Showing posts with label Animation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Animation. Show all posts

December 7, 2016

Moana Review (Ron Clements, Don Musker)

The title character of Moana, voiced by Auli'i Cravalho, prepares to journey out to the water.

The Subtle Grace of Disney’s Moana

As a lifelong Disney fan, I’m well-versed in themes that permeate many of the studio’s films. This is especially true when it comes to princess stories. The lead character is sometimes a bystander in her own film. Sleeping Beauty is a perfect example. The actions of the fairies, Phillip, and Maleficent truly set the course of Aurora’s life. She’s largely passive despite the film’s title. We’ve seen updates to this model in the past few decades, though heroines from the Disney Renaissance still were driven by the love story. Belle and Ariel are more active characters yet still aren’t independent of the old constructs.

Recent films like Tangled and Frozen have made progress in subverting the obvious love story, especially the latter film. Anna wants to find a guy, but she has no life experience and has made assumptions from reading stories. This brings me to Disney’s latest film Moana, which sheds a lot of the beats we expect from this type of movie. The quest to save the world is a familiar hero’s journey, but it feels new without the unnecessary subplots. Moana (Auli'i Cravalho) is a strong and likable teenager that wants to make a difference; it’s easy to get on board with her story.

Moana is headstrong but has reasons beyond her personal need to experience the water. It’s rebellion against her father’s (Temuera Morrison) ways but with a purpose. His restrictions don’t connect to her gender or age either; in his view, everyone should stay on the island. Like he sings in “Where You Are”, the selling point is the place, not the social construct. Chris Jackson (George Washington from Hamilton) takes the singing duties for Chief Tui and does amazing work. Given the fact that Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote or co-wrote most of the songs, it’s no surprise to have Jackson involved.

The soundtrack’s other main songwriter is Opetaia Foa'I, who was born in Samoa. Miranda and Foa'I (along with Mark Mancina) build a collection of tunes that work brilliantly and complement the story. I could list almost any song as a highlight, but the one that really sticks with me is “We Know the Way”. Performed by Foa’I and Miranda, the song nails home one of the key themes. The image of Moana and her people sailing into the unknown while the song plays brings chills. Its return during the finale reinforces that Moana’s quest is about more than saving the world. She’s also working to bring the spirit of exploration back to her people.

One of the reasons that Moana connects is the diverse cast, which includes the voice of Hawaii’s Auli'i Cravalho as the lead. We also have Temuera Morrison and Rachel House, who both spring from Maori descent. Dwayne Johnson is a huge star, but his Samoan background also connects to this story. Johnson is the right choice to play the larger-than-life Maui, a self-absorbed demigod that is the key to Moana’ quest. Johnson (aka The Rock) even gets a chance to sing the memorable “You’re Welcome” and call out Maui’s huge contributions to this world.

In typical Disney fashion, the story gives Moana a few silly companions. They’re less grating than the normal examples, thankfully. One is a dim-witted chicken that delivers some big laughs. The other is actually the water itself, which gives Moana much-needed assistance. Bearing a surprising resemblance to the alien water creature from The Abyss, this being gives a few nudges to help its chosen one. Moana is yet another hero that’s uniquely qualified for this quest, but that point isn’t heavy-handed. There are no messiah moments. In fact, her love for the water does separate Moana from her people. It doesn’t feel like a stretch for her to be the choice.

Gramma Tala, voiced by Rachel House, gives encouragement to Moana.

Another key relationship is between Moana and Gramma Tala (Rachel House) — kindred spirits that both stand out from the norm on the island. We’ve seen this type of character in past Disney films (particularly Grandmother Willow in Pocahontas). However, the way that Tala approaches Moana with a little bit of mischief helps her feel new. She offers sage advice but also lets the girl find her own way. Tala’s final scene comes at the right time and veers away from just following the “wise old sage” trend. House’s deft voice work makes Tala click as her own character, not just as a helper for Moana.

What’s also refreshing is the lack of constant in-your-face jokes. With the exception of obvious peeing in the ocean gags, it’s more laid back than standard family films. A well-cast Jemaine Clement does get a lively scene as the giant crab Tamatoa. His performance of “Shiny” wouldn’t feel out of place on a Flight of the Conchords album. I also enjoyed the nod to Mad Max (and maybe Waterworld?) in the brief encounter with the Kakamora pirates. These energetic scenes help to make the 103-minute running time flow quite easily.

I have two young girls and have seen quite a few family films with them. Most are pleasant but don’t stick with you for very long. Moana is one of the exceptions where my opinion has grown stronger the more I think about it. The songs are still bouncing around in my mind. Directors Ron Clements and Don Musker led Disney classics like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, and they understand how to shape an effective tale. In this uncertain post-election haze, it’s refreshing to experience such a beautiful and graceful film. There’s a joy in taking this journey, and I can’t wait to see it again.

December 30, 2013

2013 Blind Spots Series: Millennium Actress (2001)

Millennium Actress, directed by Satoshi Kon

We’ve all faced split-second decisions that can drastically change our lives. If we aren’t careful, those choices can haunt our dreams and cripple our current progress. A crush becomes an obsession, and the pursuit of regaining a magical moment is rarely wise. Romantic comedies may teach us that a happy ending is on the way, but it’s just a movie. This unending search is at the heart of Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress, which provides a much-different approach to the biopic. The animation shows us flashbacks that connect with the present and the movie world. The 70-year-old Chiyoko Fujiwara (Miyoko Shôji) spends her adult life trying to find a painter she met for just a short time. This quest sidetracks her film career and eventually sends her into seclusion. While recounting her past for the TV journalist Genya Tachibana (Shôzô Iizuka), she creates a world that mixes reality with fiction and sends them on a remarkable emotional journey.

Millennium Actress, released in 2001

The question hanging over this story is how much clarity is needed to keep us engaged. For much of this film, it isn’t clear whether we’re seeing a film shoot, real life, or something new. Genya and his camera man Kyoji Ida (Masaya Onosaka) often appear within these visions and further complicate our understanding. They’re hardly innocent bystanders, and Genya frequently saves Chiyoko from dangerous forces. It’s a brilliant way to present her emotional state in her younger days, but the disorientation is tricky for viewers. If we’re willing to take the ride and follow the story to its tragic end, getting accustomed to this style isn’t so difficult. Animation is the perfect format for this original take since anything can happen. Like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, our memories of the past can be a destructive force. They’re haunting and painful images that still make an impact many years later.

Chiyoko’s memories are unlocked by a mysterious key that brings a supernatural feeling. I wouldn’t read it that simply, though. Instead, it’s her connection with this device that opens the locks into her brain about the past. Genya’s arrival plays a role given his surprise participation in her actual life. This revelation changes our impression of his appearances in the earlier sequences. Genya’s role as a protector has morphed into something more universal throughout her memories. It’s tricky to delve too much into her psychology because the facts are so minimal. The gut punch is the reveal about the painter who’s dominated so much of Chiyoko’s thoughts. This brings a new layer of tragedy to the entire experience despite the energy on screen. Another recurring image is a fortune teller who predicts her unfortunate fate. This force seems to be an external villain watching everything, but the truth may be closer to Chiyoko herself. This menace connects with her personal self-sabotage and reminds us that the futile search won’t lead to happy results.

Satoshi Kon's Millennium Actress

Millennium Actress is the type of movie that’s going to lose some viewers in its first half hour. Unlike Kon’s equally confounding Paprika, it provides some revelations that clarify what we’ve observed. The question of what’s actually happening slips away by the end. Kon provides enough information to keep the story from becoming pure chaos, and that’s the key factor in its success. I’ll admit to being lost in the early going, but the striking animation and narrative energy kept my interest. It’s an intriguing experiment that only grows in your mind with each passing day. The creative animation gives Kon’s vision a chance to shine in a way that wouldn’t be possible through live action. He’s doing more than showing pretty images and is delving into emotional worlds that we rarely see on screen.

This post concludes my 2013 Blind Spots series, which focused on cult films from The A.V. Club's New Cult Canon. I’ll be continuing this series next year with choices voted on by readers. Click here to check out the 12 blind spots chosen for 2014. I can’t wait to get started with this remarkable group.

January 21, 2013

Paprika Review (Satoshi Kon)

Atsuko Chiba speaks with Paprika in Satoshi Kon's inventive film.

I'm So Confused Marathon: Paprika

Thirteen years into the 21st century, there's still no clear indication on where we're heading from a technological perspective. We've largely abandoned space exploration and won't be reaching other planets anytime soon. On the home front, however, advances are happening rapidly and making devices from just a few years ago feel out of date. Will we reach a point where technology overwhelms our humanity? Fringe offers a telling example with The Observers, who were like us but lost emotions because of the technology. They're brilliant machines with amazing capabilities, but that means little without a connection to other members of the species. Changes are happening so fast that controlling them seems very difficult. Paprika shows us a world with incredible advances that may collapse into oblivion. Our dreams are pushing into reality, and humanity isn't ready for the dire consequences.

Satoshi Kon (Millennium Actress) creates a landscape where anything can happen, yet there's a skeptical feeling we might need to slow down our rise to this god-like status. In the near future, a revolutionary tool called the DC Mini gives users the ability to observe people's dreams and venture inside them. Doctor Atsuko Chiba (Megumi Hayashibara) uses her alter-ego "Paprika" in that world to help her patients, but a serious problem arises when the devices are stolen. While Chiba and her team try to locate the guilty party, the line between dreams and reality blurs and threatens their entire world's existence.

The world around Atsuko Chiba is turning to total chaos in Paprika.

Paprika was an excellent choice for this mind-benders marathon because there's so much happening in every scene. Satoshi Kon's first movie Perfect Blue also explored the line between reality and fantasy and partially inspired Darren Aronofsky for Black Swan. This was his last movie and offers a striking look at a dream world gone wrong. These images make Inception look pretty simple by comparison. The challenge for Kon is balancing his creativity with the need for a story that makes sense. For the most part, he succeeds in delivering a movie that provides visceral thrills without losing our attention. It nearly goes off the rails near the end when chaos reigns, but Kon holds it together just enough to give a satisfying end. This is quite a statement given the fact that it closes with a battle of naked giants. The talented artist creates a world where virtually anything is possible, and the stunning animation is more than able to back up his ambitions.

In a out-of-control movie like this one, there's no single "big twist" to explain everything. The story is filled with constant movements between dreams and reality and rarely takes a moment to catch its breath. When even a simple walk to a Ferris wheel is fraught with danger, nothing is certain. Evidence points towards Kei Himuro (Daisuke Sakaguchi), but that's just a smokescreen for a nefarious plot from more powerful figures. They're looking to do a lot more than simply observe people's dreams.

One element that isn't a surprise is the involvement of Doctor Morio Osanai (Kōichi Yamadera) in the conspiracy. He spends most of his screen time complaining about a lack of respect from Chiba. Osanai's obviously a villain, but it's still disturbing when he confronts Paprika and basically rips her apart to reveal her true form. She may not be "human" but is still part of Chiba's personality. It's this type of nasty moment that moves this film beyond a childish fantasy. Vicious acts in the dream world connect to real life and can even kill them if people aren't careful.

Detective Toshimi Konakawa talks to Paprika about his dreams.

Beyond Chiba, another key character is Detective Toshimi Konakawa (Akio Ōtsuka). He's struggling with a vivid memory that torments his dreams. The story opens inside his consciousness as we journey through movie settings like a circus, a Tarzan film, and even a train fight straight out of From Russia with Love. He's chasing a young man who's falling to his death, but the situation's more complicated. The guy is always just out of reach, and it's maddening for the detective. He's working with Paprika to dig through his issues, but he also gets embroiled in the main plot. Konakawa's story is enjoyable because he's traveling through the world of movies. In an inspired moment, Paprika eats popcorn in a theater and watches his dreams. Characters watch these dreams like movies, and that thematic connection is clear throughout this tale. The villainous parade of toys is like a kids' film gone mad, and that makes it even creepier than your typical monsters.

It's challenging to choose a few highlights in a movie filled with outlandish sequences. I'll start with the continually expanding toy parade, which begins as a fairly benign entity. When the sinister dolls start threatening people and causing mayhem, it transforms into something much creepier. On the mellow side, I also enjoyed the set-up of the online bar where two friendly hosts greet Konakawa. This digital meeting place with Paprika lacks the craziness of the other dreams, but its logic makes sense. The hosts play a key role in the finale and bring a quiet grace to a movie with a lot of noise.

I should also mention the hulking man-child Kōsaku Tokita (Tōru Furuya), the genius behind the DC Mini. He's close friends with Chiba, and she cares for him with a sense of pity. We first see him being helped from the elevator after getting stuck inside. Even his innocent demeanor is corrupted by the evil forces when he takes the form of a giant robot. It shows the danger from nearly every corner of this world as dreams and reality merge together.

The villainous toy parade hits the streets in the animated film Paprika.

The benefits for Paprika in a re-watch are the tremendous amount of images being thrown at you in a short period of time. Of course, this positive is also the movie's crutch. Kon is delving into serious themes about the dangers of our reliance on technology. He makes some good points, but it's such a busy film that it can be overwhelming at times. In a sense, this approach matches the massive influx of information coming from the Internet every day. Our world can feel like it's out of control, and there's no way to keep up with all the data. There are no giant dolls knocking over buildings (yet), but that closing riot is a clear warning. It's a pretty obvious message that could feel heavy-handed in lesser hands, but there's enough fun within the mess to make it an exciting ride.

Other Marathon Reviews

Black Swan
Jacob's Ladder
The Jacket

December 24, 2012

Post Disney Renaissance Marathon: Tarzan (1999)


Despite the title of this marathon, the general thinking is that the Disney Renaissance ended with the release of Tarzan in 1999. The company tried to recapture the magic with movies like Treasure Planet and Atlantis: The Lost Empire, but the shift was dramatic. Pixar became the new leader during the 2000s and changed the genre with 3D animation. Disney recaptured much of this feel with The Princess and the Frog in 2009, but the must-see status was gone. I wasn't interested in Tarzan when it was originally released and didn't realize it was such a financial success. It earned more than $440 million worldwide and did better than its two recent predecessors. That's quite a haul for a film that isn't considered part of the company's recent heyday. Critics also gave serious praise to this release, and it earned an Academy Award for Best Song. Would my response match up to this lofty status? Let's check out the questions before I get overtaken by a horde of baboons!

What's this story about?
When an English couple is stranded on the African coast with their baby, they try to make the best of it and build a tree house. Sadly, the leopardess Sabor kills them and orphans the boy. He's saved by the gorilla Kala (Glenn Close), who names him Tarzan and raises him as her own. He tries to fit in with gorillas like Terk (Rosie O'Donnell) and struggles to gain the acceptance of the leader Kerchak (Lance Henriksen). As an adult, Tarzan (Tony Goldwyn) realizes that he's human when he meets Jane (Minnie Driver) and her father. They arrive on a peaceful expedition, but their guide Clayton (Brian Blessed) has nastier goals. While the evil guy plans his next move, Tarzan has a potential romance with Jane. They come from different worlds, so it isn't clear if they have a real future.

Jane (voiced by Minnie Driver) in Tarzan

Is Tarzan on par with the most popular movies from the Disney Renaissance?
I'm truly surprised to say that Tarzan is a movie that is worthy of being mentioned with classics like The Little Mermaid and The Lion King. It's very similar to the latter but still finds ways to provide an original experience. The combination of interesting lead characters, striking animation, and excellent songs leads to an entertaining movie. The opening sequence with Tarzan and his parents is handled remarkably to set up his life among the apes. We're immediately drawn into his plight as the lone human trying to prove his worth among the skeptical mammals. Clayton is a pretty generic villain, but he plays a relatively small role in the story. Jane is one of the most engaging heroines in a recent Disney movie. Minnie Driver's voice work is strong and makes us root for her to get a happy ending. The only major negative is the character of Terk, a painful sidekick for Tarzan. It's clear that she's set up with Tantor (Wayne Knight) as the Timon and Pumbaa of this film, but they aren't in the same ballpark. Rosie O'Donnell is grating and unnecessary but doesn't receive enough screen time to really diminish the success.

How is the animation? Has it lost any of its luster today?
Another positive element is the animation, which even improves on the attractive work in Mulan. The "Deep Canvas" 3D rendering technique provides a much deeper look that moves beyond traditional animation. It lacks the artificial look of much 3D animation while gaining the ability to show detailed backgrounds. When Tarzan is sliding down the trees and working comfortably in his environment, it feels believable while still presenting a stunning world. Even though it differs greatly from what we see in modern Pixar films, there's still a timeless feeling to Tarzan that keeps it from being dated. Unlike Hercules, it doesn't feel stuck in the '90s and still provides a striking experience today.

Kala (voiced by Glenn Close) in Disney's Tarzan

Do the songs deserve a place with the best Disney songs of that time period?
I may have a soft spot for the music of Phil Collins, but I enjoyed the songs. If you find him grating, then it's going to be a tougher ride. He shows up during the first few minutes and gets plenty of time. The big number is the Oscar winner "You'll Be in My Heart", which became a pop hit. "Strangers Like Me" is a fun upbeat tune that fits nicely inside this story. In most cases, Collins is an omniscient voice supporting the action. The music feels similar to Elton John's work on The Lion King, though it falls a bit short of those songs. Even so, it's still the strongest group of tunes from the three movies in this marathon.

My three-and-a-half year old daughter Elise watched this movie. What did she think?
Elise was excited to watch this movie and hooked on the songs. Apparently she's a fan of the smooth grooves of Phil Collins. She enjoyed the music and some of the animal moments, but lost interest in the human story. At one point, she made it clear repeatedly that "Mulan is better than Tarzan." One interesting part of watching these movies with her has been noticing how certain parts could be scary for kids. The opening chase where Sabor tries to kill Kala and Tarzan may be harrowing for young ones. Elise handled it like a champ and wasn't scared, but it's clear that it wasn't her favorite part. The death of Tarzan's parents was subtle enough to not be clear, but that type of loss could be tricky. I focused on what was happening on the screen and didn't dwell too much on the murder.

Tarzan and Jane in Disney's Tarzan

Has Disney made good use of this film in its theme parks?
Tarzan is easily the most well-represented of the three films at the Disney theme parks. It actually has its own full attraction with the Tarzan's Treehouse at Disneyland. Formerly the home of the characters from the Swiss Family Robinson, this walk-through spot in Adventureland includes presentations that call out moments from the movie. It's a nice place for kids to burn off some energy and offers a good view of the park. Fans of the main character might have a hard time finding him in the parks, though. His live show Tarzan Rocks! was replaced at the Animal Kingdom by Finding Nemo: The Musical in 2006. Although it was a box-office success, this film doesn't have the status of the big '90s movies. That makes the absence of more Tarzan appearances today more understandable.

Next week, I'll explore a different sphere with mind benders, starting with Black Swan.