Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Princess and the Frog

With The Princess and the Frog Disney has returned to traditional 2D animation for the first time in half a decade- and it couldn't have come at a better time. During a market filled with a plethora of similarly styled 3D animated films, The Princess and the Frog is like a breath of fresh air. It's on par with the best of Disney's animated films in the 90's, and easily the best in the past decade. The animation race for the Oscars is going to be interesting this year, with this movie, Miyazaki's Ponyo, Coraline, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox (even though I haven't seen it yet) all contenders. I would not be surprised to see The Princess and the Frog as a front runner.

The movie re imagines the classic fairy tale, setting it in 1920's era New Orleans. We find Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), a waitress who dreams of opening her own restaurant. Simultaneously Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) from the fictitious country of Maldona is visiting the city in hopes of finding a rich woman to marry. Both of their plans are waylaid, however, when Naveen is turned into a frog by a voodoo witchdoctor (Keith David). Per the fairy tale, Tiana kisses the frog in hopes of turning him into a prince, but instead she turns into a frog. The rest of the movie is spent with them trying to return to their human form, and of course finding love along the way.

The music is stellar. It's not quite on par with earlier Disney canon, but Randy Newman's songs certainly stand on their own. The gospel and blues based musical numbers seem a little tacked on in places, like they included out of obligation instead of furthering the plot. This is forgivable, however, as the zydeco infused music is so darn fun. Complementing the music is a top notch voice cast. Anika Noni Rose gained notoriety with Dream Girls, and proved herself once again here. And Jim Cummings lends his versatile voice as a Cajun firefly, Ray.

On a whole, The Princess and the Frog is lighter than many of its predecessors. The heavy themes patricide as found in the Lion King, abuse in Beauty and the Beast, and a plethora of cultural conflict found in many movies are abandoned for simpler ideas. One of the fundamental themes of being true to yourself is summed up in one of the best songs- "Dig a Little Deeper". Even the villain of Dr. Facilliar is more goofy than threatening.

With the first black princess, and set in the early 20th century, racial and class differences are touched on briefly, but glossed over. As with most Disney movies, they play up accents and stereotypes, which still leaves a slightly bad taste in my mouth. Likewise, the idea that all you need is a man is tossed around, and never really refuted. Even though it's almost 2010, some of these archaic themes still hold a major role in these movies. Given the light hearted feel of the movie as a whole, these didn't weigh too heavily.

This was one of the movies I was most looking forward to, and it didn't disappoint. Having Ron Clemments and John Musker reboot Disney's 2D department was a wise decision, considering the pair brought us both The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. The Princess and the Frog is not only possibly the best animated movie of the year- it's one of the best movies period.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Roy Disney


Son of Disney co-founder Roy O. Disney died today at 79. He headed up Disney's animation division during its rebirth in the late 80's and 90's.

Here is an article about him.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Paranormal Activity

Paranormal Activity is just another example in a long (and sure to continue) string of documentary styled horror movies. This movie came almost exactly a decade after The Blair Witch Project kicked off the whole idea. Yes, I know movies like Cannibal Holocaust were made long before that, but really Blair Witch was the first enormous one. Blair Witch begat movies like Rec and its remake Quarantine, as well as big budget derivations such as Cloverfield. None of this genre's offspring, including Paranormal Activity, have even come close to impact of 1999's original.

Paranormal Activity tells the simple story of Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, a couple settling into a new house. It's been revealed that Katie has been haunted by a demonic force her entire life. This prompts Micah to buy several video cameras, and thus the movie is born. Like its predecessors, this movie is billed as "found footage." This footage (depending on in what country you see the movie) offers little more than things moving in the night, and a couple's relationship crumbling on camera.

This certainly had potential. Forgoing big scares in favor of a creepy realistic atmosphere, and genuine emotional tension could be a recipe for huge success. Unfortunately that emotional tension was not very genuine. A movie like this depends wholly on whether it can sell that this is actually happening to these people. If that doesn't work, the movie doesn't work. And unfortunately, it didn't work. At no point did I stop being aware that this is nothing but a movie.

This problem may be that this idea can no longer support an entire movie. Paranormal Activity had a slew of genuinely heart pounding moments. Drawn out shots of the couple sleeping, that culminate with nothing more that the movement in their bedroom door will leave you drenched with sweat. These shining moments are countered, however, with absurd shots like a Ouija board catching on fire.

Some of the more promising moments made for a great viral marketing campaign. This raises the question about why some of these movies have more compelling advertising than the movies themselves. The marketing for Quarantine was far better than the movie it was promoting. These film makers can take note of phenomena like this year's genuinely frightening "Slender Man" videos on youtube (search "MarbleHornets"). Short ambiguous clips can prove to be far scarier than an entire movie. Paranormal Activity was extremely close to being a good scary movie. It had tremendous potential, but ultimately tried to stretch its concept too far, which undermined what could have been a terrifying premise.


The Twilght Saga: New Moon

Now I'm aware that I'm not the target audience of a romantic vampire themed movie. However, I am a fan of Ann Rice based movies, and the show True Blood, so I do know that good work in this genre is possible. The second installment of the Twilight Saga is certainly not an example of one. I did not care for the first one. The acting was some of the most wooden I'd ever seen, and the characters all struck me as overly dramatic. Painfully so.

This movie starts where the first one left off, with Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and her vampiric beau Edward Cullen (Edward Cullen). Him an his family leave town, and leave Bella heartbroken. She falls into a depression, and grows close to an old friend, Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), who happens to be a werewolf. A love triangle ensues, some war between vampires and werewolves is revealed, and whole slew of melodrama and mediocre visual effects engulfs the rest of the movie.

The weaknesses of the first movie are amplified here. Apparently Stewart views acting as a simple combination of biting her lip, dead-eyed looks to the left of the camera, and the occasional furrowed brow. The others don't treat the craft much better. The absurdity of the first one is also exaggerated here. I just wanted to grab them by the shoulders and shake vigorously, screaming that highschool is not the end of their lives. At least the vampires were several hundred years old, or something like that. but Bella, c'mon, is your highschool crush really worth turning into a vampire? It's overly dramatic concepts like this that make it impossible to take these movies seriously.

I don't think I can blame the actors completely for their lack of performance. Taylor Lautner was among the worst offenders in this movie. Half the movie was spent sans-shirt, a quarter was spent as a poor CG wolf, and the final quarter was spent looking confused. Yet when he hosted Saturday Night Live this past week, he was absolutely hilarious. There can only one explanation for this disconnect- a terrible script, or a terrible director (considering Chris Weitz's previous movie, Golden Compass, essentially killed a franchise before it got off the ground- even though I liked it). Both of which would account for a majority of this movie's problems.

Box offices don't lie, however. A $200 million opening weekend means they're doing something right, and pretty much have a mandate to finish up the series. This is certainly not my cup of tea, but apparently it appeals to some (which we can only partially attribute to a shirtless Taylor Lautner). The audience for this movie already knows they're the audience. If you had to read this to decide whether you want to see it, I guarantee you don't.


The Secret of Kells

The Secret of Kells was perhaps the single movie I was most looking forward to this year. And it did not disappoint. In a world dominated by painfully similar animated features, this movie out of Ireland brought a truly unique aesthetic, that excited me more than a half dozen Pixar films.

The Secret of Kells tells the mythical creation story of the Book of Kells. It follows Brendan (Evan McGuire), the young and mischievous nephew of Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson) from the city of Kells. With an invasion of murderous vikings on the horizon, the town is visited by Brother Aiden (Mick Lally), an artist working on what would become the Book of Kells. Conflict ensues between Aiden and Cellach, with the Abbot wanting to focus on the wall he's building around the city, and the Brother wanting to work towards conserving knowledge in his books. Brendan is caught in the middle.

The story is rather thin. It's entertaining, but it's a little sporatic. Certain characters like Aisling (Christen Mooney), the faerie who lives in the forest outside of Kells, are not effectively used. The movie set her up very well, but she essentially disappeared about 3 quarters of the way through the movie. A few places where the pacing seemed to hit a standstill, like when Aisling is endowed with certain musical powers strictly to write them out of a corner, were the only minor issues I had with the movie.

Aesthetically, Secret of Kells is brilliant. The style reflects the illuminated manuscripts that are the focus of the films. The characters are designed beautifully, and the animation complements the style. Each frame of this film qualifies as a piece of art. The animation breathes a certain brilliance into the characters. Brother Aiden's cat for example, and the denizens of the abbey were wonderfully aniamted. And scenes with Aisling darting through the forest were inspired.

Movies like The Secret of Kells seem so new and refreshing in a world filled a barrage of formulaic animated movies. I hope this movie finds a wide audience, because it's easily one of the best animated movies in years.


Saturday, November 28, 2009


Roland Emmerich said he wanted to create the disaster movie to end all disaster movies. Here's hoping he's right. He may not make the best disaster movies, but the director who brought us Independence Day (which I actually loved), Godzilla, and The Day After Tomorrow, certainly makes the biggest ones. Given the genre you can't expect a brilliant movie, but you can experience a feast for the eyes. In this regard, and only this regard, 2012 delivers.

2012 exploits the theory that the world is going to end on December 21st 2012, coinciding with the end of a cycle in the Mayan long count calender. The movie actually makes a solid, albeit, absurd attempt at a scientific explanation for the end of the world. Increased solar activity is causing the core of the Earth to heat up, and essentially destroy everything. I guess this was the only idea they could think of that would result in Earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis. When the movie opened in an underground neutrino detection lab, I got extremely excited. This ended up being the highlight of the movie for me.

The movie is long, nearly 3 hours, which enables story to follow essentially 2 plot lines. The primary one involves the Curtis family (led by John Cusack and Amanda Peet) as they trek their way across the globe, escaping Los Angeles as it falls into the sea, and Yellowstone, as a volcano destroys a majority of the country. The second story follows the politicians (including Danny Glover as president, and Oliver Platt and Chiwetel Ejiofor as science advisers) as they attempt to continue the human race. I don't want to give away the few plot developments in the movie, suffice it to say that these two stories obligingly come together in the unnecessarily drawn out climax.

The true star of the movie was the visual effects (certainly wasn't any of the characters). They looked spectacular, if a bit goofy at times. I didn't think Emmerich could top the snap freeze of New York in The Day After Tomorrow, but he managed to do it- many times over. The shots of a plane flying through toppling buildings as LA falls into the ocean, or of an RV outrunning a pyroclastic flow in Yellowstone, or of a global flood wiping out the Asian subcontinent are over the top.

There was no shortage if cringe worthy moments. The president staying behind as Washington is destroyed- seriously? Our intrepid band of heroes sneaking onto an ark that's supposed to save humanity? You've got to be kidding me. On the other hand, the goofy conspiracy theorist played by Woody Harrelson almost made going to the movie worth while.

In the end, this is really nothing more than a spectacle of visual effects. If you go into it expecting as much, you'll probably come away happy. If you expect anything more than that you'll be sorely disappointed (and after 3 hours sitting in a movie theater seat, just plain sore). If anything good comes out of this movie, it will be to make film makers think twice before making another disaster movie.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Where The Wild Things Are

Where The Wild Things Are is one of my favorite movies of the year thus far. It's an adaptation of Maurice Sendak's story of a misbehaving, over imaginative youth named Max. I had trouble picturing a book with only a hand full of sentences transferring well into a movie, but director Spike Jonze and writer Dave Eggers pull it off. It probably didn't hurt that they were in constant contact with Sendak himself, who ultimately gave the final product his blessing.

The movie follows Max (Max Records) an over active kid driving his single mother crazy. After a brief introduction of the characters, including his love-hate relationship with his older sister and his mother, he runs away to an imaginary island where he comes across the titular Wild Things. After a fairly tense initial confrontation, he becomes their leader. His relationship with the Wild Things, in turn, closely resembles his relationship with his own family, in a well deserved role reversal.

Perhaps the most touching, and certainly the most important, relationship is between Max and Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) the biggest and most volatile of the Wild Things. Carol gives Max the ability to see himself from the outside, as well as a look into how his behavior affects those around him. For the first time, he is able to see things from his mother's point of view.

There's been some complaints bandied around about how this movie may be too scary for children. There may indeed be some validity to that. The relationship between Max and the various Wild Things hovers between touching and dramatically intense. Each one of the creatures embodies certain flaws and emotional dysfunction. Everybody feels these things, but it may be difficult for a children to wrap their heads around them- hence these traits personify themselves in each of Max's new found friends. I expect that the ability for children to relate to Max far outweighs any scary moments. In fact, while watching this movie I thought I was looking at myself at a younger age.

Aside from being an extremely touching story, Where The Wild Things Are is beautiful to look at. The island Max travels embodies the grand scope, that could only come from a vivid imagination. Yet somehow, he makes the seemingly boundless island feel intimate. This is also a prime example of how to effectively use computer visual effects. The Wild Things themselves were all done with actors in suits. Their faces, however, were CG. Honestly, I didn't know that before going into it, and would have never suspected a thing. The raw emotion conveyed by these creatures makes it feel like no effects were created at all.

My one quibble with this movie is in one minor departure from the book. In Sendak's original, Max is sent to his room, and creates the entire Wild Things universe in his room. In the movie he runs away from home, and despite still being clearly within his imagination, "travels" to the island. By forcing Max to leave his house, the movie blurs this line and diminishes the power of his imagination. This missed opportunity is the only thing that prevented Where The Wild Things Are from being a home-run.