Saturday, August 25, 2012

D52 - Week 34 - The Hunchback of Notre Dame

A Guy Like Kevin

So far The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the first D52 film I'm glad I "forced" myself to watch. There were a few I hadn't seen that did make me say, "Hmm, that wasn't too terrible. It had some nice moments." But there is a lot to appreciate in "Hunchback" that I wish I had given myself the chance to appreciate before. Of course the animation and art direction is superb. That's to be expected. The music reminds me of Phantom of the Opera  or Les Miserables in that, even though they're not exactly fun tunes to sing along to on a regular basis, they are still powerfully impressive.
But what strikes me most is the overall tone. It's put it simply, serious. But not serious in a boring way like Pocahontas. It actually deals with interestingly complex issues (or at least considerably more complex than "princess finds prince and they love each other) and handles them in a pretty respectable way. I mean, if you look past the crotch shots and sidelining comedy statues. And I do want to look past them, because I like to imagine this as the potential for a completely ... well it doesn't have to be serious and straight-faced at all times. I do like what Clopin brings to the party, and "Topsy-Turvy Day" is my newest earworm. But let's take away the outright goofiness of the gargoyles. I didn't find them funny and I don't buy that they're actually sympathetic to Quasimodo's plea. Even their song just comes across as a way to pass the time for actually important things to happen. So yeah, imagine what it would be like if (alternate Disney fiction-realities seem to be a recurring theme in my reviews, eh?) the granted-sparse-for-animated-Disney-standards comic relief was toned down even further, to the bare minimum of letting Clopin be whimsically weird and allowing Phoebus* his sarcastic remarks. First off I'm not sure how it would be advertised and marketed, since the real trailers sure did try their best to pass this movie off as a fun-filled celebratory romp. We did have a lot of fun with Quasimodo, didn't we? Up until the point where he gets publically shamed and humiliated and even further emotionally scarred. At the end of that same scene.
It shouldn't be a kids movie. I'm not saying that kids shouldn't watch movies that deal with mature themes ("HELLFIRE! HELLFIRE!") but that it strikes me as awkward to confront them with those themes when they wouldn't expect them. If you put it Hunchback on movie for the first time for them, they're gonna know it's a Disney movie and have expectations for something more fun and lighthearted than a judge who finds his soul tormented by the inner conflict of his hatred and lust.
Which is not say Disney shouldn't make this kind of animated movie. I think it's awesomely great that they even got as far as they did with the surprisingly deep moral themes. Could the remarkable stray from mostly fluff be considered a "gimmick?" Yeeeah, but a "gimmick" I enjoyed. Would I have wanted the Disney films to continue this same trend? No, I think it would've worn its welcome soon enough, and the cutesiness would be missed. Having already seen Hercules, I already know we'll be diverting back off of this path right away.

Favorite character: This may be a weird choice, but I'm gonna go with Clopin. I just love the way he's animated and how he talks. Is he unimportant and have nothing to do with the story? No! He's the best narrator since Alan-A-Dale (but oohh, who do I prefer? Tough call!) And like Alan-A-Dale, Clopin manages to be both the omniscent narrator and a character in the story itself. Not only that, but he somehow manages to start off telling you Quasimodo's backstory before the events of the movie take place, then is a part of the main story, and finishes telling you how everything ends as if he was telling it after everything took place all along? Or maybe his storytelling at the front of the film takes place at a different time than when he does it at the end, or...or, maybe it's best not to even question it. Until a Canonical Clopin Timeline is released, anyway.
Least character: Since at least two of the gargoyles serve the purpose of a passing acknowledgement of the author of the book, so my vote goes to Esmerelda's goat. Whose name is...Djali, I think? What did he/she? do, again? Other than tag along and not provide as much comic relief as it was probably originally meant to?
Overall: The very novelty of a G-rated Disney animated full-length feature that takes itself serious got me hooked, and the successful effort put into telling the story in a consistently entertaining way reeled me in.

*The name Phoebus, particular given to a straight-man character, might be the funniest thing of the whole 91 minutes. Phoebus. Try saying it aloud without even smiling!

Amanda's part

I'm a Hunchback fan.  I didn't see it in theaters, but my parents bought the movie as soon as it came out and I was pleased to watch it over and over again.

There's a lot to criticize, if you feel like getting nit-picky.  Those three gargoyle comic relief characters weren't terribly useful in any way.  They weren't funny, they did very little to push along the plot (especially when you consider that their personalities were hallucinated by Quasi himself and it's even acknowledged as such within the film), and the big war scene at the end only served to confuse me about their existance in that particular universe.

There was all the potty humor.  I suppose that it was simply a reflection of the era in which the movie was made.  At the same time in film making history, a lot of the writers thought that throwing in a groin hit or a few belches was enough to make the audience role in the aisles. MAybe at the time that was true, but it didn't cross over into this millenia at least for this viewer.

The computer generated crowd sequences were distractingly weird looking most especially in the overhead scenes when they seemed to be rendered as a sea of fleash colored dots.

Oh but then the score! Holy crap that is some intensely awesome, deep, bold, big, goosebump inducing excitement!  I love this style of music.  I grew up being taken to church every single week and I'm one of those people who ISN'T exaggerating about that.  I had Sunday school at 9:30 every Sunday and I had to go to either the mass before it or the mass after it.  Plus I was raised Catholic and heard all the latin words that I didn't really understand over and over.  Of course the older I got the more interested I was in things like other languages, symbolism, chord progression, etc.  Let me just say that this movie does all of that stuff right!

As for the characters, Quasimodo himself is a well acted and drawn character and his plight is sympathetic.  Esmeralda is headstrong and independant (perhaps annoyingly so, but this too is heavily influenced by the era.  Every female was headstrong and independant) but fights for a noble cause.  Frollo is despicable in the juiciest way and my favorite voice actor in the film.  Phoebus is on the lowest rung when it comes to main characters, but at least he does have some personality to speak of.  It's a shame he doesn't get any singing time because Kevin Kline could have done his own singing voice.

Favorite Character: Mostly Arbitrarily: Achilles, the Horse.  It's possibly a cheat to call him my favorite, but that horse made an impression on me.  I feel that every single other character (including the background extras) is heavily charicatured.  In a world where even the heavy looks bizarre, I can't help but appreciate how realistic, subtle, and well animated that horse is.  It's unfortunate that he was named just for a lame pun.  Couldn't it at least have been a GOOD pun?

Least necessary Character: "I'm free, I'm free!... DANG IT!"

Overall: It's thoroughly enjoyable to watch a Disney movie that doesn't at all fit the sugary sweet, constant playtime atmosphere that most people imagine.  There are a lot of dark moments and heavy themes including death, self-worth, lust, sacrifice, and religion.  It's colorful enough for kids, but fleashed out enough for adults and I'm surprised I've gone so long without owning this one.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

D52 - Week 33 - Pochahontas

Kevin the Aspiring Pokéhon Trainer

Here's one I had never seen before, at all (unless you count trailer clips). And I'm okay with that because it turns out I wasn't missing much.
The first thing that strikes me is that we seem to be approaching that time in animation history where other animation studios were starting to make names for themselves. At least, I associate DreamWork's earliest and biggest hits featuring realistic(ish) human characters, and didn't Anastasia come out around this time too? Since I'm writing this offline I can't match up timelines, but I do get the feeling that Someone was influenced by Someone Else during the latter half of the 90s. I can't say I care for that animation style, either. I often find myself disappointing watching animated people - who by their very medium are unrestricted in what they can do - pretty much only do what real live actors could easily do themselves. So let's talk about the characters in "Pocahontas."
Pocahontas herself is one of many women in fiction(alized stories) who are bethrothed to be wed to a prechosen man but someone are shocked to only find out about it very shortly before the wedding. How disconnected was she from her tribe that she came to grow up as an adult without knowing how marriage works in her own culture? At least Simba and Nala got early warnings. But you can feel compassion for Pocahontas's unwillingness to marry Kokomo. He's clearly an unfit suitor, because he...doesn't smile. Yeah, about that. Do any of the other guys she knows smile? You could think it would be more of an expected trait rather than a flaw. And it ties in to my criticism of the way the Native Americans are portrayed here. They are certainly not at all "How! Smoken peace pipe" bunch seen in "Peter Pan." They're certainly handled very politically correctly. But, too much so, I would say. Up until the big battle near the end, they're calm and respectful and reserved...which are admirable qualities in real life people, but very boring qualities for movie characters. I'm not saying I would rather they hoot and holler while slapping their palms on their mouths. But look at the "white men" in this same movie. John Smith? Yes, he's also terribly boring (I prefer Mel Gibson as Rocky the Rhode Island Red). But then there's Wiggins, who actually has a sense of personality about him. And those other guys, whose names I don't remember BUT they too were, well, different from the other white dudes. What qualities set any of the NA men apart from any of the other NA men? No idea. If you can have the realisticish John Smith and half-cartoony Radcliffe interacting with the quite caricaturish Wiggins, why couldn't there, say, just one wacky Indian? I just feel that, in trying too hard not to display any negative Native American stereotypes, the movie ends up reinforcing the idea that all Native Americans are ultra-serious and completely humorless, and that's not much of a step forward.
Speaking of the integration of humor. Remember in Fox and the Hound, Boomer and whatshisname, the woodpecker and his fellow avian? I'm pretty sure I remarked at the time about how they seemed to exist as their own short within the movie, not having really much or anything to do with the actual story. Now, we get Meeko, Flit and Percy, who even moreso give that vibe. They clearly exist for the sake of distracting the youngest viewers who can't/won't get into the dialogue-heavy plot of a woman having an inner conflict about her fate and hey look, the cute animals are doing funny things! Abu was also a younger-view-cute-animal-comic-relief type of character, but at least I bought the idea that Aladdin and Abu are long-time friends who depend on each other. But to Pocahontas, Meeko is... some animal who she sometimes sees and talks to? How odd that a main character who sings entire songs about her connection to nature doesn't seem to have all that significant a relationship with her animal friend(s). Even Radcliffe doesn't interact with his dog Percy as much as I feel he should. It could've been the type of interplay we saw with McLeach and Joanna. Maybe the whole point is that he doesn't even have much time to spend with his dog? But if that's the case why does he have a dog? No, I'm reading too much into this.
Basically, Radcliffe - mostly the name - makes me think of Ratigan, and how much more awesome a villain he was. Ratigan's song was about the precise things that made him despicable, like drowning orphans. Radcliffe's song is about how much he likes money. Ugh. I don't like money-wanting songs. And it's a dull and vague motivation for a villain to boot. At least if he sang about how much new land he wanted to discover/conquer, or even flat out about how much he hates Indians, and why, that would've been something I (think I)'d never heard in a song before. I like the "mine-mine" wordplay that the lyrics were going for, but it wasn't enough to make it a solidly worthwhile song.
But it does follow the trend of the previous batch of D52ies in its acclaim-worthy visual artistic accomplishments. And even the music - that is, the score of the songs, moreso than the lyrics - is thoroughly pleasing. Never mind what's going on, but just watch as it happens. In that way, Pocahontas makes me think of Fantasia. You know what? That's what Pocahontas should have been. Imagine if the whole story was condensed - maybe even only through music and without words at all - and saved for Fantasia 2000. In my imagination it works much better that way. Or what if, instead of Pocahontas, this week's film was a newer compilation in the style of Melody Time and its tall tales, but with stories based on real events, Pocahontas being one of its less-than-half-hour segments? I bet then we wouldn't even care nearly as much about its historical legitimacy.
Favorite characters: There is only moment in the entire film that I found funny, but it was laugh-out-loud hilarious. After Grandmother Willow tells a bad joke (I think it's the one about her bark being worse than her bite), we see a shot of two owls, who are never seen in the rest of the movie at all. The expression of the owl on the left hand of the screen might go down as one of my favorite reaction shots in cinema history. I would've laughed way more often if, anytime any of the characters did something that was supposed to be funny, the camera just cut to that same shot of the owls. I wish I could screen capture it but I don't have the capacity to do so now. I would so try to start a screen-capture-sequence-told-with-impact-font-ending-with-the-same-shot-"comic" meme, called something like "Schathingly Unamused Owl."
Least necessary character: Cocoa-Yum, for the sole reason that he makes me disappointed that his name is not an actual breakfast cereal. But wasn't there a Pocahontas cereal, or am I deluding myself?
And another thing: What's Grandmother Willow all about anyway? Does she have a history that we should know about? Were Pocahontas and Pocahontas's mother the only people who knew about Grandmother Willow's existence before John Smith saw her? What qualifies her to be wise anyway? I don't think I should trust someone as being automatically all-knowing just because she's old and is a face on a tree. Stop plopping mystically magical old ladies willy-nilly into movies! And before you ask, yes, even that one.
Overall: If you only know this movie by its most-played songs Just Around the Riverbend and Colors of the Wind (and their accompanying animation sequences), your assumption of what the rest of the movie must be like could easily be better than what it actually is.

Amanda's recipe for blue corn moon pies

You'll need for this recipe
3/4 Bluecorn meal
1/2 cup milk
2 eggs
2 tblsp brown sugar
2 tblsp butter

Butter a cast iron skillet set on medium high heat.
set your oven to 350 to preheat.
Mix the first four ingredients just until combined and pour into the skillet.
after 2 minutes, remove the skillet from the heat and place it in the oven for another 30 minutes.  Slice into wedges and eat by hand.

WARNING: I just made that up.  Don't actually make this recipe... or DO and tell me how to fix it!

Anyway Pocahontas.

This movie is boring.  Really really boring.  Pocahontas is too spiritual to be interesting. John Smith doesn't have a personality except for "supposedly hot guy." The cute little animals for holding the attention of children have nothing to do with the story and are designed so incredibly differently as to be jarring.  Bah.

The bummer part is that the music in this movie is really terrific.  There are some native American influences both in the lyrics and in the rhythms.  The verses are nearly as memorable as the choruses and nearly two decades later, they still sound very modern or at least timely.  The accompanying "music video" as I like to think of that section of the movie is stimulating.  There are lots of surreal colors and interesting cinematic choices and those sections are genuinely entertaining.  If only the rest of the movie would fit in with it.  I feel quite a bit like they were trying to recreate the same style and feeling they were getting when Howard Ashman was still alive and just not quite understanding it at the depth that was needed.

Unlike Kevin, I have seen Pocahontas before and so I was quite surprised by this particular DVD edition which included the song "If I Never Knew You" not only in the credits but within the story as it was originally planned.  It was nice.  It didn't detract. It's a pretty song.  But unfortunately that's all I have to say about it.  It clearly didn't make much of an impression beyond "Hey! This wasn't here last time!"

Favorite Character: Dang it! Why did Kevin steal the OWLS? They were so dang funny. Yeah that was my favorite moment too.
Least necessary character: Do we really need a talking tree to understand that Pocahontas is spiritually connected with the Earth? I just don't think that whatever Grandmother Willow brought to the story couldn't have been done with a soliloquy by Pocahontas herself.
Overall:  It's boring.  Sorry.  It's boring and it doesn't even do a good job telling the historical story because it chooses to tell the prince and princess version of it.  The big redeemer is the fact that it's gorgeous.  This is visually stunning (except for the dumb animal antics) and easily the most technically accomplished piece of work yet!  So check it out for the visual appeal and try to zone out for the story bits.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

D52 - Week 32 - The Lion King

Kevin's Afternoon Report
There was one Disney movie that was a clear childhood favorite for me. I watched my VHS tape over and over, memorized the songs, and collected all of the fast food kids meal toys associated with it because I just loved it that much.That movie was "Toy Story."
But my favorite non-Pixar movie of around the same time was The Lion King. At the time, I found it to be funny, with an engaging story, and memorable music! But most importantly, it was a Disney feature that wasn't "for girls." That may also be why I was more drawn to Aladdin and this one but dropped out of Disney movies once Pocahontas and Hunchback got into the picture? Or maybe I was just growing out of them at the time. Anyshoe.
Before I get into the inevitable downsides, I love the look of The Lion King. I daresay that, in my opinion, it's the best-looking of the D52. Maybe I'm partial to the realism that doesn't get too realistic. The backgrounds. The painting. The cinematography. The subtle change in stylization to reflect the mood. The animation. The...the art! Beauty & the Beast was fantastically artistic to, but there was a few slightly off facial expressions here and there. And while I can't say The Lion King is absolutely perfect in its art - those computerized hyenas jar me - it strikes me as the highest possible quality that can be achieved through hand-drawn-and-painted animation. There's so much gorgeousness. And I know we'll see comparable beautiful imagery coming up in Fantasia 2000, but it somehow seems more meaningful as part of a story.
But as for the story itself? Well, of course we're not the first to point it out, but I can't not mention the very dodgy "lessons" being "taught" here. You see, kids, one day you'll be very successful, that is if you happen to be born into it. Just be sure not to visit that dark area of your city You know, that broken-down, scrummy-looking area? Anyone you meet there is a bad person and will try to hurt you. Especially if they, you know, talk kind of funny. And don't let the type of people who live there move to the part where we live, because if they do, well.... droughts and all that. But if something bad does happen to you, and you decide to spend your college years slacking off, it's...okay as long as you face your past later on?
This movie is obviously trying to teach a lesson, but doesn't actually do it very well. It's something to do with facing your demons instead of running away from, but it's so weird in this case because it's something that Simba didn't even need to run away from in the first place. So what they're saying is, if you've been convinced that you did something bad, then you should confess to having done it? I don't know. It's just so weird that I don't even feel like thinking about too heavily. And that means something coming from me!
Amanda will probably be better at talking about that element anyway, so let's move onto the music. Well, you know how kids are not very picky in their musical tastes, and easily gravitate towards things like mindless bubble gum pop? I confess, I listened to the songs of The Lion King all the time during the mid-1990s. And now...I'm not saying it's badly-written. As far as bubble gum, it's like...I don't know, what's the highest quality of bubble gum on the market? But compared to what I've been spoiled with from Ashman and Menken, it leaves clever rhymes and lyrical jokes to be desired. The bare-bones DVD we watched this week did not include "The Morning Report," but we had seen it before, and I don't think we were missing much this time around.

Favorite character: I'm gonna say Rafiki, partly to continue my monkey-as-a-favorite-character streak.
Least necessary character: Has the African Association of Hyenas with Mental Disabilities lodged any complaints about the use of Ed as a comedic element?
Overall: The Rule of Nostalgia hits hard as I realize The Lion isn't as funny, well-written, or musically strong as I remember it being when I was much younger. But I now appreciate what I didn't appreciate as much back then: How gosh-darn pretty it all is.

Amanda Matata

Friday, August 3, 2012

D52 - Week 31 - Aladdin

Kevin's Review
There was this very short-lived show circa mid-2000s called Drew Carey's Green Screen Show. The idea was that performers would improvise game-based scenes in front of, imagine this, a green screen. Then different animators would animate elements over the different scenes. I did rather like the concept overall, since there's something pleasantly pleasing about seeing cartoons playing out to actual spontaneity. And that's what I like most about Aladdin. That's not to say that scripted animated characters can't be funny, but it's no wonder that more and more often you hear - mainly if you watch or listen to the interview and commentaries on DVDs - about contemporary animated movie directors letting the voice actors heavily ad-lib their parts. Wait, did I already talk about this in the post for Rescuers Down Under? Well, if we assume John Candy pioneered the idea, Robin Williams perfected it. And yes, your enjoyment of the Genie character will largely hinge on your fondness/distaste for the Robin But I would defend it by saying that I really couldn't imagine the character being handled any other way. At least, not entertainingly. I'm sure glad it wasn't the typical droning, humorless genie seen in numerous other Arabian Nights adaptations. And, for my Pixar comparison of the week, Genie is like Mater, in that in the same way that I find Mater the Tow Truck more appealing than Larry the Cable Guy, I find Genie more lovable than Robin Williams doing stand-up. Mater acts and sounds like Larry TCG, but the rustic charm works better coming from an actual redneck (rustdoor?) than from a guy who used to be a redneck but is now making millions of dollars but still acts as if he still has the same lifestyle. When Robin Williams Robin Williams, he's doing it for the sake of being funny, and maybe for attention? But with Genie, you can imagine a guy who's just been BORED for hundreds of years and, once he finally gets to talk with a non-rug*, he finally gets to expand all of that pent-up energy in an overblown and ostentatiousness splashy technicolor way. He's not doing it to make Aladdin laugh - he can't expect Aladdin to get all of his magical predictions of pop cultural references of the far-but-no-later-than-early-90s future anyway! He's just doing it for his own sake, because, hey, he couldn't do all of that from inside the lamp! That's more interesting, isn't it?
What do I have to say about the rest of the movie? Yes, the songs are great fun. Howard Ashman will be sorely missed, and how many ways can I say that Alan Menken is consistently terrific at what he does?
The animation is stellar, with the some of the computer animated bits (Carpet, the entrance of the Cave of Wonders) looking better over time than others (escape from Cave of Wonders). The story....well...
Anytime a story involves the idea of wish-granting there's bound to be, oh, discrepancies. The idea of wishes itself is so vague and open-ended that it just can't be broken down to a science at all. But still. That being said. I'd like to lodge a complaint over Jafar's wishes. He first wishes to be a sorcerer, then uses his second wish to be the world's most powerful sorcerer, and that's just dumb. You couldn't use your first wish to be the world's most powerful sorcerer in the first place? For a guy who's been consumed with finding the lamp for such a long time, you would think he would've planned his wishes better! But that's not even what I want to complain about. There is a clearly-stated rule about not wishing for more wishes, right? But isn't wishing to be a sorcerer pretty much that, just worded differently? It's not made clear exactly what "a sorcerer" can and cannot do (can a sorcerer bring back the dead or make someone fall in love with you?), but given what we see Sorcerer Jafar do, he's pretty much granting his own unlimited wishes on the spot, isn't he? It would've cost him several wishes in saying, "I wish to put trap Jasmine in a huge hourglass!" and "I wish to turn the Sultan into a jester!" and so on and all of those spells that he casts, but by making the Sorcerer wish(es), he gets all of those for the price of 1 (or, 2 ultimately). Hmm. I guess it was a cleverly economical wish strategy after all.
Wishy-washy wishes aside, the characters themselves are well-rounded and focused enough that they make up for the story they're in. Not quite at the same level of cast development as Beauty and the Beast, but still better than the D52 average (so far?). As for the characters themselves...
Favorite character: Abu, partly because I am partial to monkeys, and partly because I am partial to Frank Welker. It's just so astounding that he voices the deep supergrowly Cave of Wonders AND the duckishly squeaky Abu...AND his Abu voice is distinctively different from his Curious George "monkey" voice.
Least necessary character: A main-character genie named Genie...a plot-important carpet* named Carpet...and yet the tiger, who isn't named Tiger but gets to be called Rajah, doesn't seem to do enough to warrant getting its own non-self-referential name.
Overall: Oh, what the hey - it's loads of fun. The only thing keeping me from praising it more highly is that it had such a tough act to follow.

*Correct me if I'm wrong. And I know you will. But I always thought that a carpet covers a floor completely, and always touches the walls, and a rug is what you would place in roughly the middle of a room with space between it and the walls. What I'm saying is, isn't "Carpet" a rug, at least more than he is a carpet? Granted, "Magic Rug Ride" sounds off-putting. Or is this just a cultural linguistics thing?

Amanda's off-line type-up: