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Like it or not, Disney ‘s ‘Frozen’ deserves the animated-film Oscar

Update March 2: Frozen got the Oscar, Let It Go got the best song Oscar, but Disney’s short film, Get a Horse, didn’t. That Oscar went to Mr. Hublot. Nice to see an outsider get this one.

A Disney animated film is up for an Oscar, no surprise, but no film from Pixar is, which is … shocking.

I know many people disdain Disney animated films as products of the big fantasy factory that shovels out carefully calculated products geared first, to make lots of money and second, earn a bunch of awards. Plus, they perpetuate the “girls should be princesses” trope, or they’re full of sappy songs, or they’re wrecking the source material. All perhaps true in one form or another in the past, but this year the studio released a film that pushes back against some of those tropes.

Frozen will deserve the win beyond being just a Disney film. It’s already won the best-film Annie from the International Animated Film Society (IAFS), which is animators giving other animators awards.

At first glance, the Disney “princess” factor is in full play here with not one but two princesses, daughters of the king and queen of Arendale. Princess Elsa possesses the talent to create ice and snow at the wave of her hand, while her sister, Anna, doesn’t (why one has it and the other doesn’t is never explained; it’s one of those things you just have to go with). When they are girls, Elsa accidentally injures Anna seriously enough to require some odd rock-borne magic from the chief of trolls to save her life.

To prevent this from happening again to Anna or anyone else, the king and queen lock Elsa away with instructions to suppress her power, to never use it again, to never let anyone else see it, to deny its existence. (Fill in your favorite metaphor here.) The king and queen go on a journey, but their ship sinks. Elsa, the oldest, becomes queen, but on her coronation day, she refuses to approve Anna’s marriage to handsome Hans. In the ensuing argument, Elsa’s power is unleashed and she flees, leaving Arendale locked in a permanent winter. Anna, believing she was the cause of Elsa’s anger, chases her to try get her to come home, but that leads to more disaster, which plays out to the point where Elsa is about to be executed by a usurper to the throne.

Two princesses? Throw in a comedy relief from a talking snowman and an clever deer sidekick, some songs, and we’re off again rolling merrily along on the Disney marketing juggernaut. Another brilliant success for the giant corporation swallowing everyone’s childhood.

Except—there are things going on here that keep the film from being Just Another Disney Cartoon. There are lessons to be learned, especially about throwing yourself at the first handsome prince you see. And that favorite “true love will save you” theme Disney loves to milk again and again gets a different interpretation here. Both of these add a dimension to Frozen that moves the film from the usual Disney offering into something more complex—and much more satisfying. Even the sappy songs get a remake. The Oscar-nominated song Let It Go is not just a princess pining for her prince to show up and carry her off to a “happily ever after” ending but a bold statement about acceptance of self against all opprobrium.

Is any of this due to the influence of Pixar? Pixar was cleaning Disney’s clock with the Toy Story series, Monsters, Inc., Wall-E, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, Cars—films that were winning Oscars almost every year. So, to handle the competition, Disney bought Pixar. Two Pixar executives, John Lassiter and Ed Cantwell, became Disney animation executives and brought some of the Pixar operating procedures along, and it seems to be paying off. The last few Disney animated films have been big improvements over earlier ones that didn’t do so good (Atlantis, Treasure Planet). Tangled showed the seeds of this change when Rapunzel, known for her long, long, blond hair, sacrificed it all for her “true love.” The film was sassy, funny, a bit subversive, and had one of the best horses in animated films.

Then came Wreck-It Ralph, which should have won the Oscar for best animated feature for 2012. Yes, Vanellope von Schweetz can be irritating, but the film has heart and soul. It lost to Brave because Brave was a Pixar film and Pixar films are always better than Disney, right? Not this time. Brave was gorgeous to look at, but it was flawed in story and character. It just did not rise to the usual Pixar heights. Normally, we’d expect the same kind of situation this year, but (horrors!) Pixar’s 2013 film, Monsters University, wasn’t even nominated. (It did not deserve to be. A pleasant film, but it didn’t break any new ground like its predecessor did.) And then we find out that Pixar isn’t going to have a film at all in 2014.

Does this mean Disney is sucking the life out of Pixar? Has Disney decided that the best way to deal with the upstart is to hollow it out and transfer the creativity to it? Will Pixar be relegated to making more hum-drum sequels to Cars and Monsters, Inc.? I prefer to believe Pixar delayed its next film because it wanted to ensure the film lives up to its standards. Pixar does has a couple of interesting-sounding films in its release schedule, so I’m not ready to give up on them completely. But I am concerned.

These three films—Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen—represent yet another renaissance for Disney studios, the first since the Little MermaidBeauty and the BeastLion KingAladdin tetralogy of the late ’80s, early ’90s. For a while, the quality was slipping (except for the really subversive Lilo & Stitch) until these came along. I just hope the creators are careful and don’t slavishly imitate these in their future films. Signs of a formula are evident already: Frozen‘s princesses as children bear a resemblance to Vanellope of Wreck-It Ralph; as adults, they resemble Rapunzel of Tangled; Olaf, the talking snowman of Frozen, resembles in both design and sound King Candy in Wreck-It Ralph; the handsome prince of Frozen shares the same DNA with the handsome thief of Tangled; Sven, the reindeer of Frozen, has a lot in common with Maximus, the horse in Tangled. And though no one stopped and sang in Wreck-It Ralph, Tangled and Frozen are harbingers of the return of songs to Disney animation movies. That’s OK, mostly, but it can be overdone.

Frozen has been in development for a long time. James B. Stewart, in his 2005 book, Disney War, about the Michael Eisner years at the studio, describes a creative meeting of animators he was allowed to attend with Eisner on June 11, 2003. Among the films discussed was one based on the Hans Christian Anderson tale The Snow Queen, something that had been in the works long before then. That’s now Frozen, the gender-neutral name given because studio execs are convinced boys won’t go see a film about girls. That’s why the tale of Rapunzel was called Tangled. It’s all reportedly based on the not-so-good showing of The Princess and the Frog, but I doubt giving that film a neutral name (Day of the Frog? The Magic Frog? The Frog and I? The Frog Dairies? Beauty and the Frog-beast? The Little Frog-maid? The Frog King? Froggie Goes a-Courtin’?) would have attracted that many more boys.

(As last year, a Disney short cartoon is also nominated. When Get a Horse, which precedes Frozen in the theaters, starts, you think you’re going to see an old black-and-white Mickey Mouse cartoon resuscitated from the vaults, but then characters start falling out of the cartoon as if they were landing in the theater. When this happens, the characters are in color and rendered by computer much more realistically [as much as a talking mice standing erect wearing shorts or skirts can be]. Kudos to the directors, Lauren MacMullen  and Dorothy McKim, for making an engaging little blast from the past. The problem is, it will probably get the Oscar simply because it’s a Disney film. I just wish some of the independent and student animators would get more   recognition in this category.)

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If Frozen has any competition, it’s going to be The Wind Rises, perhaps Hayao Miyazaki’s last film (he’s said this before). Miyazaki is the genius behind Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle and many other Studio Ghibli films. The film might be handicapped by its subject matter, the man who developed the warplane known as the Zero, which was one of the weapons that allowed the Japanese Empire to conquer so much territory in World War II.

Why that topic? It indulges Miyazaki’s love of flying, something that works its way into almost every Miyazaki film. Plus, it’s a story about holding onto one’s beliefs and persevering despite setbacks and roadblocks, another favorite Miyazaki theme.

This is all based on what I’ve read about The Wind Rises because I haven’t seen the film. It doesn’t open here until Feb. 28, two days before the Oscar show. Miyazaki won the writing award Annie from IAFS (though he wasn’t there to collect it) which is why this film could rain on Frozen‘s parade.

(One of three lifetime achievement awards IAFS handed out this year went to Katsuhiro Otumo, who directed Akira, the film that kickstarted (to coin a phrase) the anime boom in the United States. His films are what we think of when we say “Japanese anime” [see Steamboy and Metropolis, where he was the screenwriter], This year, Possessions, one of the four films in Short Peace, an anthology of Japanese short films Otumo helped produce, received an Oscar nomination for animated short film. Otomo’s contribution, Combustible, was shortlisted but not nominated.)

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The Croods (Dreamworks Animation) makes no attempt to copy a Disney princess. The teen-aged Eeep isn’t a tiny-waisted, perfectly coiffured, shy and delicate thing, she’s a rough-and-tumble stone-age girl with a yen for adventure. She’s stocky, has a low forehead, freckles and a wide face. She’s engaging, though, showing that with little effort, not all women have to look like models to succeed. The design of the characters won an Annie, which was a nice recognition for this film.

The story essentially is about the clash of Neanderthals and more “modern” humans, such as the Cro-Magnons. This isn’t stated, but the brutish, timid nature of Eep’s family is contrasted against the new guy, Guy (clever, huh?), who has a forehead, narrower features and knows how to make shoes, build fires and can lead them to the Land That Won’t Blow Up. We get very little of Guy’s background, why he’s alone and where the rest of his tribe is. (There’d better be some others, otherwise Eep’s brother, Thunk, is left forever without a mate because the Croods seem to be the only survivors of their people. This certainly makes it easier [and less expensive] for the producers, but it does leave a lot of holes in the story that viewers might ask themselves at the end.)

The best word I can find for The Croods as a film is amiable. It doesn’t break new ground, the characters for the most part are enjoyable to watch and the story of a family trying to cope with huge changes in environment, immigration and acceptance of outsiders. Sometimes the slapstick gets a little much, but it stays on track for the most part. There are several entertaining moments, such as the one spoiled by the trailer when Eep gets her first pair of shoes. That moment is funny, but it comes in a larger scene where it turns out that in order to make it to the new land, the family, which to this point didn’t worry about their feet much, finds that protecting them suddenly is a matter of survival.

At the end, though, The Croods does what Disney films do all the time and that is shy away from the sad ending. This might be because of some execs and staffers once worked for Disney, but also keep in the mind Steven Spielberg is a partner in Dreamworks and Spielberg has an aversion to sad endings. In The Croods, the father, Grug, who has evolved from a man who protects his family from any kind of change to a man who reluctantly accepts it and then does whatever he can to ensure the family’s survival, is facing death by volcano. We get a few minutes of the family grieving, but then father appears almost miraculously unhurt. It undermines the story, because the last scenes are of the family gamboling in their new home, with the unanswered question are they the only humans on the planet? And from this bunch the rest us evolved?

Oh, the humanity.

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Despicable Me 2 (Illumination/Universal) is about change, too, with the continuation of the development of Gru from evil villain to loving father. In the first Despicable Me, because he was pretty well into his life of villainy, it was an easy arc to follow as he fell in love with the three orphan girls he’d originally adopted as part of an evil plot and his willingness to throw it all over for their sake. Now that that’s been established, any follow-up is going to lose that edge.

So it is with DM2. Gru seems to be happy with his lot as a dad, taking good care of his charges. Having him fall back to his evil ways and ignoring the girls is right out as a plot line, so something else has to explain why he would get back into the game. So we have him being recruited against his will by the Anti-Villain League or something to help thwart the nefarious plans of some other bad guy (who, it turns out, also is a father but what the relationship with his son is and what happens to him at the end isn’t really explored except for a gratuitous scene to make him hateful).

This means most of the film is taken up with Gru as Dad. Gru must go underground, but here “underground” is a shopping mall, giving an excuse to include the girls. And have one fall for a boy, giving Gru’s father-instincts something to work against.

The film is given over to Gru’s new life, sometimes too much so. Yes, the girls do have a father now, but they also need a mother. So a new character whose only purpose is to eventually become that mother is introduced. Fortunately, Lucy Wilde is a fairly eclectic figure, confident, competent and ditzy all at the same time. This appeal prevents her from becoming just a one-note character. And, of course, the girls fall in love with her and she with them, so there will be no evil-stepmother stuff here.

And, of course, there are the minions. What a marketing masterstroke! Disney must be jealous. Little fuzzy creatures with their own language whose main job seems to be just being utterly silly. In DM1, they were assistants in the evil plots; in DM2, they’re assistants in cleaning house, watching the kids and producing the inedible jelly that Gru chose as his means to become a legitimate businessman. But the bad guy comes up with a way to turn the cute yellow guys into awful purple evil minions who can chomp on anything (and who must have super-duper digestive systems). But Dr. Nefario, who had left Gru’s employ over the bad guy-good guy thing, saves the day when he realizes what the jelly really can do.

DM2 is pleasant enough; no real challenges here. It has excellent visuals, especially when thousands of purple minions are climbing the building trying to get Gru. And there are some genuinely funny moments and lines in here, showing that writers, animators and other creators aren’t just phoning it in despite this being a sequel. Among the many pieces of old songs you’ll hear are original works by Pharrell Williams, who adds a distinctly different flavor to the usual animated soundtrack. Disney could take a lesson here.

A pleasant enough film, but does it have a chance to beat Frozen or The Wind Rises? No. If it does, though, like The Croods, it’ll be one of those big upsets a lot of people like to see in the Oscar races.

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The fifth nominee is Ernest & Celestine (GKIDS), which I haven’t seen. It’s available only on Region 2 DVD (which is pretty much everywhere else but the United States), though Amazon says the Region 1 DVD will be released in June. UPDATE 23 Feb.: The film opens March 14 in New York and Los Angeles (that coastal thing again) then expand to the rest of the country with an English-language soundtrack.

The film looks like a traditional hand-drawn animated film, but these days, it’s hard to tell. The story is about the relationship between a bear and a mouse in a world where bears live on the surface and mice in the underground tunnels and both hate each other. It looks good and it’s been getting high praise from the film festivals it has played in.

If it doesn’t win, and it’s unlikely to, the nomination at least brings attention to it, the same way it did for The Triplets of Belleville (2003) and The Secret of Kells (2008). Both certainly differ from the American style of animated films, but both are outstanding examples of animation possibilities. (But they were foreign, you see, and Americans generally don’t like foreign films, and so they would have been overlooked without the nominations.) The producers of Ernest & Celestine are the same ones who produced both of those films, so we can probably surmise that the quality of the film will be good.

And who knows? Lightning might strike. And it wouldn’t upset me that much, either.