jakebe: (Entertainment)

At this point in the Disney animated canon, Walt Disney Studios is coming to the end of their Renaissance while a young upstart CGI studio named Pixar is on the rise. The House of Mouse put a lot of their effort into adapting a really tricky Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp-adventure, while the boys in Emeryville continued to push their engines with really impressive lighting and texture effects for a story about an outsider ant and their very first sequel. What results is a trio of stories that have epic action but very personal stakes. They prove that you don't need an apocalypse to provide a reason for the audience to be invested in what happens to your characters.

A Bug's Life (1998)
Pixar's second feature-length movie is about Flik, a young dreamer of an ant who just wants to help his colony gather enough food for the winter. In addition to tending to their needs, the colony is also under a tremendous strain providing an offering to a gang of huge, violent grasshoppers. When one of Flik's inventions accidentally sets the colony back weeks, he's exiled. Determined to find a way to drive off the grasshoppers, he recruits a group of hapless circus insects to fight them. Secrets and misunderstandings pile up until the whole operation collapses -- or does it? This is a children's movie, so you know how these things go.

A Bug's Life is surprisingly charming; even though it's one of the lesser efforts in Pixar's stable, I think that speaks to the overall quality of the studio more than any fault of this film. Flik is kind of vanilla as a protagonist, but his earnestness wins you over at some point and you find yourself rooting for the little guy. Hopper the grasshopper is an uncomplicated villain; just a jerk and a bully who uses superior size to get his way. In this context, it works -- this is a basic story that's told well, and that's all it tries to be.

The secondary characters flesh out the world with just enough personality to make them fun and relatable. I have a soft spot for Slim, the extremely-tall but erudite walking stick played by David Hyde Pierce but you're almost bound to come away with a favorite of your own. The voice cast is populated with sitcom actors who know their way around busy scenes -- the dialogue purrs with precision timing and expert delivery.

The animation may not have aged wonderfully, but when you look back on the improvements made over Toy Story you can't help but be impressed. The world of A Bug's Life is well-rendered; sunlight filters through grass and leaves in these wonderful ways, and the sense of scale suffuses every scene and new location in imaginative touches that just subtle enough that you don't consciously notice them. I think the most impressive thing about A Bug's Life is the attention to detail. Even with relatively pedestrian fare like this, Pixar didn't sleepwalk through the worldbuilding process. It's this devotion to concept that's made them one of the most-celebrated animation studios in history, and it's evident even here.

Tarzan (1999)
Did you know that at the time of its release, Tarzan was the most expensive animated film ever? It cost $130 million to make, and looking at the finished product you can see where the money most likely went. The title character is -- according to Wikipedia -- the first animated Disney character to display working muscles accurately. He does this while running, leaping and sliding through a three-dimensional environment that feels like a mixture of labyrinth and roller coaster. The movement and physicality on display is a genuine surprise. Tarzan has some of the most impressive action sequences I've seen in a Disney film, and I never thought I would say that.

The movie is a loose adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' pulp novel, removing the racism in the text and changing the third act so that Tarzan doesn't go to England. He didn't need to. His meeting of Jane, the charmingly eccentric but adaptable explorer, leads him to address his humanity in a way he never had before. Meanwhile, Clayton the guide serves as a memorable villain; the hunter of Tarzan's gorilla tribe, he forces the makeshift family to heal their fractures in a way they never would have managed otherwise. Tarzan's navigation through the tension between his wild upbringing and "civilized" nature becomes a thoroughly engaging arc. When he comes into his own as leader and protector, it's a thrill.

But the real selling point is the animation. It's shockingly under-appreciated in its ambition and scope; as Tarzan moves through the environment, it's hard to tell what's more impressive -- the gorgeous background as it flies by, or the pitch-perfect physicality he displays. The jungle is lush and deep, almost a character in its own right. When you step back to consider how firmly integrated the characters are in their environment, you have to wonder how in the world they managed to animate a world that looks like so much more than a hand-drawn foreground character moving over a painted cel background. It's the most three-dimensional traditionally animated world I've ever seen.

The care that was used to animate Tarzan is evident in every move he makes. He carries himself like his primate brethren, even though the proportions are all wrong. Far from making him look deformed, his posture and movement is supremely functional; he looks just like a human who has been raised by apes would look, all sinew and grace. It's a strange mixture of brutish, wild strength and a dancer's poise that shouldn't work but totally does.

Tarzan's friends -- the female gorilla Turk and the nervous elephant Tantor -- are fine. Rosie O'Donnell and Wayne Knight work well together, but more often than not I feel they're distractions rather than enhancements. Maybe I'm less tolerant of comic relief characters in my old age.

Still, if you haven't seen Tarzan in a while, it's definitely worth a second look. The animation is truly a work of art, and the Phil Collins soundtrack isn't as bad as I remembered.

Toy Story 2 (1999)
After the success of A Bug's Life, Pixar returned to Woody and Buzz for Toy Story 2. While sequels are usually at best interesting failures, this one cemented the studio's status as a major player in animation and remains one of the most well-regarded movies of all time -- and for good reason.

After Woody is broken right before Andy was meant to take him to summer camp, he is accidentally sold to a collector looking for the crown jewel of a complete -- and incredibly rare -- Woody's Round-Up toy set. Facing the inevitability of abandonment as Andy grow up, Woody at first relishes his newfound superstar status. Meanwhile, the rest of the toys in Andy's room mount a desperate rescue operation to get Woody back before Andy gets home.

Toy Story 2 expands and deepens the theme and premise of its predecessor in an organic but surprising way. A toy's entire purpose in life is to bring joy to the child that owns it, but eventually the kid will grow up and become interested in other things. That's just a part of growing up. Where does that leave the toy, though? It's a relatively ageless thing, and for it nothing has changed. That bond can't simply be erased. When a seemingly permanent love suddenly becomes unrequited, the effects are devastating. How do we deal with the grief of impermanence? How do we balance our personal needs with the needs of friends and fellows?

It's surprisingly adult talk for a children's movie to have, and while Toy Story 2 is funnier and more inventive than the original it's also a series of body blows emotionally speaking. Jessie -- a spunky cowgirl who's been trapped in storage waiting for Woody to complete their collection -- has a backstory that chokes me up just thinking about it. "When She Loved Me" is a song so full of ache and longing it's impossible not to be touched.

Both Jessie and Stinky Pete are unable to deal with their isolation and the frustration of their unfulfilled purpose. Even as it causes them to lash out in these troubling ways, it's understandable. You can't help but feel sympathy for them. And ultimately, the movie seems to say that we must each find our own way to deal with these very real and difficult realities of life. What works for one may not work for everyone, and it only compounds our trouble if we try to force others to follow the same solution.

Alternately, respecting and helping one another with those struggles is the best way to deal with our own. The bonds we form doing this allows us to bear the burden of life; it doesn't make it any easier, but it does make it worthwhile. It's a bittersweet lesson, but a welcome one. I think it's one of the first children's movies I've seen to address such an existential problem in a manner that doesn't feel facile or condescending. And that's nothing short of amazing.

jakebe: (Entertainment)

Ryan and I are holding a weekly film festival where we watch the entire Disney animated canon in chronological order, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs all the way to Zootopia. Currently, we're up to the latter half of the studio's first Renaissance. Here are my reviews of the latest batch of movies!

The Lion King (1994)
I held a poll on my Twitter account a little earlier this spring about which movie people considered to be the best in the Disney Renaissance, and this one won by a landslide. At first, I thought the results were slightly skewed because so many of my followers are furries, but then I watched this movie again and HOLY CRAP YOU GUYS THIS IS THE BEST MOVIE OF THE DISNEY RENAISSANCE.

Little Simba is the prince of his pride; his father Mufasa and mother Nala serve as King and Queen of the Pridelands. Before his father can teach him everything there is to know about being royalty, Simba is framed for the murder of Mufasa by his scheming uncle Scar and runs away to avoid the punishment. Even though he's embraced a more carefree and irresponsible way of life, destiny comes calling to right the wrongs of his people. Can he heed the call?

Even now, more than 20 years later, the ambition and imagination of this movie is staggering. The opening alone, featuring a newborn Simba being presented to the beasts of the Pridelands for the first time, still gives me goosebumps when I watch it. The prologue sequence makes a statement about the scope and ambition of this movie, and they do their best to deliver with just about every song, every action scene, every introduction of a new character.

I was continually surprised by the musical numbers. Remember the fascist overtones of Scar's "Be Prepared"? I've seen this movie a dozen times, and it almost always shocks me whenever I see it. The playful inventiveness of "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" is enough for me to forgive it for being a relatively weak song; and "Hakuna Matata" is one of those songs that's fun, catchy and sneaks the pivot of Simba's plot from exiled youth to carefree young adult effortlessly.

The movie is exquisitely choreographed and tightly plotted. Scenes move with a Swiss-watch precision, forming a new link in a chain that depends on what's come before. When it's job is done, it's time to move on. The Lion King also bounces between the kid-friendly broad humor of Timon and Puumba and the surprisingly dark scenes with Scar and his hyenas really well. It's ability to juggle so many disparate characters is perhaps its most impressive feat.

This is a prominent gem in the crown that marks Disney as the king of American animation studios. When they're at the top of their game, there's simply no one better.


Pocahontas (1995)
Pocahontas is smack-dab in the middle of the Renaissance; it's the last Disney movie before Pixar burst onto the scene with Toy Story (more on that later), and signals a pivot away from the really traditional fairy-tale adventure that marked the first half of their resurgence. In a lot of ways, it feels like the studio went back to the riskier stuff that didn't work out so well in the 70s and 80s; this time, however, the studio is a lot more confident in its vision and far more proficient at pushing itself to new feats of movie-making.

The reputation of Pocahontas is a curious one; most Disney fans don't talk so much about it, and critics largely sniffed on its release. Fair enough -- when Disney is coming off the run that it had in the last six years, expectations for its next film had to be monstrous.

But with the passage of time, it's easier to see Pocahontas as an ambitious movie in its own way. The story alone is a bit of a hard sell. A young Native American woman is at a crossroads in her life; she's come to the age where she has to stop seeking an adventurous future and accept her place among her people. This means marrying one of her tribe's strongest hunters and upholding the traditions and expectations of her culture. However, when she meets a European who comes to this strange "new world" for riches (and partly to kill any Native Americans who cause trouble), she falls head over heels for him. Their relationship makes both of their positions complicated, especially as the natives and Europeans circle ever closer to war.

The environments and settings are the real stars of this movie; they're simply wonderful, expansive and gorgeous. It really stings when John Smith and his crew -- headed by the villainous Governor Ratcliffe -- cut down the trees to build a fort and dig up the land in the hopes of finding gold. Pocahontas and her tribe are clearly people of the land, and the movie does such a great job of framing her within that context; everywhere she goes, she blends into the trees, the hills, the rivers. By contrast, the Europeans are frequently the focus of their scenes; nature only exists as far as it's useful.

What's impressive about Pocahontas is the clear care that the storytellers used to present the native way of life before America had been settled by the Europeans. It would have been really easy for Disney to fall into the noble savage trope, or to give in to the mystic othering of Native Americans. For the most part, though, they keep it grounded; the supernatural touches within the film are mostly low-key. The one botch is the idea of allowing their heroine to learn English simply by listening to her heart or some such thing. It's a narrative shortcut that felt lazy, but at the same time I can't think of a more elegant solution to the problem of getting Pocahontas and John Smith into a dialogue sooner rather than later.

Other than that, the movie mostly sticks the landing. Pocahontas is a wonderful character with a rich inner life; she stands up for herself when she feels disrespected; she sticks her neck out for the the things she believes in. It might not be as loud as The Lion King or as spellbinding as Beauty and the Beast, but Pocahontas is a worthy film that belongs with the rest from this period.


Toy Story (1995)
The cultural impact of this movie is huge -- it almost single-handedly killed traditional animation in movie theatres. That's not something you could fault Pixar for, of course, but man, it really blew the roof off the industry when it dropped this.

Not only is Toy Story the first feature-length animated film rendered entirely in CGI, it's also a surprisingly good tale. While the visuals haven't aged that well in the two decades since the film's release, the strength of the writing, inventive character design and wonderful vocal performance keep the movie from being one of those culturally-important films that really isn't that enjoyable.

Woody is Andy's favorite toy, and that makes him the leader of all the playthings in Andy's room. He runs a tight ship, but he's a benevolent dictator -- as long as his authority is recognized, things go well. That's a good thing; Andy's family is moving to another house very soon, and Woody is in charge of making sure no toy gets left behind.

However, all that gets upended when Andy is gifted a Buzz Lightyear toy for his birthday. Woody is cast aside in that way all kids discard their old toys for the latest and greatest; what's worse, the other toys have taken to Buzz as well. Woody's jealousy sparks a chain of events that finds him and Buzz forced out of Andy's home, desperate to make their way back before he leaves forever. Can they make it?

Tom Hanks and Tim Allen are the voices of Woody and Buzz, respectively; their chemistry carries the entire film. The world of Toy Story is really strange, unlike anything anyone had seen up to that point; hard green Army men move out on reconnaissance missions, able to see through solid plastic binoculars; Mr. Potato Head lives a nightmare existence where his facial features and body parts are just one jostle away from flying off; an Etch-A-Sketch communicates solely by drawing pictures. The setting is incredibly inventive, but it needs its protagonists to ground the action to something relatable. That's what the two stars do here wonderfully.

Even though the animation is showing its age, the cinematography is actually really impressive. The opening credits offer a toy's-eye-view of playtime, and at their scale an ordinary house is this tremendous, varied environment. The next door neighbor's house is practically a world away, and I think it really captures how the world feels to young children. The visual storytelling is subtle but really impressive.

What's scary to think about is that for all of its strengths, this is actually one of the weaker films in Pixar's catalogue. Toy Story 2 and 3 are both streets ahead of this one, even though it's a solid movie that just so happens to feature game-changing animation. When they could have hung their hat on their technology, Pixar stepped up to do so much more. And that's why they've pretty much conquered animation in the years since.

November 2016

S M T W T F S
   1 2 3 45
6 789101112
13 14 1516171819
20 212223242526
27282930   

Syndicate

RSS Atom

Most Popular Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Page generated Jul. 20th, 2017 10:36 pm
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios