Family Troubles in Disney/Pixar’s Brave

So, I saw Disney/Pixar’s Brave on Sunday.  And let me just say: it was gorgeous!  Visually it was absolutely stunning, and every other review I’ve read so far agrees on that point at the very least.  The scene design, the colors, the lighting, the character design – all rich and detailed and full of depth and emotion.  A feast for the eyes.  Art in motion.  Seriously.  It’s obvious that the animators took a lot of time to study Scotland’s landscapes, fell in love with it, and decided to share that love with the world (of course, who doesn’t fall in love with Scotland’s landscapes?)

Now, as for the rest of it.  I’ve read a few reviews that have been absolutely and completely glowing, but I think most people seem to agree with my general impression: while Brave was definitely enjoyable, and I liked it, the storytelling was simply not up to par with Pixar’s usual work.

The previews give you the basic premise: Princess Merida, with her boisterous, somewhat goofy father, the king, and her strict, prim and proper mother, the queen, is supposed to choose a first-born son from one of the other clans to marry.  But Merida is head-strong and boisterous like her father, enjoys the unladylike pursuits of horseback riding and archery, and has no intention of getting married any time soon.  So she goes to a witch (always a bad idea) to get a spell that will “change her fate.”  As always in these things, she doesn’t quite get what she’d intended and things go downhill from there.

What I liked about this movie was that it was family-centered.  The drama and conflict is between a headstrong daughter and her strict mother; it is about a family that is tearing itself apart because the mother believes in upholding tradition and the daughter wants to break away and “make her own fate.”  There is no prince in this story, there is no romance sub-plot and there isn’t even really a “real villain.”  It’s all about the family.  And I liked that.

I also really liked Merida.  She’s feisty and strong and stubborn and smart.  And, of course, she’s flawed and makes some less-than-stellar choices.  However, I don’t think the writers give her enough to do, quite frankly.  While I liked the idea of a conflict centered on the family, there just wasn’t enough going on in this movie.  And I think the mother, Queen Elinor, kind of steals the show.  In a lot of ways she’s as much the main character as Merida is.

Some people have complained about the way the father, King Fergus, is portrayed.  He is a bit goofy, a bit hapless, and it is clear very quickly that Queen Elinor is the one in charge of that particular household.  And some people have not been happy about that, complaining that this portrayal makes the father an idiot, which is an insult to fathers (I would imagine that complaint mainly comes from men).  But here’s the thing: I don’t think they make King Fergus an idiot.  He’s big and loud and friendly.  He’s a warrior who’s more comfortable on the battlefield or hunting, rather than playing diplomat or administrator.  Queen Elinor just happens to be the one who’s better at the social niceties, the administrative duties and the public speaking.  That doesn’t make Fergus an idiot.  And, let’s be frank, it is very common for the father to be the fun-loving, I-don’t-want-to-discipline-the-children type, and for the mother to be the one in charge of keeping the family under control.

All that being said, the plot was a bit formulaic.  A princess that refuses to choose a husband, making a wish that backfires, etc… it’s all be done before.  Of course, everything’s been done before, and there’s nothing wrong with taking an old premise and building something new on top of it, but I don’t think Pixar did a particularly good job of building something new on top of it this time around.

While I enjoyed the movie, and it was certainly a pleasure to look at, it was not particularly riveting, or emotionally impactful, or even particularly new.  And it certainly won’t be replacing any of my current favorites.  In terms of family-centered drama, it comes nowhere close to either Finding Nemo or The Incredibles (my two favorite Pixar movies).  And in terms of feisty female leads, or humor, it can’t even touch Mulan or Tangled.

So, in recap: Brave was fun, it was beautiful to look at, I enjoyed it, and I definitely recommend it if you like Disney/Pixar movies, but don’t expect it to blast any earlier Disney/Pixar movies out of the water.

Arrietty’s Secret is She’s Boring

So, I finally got around to seeing The Secret World of Arrietty, and as you may be able to guess from the title of this post, I was not less than impressed.

For those who aren’t in the know, The Secret World of Arrietty is a Japanese animated film, produced by Studio Ghibli, based on the novel The Borrowers by Mary Norton, with a screenplay by Hayao Miyazaki (of Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle fame), directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, and distributed in the U.S. by Disney (as most of the Studio Ghibli films have been).

Now, I’ve never read the original book, which may or may not be a good thing in trying to evaluate this movie, so everything I say is based purely on the movie and Miyazaki’s adaptation, rather than the novel itself.  I’m going to skip an involved summary because I think most people know the basic story, but generally: it’s about Arrietty and her family, the tiny Borrowers who live in the floorboards of a house and “borrow” things they need to survive.

As always with Miyazaki, the animation was gorgeous.  Simply GORGEOUS.  He and his production crew have an amazing eye for color and detail and depth – every scene is lush and vivid and inviting, full of life and color and a strong feeling of nostalgia.  That has not changed with this movie.  I think I will always be impressed and awed by the art direction in all of Studio Ghibli’s movies, and nothing can change that.  For example, check these out:

The problem starts, for me, with the voice acting.  I have grown quite sick of Disney’s management of the Studio Ghibli films they bring to the U.S.  Their casting choices are often horrendous.  I hated most of the voice-acting in Ponyo, and I hated ALL of the voice-acting in Arrietty.  It was astoundingly bad.  Not only did they cast a couple annoying, talentless, Disney Channel “actors” (Bridgit Mendler and David Henrie) but even Carol Burnett (whom I usually adore) did an atrocious job.  And Will Arnett, who played Arrietty’s father, was so flat and lifeless I thought for sure they had actually hired a zombie version of him.

To make matters worse: the SINGING!  Normally, Joe Hisaishi composes the scores for Miyazaki’s films, but this time they hired a French songwriter/singer named Cecile Corbel.  I’ll say this, she is a good composer.  I liked the score, and the songs with lyrics had nice melodies.  Sadly, I don’t understand WHY she’s a popular singer, because her voice was so tinny, infantile, and cloying I wanted to throw up every time she started singing.  And she did at least three times through the course of the movie.  In comparison, Bridgit Mendler’s song during the credits was almost bearable.  ALMOST.

What’s really sad though, is that even if Disney had cast better voice-actors, and even if Cecile Corbel had found someone else to do the singing for her, it would not have been enough to save this movie.  The plot was, sadly, really REALLY BORING.  It was slow and dragging.  By the end of the first half-hour I was tempted to turn it off.  It lacked all the depth, liveliness, and touches of humor that Miyazaki’s films normally have.  And after  Ponyo (which was cute, but fairly forgettable) and THIS, I’m really beginning to worry that Miyazaki has lost his touch completely.

And if that’s true, it’s a sad sad day in cinema.

Why Disney Afternoon Was the Best Children’s TV Ever

Free-For-All Friday: Why Disney Afternoon Was the Best Children’s TV Ever

Last Friday I talked about the new television block on TeenNick called The 90s Are All That, which features the old greats from 90s Nickelodeon programming.  This week, I want to talk that other great 90s block of television programming, which was in my opinion even better than Nickelodeon: The Disney Afternoon.

For those who may not know, The Disney Afternoon was a 2 hr afternoon programming block on the Disney Channel that aired from 1990 to 1999.  It was, for me, one of the defining parts of the 90s in general and my childhood specifically, and it was home to some of the most brilliant children’s programming to this day.  These shows were flat-out amazing. They were brilliant, hilarious, perfect for children, fun for adults (which, let’s be honest, not all Nick shows can really claim), and absolutely iconic of the 90s.  Also, they all had the best opening sequences/theme songs EVER.  My brother and I actually had The Disney Afternoon soundtrack that had some the theme songs on it, and I STILL know most of the words to them.

Many shows made it into the Disney Afternoon block at various points many were made specifically for the block, but several had been made in the 80s and brought back for a stint in the block.  I loved almost every single one of the shows that featured Disney Afternoon, especially the earliest ones, and there are too many to talk about here, let me just mention a few.

The Adventures of the Gummi Bears:  This is the show that started it all, and seriously, it doesn’t get much better than this.  It first aired in 1985, but was the first show brought to the brand new Disney Afternoon block.  The Gummi Bears are the exiled remnants of what was once a great civilization destroyed by humans, who now hide in a warren beneath the kingdom of Dunwyn and who befriend a few special humans only after they prove to be civilized. The Gummis: Gruffi, Summi, Grammi, Tummi, Sunni, and Cubbi ran the usual gamut from old and grumpy to young and mischievous.  And the show ran the gamut from rather dark to flat-out trippy.

Chip’n’Dale Rescue Rangers:  One of the favorite stories my mother loves to tell about my brother was how our grandmother bought a VHS tape of a couple episodes of Rescue Rangers of my brother sat down right in front of the tv, so his little blonde head blocked half the screen, and watched that tape over and over and over and over again for days.  Inpsired (loosely) by the two chipmunks who terrorized Donald Duck in the old Disney cartoons, The Rescue Rangers actually included Chip and Dale (the chipmunks), Gadget and Monterey Jack (mice) and Zipper the fly.  Together they solved mysteries that the humans couldn’t handle, and often came up against their two main arch-enemies: Mobster-esque Fat Cat, and the mad scientist Norton Nimnul.

DuckTales:  Let’s make this clear, DuckTales was awesome.  And it had one of the best theme songs EVER.  This show followed Scrooge McDuck, the richest Duck in the world who was always looking for new ways to increase his wealth, and his three Great-Nephews (the nephews of Donald Duck): Huey, Dewey, and Louie, as well as Scrooge’s housekeeper/nanny Mrs. Beakley and her granddaughter Webigail.  This show was, quite honestly, insane.  The inept burglars the Beagle Boys, the evil Magica de Spell, scatter-brained Gyro Gearloose, the ever-hopeless Launchpad McQuack, and superhero Gizmoduck were just a few of the regulars, who were also joined by ghosts, time-travel machines, dinosaurs, and a host of other crazy scenarios, all made the show completely awesome.  Also, I still love the DuckTales Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp to this day.

TaleSpin:  TaleSpin is a strange case.  Many of the characters are based/inspired by characters from the Jungle Book — Baloo the Bear, Louie the Orangutan, Shere Kahn the Tiger — but they take on new life as a sea plane pilot, bar owner, and business tycoon respectively, and a enormous host of other characters were brought in, include Kit, Baloo’s young assistant, and my personal favorite: the theatrical air pirate Don Karnage.  Baloo flies a cargo plane under the employ of Rebecca Cunningham (a straight-man character if there ever was one), and gets in all sorts of ridiculous trouble.  There was some great music in this one too!

Darkwing Duck This is arguably the best of the bunch (though my brother would say that there is no argument, it’s a simple statement of fact that it is the best).  Darkwing Duck is the Batman-parody-esque hero of St. Canard City, a character with some skill, but very bad luck, and a ego the size of Jupiter.  To make matters more interesting, in the pilot episode Darkwing Duck (whose alter ego is Drake Mallard) adopts a young and spunky (to say the least, some might say “bratty”) girl named Gosalyn.  The show is also a spin-off of DuckTales and features two characters from DuckTales: Launchpad McQuack as Darkwing’s well-meaning but bumbling sidekick, and Gizmoduck as a rival superhero.  This show was brilliant and hilarious, with a gallery of villains the likes of which will never be seen again, including Megavolt: whose main goal is to “liberate” lightbulbs and electrical devices, Quackerjack: a toy maker gone stark-raving mad, and the ultimate villain: Negaduck: an evil version of Darkwing Duck whose enormous ego became twisted in an alternate universe (who has some of the funniest damn lines EVER).

I could seriously go on about almost every show that ever aired on The Disney Afternoon.  The Little Mermaid Series!  Timon and Pumba!  The Aladdin Series!  GARGOYLES!!!  But I’ve probably gone on for too long as it is.  So I’m going to direct to you this page: The Disney Afternoon List, which has the open sequences from (I think) every show that ever aired on The Disney Afternoon, and leave you to enjoy the retro splendor.

(Note: you can click on each picture to go to that show’s wikipedia page.)

So, now it’s your turn to chime in!  What were your favorites from The Disney Afternoon Block?  There are so many to choose from, I know I didn’t get them all!

Tangled Up and Loving It

Yesterday (saturday), I had the pleasure of seeing Disney’s 50th animated feature film: Tangled.  Based on the previews and what I had heard about it, I went in expecting something cute and at least mildly amusing, but nothing spectacular.  I enjoyed The Princess and the Frog, mainly because of the novelty of returning to traditional 2D animation, and the absolutely delightful hilarity of Tiana’s friend Charlotte/Lotte (oh, and Ray the Firefly, because, seriously, who doesn’t love Jim Cummings?).  But the lyrics in The Princess and the Frog were fairly weak, and much of the humor, while cute, was obvious and not especially witty.

Now, enter Tangled.

While I continue to miss the wonder of traditional 2d animation, this movie was BEAUTIFULLY done.  The set and background designs, the color palette, and the character designs were all gorgeous.  The facial expressions of the characters, especially the two main characters and the villainess were SPOT ON.  I swear, if you ignore the huge doll-like eyes of Rapunzel, you begin to notice that the animators almost perfectly replicated Mandy Moore’s facial expressions — most especially the distinctive way she moves her mouth.

Furthermore, the voice acting was fantastic!  Now, I’ve always thought that Mandy Moore was a decent comedic actress, and I didn’t think she would do a horrible job as Rapunzel, but I wasn’t expecting her to be as good as she was.  She did a marvelous job, eschewing the usual damsel-in-distress routine for wits, toughness, humor, and an absolutely adorable hyperactive insanity, all without being over-the-top or in-your-face about it.  She has also become much stronger as a singer in the last few years.  Zachary Levi did a very good job as the suave, sarcastic thief Flynn Rider, and successfully combines the swagger with an underlying warmth Flynn tries desperately to hide (along with the fact that his real name is Eugene.  Hah!)  And Donna Murphy was perfect as the villainess who can’t help but almost like: Mother Gothel.  Her song: “Mother Knows Best” was fantastic, especially when paired with Donna Murphy’s superior (two-time Tony Award winning) voice.  Mother Gothel, as I said, is such an interesting character you can’t help but like her a little — yes, she kidnapped the baby Rapunzel in order to use the magic in her golden hair to keep herself young forever, but it seems she’s been playing at being Rapunzel’s mother for so long that the act has become as much a part of her as the villainy is.  And when she says: “I’m making hazelnut soup, you’re favorite!” it’s almost cute.

On top of all that, the movie is just HILARIOUS.  All the character interactions are well-done, snappy, and funny.  And the two non-speaking animal characters: Pascal the chameleon and Maximus the stallion, are hilarious.  Especially, Maximus, who tracks like a dog, understands absolutely everything that is going on, and is smarter than half the human characters.

Now, Tangled has beat out Harry Potter as the no. 1 spot in the weekend box office:

Mandy Moore‘s animated musical “Tangled,” a new take on long-haired fairy-tale princess Rapunzel, sewed up the No. 1 spot with $21.5 million in its second weekend, according to studio estimates Sunday. That raised the Disney release’s domestic total to $96.5 million.

“Tangled” had debuted in second-place over Thanksgiving behind “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1,” which had been at the top of the box office the two previous weekends.

“Harry Potter” slipped to No. 2 this weekend with $16.7 million. The next-to-last chapter in the Warner Bros. franchise about the teen wizard lifted its domestic haul to $244.2 million.

Playing largely to family crowds, “Tangled” should hold on well through the holidays, said Chuck Viane, head of distribution for Disney.

“It’s not very often the second week of a movie that it ends up the No. 1 movie,” Viane said. “This will be one of those leggy movies that just keeps playing and playing.” — from Hairy vs. Harry: Tangled wins weekend box office

One thing that makes me a little sad is the fact that Disney has announced that Tangled will be the last “princess” or “fairy tale” movie they do in the foreseeable future.  Instead, they are trying to adapt to the changing attitudes of girls (who apparently stop dreaming of being a princess by the time they’re 5 or 6), and they are trying to attract more male viewers with more adventurous, less romantic stories.  See this LA Times article for the full story: Disney After Tangled.

All in all, I highly recommend this movie.  It’s kid/family-friendly, but smart enough for us twenty-somethings who still love animated movies.  And while the basic foundation of the Rapunzel story is a romance, there is so much more to this one, and the humor takes it far away from sappiness.  Let me put it this way: even my rather picky, 23 year old brother loved it.  That’s gotta tell ya something.