Tag Archives | Walt Disney Studios

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.

Movie Review: Thor: Ragnarok

With several credited writers, campy Cate Blanchett (Carol, Truth, Cinderella) in smeared black eyeshadow, full gothic gear and Maleficent-like antlers to match, butch lesbian warriors, scads of Marvel Comics characters and tie-ins, cameos and one gigantic Phallic symbol — even Jesus Christ and Moses if you know where to look — Thor: Ragnarok runs more than a bit amok. Pardon the kitchen sink analogy, but this Disney movie, directed by Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople), is almost a full-blown camp comedy, with action and a high body count.

With Chris Hemsworth (Thor, Snow White and the Huntsman) returning in the title role, Thor: Ragnarok starts flaming early on, with flying embers coming over the opening credits to Thor’s heavy metal musical theme. The Norse god of thunder narrates his own situation. Ragnarok is quickly explained (think the Rapture) and the movie’s off on its wild runs. Light, silly and depleted of the original Thor movie‘s mythology and sense of honor, in comes brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, Thor, I Saw the Light, Kong: Skull Island) and their dad Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and a first-born child, Hela, played by Blanchett as a veiny goddess of death with black hair, black eyeliner and black bodysuit like she stepped out of an X-Men movie.

“This you must face alone”, Odin tells his son Thor about the new dilemma of the long-lost sister’s return to their mythical world. With shades of Terminator, Mad Max and Willy Wonka films, complete with a glitzier version of Thunderdome, the action comes in spurts while the comedy keeps the lines coming in crisp flamboyance. Blanchett’s Hela sashays around swinging her hips and dripping her lines such as: “You don’t know who I am?”

But Thor: Ragnarok, with Hemsworth gamely and amazingly staying in character the whole time, has more glitz and schmaltz in store with another planet’s grandmaster in gold lamé played by Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park) in a gray-haired pompadour with blue fingernail polish and face paint. Idris Elba (Star Trek Beyond, Zootopia, The Jungle Book) returns in the same role. Karl Urban (Pete’s Dragon, Bones in Star Trek Beyond), Tessa Thompson (Selma, Creed) and Mark Ruffalo (Hulk, Spotlight) are fine and look for an appearance by the director and, of course, Marvel and Thor creator Stan Lee. It’s all in good fun and games and the film feels and looks like a gaming play, complete with heavy use of automatic weapons and artificial scenes.

For instance, Hulk changes proportion. Hela is inexplicably regenerative while Thor is not. Others will probably notice an array of tricks, Avengers series nods and gimmicks, though it borders on exhausting and I opted to see Thor: Ragnarok in a two dimensional screening, not in 3D. Eye strain and fatigue may creep in but thematically interesting resistance, extermination and something called “obedience disks” gives the ensemble-driven, meandering plot a second wind. At root, Thor: Ragnarok is a comedy with action, not the other way around, though it is too long and I could have done without the Hulk and his subplot. Hemsworth’s Thor gets the best quip when he puts Bruce Banner in a bind to go somewhere else and says: “Use one of your Ph.Ds”. Fans of the original will want more of Thor’s mythology.

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)

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Movie Review: Rogue One

The Star Wars prequel, Rogue One, induces fatigue. Though based on a major plot point in the original Star Wars film in 1977—and prominently featured in the marketing campaign—the studio asks for no spoilers and I promise this review is intended to inform and enhance, not distort and detract from, one’s cinematic experience.

That said, I wish I had known more about Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in advance. Coming so soon after last winter’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a better movie which takes place after Return of the Jedi, Rogue One starts in a haze of sameness that the uninitiated or occasional series viewer may find disorienting and confusing.

It’s not merely that both pictures sport a British-accented brunette in the female lead. There is also a scientist named Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson) on strike from developing the Death Star who’s a farmer with a wife and kid on the farm like Luke Skywalker’s uncle in the 1977 movie. Other scenes are strikingly derivative, too, to the point that Rogue One feels like a stew of Star Wars movies you’ve seen before. It’s always on the verge of tying into some previously known plot point.

Aligning everything Star Wars comes at a cost. I don’t know if you’ve experienced this while seeing the current crop of series films (1977-2015) in theaters, but, whenever something remotely familiar in the Star Wars universe (no matter how obscure) appears on screen, certain audience fanatics audibly react, taking me out of the movie and making me stop and think about what connection, if any, what I may have seen (or missed) has to the story and series. It’s mentally exhausting. There’s a lot of that here, and I’m not supposed to say what. A movie should stand alone and Rogue One does, in some respects, but audience response from series fans may get in the way.

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“Trust the Force” is Rogue One‘s meaning, which is neither more complicated nor more logical than that. Tracking Erso’s daughter (a bland character ably played by Felicity Jones), the tale of mild intrigue revolves around the rebellion’s efforts to halt construction of the evil Empire’s Death Star. As a girl, Erso’s daughter Jyn witnesses an act of heroism and it’s implied that she gets some sort of training (and there’s a kyber crystal) but, more than Rey in The Force Awakens, she inexplicably becomes an adult who’s suddenly imbued with technological, weapons and combat superiority and a curious blend of cynicism and idealism. Lacking sufficient development, Jyn’s journey runs rather flat.

This is not to say that all is dull. Indeed, parents best bear in mind that the Death Star as a means of mass death is fundamental and Walt Disney Pictures’ Lucasfilm doesn’t go soft in this regard. Rogue One reminds everyone that the series created by George Lucas is extremely dark and death-driven. The body count climbs pretty high.

With balmy beaches, jungles, rainy weather, Imperial walkers and destroyers, all kinds of new and familiar aliens, returning cast members, computer generated surprises and new characters, such as a blind monk who may have a same-sex partner (it’s a bit vague) and a drone dubbed K-2SO voiced by Alan Tudyk (42) that’s both less prissy and more jaded than C-3PO, Rogue One has a lot to look at and listen to. Among the new ride-alongs with hard-charging Jyn are a cagey rebel named Cassian played by Diego Luna (the most developed, consistent and interesting character). A pilot named Bodhi (Riz Ahmed) seems half-stoned for most of the movie. But even an urban scene evoking Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner channels the series’ proclivity for hooded, cloaked and caped creatures.

All the rebels are divided over an “extremist” (Forest Whitaker, Arrival, Phenomenon, Black Nativity) who proves crucial to the cause, though he’s not in Rogue One for long. Writers Chris Weitz (Cinderella) and Tony Gilroy (the Bourne movies) do their best and cram heaps of plot, character and action, especially in the battle-heavy third act, to dramatize the rebellion converging to win the star wars.

“The Force wills it,” someone says in a climactic battle, and Rogue One may be the most explicitly religious of the Star Wars movies, turning the Force into a catchy new chant. An infidel converts to mysticism. So Rogue One is more about having faith than it is about going rogue. Director Gareth Edwards (2014’s Godzilla remake) downplays compelling and ethically and politically-charged points—questioning unchecked government surveillance of communications, what constitutes peace and security and why self-sacrifice is the series’ highest virtue—in favor of the generic idea that buying time for the good to prevail requires faith, sacrifice and mass death, with hope and dry humor sweetening what’s at root a dark and bitter deal.

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.