‘Zootopia’ and Disney Progressivism Then and Now

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Before we get into this review, let me do a brief recount of Disney’s history with social progress. We have this picture of Walt Disney, and the Disney corporation as a whole, as very conservative-valued (let’s be clear: I’m talking about Conservatism as a broad political and social philosophy, and not in its America a.k.a. “Republican” version). And with good reason. Movies like Mary Poppins and Cinderella have deeply conservative undertones. For most of its history, the company has tried to play it safe, and has done everything it can to maximize profits by not offending sensibilities. But Disney’s history as a conservative conglomerate may have as much to do with the politics of the man himself as it does with the history of what has happened when Disney has tried to be Progressive.

In 1946, Disney released Song of the South, feature-length movie adaptation of the Uncle Remus stories. The film, which depicts the relationship between a young white boy and an old storytelling ex-slave (Uncle Remus) in the Reconstruction South was meant as a fable about story-telling and acceptance, but while it was a box office success, it was also quite controversial. The NAACP pronounced itself against the film, calling it racist; and though it played U.S. theaters as recently as 1986, the backlash against the film is so big it has never been released in home video, and it’s practically impossible to find a copy these days without ordering from white supremacist website.

Now, I’m not here to discuss the racism in Song of the South (if you want to read a great article about that topic, I recommend this piece by Odie Henderson), but to observe how the backlash to Disney’s early (and misguided) attempts at a Progressive message might have soured him on the idea of making race and other Social Problems a factor in his movies. This adherence to Old-Fashioned values is perhaps part of why Disney’s studio nose-dived in popularity in the seventies and eighties (that, and the death of Walt himself, which undoubtedly played a major factor).

Curiously enough, Disney regained its footing in the nineties, by embracing an old musical aesthetic and marrying to more modern concerns. The studio had its first attempt at a feminist heroine in Beauty and the Beast, and started setting its movies in different cultures. Disney’s big attempt at Progressivism in the nineties came with Pocahontasa beautiful-looking movie, that misguidedly attempts to turn the arrival of Europeans to the Americans into a love story, casually (but perhaps not intentionally) neglecting the tragic nature of the effects this encounter had on Native American history.

Similarly, the last movie I would describe as a transparent attempt at delving into the Progressive well by Disney would be The Princess and the Froganother beautiful-looking whose problematic elements made headlines even before it was released. People protested when they found out Disney’s first-ever African American Princess was actually going to be a maid, and so Tiana was changed into a working class waitress with a dream of opening a restaurant of her own. Even in its finished version, The Princess and the Frog elicited complaints that the titular Princess wasn’t really a princess, and that she spent most of the movie’s running-time as a frog. Both problems of depiction when you are talking about the first and basically only black protagonist in a Disney Animation’s history.

This is all to say that Disney just can’t get it right. And even though they have themselves to blame, I also wouldn’t begrudge them if they didn’t want to attempt any other Progressive idea in the future. After all, it only seems to bring them trouble.

Now, let us talk about Zootopia. Because for all intents and purposes, this is Disney’s most effective and transparent (in a way) attempt at tackling the issue of Race Relations in America. And even then, the message has problems of its own.

The issue of transparency is interesting, because not only did Disney decide to take humans out of the equation altogether and make this a race parable told through funny talking animals, but because the lack of human characters afforded them the luxury to not have to advertise the fact that this was a movie about race. Disney’s sneaky strategy of not revealing their movie’s themes has payed off recently. Don’t you remember how the marketing materials for Frozen -Disney’s biggest hit ever- didn’t let anyone know this was a movie about sisterhood until they actually saw the film?

Anyway, Zootopia takes place in a fantasy world populated by talking animals. Our protagonist is a bunny by the name of Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin). Ever since she was a child, Judy wanted to be a police officer in the big city of Zootopia, and thanks to the “Mammals Inclusion Program” (this world’s version of Affirmative Action), she gets to be the first ever bunny cop in the force. But Judy is undermined by her colleagues for being a girl and a rabbit. The plot kicks into gear when Judy decides to prove her worth, and takes on a case that ends up unraveling a major conspiracy that involves fourteen missing animals.

The interesting thing about the conspiracy is that all the missing animals are predators. You see, in the world of Zootopia, there is a clear distinction between Predators and Prey, and this is where the race allegory comes into play. Predators represent only 10% of this world’s population, and Prey have a long list of preconceptions about what kind of people Predators are. After all, there used to be a time -millennia ago- when Predators would hunt and eat Prey. As a young bunny, Judy had a violent encounter with a bully Fox. “It’s the kind of behavior you’d expect from a Fox” say her Parents. “He only happened to be a Fox” says Judy. Midway through her adventure, Judy teams up with sly trickster Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), who also happens to be a Fox.  Because this is a kids’ movie I don’t need to tell you that Judy and Nick learn to accept and respect each other by the end of the movie. And thus, we practically come full circle from the days of Song of the South, when Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox were enemies to a movie were rabbit and fox live together in harmony.

But let’s look deeper into Zootopia’s allegory. There’s a lot to unpack here. The first thing that jumped at me is the movie’s decision to make Predators the minority species and Prey the hegemony (relatively speaking). If you wanted to create a reflection of America’s own history with race relations, I think it would be more appropriate for the Prey to be the historically minoritized group, and Predators into the oppressors who must struggle with their ancestor’s behavior and history.

The way in which Zootopia uses Predators to represent the minoritized group is interesting in that the Prey citizens of Zootopia have a deep fear of the Predators “going savage”, by which they mean them reverting to their ancestral stage, back when they would’ve violently hunted 90% of the population. This idea taps quite effectively into white America’s fears of what would happen when minorities are empowered, but it also uses the very loaded term “savage”, and doesn’t come unscathed. The sometimes brash, but always insightful film critic Devin Faraci wrote about this particular problem in his review of Zootopia, and explains why the idea of making Predators the metaphorical equivalent for black people is fundamentally flawed. Here’s a particularly good quote:

“At one point Judy Hopps talks about how predators are biologically given to violent behavior, and it’s really offensive to her predator friends but get this – she’s right. In the context of the allegorical world being built she is 100% correct. In the past predators did kill other animals as part of their biological imperative. They do come from a heritage of violence and savagery. Despite the film’s attempt to make the appeal to biology look wrong, its allegorical base affirms the most racist assumptions about black people – they come from savagery.”

This contradiction in Zootopia‘s analogy stuck in the back of my mind for most of the movie. Although I have to say that the movie very deliberately introduces a third-act reveal that makes clear what the filmmakers were going for with the whole “going savage” bit, and how it plays into their message about tolerance and acceptance. Without going into spoilers and such, let’s just say that they make it clear that the citizen of Zootopia’s worry that Predators will “go savage” is misguided. That being said, and going back to Faraci’s point, there is a historical reason within the movie why one could consider that Predators devolving into their primal nature could be a legitimate problem.

That’s why I think the movie might have worked better if the roles were flipped. When we compare the movie to our own world -and please don’t be all “why do you have to bring real-life politics and history into a movie about talking animals”, because the movie very clearly wants to engage in such a conversation through its themes- we see that the history of white people in America (as slave-owners, and accomplices of a racist society) fits better with the Predators’ history. On the other hand, the filmmakers have a clear interest in representing white people’s fears and perceptions of blacks and other minorities as “dangerous”, and I don’t know how that would work if the metaphor was flipped. But now we’re getting into speculation of what the movie should and should’ve done and we’ve stopped talking about the movie itself.

And there’s a reason for that. The weird thing about Zootopia is that its central racial metaphor, despite its fundamental problems, is the movie’s biggest strength and most commendable aspect. A late second act development, for example, depicts a moment of mass hysteria and exploitation of racial (or inter-species) tension by the media. The animals of Zootopia give over to a kind of mob-mentality that until Donal Trump’s recent rise to political success could have only been expected from the citizens of Springfield. There is a certain boldness in what this movie for kids released by Disney wants to tackle that is nothing but commendable.

The sad part of this situation is that outside of the metaphor, Zootopia is merely an ok movie. It’s got a solid mystery at its center, and a bunch of funny jokes, but that’s it. A couple years ago, Tangled and Frozen promised a new Golden Age for Disney Animation, but the studio -as it usually does when it finds success- seems to have settled into a predictable formula. It took them a long time, but Disney has settled into the business of Computer-Generated Animation, and has found refuge by focusing on plot and ideas and neglecting visuals.

This might seem contradictory coming from a person who is constantly demanding that movies actually be about something, but cinema -and animation more than any other medium- is built around the grammar of images. The cliché about animation is that it allows you to do anything, and the people over at Disney -who has historically led the charge in technology and innovation as far as animation style is concerned- seem to have lost interest in telling stories through images.

There isn’t a single visual moment or sequence in Zootopia that sticks with me as a feat of animation. If your knee-jerk reaction is to disagree with me, I urge you to think back and tell me what are the most memorable moments from Disney’s recent animated movies. For me, it’s the lanterns rising from the sea in Tangled, and Hiro trying to sneak Baymax around his house in Big Hero 6. These moments carry their power not in words, but in images. So does the moment when Maleficent turns into a dragon in Sleeping Beauty, when Belle and Beast share their first dance in Beauty and the Beast, and when Simba grows up walking on a log alongside Timon and Pumba in The Lion King. These are all movies that find power in their craft. They use animation not as an excuse, but as a means to tell their story.

Grade: 6 out of 10

2016 Movie Preview

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January is hard for moviegoers who’ve already caught up with most of the late-year Oscar nominees. But while the world sees The Force Awakens again, and I watch World of Tomorrow on a loop (now available on Netflix!), let us take a look at the movies we’ll be seeing later in this great and promising year of 2016.

The Five Movies I Can’t Wait to See: 

Hail, Caesar! – I put this movie on my “Most Excited”list last year, saying I wasn’t sure it would actually come out in 2015, and here we are. The Coen Brothers’ latest will have its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival. I don’t know what to say about this one. I’m a huge Coen Brothers fan, the trailer makes it look awesome, and the cast (including Josh Brolin, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, and Channing Tatum) is full of great actors. (February 5)

Kubo and the Two Strings – Just the fact that Laika made ParaNoman, a strong contender for the best animated movie of the past ten years, is enough to get me excited for whatever they do next. The gorgeous-looking trailer I saw before The Force Awakens is only icing on the anticipation cake. (August 19)

Moana – You know I’m a Disney buff. Frozen was a mega-hit, but this is the moment of truth. The first female-led/princess animated Disney movie in a post-Frozen world. The Polynesian setting and the involvement of Ron Clements and John Musker (two of Disney’s finest) has me very excited. (November 26)

How to Talk to Girls at PartiesThis is a movie about boys trying to pick up alien girls. This is a movie that stars Nicole Kidman. This is a movie based on a Neil Gaiman short story. This will be the first movie directed by John Cameron Mitchell in six years. His debut feature, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, is one of the movies that turned me into a cinephile. I can’t wait. (Release Date TBD)

ZamaLucrecia Martel’s La Cienaga is one of the most significant and groundbreaking South American movies of the last twenty years. Eight years after her last movie, she returns with this epic literary adaptation, based on the novel of the same name by Antonio di Benedetto and produced by Pedro Almodovar, Zama is one of the largest Latin American productions ever made. Here’s hoping it’s also a great film. (Release Date TBD)

Last Year’s Movies That Will Be Released in 2016 (And I’m Most Excited For):

The WitchGood horror movies are hard to come by, and the reaction from last year’s Sundance spell out good things for this “New Englang Folk-Tale”. Plus, the trailer already looks creepy as hell. (February 26)

The Lobster – I already saw Yorgos Lanthimos’s English-language debut at the New York Film Festival, but if I’m being honest, I’m looking forward to watching it again more than I am looking forward to most films coming out this year. (March 11)

Green Room – A punk band is held hostage by a group of violent skinheads in this independent thriller. The big selling point for me here is director Jeremy Saulnier, who made my Best of 2014 list with Blue Ruin. (April 1)

A Bigger Splash – Tilda Switon. Ralph Fiennes. Dakota Johnson. I love all of them. Throw in Matthias Shoenaerts, who whatever is a fine actor, and director Luca Guadagnino, who has already proven to have a stylish and sumptuous eye in I Am LoveI’m in. (May 13)

Maggie’s Plan – One of the movies I regret not being able to catch at the New York Film Festival, Rebecca Miller’s romantic comedy stars Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, and Julianne Moore, all great actors currently doing some of the best work of their careers. (May 20)

Movies I’m Cautiously Optimistic About:

Everybody Wants Some Richard Linklater often makes great movies. Before Midnight and Boyhood were both among my favorites of their respective years, but he also sometimes make merely ok movies. The trailer for this spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused makes me think it could go either way. (April 15) 

The BFG – If Lincoln and Bridge of Spies are any indication, Steven Spielberg is still going strong. This year will see Spielberg go back to family entertainment with an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s novel about a big friendly giant. Here’s hoping this is an E.T. and not a Hook. (July 1)

La La LandThe first (and only) image released so far makes this look like a classic Hollywood musical. I love classic Hollywood musicals. I also loved when Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone played lovers in Crazy, Stupid, Love. I’m hoping this will be great, even if I wasn’t crazy about director Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. (July 15)

Julieta It’s always worth it to get excited about a new Pedro Almodovar movie. He’s been hit and miss recently. I’m nervous because his last movie, I’m So Excited!was one of his weakest, but even that was still pretty fun. (Release Date TBD)

The Lost City of ZJames Gray is a director best known for making social realistic dramas like Two Loversand melodramatic period pieces like The Immigrant. His next movie is an adventure about a 1925 expedition to find a lost city in the Amazon. Sounds unusual, and ambitious, and it has my attention. (Release Date TBD)

1995 Project: Dead Man Walking, Goldeneye, La Haine, The American President, Pocahontas, Devil in a Blue Dress

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Just two weeks before the 1995 Project comes to an end, which means just two weeks for me to catch up with as many ’95 movies as I can before September rolls around and I move on to another year in my quest to define what is the best movie of my lifetime. Anyway, here’s a round-up of what I saw last week.

Dead Man Walking (directed by Tim Robbins)
No one can call Robbins a subtle man, from his acting to his politics, he has always been as blunt as one can be. The weakest parts of Dead Man Walking are those when Robbins is clearly trying to make a point about the death penalty and his stern righteous self bluntly imposes itself on the filmmaking. The best, are when he is doing a movie about people connecting to each other. Sean Penn might be trying a little too hard, but boy does he sell the emotions, while Susan Sarandon is simply magnificent. This is a tremendous acting duet, deserving of all the awards and attention it got when the movie came out. And there is lots of little pieces of human interaction outside the two leads, too. Robbins is great with actors, he shows us beautiful details of human behavior that we don’t always see in cinema. On that front Dead Man Walking is great. As a whole, it is merely good.

GoldenEye (directed by Martin Campbell)
For the most part I love spy movies. I am, however, allergic to James Bond. Ironic, considering he is the quintessential movie spy, but I am just not interested in his movies. I haven’t seen many, but I’ve seen the ones people tend to cite as the best: Goldfinger, Casino Royale, Skyfalland now GoldenEye. This one was particularly underwhelming. The plot is silly, but not silly enough to go into pure camp, and outside from the opening scene, the action is quite underwhelming. There was also the uncanny feeling that, despite being the movie that re-introduced Bond to the mid-nineties in a big way, the movie looks ver much like a product of the previous decade. The framing, editing, and especially the score all seem dated in an unexpected way.

La Haine (directed by Mathieu Kassovitz)
It very much feels like the French answer to Do the Right Thingdealing with youth culture, institutionalized racism, and class conflicts. It also blends in large chunks of comedy into its daily life story until it becomes a tragedy. This was one of Kassovitz’s first features, and one can feel the excitement of young filmmaking, as well as the presence of film-school flourishes and aesthetics. It is very much a nineties movie that looks “cool” in a nineties kind of way. The main acting trio, however, is aces, and the cinematography and staging creates some memorable and striking images. If there is anything that hinders the movie, is the fact that coming when it did and the way it did, it feels like another entry in an established movement, and not like the cold splash start of a revolution.

The American President (directed by Rob Reiner)
Directed by romantic comedy connoisseur Reiner, but perhaps more importantly, written by political enthusiast and television auteur Aaron Sorkin. On this front, The American President feels very much like an embryonic test-run for The West WingNot only because of Martin Sheen’s presence, but there are many in-jokes and political issues that Sorking would deal with (more in depth) in the series. Despite the show being Sorkin’s zenith as far as political writing is concerned, this is a solid movie with a really good cast (Michael J. Fox and Anna Deavere Smith are particularly fun in supporting roles).

The movie’s biggest weakness comes somewhat retroactively. It is hard, after the disaster that was The Newsroom, not to notice Sorkin’s most annoying and frustrating tendencies when revisiting his previous work. In this case, it’s his more sexist tendencies. The male lead, being the President, stand in an overwhelmingly powerful position when compared to the female lead, and because Sorkin has deep respect for the office of the President, he creates almost an ideal leader in the Michael Douglas character, burdening Annette Bening with all of the personality quirks of the typical romantic comedy. It’s got the problems you’d expect from a Sorkin script while remaining a pretty solid rom-com.

Pocahontas (directed by Mike Gabriel, Eric Goldberg)
I wasn’t planning on re-watching Pocahontas for this project since I watched it twice very recently. Once for the “Disney Canon Project“, and another for an episode of “Hit Me With Your Best Shot“, but I caught it on ABC Family the other night so I figured what the hell. My thoughts on the movie remain the same. It is a pretty ok movie, with some assets (the sidekicks, the visuals) and some flaws (the villain, the romance) that deserves a better reputation that it has, except for the fact that its an incredibly problematic movie in terms of historical context and re-appropriation of history. The story of Pocahontas was probably one of the worst stories Disney could have chosen to adapt into a family musical… Still, if nothing else, this is, for my money, the most visually striking movie Disney Animation has ever produced.

Devil in a Blue Dress (directed by Carl Franklin)
This is a solid detective noir that becomes interesting due to the fact that its protagonist is an African American P.I. by the name of Easy Rawlins (Denzel Washington). The racial angle factors into the movie, and it brings some interesting shades to a story of deceit and corruption, but the movie’s plot remains a basic hard-boiled mystery. Not a bad one, but not an exceptional either. The most interesting part is Denzel’s performance, as he balances the fact that he is Denzel Washington, one of the most assured and coolest actors that ever lived, with the fact that his character faces the considerable limitations of being black in 1940s America. His balancing of Easy’s different faces and attitudes is remarkable.

The movie didn’t make much money when it came out, but it did get good reviews and amassed some awards buzz for Don Cheadle’s supporting performance as Easy’s violent friend Mouse. Buzz that I must admit I do not understand. Not because Cheadle is bad in the part, but because there is very little to Mouse as a character. People talk about him a lot, then he shows up, does a couple things, and leaves soon after. It seemed he was there to serve the plot and Easy’s character than he was an actual interesting character.

1995 Project: The Animated Shorts of 1995

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Because the number of animated features produced in a given year is so minuscule when compared to live action features (if you think about it, by having five nominees in the Best Animated Feature category, the Academy is honoring 20% of the animated movies released in a given year), an animation fan must look to animated shorts to try to grasp the state the world of animation found itself in in a given time period. Shorts are creatures that rarely find a commercial afterlife, but they say a lot about where animation had been, and where it was going.

The nineties was a particularly good decade for animation, benefitting from the Disney Renaissance and the Television Animation Boom of the early nineties. By 1995, the Disney bubble was starting to show signs of weakness, while younger studios emerged into the scene and American audiences were getting more and more familiar with international animation (especially Japanese productions). I’ve collected five shorts that, I think, tell us quite a bit of what the world of animation looked like in the mid-nineties. A group that includes some of the key filmmakers and studios that would define the next decade of animation. The one studio which had a big presence back then but isn’t represented in this list is Pixar, which didn’t release a short that year, but only because it had bigger fish to fry.

Ah LamourAh, L’Amour (directed by Don Hertzfeldt)
Hertzfeldt is perhaps the biggest name in independent animation working today. Hailed as a genius by most connoisseurs of the medium, yours truly did very recently include his fifteen minute short World of Tomorrow in a list of the Best Movies of 2015, which is faint praise considering it is not just “one of”, but the very best piece of cinema I’ve seen so far this year. Ah L’Amour was Hertzfeldt’s first short film, which he created as a final assignment during his freshman year of college. It is a pretty funny bit about a guy whose romantic aspirations are repeatedly denied in bizarrely violent ways. There is a little bit of straight male “oh man, I can’t catch a break with these ladies” discourse in the film, but clocking in at only 2 minutes, and considering that it’s never clear whether the main character’s intentions have a sexual dimension to them makes this a very enjoyable quick watch. It certainly must be amongst the best freshman student films ever made.
Watch It Now: By clicking this link.

runaway brainRunaway Brain (directed by Chris Bailey)
Not unlike A Goofy Moviethis short seems to be an attempt to revitalize the popularity of one of Disney’s classic characters by giving him a nineties makeover. While Disney was experimenting on television with Goofy and Donald, the company has always been supremely careful about how they use golden boy Mickey Mouse – if they use him at all. This Oscar-nominated short has somewhat of a B-horror bent to it, with Mickey meeting a mad scientist, Dr. Lobotomy (voiced by Kelsey Grammer), who transfers his brain into the body of a giant monster and vice versa. This is not the first time Mickey was pitted against gigantic foes, but while the short features high quality animation, it doesn’t really have much going for it.

Or, at least, it doesn’t have much going for it that actually belongs to it. Most of the humor is based on references and gags alluding to other properties, like the fact that Mickey plays a video game in which Dopey and the Evil Queen are Street Fighter characters. The whole video game bit, as well as the horror milieu seem to be attempts to turns Mickey into an “edgier” character, one who could leave behind his wholesome image to fit in with the cool, more adult-friendly, cartoons of the nineties. The truth is the movie isn’t edgy or funny enough to succeed int his regard.

Still, most of the movie’s weaknesses lie in the story department, which is my way of saying this is a very fine looking short with some pretty good moments of character animation. Directed Chris Bailey had worked in the animation department of quite a few Disney production up to this point (including The Lion King), and would go on to do solid directing work on Clerks: The Animated Series and Kim Possible
Watch It: Here.

carrotblancaCarrotblanca (directed by Douglas McCarthy)
To say that this short was trying to do with Bugs Bunny and the other Looney Tunes characters what Runaway Brain was trying to do with Mickey Mouse would be a false assessment. Truly, the clearest example of Warner Bros. trying to “update” these characters to the nineties would come with the release of Space Jam the following year. This 8 minute short is fairly true to the style of the more showbiz-heavy Warner Bros. cartoons by re-casting Casablanca with Looney Tunes characters… and that’s pretty much it. It’s not a particularly inspired parody, again, deriving most of its humor from making allusions to the film it’s parodying and classic Looney Tunes jokes. It’s always fun to see Tweety’s face transform into Peter Lorre’s, but I didn’t really need a full short to justify that pleasure. I don’t want to be a grump, but this is certainly the weakest of the five shorts assembled in this post. But don’t let me have the last word if you don’t want, you be the judge and..
Watch it here.

on your markOn Your Mark (directed by Hayao Miyazaki)
When I think of music videos in the style of Japanese animation, I obviously think of Daft Punk’s “One More Time” while recognizing that the meeting of art-forms can’t possibly be unique to that song. This is all to say I was still a little surprise to learn that Hayao Miyzaki – probably the most influential name in the past 20 years of animation – directed a music video for the Japanese band known as Chage & Aska. And not only because of ignorant, but because I wouldn’t have guessed Miyazaki to be the kind of guy who would accept such an assignment.

I have no idea what the song is about – because I don’t speak Japanese – but it’s a testament to the talent of Miyazaki as a visual storyteller, and of this video as a piece of silent filmmaking, that I come out with a pretty good idea of what the director might have intended with it (whether or not it’s what the musicians intended is a different question). Even though there is a little bit of shot repetition that I don’t fully understand considering the movie’s otherwise very clean plot, I must give props to Miyazaki for being able to tell a story in the most economically effective way possible narratively speaking (Tim Brayton does a great job of pointing out exactly how he does it here), and this right before going into production on the most indulgent and oversized movie of his career.
You can Watch the video here.

Screen shot 2015-07-09 at 8.52.54 p.m.A Close Shave (directed by Nick Park)
At 30 minutes, A Close Shave is both the longest and my favorite film on this list. Although maybe I’m biased. In my opinion, one can’t really go wrong when it comes to Wallace and Gromit. I wouldn’t call A Close Shave the funniest of the Wallace and Gromit adventures (The Curse of the Were-Rabbit probably has the best gags). Neither is it the most original, although to be fair, original would be the wrong word to describe a series of movies that is built on the legacy of classic comedy duos, which is to say formula is essential to their success. That being said, A Close Shave features the best and most imaginative action sequence of the series, and it is also probably the most emotional entry, with its melancholic ending and the whole bit when Gromit is framed for crimes he didn’t commit. If that isn’t enough, it is also the movie that introduced us to the adorable Shaun the Sheep, who has a feature of his own coming out later this year.
Watch it… sadly, it’s not available online, but if you’re an animation fan I would certainly encourage you to get the “complete Wallace and Gromit collection”, which includes this lovely short.

Why You Gotta Be So Flawless? A Review of Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Cinderella’

CINDERELLA

The difficult thing about updating the story of Cinderella is that she’s somewhat of a flawless character, and nothing is more boring to watch than flawlessness. Cinderella, being beautiful of face and kind of heart, is only threatened by external obstacles. As far as her inner life is concerned, she has figured it out, if only the people around her wouldn’t be so mean, she could get all the happiness that she deserves. Putting a character in such a helpless situation generates drama, and gives the audience someone to root for, but making her such a nice person makes watching her almost intolerably boring.

This is a dramatic code that Disney’s 1950 Cinderella seems to have figured out. The idea of a kind princess who could easily pass as the perfect housewife was an idea that couldn’t be passed up at the time, especially by as socially conservative a man as Walt Disney. Thus, the cartoon Cinderella is a seemingly perfect lady, but the people behind the movie carefully shifted the focus of the movie from the young girl to the little mice that she cares for. The mice are not only more entertaining characters, but they let us know why we should care about Cinderella: she cares for these helpless creatures, she protects them from being eaten by an evil cat. We are so grateful she is around to help Jacques and Gus-Gus that we can’t help but be saddened by the fact that there is no one to help out Cinderella.

It’s a pretty clever hierarchy, and an effective metaphor. Cinderella becomes the figure of the good mother, and Lady Tremaine becomes the bad mother. That is why despite being an admittedly old-fashioned movie, the 1950 version of Cinderella speaks to small children as effectively now as it did when it first came out. It generates anguish about the good mother not being present, and it generates empathy for her and her troubles. If I were the mother of a small child, I would show them the 1950 Cinderella.

Anyway, that is not the movie that I’m here to review. I’m here to talk about Disney’s live action remake of their own classic. This Cinderella was directed by notable Shakespeare enthusiast Kenneth Branagh, and is unabashedly influenced by the classic animated movie. This being 2015 instead of 1950, you would expect Cinderella to have a revisionist take on the story, bending the traditional gender norms like Frozen and Maleficentboth of which were recent big hits for Disney. This movie, however, is not only not ashamed of being based on an old-fashioned story (which I appreciated), but ends up somehow being even less progressive than the 1950 version.

There are two moments in Branagh’s Cinderella that hinted at potentially more interesting ways of retelling the story. The first is a shot towards the second half of the film in which the Prince (Richard Madden) curls up in bed next to the dying King. He see him on the bed, in the fetal position, and holding on to the father that is slipping away. The moment is filled with male tenderness of a kind that we sadly rarely see in mainstream movies. The second comes early in the film, when evil stepmother Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) listens to a conversation in which Cinderella’s father tells his daughter how much he truly loves her. Tremaine’s eyes fill up with tears, and I wonder what the inner life of this woman must look like. I am not advocating for a revisionist version in which Tremaine is the hero of the story, but how about a psychologically complex villain who isn’t just pure hateful evil, but a conflicted woman whose mind has been corrupted by a system that measures women by their pretty faces?

Such a complex dynamic might have been to much to ask from Disney, so I would’ve content for the movie hint at those possibilities while settling for something more traditional as its focus. The problem is that this is a surprisingly static and joyless movie. Lily James looks lovely at Cinderella, but a character can only be so incredibly nice before you want to strangle her. Going back to the 1950 version, the problem with this Cinderella is that there isn’t a human emotional entry into this story. Curiously enough, Cinderella does have mice friends in this movie, but they aren’t nearly as important as they are in the animated version.

The story of Cinderella is so familiar that we can find some satisfaction in recognizing the beats that play out on screen, and thus, the movie is never truly terrible. But the fatal blow, and the main reason why I couldn’t possibly recommend this Cinderella is that the lead character has even less agency here than she has in the 1950s version. Now, it’s always been a problem that the message of Cinderella seems to be that being kind, and enduring all kinds of abuse will magically bring you the happiness that you deserve. I find that notion problematic in both the 1950 and 2015 versions of the story, but the animated version does have the right mind to put the final triumph on the hands of the protagonist.

Josh Spiegel talks extensively about the greatness of the scene I’m about to mention in his review of the movie, which I would recommend you read, but at the end of the original Cinderella, Lady Tremaine “accidentally” breaks the glass slipper, hoping that it would prevent Cinderella from trying it on and marrying the prince. It is in that moment that Cinderella has the bright idea of going back upstairs and presenting the other glass slipper, which she had kept in her room. It’s a wonderful moment of triumph, especially because Cinderella has finally managed to step up to her wicked stepmother, and beat her at her own game of hateful strategy. This new version of the story, however, flips the role of the slippers, with Tremaine finding the slipper Cinderella is hiding, and thus, removing Cinderella’s agency from the final moments of the film.

Cinderella is the latest case of Disney recycling its animated classics into live action movies, and there is no sign of the studio stopping. A live action version of Beauty and the Beast, and even a Dumbo directed by Tim Burton(?!) are currently in production. This all started with Mr. Burton himself, back when is hideous reimagining of Alice in Wonderland made a gazillion dollars. Cinderella may very well be a masterpiece compared to that piece of garbage, but it is still a deeply unsatisfying film. A pointless exercise that feel much more like an Annie Leibowitz promotional photo than a movie.

Grade: 4 out of 10

Correction: This review originally said Disney had a new version of The Little Mermaid in production. There is, indeed, a live action Little Mermaid in the works, but Disney is not involved. The project comes from Universal and will be directed by Sofia Coppola.

Careful the Change You Make: A Review of ‘Into the Woods’

Into the Woods

Let me start saying that, against all signs pointing to the contrary, Walt Disney Pictures’ adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods is not a bad movie. Now, you might think that Sondheim being one of the best musical theater composers that ever lived, and this being one of his most popular works, that it wouldn’t be hard for his material to survive the hands of the corporate suits over at Disney, but then again, director Rob Marshall has made decisions varying from questionable to appalling when adapting Broadway musicals to the big screen, of which he has done two: Chicago and Nine,  neither of which are particularly good movies, but they’re also not horrendous.

Why, then, did I think Into the Woods would be the exception? Well, the things I feared would make Into the Woods bad are still in the final movie. There is, for starters, Johnny Depp’s painfully uninspired interpretation of the Big Bad Wolf as a creepy dude in a zoot suit. The performance is as stupid as all the promotional images make it seem, and even though Marshall has tried to justify it on interviews saying it was inspired by Tex Avery’s Red Hot Riding Hoodthat’s no excuse for such poor decision making (which according to costume designer Colleen Atwood, came from Depp himself, which… doesn’t surprise me). There is also the visual style of the movie, which is as far from anything you could call original as can be.

This is a good moment, for those who are not familiar with the material, to explain that Into the Woods was originally a stage musical through which Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, inspired by Bruno Bettelheim’s amazing book The Uses of Enchantment, deconstructed the meaning and value fairy tales have in our culture. The show follows characters such as Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) as they get, and then question, their “happy ever afters”. So it’s especially disappointing that Into the Woods looks like exactly every other modern “re-imagining” of fairy tales characters that we’ve seen in recent years. Hell, some of them, like Mirror Mirroractually have much more interesting looks than Into the Woods. 

Actually, the most disappointing thing is not that Into the Woods looks too much like Hansel & Gretel: Witch Huntersbut that the movie doesn’t make any kind of comment about its look, which would have actually been a very interesting choice. Because like I said above, this is a DECONSTRUCTION of fairy tales, and even though some of the most theatrical elements of Into the Woods (the stage musical) made me think that adapting it into the big screen wasn’t a great idea, now I think a very meta-filmic version of Into the Woods could have been one of the best movies of the year.

Curiously enough, it’s one of the musical numbers in this flawed adaptation that makes me think this, because when Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen (who play Cinderella and Rapunzel’s Princes respectively) start ripping their shirts off while singing “Agony” atop of waterfall, the movie isn’t just translating a musical number from the stage to the screen, but it is turning it into a moving cover of a Romance novel, and suddenly, we are using film to actually add meaning to Sondheim’s music. A movie full of such thoughtful choices would have been amazing, but alas, such a thing was too much to ask from Rob Marshall, and none of the other numbers of the movie reach that level (the closest thing is a pretty ingenious and lovely staging of “On the Steps of the Palace”).

But the truth is that despite all those flaws and missed opportunities, most of Into the Woods (which is to say the part adapted from the musical’s first act), is a pretty solid watch thanks in no small part to a lovely cast. James Corden and Emily Blunt are very funny and touching as the Baker and his Wife, Anna Kendrick is lovely as Cinderella, and Meryl Streep proves yet again that she’s a fantastic singer as The Witch. The only weak link in the ensemble is Johnny Depp’s Wolf, but he is in so little of the movie that it doesn’t really matter that much, although it does make me wish that young Lilla Crawford, who delivers some awesome deadpan moments as Little Red Riding Hood, would have had a better scene partner to work with.

As for Marshall’s direction, even if most of it isn’t particularly inspired, most of it is appropriately far from flashy, with fewer unnecessary rapid-fire, nonsensical cuts than Chicago and fewer questionable staging choices than Nine. I think the fact that there is essentially no dance numbers in this musical is the key to why Into the Woods ends up being Marshall’s best movie yet. I know this is puzzling considering the fact that he started his career as a choreographer, but a fool’s errand could be defined as watching one of the dance numbers in Nine and trying to find any kind of spacial coherence in them.

The real problems of Into the Woods come once the movie arrives at the source material’s second act, once the characters start to become unhappy with their happy ever afters. The changes made to the show’s second half had been subject to a lot of speculation for a while now, or at least, ever since Sondheim himself gave a couple interviews in which he revealed some of the changes Disney was considering in order to make the movie a little less dark/family friendly. This is understandable coming from as “wholesome” a company as Disney, but while some of the songs cut from the second half (such as the reprise of “Agony”) are irritating but understandable, most of them are very puzzling.

Without getting into too many spoilers, let me say that cutting “No More” greatly diminishes the Baker’s character arc, which is still there but not nearly as potently as in the original show. Really it’s Emily Blunt that ends up bringing the necessary pathos to the Baker’s role in the film’s last few minutes. But if we’re talking about cuts that diminish the emotional impact, then we must talk about the changes made to Rapunzel’s story. The iconic “Witch’s Lament” is still there, but the way it plays out in the movie it’s just a lovely song for Meryl Streep to sing, while t is one of the most heart-wrenching moments of the show.

The misunderstanding of what makes the musical so emotionally effective is ultimately what keeps Into the Woods from dazzling. It’s not quite as jarring as the occasional local production of the show that decides to cut out the supposedly depressing second act entirely, but it’s somewhere close. When you finish watching the Into the Woods musical, you feel strange, and yes, a little sad. It’s the ultimate “be careful what you wish for” story, and the final stroke of genius comes in the show’s “Children Will Listen” finale, which is relegated to the movie’s end credits (presumably because it’s a very theatrical number), and if it has any emotional impact, it’s very different from the one it has in the original show. Case in point, the absolute genius last words of the show, turn from the most piercing period to the story that you could have imagined into just a fun detail. I guess that sums it up. As a funny detail, those words still look good, but what is a funny detail worth when it was once the most crucial piece of an amazing puzzle?

Grade: 6 out of 10

List of the Week: 10 Reasons Why ‘The Little Mermaid’ is Awesome

Little Mermaid 25thToday marks the 25th anniversary of the release of the The Little Mermaid, one of the most beloved Disney movies of all-time, and a watershed production for the studio, which had spent two decades as a fallen giant before the story of a young mermaid named Ariel brought the studio back to the top. I wrote extensively about the movie for my Disney Canon project, but since I love it so much, I couldn’t let the anniversary go by without acknowledging its greatness one way or another, so, without further ado, here is a list of the…

Top Ten Reasons Why ‘The Little Mermaid’ Is Awesome

10. The “Les Poissons” Sequence
…in which Sebastian runs around the palace kitchen to keep Chef Louie of turning him into Ariel’s dinner. It’s an extended sequence that has little to do with the movie’s plot, but it’s so much, and has some pretty solid gags.

9. Sebastian
So, while we’re in the topic of Sebastian, he is a pretty awesome sidekick isn’t he? Sure, some people complaint about the Jamaican accent, but truth be told, I find it kind of endearing, and far from being stereotypical. Beyond the accent, Sebastian doesn’t spot any stereotypes usually attributed to Jamaican people (except that they’re good musicians). Also, his uptight desperation makes him so endearing.

Max Lil Mermaid8. Max
My family used to have an English Sheepdog when I was a kid, so I’ve always have a particular fondness for Prince Eric’s dog.

7. “Under the Sea
6. “Kiss the Girl
A lot of the entries in this list are just going to be songs, but that’s what happens when a movie has as strong a score as The Little Mermaid. Both of these numbers are delightful. “Under the Sea” is iconic, as most things that are parodied on The Simpsons are, but I want to throw a bone to “Kiss the Girl”, which is one of the loveliest, most romantic show-stopping numbers in cinema.

5. Pat Carroll as Ursula
Ursula is one of the best villains in the history of Disney Animation, and Pat Carroll does an outstanding job of giving her the personality of an evil underwater diva. In a movie with a strong queer identity (more on that later), Ursula is a delicious drag queen. She also gets to sing “Poor Unfortunate Souls“, which is an awesome song…

4. Howard Ashman
…talking about awesome songs, the original score by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman is a complete delight. Most specifically, though, Howard Ashman seems to me like one of the most genius people to have worked at Disney, not only did he write some of the most clever and memorable lyrics in the studio’s history, but he seems to have had a deep connection to what made Disney movies so great. From his insistence on not cutting “Part of That World” from The Little Mermaid when it was received poorly by a test audience to his major role crafting Beauty and the Beast, he was a treasure who was sadly taken before his time.

3. Ariel
Who is such a fantastic protagonist. First of all, because she is beautifully animated by Glen Keane. Second, because she has a delightful personality (even when she can’t speak), and is a character that has a lot to say about gender identity, which brings me to my next point…

2. It has an awesome queer message.
I’ve written about this before, but my reading of the film is that Ariel is clearly a transgender character. She is born a mermaid, but doesn’t feel comfortable in her body. Her dream is becoming a human being. A lot of people read this plot as yet another story of a woman sacrificing her identity to be with a man, I see it as a woman defining herself in her own terms, and forging her identity according to her own feelings.

1. “Part of That World”
Everything I love about Ariel, about Menken and Ashman’s amazing score, and about the movie’s message about identity comes together in “Part of That World”, my favorite song in Disney history, and, in my humble opinion, the best “I Want” song ever written.