saw this when they were nine and will one day be very nostalgic for it.

ParaNorman (2012)

Coraline made a pretty big splash in 2009, but I never really heard the word “Laika” when people were discussing it.  I certainly heard “Henry Selick” and occasionally I heard “Neil Gaiman,” but I think most people just saw “Laika” as just another logo in front of a movie.  They would have to forge their own identity soon though because they weren’t able to renegotiate Henry Selick’s contract and after the release of Coraline he parted ways with the studio.  For their next project they turned to a pair of co-directors named Sam Fell and Chris Butler.  Butler (who also wrote the screenplay) was a storyboard artist on Coraline and on Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride while Fell was perhaps best known for his work with Aardman Animation where he directed Flushed Away.  The movie they (along with Arianne Sutner and Stephen Stone, who have “story by” credits) came up with is another horror-tinged family film called ParaNorman.

Initially ParaNorman comes off as a sort of lighthearted take on The Sixth Sense because it’s about a young boy named Norman who has the power to see ghosts roaming around in the world.  Unlike The Sixth Sense’s Cole, Norman more or less doesn’t seem all that disturbed by this power even though it occasionally makes him a bit of an outcast with his family and among his peers.  He’s a bit older than Coraline was and is perhaps a bit more aware of the situations he’s facing even though he does occasionally screw up here and there as well.  I wasn’t a huge fan of the supporting characters though.  I’ve come to find that animation generally tends to lean towards stereotypes more often than live action films, possibly because actors have the power to inject thinly drawn characters with more humanity when they’re on set, and ParaNorman is not an exception to this rule.  The supporting characters are: a blonde cheerleader who talks like a valley-girl, an overweight nerdy kid, a schoolyard bully, and a dim jock.  Here and there each of these characters is given one (and usually only one) moment or trait that differentiates them from the stereotype they represent, but I don’t think that’s really enough.

I’ve called both Coraline and ParaNorman “horror tinged,” but they go about it in very different ways.  Coraline was more of a dark fantasy story than a traditional horror film and the demon at the heart of all the trouble manifested itself in unconventional but still somewhat disturbing ways.  By contrast the “horror” in ParaNorman is more like a kid-friendly version of traditional horror movie devices like ghosts and zombies.  Fell and Butler clearly know their horror movies as evidenced by the little references that pepper the movie (a dude wearing a hockey mask here, a Halloween ringtone there, etc.) and one could intuit that the fact that Norman seems to spend his days watching old zombie movies on VHS is an autobiographical touch on their part.  As family films go this is slightly more gruesome than I might have expected.  The zombies really do look like rotting corpses and there’s even a scene where a zombie is run over by a car and has his head come off.  I feel like Laika was nervous that they may have gone “too far” with some of it so the film has a lot of comedy in it as well, some of it rather questionable.  I don’t know that a scene about taking a book from a dead man’s hands needed to be a slapstick sequence and I also don’t think the sight of villagers with torches and guns needed to be a joke given the themes at hand either.

It is finally revealed that the spooy goings on are the result of an accused witch getting revenge on the town that executed her in the 15th Century.  As such, the film sort of falls into the same trap that a lot of movies fall into when they’re inspired by the Salem witch trials which is that it wants to have its cake and eat it too.  It wants the trials to be an act of irrational injustice, but it also wants there to be a real witch, and that sort of invalidates the former point because these trials seem a lot less unjust if there actually are witches on trial.  The film tries to sidestep by suggesting that this magic this girl was on trial for using wasn’t actually witchcraft so much as it was some sort of inherited psychic power they didn’t understand, but that doesn’t explain what the other witches were on trial for.  Anyway, the film is very clearly trying to impart a message about intolerance and revenge, and it makes this incredibly clear in its final act when expresses this moral through on-the-nose speechifying on the part of the protagonist.  It’s kind of a lazy and overly direct way to get the point across and it also generally feels unearned because we’re given no indication earlier on that Norman has this level of maturity and it doesn’t really feel like something that develops over the course of the film.

On a technical level, ParaNorman is certainly a step forward for Laika.  The sets are a lot more elaborate, the characters look pretty smooth (even if the models are probably more exaggerated than they needed to be, and the protruding ears are just weird), and there’s generally just a lot more movie to be found in the production values.  But on an artistic level, I think it’s a step backwards.  While Coraline felt like an uncompromising and moody piece, ParaNorman just kind of feels like a typical animated family film in a number of ways.  Its humor, its moralizing, its stock characters, its basic story structure, it all skews pretty close to the basic 2000s animated film formula that I’ve been noticing as this series goes on.  It still executes pretty well and the stop-motion visuals are well done, but it just doesn’t feel special in the way that Coraline did.

In Conclusion

With Pixar in decline, Dreamworks still being Dreamworks whenever they aren’t making movies about Dragons, and even Studio Ghibli looking like it’s going to struggle for a while, Laika is looking like one of the few sources of hope amongst those wanting to see artistic family films.  That said I’m kind of worried about them.  I thought Coraline was clearly the better of their two movies and audiences seemed to feel the same way given that ParaNorman did not end up making as much money as Coraline did.  That may partly be because ParaNorman came out at roughly the same time that another horror-tinged stop-motion family film, Tim Burton’s Frankenweeie, came out which sort of led the two movies to sort of cannibalize each other but I think it has just as much to do with Coraline being more of a must-see than ParaNorman.  Laika has another movie out right now as of this writing called The Box-Trolls and it seems to be catching on with the public even less, so I hope we’re not just getting diminishing returns from this studio.  Still, I think they’ve earned some benefit of the doubt and I do plan to keep an eye on whatever they do next.

The Journey Continues: Skeptical Inquiries into Family Cinema- Corpse Bride/Frankenweenie

Corpse Bride-Frankenweenie

The following is an installment in an ongoing series of blog posts analyzing contemporary family films that the author has previously resisted seeing.  This series is a sequel of sorts to a previous series called Finding Pixar: A Skeptics Journey, which applied the same treatment to the films of the Pixar Animation Studio.

Tim Burton is a director that has always been interested in the macabre, but unlike most filmmakers with similar tastes he’s never really been interested in making a straight-up horror movie. He ventures into R-rated territory occasionally, but even movies like Sleepy Hollow and Sweeny Todd haven’t really been “scary” per se. In fact, Burton has actually had a pretty long history of making films that are either for children or those who are children at heart. This is, after all, a man who got his start at Disney and whose first feature length film was an adaptation of “Pee Wee’s Playhouse.” In fact I would argue that Burton’s relationship with younger audiences is not unlike that of Steven Spielberg’s: both of them are in touch with a certain child-like imagination even if they aren’t necessarily always making movies that are meant specifically for young children, it just so happens that Burton’s inner-child is interested in darker and more twisted things. In fact you can get an interesting peak into what the young Tim Burton’s life was like by watching his first foray into stop-motion animation: the 1982 short film “Vincent,” which is about a brooding little seven year old who “doesn’t mind living with his sister dog and cats, though he’d rather share a home with spiders and bats.”

Burton’s most successful attempt to appeal directly to children was almost certainly his 1993 stop-motion animation project The Nightmare Before Christmas, a film which was actually directed by Henry Selick, but written, produced, designed, and shepherded by Burton to the point where his name was placed in front of the title. Marketers didn’t really know what to do with that film, and Disney (who had produced the film) felt compelled to hand over distribution of the film to their Touchstone arm for fear that it might taint their brand. The film made decent money on its initial release, but it was only afterwards when it came to home video where it really found its audience. Since then, it’s become a pretty big cult hit and something of a holiday tradition even among general audiences, but the people who really truly embraced it (and Burton’s other films for that matter) were what was typically referred to as “the Hot Topic crowd.” You know, people who you don’t really want to call “goths” (because it isn’t 1991 anymore) and you don’t really want to call “emos” (because it’s not 2006 anymore) but who still sort of share that sensibility. Yeah, those people ate that movie up and proceeded to litter the internet with their pencil drawings of jack Skellington. Hey, I’ve got nothing against it, finding a niche like that to worship you is an accomplishment in my book.

Anyway, Burton’s career as a children’s entertainer didn’t end there. A Nightmare Before Christmas may have been ahead of its time and the studios didn’t know how to market it, but they didn’t make that mistake again. Since then he’s been allowed to put his name on live action family films like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland, but the films that really seem to be the follow-ups to Nightmare were his animated projects James and the Giant Peach (another Henry Selick film, one that Burton seems to have less of a direct hand in), Corpse Bride, and Frankenweenie. It’s those last two projects I’m going to be looking at today. Both were heavily anticipated to be the biggest cult hits since Nightmare and both got decent reviews and were given their share of awards nominations, but neither really captured the public’s imaginations and I want to see why.

Corpse Bride

Before I get too deep into Corpse Bride I should probably say a couple of words about the film it’s clearly living in the shadows of: The Nightmare Before Christmas. I actually saw that movie in its initial theatrical run when I was six years old and I think I liked it at the time but my memories are a bit hazy. It certainly wasn’t a movie I loved to death and felt compelled to own and watch a million more times… in fact I didn’t see it again until earlier this year when I gave it a watch as research for this piece. On a rewatch I found that I liked but didn’t love A Nightmare Before Christmas. It was a pretty fun movie with some charming puppetry and enjoyable songs, but it was also pretty slight experience without a whole lot of depth.  Still it was a fun little art project and I could see why people would like showing it to kids around Halloween.

Corpse Bride came out over a decade later and long after A Nightmare Before Christmas’ cult following had established itself and expectations were fairly high.  I wouldn’t exactly say that the movie was a huge disappointment when it came out.  It got fairly respectful reviews, it certainly made its budget back at the box office, and it even got an Academy award nomination for Best Animated Film, albeit in a weak and unusual year that didn’t have a Pixar movie, a Dreamworks movie, or a Disney movie competing for the award and in which none of the nominees were computer animated for what was first and probably last time (it lost to Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit).  If it had been a great movie it probably would have been in a good position to, like its predecessor, become a cult sensation.  That didn’t really happen though; the film is rarely talked about anymore and is practically forgotten by everyone but Tim Burton completists.  As such I really wasn’t sure what to expect from the movie.

The film is based on a Russian/Jewish folk tale about a man who, while practicing his wedding vows, accidentally finds himself married to a dead woman after slipping his wedding ring onto a what he thought was an inanimate object jutting out of the ground but was actually the skeletal finger of a woman who died waiting for her true love.  Where the traditional story ends on the jolt of the corpse coming to life, the film tries to stick around and see what someone in that situation would do.  It’s an appropriately macabre situation: our hero is a young man named Victor Van Dort in an unnamed 19th century European village who was being pressured by his parents into marrying the daughter of another wealthy family, but he suddenly finds himself in the middle of this crazy love-triangle with his original fiancé and the dead girl he accidentally marries.  In some crazy way this almost feels like an allegory for having an affair and getting the “other woman” pregnant.  Victor was wavering in his commitment to his fiancé and the next thing you know he has to take responsibility for the well-being of this other woman he doesn’t really know but who’s inexplicably linked to him because of something he did.  In a different context this is basically the same story being told in Usher’s “Confessions Part 2.”

It’s an interesting dilemma, but the movie starts to go wrong by populating the story with some fairly weak and undeveloped characters.  Victor is probably the biggest problem.  He’s a super soft-spoken clutz completely lacking in confidence and there’s not a lot to really grab onto with the character.  Maybe an actor in a live action movie would be able to make these qualities relatable and sympathetic, but that doesn’t quite translate in stop motion and Johnny Depp’s voice performance doesn’t really help.  Depp is actually kind of an odd choice to do voice over work, his appeal as an actor is almost entirely rooted in his physicality and to the way he commits to unconventional choices; he’s not really much of a talker.  The two female characters on the other hand just don’t really seem to have a whole lot to them.  Victor’s fiancé is almost entirely defined by the ways Victor jerks her around and the titular corpse bride is entirely defined by the way she’s stuck between two worlds.

The two worlds in the film are the world of the living and the world of the dead, and Burton perversely actually makes the world of the dead seem a lot more fun.  While the world of the living is rendered with all the bleak dourness you expect from a 19th Russian village, the world of the dead is a lot more colorful and filled with fun characters that sing songs and engage in gallows humor.  I get what Burton was going for with this, but it doesn’t really work, in part because he just doesn’t execute as well as he did when he and Henry Selick were making A Nightmare Before Christmas.  Where Halloween Town seemed to be brimming with creativity out of its every orifice, this world of the dead is actually kind of boring.  There are a couple of neat ideas here and there like a talking worm living the corpse bride’s eye socket or a brigade of singing black widow spiders, but it really wasn’t as fun as it needed to be.  On top of that, Danny Elfman’s songs here are not nearly as good as the ones in A Nightmare Before Christmas, not even close, and most of them are sort of slowly recited rather than sung with real panache.  In general this feels less like an interesting dichotomy between life and afterlife and more like an identity crisis for a movie that isn’t sure whether it wants to be its own thing or whether it wants to be A Nightmare Before Christmas 2 and I sort of wish that it had just picked a side because what humor is here kind of feels out of place and otherwise it just seems oddly quiet and downcast for a family film.

The one area where the film sort of improves on A Nightmare Before Christmas is in its stop-motion effects, which are definitely smoother and more cleanly constructed than they were in the earlier film.  This can probably be chalked up to a decade’s worth of technological advancement and an increase in budgetary confidence.  I’m not exactly sure about the details of how the film was made but I think the stop-motion effects were augmented by some CGI, but I’m not really sure where the line is between the two.  That said, one could even argue that this smoother look works against the film because it robs the film of the lo-fi charm that made A Nightmare Before Christmas so beloved.  I keep comparing these two films, which maybe isn’t fair, but I don’t really see how I couldn’t.  Corpse Bride completely lives in that film’s shadow and never really finds a way to forge its own identity, but its failure isn’t just based in its inability to fill that 1993 film’s shoes.  It makes plenty of its own mistakes and rarely inspires interest.  By the time it reaches the anti-climactic sword fight at its end the film has just been a pretty lifeless affair.  No pun intended.

Frankenweenie

When I was a kid I was absolutely obsessed with the Universal monsters movies for reasons I don’t think I’ll ever fully be able to explain.  I certainly liked the movies to some extent, but really what appealed to me were the monster characters.  My favorite was Dracula of course (my online identity would be very different if not for this youthful obsession), but I also couldn’t get enough of Frankenstein, The Mummy, and The Wolf Man.  I liked the original movies of course, but I was plenty interested in seeking these monsters out in other mediums as well.  I don’t think I was alone in this either, these characters show up all the time in youth-based Halloween fun like breakfast cereals (Count Chocula), video games (Castlevania), boy band music videos (“Backstreet’s Back”), hell there was even an animated Adam Sandler movie about these monsters a couple of years ago.  This has been one of the few evergreen multi-generational pop culture interests for children going back to the Great Depression, and one of the many people influenced by them is Tim Burton.

One of Tim Burton’s very first professional projects was actually a tribute to Universal horror: his 30-minute 1984 short film “Frankenweenie.” This live-action short was produced during Burton’s tenure at Disney and was originally going to be attached to a theatrical re-release of the movie Pinocchio but that never really ended up happening and it didn’t really surface to the public until after he became a successful director.  The short isn’t exactly the most polished thing ever made but given that it’s essentially a student film with a slightly larger than average budget I think it actually holds up pretty well for what it is.  Burton apparently wasn’t content with it though because in 2012 he decided to revisit the project, this time in the form of a feature length stop-motion film made for forty times the budget of the original short.

I had expected the feature-length Frankenweenie to mostly be a remake of the short in name and concept only, but it’s actually a very faithful but heavily expanded adaptation that borrows characters and scenes from the short verbatim.  Like the short it is about a grade school kid whose dog is run over by a car and killed, who decides to use some lessons from his science teacher to resurrect the pooch from the dead in a way that is not unlike that of the original “Frankenstein.”  What’s oddly unique and interesting about both films is that it’s one of the few retellings of the Frankenstein story that doesn’t damn its protagonist for “playing god” and creating a monster, in fact it rewards him for his brashness and allows his zombie-dog to survive at the end without repercussions and continue to bring joy to his creator.  For the most part though, it’s just a cute little story about a boy and his (dead) dog.

Burton learned from the mistakes he made on Corpse Bride and made sure to make Frankenweenie very different from The Nightmare Before Christmas.  It isn’t a musical at all and while there is plenty of Halloween material, it’s presented very differently.  In the previous Tim Burton stop-motion movies the macabre elements took the form of sentient boogiemen that inhabited monster themed “worlds” whereas here the monsters are all creations that enter into the “real” world of the film and are then slain.  The other obvious stylistic difference it that Frankenweenie, like the short it’s based on, is entirely in black and white.  It’s a choice that makes perfect sense for the project given that it is a fusion of Universal horror movies and 50s suburban family sitcoms, which are both intrinsically associated with black and white, but I’m willing to bet it was not an easy sell for the money-men.  Like Mel Brooks before him, Burton realized that black and white is essential to any quality Universal Horror homage and he was willing to take the hit at the box office that it would entail.

So, which is better “Frankenweenie” the short or Frankenweenie the feature?  Well, I think they both have their pros and cons.  On one hand I feel like the feature film does need to struggle a little to fill time.  The second act is very elongated and at times the movie feels like it is stalling.  Victor keeps his resurrected pet hidden for way too long and then once the creature is finally revealed his parents come to accept it way too fast.  The meat of the Frankenstein story is supposed to be focused on how people react to the existence of the creature, not the buildup to its revelation.  On the other hand, the feature length version does a much better job of explaining why the neighbors react so violently towards Sparky.  In the short people freak out even though all the dog has really done is mildly misbehave, whereas in the feature there really is a lot of hell breaking loose and it does make sense that the townspeople would be pissed.  Speaking of which, the feature has more than one pet undergoing the resurrection experiment; we get a were-rat, a hamster mummy, a giant Godzilla-ish turtle named Shelly (get it, as in Mary), a brigade of mutated sea-monkeys, and a flying vampiric bat/cat hybrid.  I don’t know that this late film chaos really adds a whole lot to the overall story, but it’s mostly good fun.

Overall, I wouldn’t call Frankenweenie some kind of landmark family film or even an overly essential entry in the Tim Burton filmography, but the child inside me who loved the shit out of the Universal horror movies quite enjoyed it.  Critics seemed to agree with me on this point.  The movie didn’t necessarily receive rave reviews or anything but most critics respected it, especially when compared to Adam Sandler’s more commercial animated Universal Horror tribute Hotel Transylvania and the film received an Oscar nomination in the Best Animated Feature category (where it lost to Pixar’s Brave in a very competitive year).  The general public wasn’t so receptive.  The film didn’t bomb; it made $80 million worldwide on a $40 million budget, but it more or less came and went and didn’t really capture the zeitgeist.  That’s probably a factor of the black and white, or maybe a factor of its incredibly dumb sounding title.  Still, I think for what the film is, that isn’t so bad and I’m sure that Burton can still rightfully put the film in his “win” column.

In Conclusion

Is Tim Burton the animator as good as Tim Burton the live-action director?  Well, with the limited sample size we have to work with I’m going to have to say “no.”  All three of these movies seem to be flawed in one way or the other and the one that people seem to like the most is the one he had the least control over.  Still, I like that these movies were made.  They’re neat little side projects and they’ve definitely proven to be influential.  It’s not entirely clear where stop-motion would be today if not for the success of The Nightmare Before Christmas back in ’93.  Would there have been a Fantastic Mr. Fox if not for Burton?  Would Aardman have been able to work with Hollywood if not for Burton?  Who knows.  Additionally, Burton paved the way for macabre elements and darkness into the realm of family entertainment.  It’s telling that Disney thought that “Frankenweenie” the short was wholly inappropriate for family audiences while they proudly released Frankenweenie the feature thirty years later.  Without Burton it’s unclear if something like Monster House could have been made, and god knows where the Laika studio would be today without Burton… but we’ll get to then in the next installment.