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Movie Review: Coco

Disney/Pixar’s Coco is a flawed but colorful and entertaining movie. The title’s a misnomer. The songs are fine, if forgettable. The conflict’s resolved without morality and the theme that one should put others first or, at best, shoehorn one’s goals for the sake of others is atrocious. Coco has too many characters. It’s also too long (like most of Pixar’s movies). Certain plot points are confusing. But Pixar’s animators have outdone themselves with a mythical depiction of Mexico’s Day of the Dead.

With multiple writers and an apparently all-Latino vocal cast, except apparently for a token non-Latino left over from Pixar’s early days, Coco takes its Day of the Dead theme seriously with an elaborate afterlife world exclusively for Hispanics (or Mexicans or Chicanos), leaving room for interpretation that the dead hang out in a festive afterlife before what’s deemed “final death”, which I suppose could encompass a notion of Heaven. As it is, Coco‘s not all caught up in Purgatory exactly but the afterlife rules are convoluted and I did hear children at the screening asking questions that went unanswered. At one point, I thought a character was dead that later came back alive. I still haven’t figured that one out.

But this is a movie which begins with wax dripping off candles being lighted for the souls of the dead to return to existence, so superstition comes with the territory. After a clever storybook exposition fans out one family’s possibly cursed legacy, centering upon a conflict between art and commerce or music and manufacturing, the basic plot takes shape. At Coco‘s core is an extremely creative, intelligent and diligent boy named Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez).

Miguel’s shoemaker family’s marred by an abandonment of a descendant who ditched la familia for his work, passion and art; a career in music, which the matriarchal family in turn bans from all generations for all of eternity. If this seems harsh, it is, and one of the problems with Coco is its refusal to reckon with the tyranny of a family run by a monster of a grandmother (Abuelita), a horrifying woman who physically assaults strangers and abuses her family with such cruelty that you question how she procreated in the first place. (If, under today’s onslaught of accusations against men, you wonder why men go bad, think about this character and how she pulverizes those around her).

A mangy dog comes along to ease Miguel’s bleak, deprived life (Abuelita hates dogs, too) and there’s plenty of laughter as Miguel works around the oppression with a terrific secret hiding place, where he’s erected a shrine to his deceased musical hero (Benjamin Bratt, Miss Congeniality, Modern Family), whom he admires courtesy of a VCR and videocassette. Despite the maternal order not to play music, Miguel goes one better: he makes his own guitar to play in festival competition. He even dares to pronounce what he’s made perfecto.

The miserable faces of Miguel’s unhappy dead relatives in pictures — photographs are key to Coco — do not lie. Before you can genuflect (and Coco rightly connects religion to hatred of the good with the sign of the cross), an evil woman crushes Miguel’s dreams, causing him to flee with the street dog, borrow, not steal, and slip into the pre-afterlife/post-life state of being not quite dead. Miguel meets dead relatives, and others, of course, and both questions and learns what it means to be dead or alive.

What this has to do with music and family, the main (and false) dichotomy in Coco, becomes clear. The night of the living dead Miguel encounters includes clever if disturbing real-life equivalents such as the Department of Family Reunions, tracing family footsteps with shoes and, of course, a goofy guide named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal, Letters to Juliet). Audiences can judge whether Coco stereotypes Latino culture — Coco credits no less than 24 “cultural advisors”, all with Hispanic surnames, and entire Mexican families, cathedrals and agencies — and it’s loaded with sacrifice, martyrdom and death. The afterlife place is like an idealized Mexico City (it could easily be Havana) with retro style homes, arenas and mass transit.

“You don’t have to forgive but don’t forget,” someone says in Coco, written and directed by Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3). This is a good line which both suggests a kind of righting of Miguel’s family’s twisted logic and lost legacy and hints at a moral reckoning to come (which wrongfully never comes). Coco sanctions the view that family comes first. This is Coco‘s unequivocal theme and the movie explicitly endorses the idea that the individual must submit to the family. Even on the film’s terms, this estimate is both unearned and unfortunate. But in its voices, animation — especially in faces both young and old — and Michael Giacchino‘s melodic, guitar-driven score (if not the movie’s mediocre songs) — many though not all of Coco‘s points and pictures fit like pieces of a puzzle.

The Bambi Articles

Three of my articles about Walt Disney’s 1942 classic, Bambi, are now archived on the site. The movie, which was based on a novel and adapted from a 900-word screenplay, made during a world war and lost the studio money for years, has a fascinating history with relevant lessons for today’s moviemakers and moviegoers alike.

My film review is based on my first viewing of the animated motion picture, which I saw for the first time when the movie debuted on DVD 12 years ago and was surprised to find I thoroughly enjoyed. I wrote about Bambi for a movie site in which I was a partner (which was sold to a database subsidiary of Amazon that no longer offers in-depth articles). Read my review of Bambi, which includes details of Disney’s 2005 Platinum edition DVD, here.

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This was one of my first themed online series. My starting point for Bambi was an essential history of Walt Disney’s wartime follow-up to Dumbo and Snow White, which includes basic facts, such as box office stats and budget, and tracks the movie’s origins, background and legacy. The editorial experiment worked, too, I’m happy to say (not all of them did) as pre-social media readers read, shared and printed the articles in high numbers, especially considering that they came to the site for statistics. I created the Bambi series to entice them to stay, read and browse other site pages. The history of Bambi and the other two articles formed the editorial model for my thematic approaches to covering film, particularly classic film, which extended to our in-depth coverage of Star Wars, classic Disney and Sony’s Spider-Man pictures, as well as films about Islamic terrorism, Alexander the Great and the Alamo. Bambi got things started. Read the Bambi history here.

As editor and writer of the movie site, and wanting to add a third article for a trilogy of rotating pieces heralding the arrival of the film on DVD, I also sought interviews with some Hollywood artists whose work I’d admired whom I had reason to think might be interested in, and possibly influenced by, Walt Disney’s Bambi. Among these were a Back to the Future screenwriter, the creator of Hollywood’s most popular animal-themed franchise since Lassie and an animator who had attended the highly regarded, Disney-made Cal Arts academy in the Santa Clarita Valley. During extensive interviews with each, their comments and insights went far beyond the usual and predictable compliments for influential movies. Read the article about artists praising Disney’s Bambi—incuding their thoughts on its most controversial scenes—here.

Twelve years after these articles were first published about the movie which basically made me an instant classic Disney fan, the Burbank, California, studio is planning to release what they call a Signature Collection Blu-Ray/DVD combination set. So, Bambi goes on sale next week (May 23) on iTunes, Amazon and all that (support the site and buy the new collection here). Bambi remains one of my favorite Disney pictures and, if you read the articles, I think it’s easy to see why. In the future, I’d like to give all the great movies, works of art and singular histories the fuller examination they deserve.


Related

Movie and DVD Review: Bambi (2005)

History of Bambi (2005)

Hollywood Remembers Bambi (2005)

Pre-Order Bambi

Movie Review: Moana

Disney’s Moana plunges back into water-themed animation courtesy of the same directors of the studio’s 1989 masterpiece The Little Mermaid. This time, Ron Clements and John Musker are saddled with more of everything, including a cluster of co-writers and co-directors and non-essential agenda items such as multiculturalist directives, but the result is an enjoyable movie that’s more cohesive than—and superior to—Frozen if not as human as mermaid Ariel’s tale.

MoanaPosterMythically-driven music booms, setting the tone of the Pacific Ocean-based adventure. The child Moana (Auli’i Cravalho’s voice in most of the movie) is touched by the gods, guided by the ocean and, most effectively, chosen by her grandmother (Rachel House’s voice) to carry the family legacy and restore vitality to Pacific islands, aided by the demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson, San Andreas), a character the filmmakers do not fully develop as either comic relief or redemptive enhancement.

Lack of character development proves to be a persistent problem in Moana, which sells its best characters short by cramming in too much and doing it too unevenly. Moana is alternately too slow or too fast—it’s usually too fast—and, though the title character is sufficiently set up as fearless and intelligent, she acquires skills and ability too quickly and without a proper sense of context and proportion. Moana is like a superheroine when she needs to be a girl and vice versa. The most adorable character, a happy and carefree little piglet that reminds me of my dog, is jettisoned early in the action (and traded for a pointless and stupid chicken character) and never really seen again.

But the lush, tropical look, the wonder of most of the cleverly composed and rhymed melodies, especially “You’re Welcome”, and several neatly seeded themes in the plot make Moana a warm and entertaining family motion picture.

Among the ideas are lessons in self-reliance, self-education and Moana’s consistently steady use of reason as her guide to life. This girl likes to fix things that are broken and solve problems and the animators really revel in showing that, however briefly. Cravalho fits the role and character, which is beautifully animated down to the natural hair, eyebrows and walk in sync with the music (think teenaged Simba in The Lion King), though it would have been nice to give her a prospective love interest like Disney’s young male characters get in coming of age tales (even Bambi had a crush) to furnish higher values for which to journey far.

Travel Moana does, with voyaging as a key if somewhat remote theme, and having courage to go forth like a pioneer toward a new frontier is part of what anchors Moana and gives it buoyancy.

As Moana and Maui seek to take back an island for good, a fiery, devilish climax taps Disney’s current fascination with villains that are more complex than they may first appear. The dialogue is too rapid and jokey at times. A tune sung by a crab tries too hard to sound like David Bowie or The Little Mermaid‘s Ursula. A pirate battle should have been deleted to reduce the overlong running time. Moana is too matriarchal—though Grandma Tala steals the movie—and, while voyaging steers the plot, it’s rooted in a subtler notion that earth is a supernatural female being and man must humble himself before Her. But if this idea of Gaia or Mother Earth eludes you, complete with a parting of the waters for the Chosen Child, you can easily float on Moana‘s deep blue aquatic beauty, melodic music, written by a team that includes Hamilton‘s Lin-Manuel Miranda, and deistic mythology (“no need to pray”, goes one of the songs) and walk out singing one of its cheerful ditties.

Zootopia on Home Video

If you want to know why Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Zootopia (read my review here) delighted audiences and broke worldwide box office records, earning over $900 million, watch it on home video and see at least some of the bonus material. The Blu-ray edition shows how much thought, artistry and hard work were expended to make one of the most enjoyable movies this year.

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Available today on Digital HD, Blu-ray, Disney Movies Anywhere, DVD and on demand, Zootopia in these various incarnations includes an alternate opening, deleted characters and scenes and some clever, interesting tidbits. On the Blu-ray disc I reviewed, the most informative parts are what Disney calls a series of 10-minute “roundtables” (they’re not really) introduced by Ginnifer Goodwin, who voiced the lead character Judy Hopp. One of the interesting disclosures here is that her character wasn’t always the lead.

In fact, the creators originally had Jason Bateman’s fox character as the lead in a whole other plot involving a jaded, dystopian world with electronic animal collars. Well into production, studio screenings—this is one of those movies in which the movie studio apparently improved the final cut—apparently demonstrated that the cynicism drained the motion picture and Goodwin’s rabbit wannabe cop took the lead. The differences are discussed, explored and shown in several spots on the extras, including a humorous deleted alternate scene in the elephant-run ice cream shop.

Another piece shows hidden Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters, icons and designs. Frozen pops up in the ice cream shop, too, though these really amount to Disney plugs. Still, the extras are not as thin and wispy as they usually are and behind the scenes features are more relaxed, less formal and more open to scrutiny, too. The creators reveal a consistency error in the train scene that runs through Tundratown, for instance.

Viewers learn about complexities in creating an all-animal world, including making characters’ fur and clothing, the logic and impetus for Tundratown, Sahara Square and the Rainforest District and old-fashioned field research conducted—and, I suspect, doubling for water drinking scenes in The Jungle Book, too—in Africa. It’s there that filmmakers traveled to gain knowledge for Zootopia‘s variety of distinctive animal characters. Of course, they also visited Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park in Orlando, Florida, but the African savanna trip proved useful for developing Zootopia looks, behaviors and plot points.

A piece on the score features Academy Award®-winning composer Michael Giacchino demonstrating how percussionists added to the movie. Directors Byron Howard (Tangled) and Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph, The Simpsons) introduce bits with dry humor. One clip involves Bateman’s fox character, Nick, pitching his start-up idea to Zootopia’s bankers for funding his money-making vision of an amusement park made exclusively for predators. Maybe a sequel if there is one (who am I kidding?) will explore Nick’s entrepreneurial spirit and mark a Disney Animation Studios return to portraying capitalism as a positive for the first time since The Princess and the Frog.

Shakira’s can-do-themed single “Try Everything”, which accompanies the end credits, too, is included as a stand-alone pop music video. Unfortunately, Bateman and other cast members, are not. I would have liked to have seen and heard from Idris Elba (Thor, BBC’s Luther) on voicing Chief Bogo, Jenny Slate’s thoughts on her character, Bellwether, Nate Torrence doing Clawhauser, Bonnie Hunt and Don Lake as the parents, J.K. Simmons (Oscar® winner for Whiplash) as Mayor Lionheart and Octavia Spencer (Black or White, Oscar® winner for The Help) as Mrs. Otterton. I would have liked to hear from the story writers, too, on the plot twist, which is part of what makes Zootopia unique, and I do wonder what artists were planning to do with one of the deleted characters, Zootopia’s female pig mayor.

But this one disc package with the 108 minute movie (1080p High Definition/2.39:1, DVD Feature Film = 2.39:1 aspect ratio; subtitles in English, French & Spanish/English SDH, French & Spanish) is a good home video package for a terrific little movie.

Movie Review: The Good Dinosaur

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I’ll probably have to see Disney Pixar’s family-themed The Good Dinosaur again to fully appreciate its artistry. After the manic, disjointed Inside Out earlier this year, and the middling Frozen, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But unlike those fragmented movies, neither of which I think are very good pictures, The Good Dinosaur is slow, steady and restrained.

Staying with one character, like Remy in Ratatouille, which Dinosaur director Peter Sohn had a hand in, the action in this coming of age tale unfolds in shifting, occasionally surprising plot points. Evoking classic Disney films such as Bambi and, especially in its focus on the maladjusted character, Dumbo, this is an outdoor prehistoric adventure with strange sojourns, tracing the maturation of an awkward, jittery brontosaurus named Arlo. Arlo’s literally afraid to come out of his shell when he’s born and, being the youngest in a family of hyper achievers, he’s not fast to adapt to the world. It doesn’t help that his brother Buck and sister Libby don’t show much interest in him. His parents aren’t helpful, either. But they’re a farming family in this incarnation of Disney dinosaurs, so everyone’s too consumed by working the land to teach the lad any lessons.

Arlo wants to grow, learn and earn his pride. It just takes him a long time to realize it and the only one willing to make up for the family deficiency in bringing up the rear is the father, voiced by Jeffrey Wright (Catching Fire), one of two actors besides Raymond Ochoa and Jack McGraw as Arlo—the other is Sam Elliott voicing a tyannosaurus rex named Butch—to make a lasting impression as a character, unless you count a grunting prehistoric human boy who bonds with Arlo when the young dinosaur gets lost.

The kid is crucial to the character and plot development.

Apparently written by committee going by story credits, the plot is strange, from dino-farming and herding to bizarre country and western regionalism among the dinosaurs, who variously come off with earsplitting twangs from Texas and clipped talk from Wyoming to Deep South accents in a trio best described as rednecks. Weird subplots and touches can be clever, too, such as a flock of vultures that represent pure religionism (and the religion, subversively, is the weather; hmmm). But these distinct animation and story junctures do not detract from plot and character progression; they generally add to the momentum, leading to a critical character test for Arlo that has less to do with blood, family and trying too hard and for the wrong reasons and everything to do with the supremacy of going by one’s own chosen values.

With flourishes and simple visuals, including the jagged, curving and severe landscape and meteorology of Arlo’s home near Clawfoot Mountain and its lesser twin peaks, Sohn’s imaginative movie is a boy’s story of earning self-esteem through self-reliance in nature and learning to inhabit and command the world around him, whatever dangers may come. It’s not a bad theme, really, and The Good Dinosaur is not a bad movie for kids, and not the same old frenzy of noise, jokes and sermons about sharing or ecology. Though the script sometimes belabors a point, and dinosaurs are depicted as anthropomorphized as you’ve never seen them, it’s as odd a movie as its leading character, which makes The Good Dinosaur sort of endearing and, I suspect, rather enduring, too.