Movie Review: Wolfwalkers (2020) #AtoZChallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter W

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

I couldn’t find a “W” movie to watch from these lists so I’m watching a highly-regarded recent release instead.

Title:Wolfwalkers 
Release Date: December 2, 2020
Director: Tomm Moore | Ross Stewart
Production Company: Cartoon Saloon | Mélusine
Summary/Review:

Kilkenny, Ireland – 1650.  The town faces the threat of a pack of wolves outside its walls, and the draconian rule of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell (Simon McBurney) within.  Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) is an English hunter charged with eliminating the wolf problem while raising and protecting his adventurous young daughter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey).  Naturally, Robyn makes her way into the forest where she discovers the secret of the wolfwalkers, people who are human when they are awake and wolves when they are asleep, living among the wolfpack.

Robyn befriends the young Mebh Óg MacTíre (Eva Whitaker) and they join together to try and find Mebh’s missing mother and help save the wolf pack.  It’s a wonderful adventure full of great imagination, action, and camaraderie. The animation is absolutely beautiful and effortlessly melds together the historical with the fantastical.  Computer-animated films are getting better and better, but it is also really lovely to see a traditionally animated film like this one again.

Tomm Moore also directed The Secret of Kells which I also loved so now I need to seek out the rest of his films.  In the meantime, I highly recommend this as a great film for the whole family.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)


Title: Raya and the Last Dragon
Release Date: March 5, 2021
Director: Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

Kumandra is an imaginary world based in Southeast Asian mythology and iconography, where humans are protected by dragons. Centuries prior to the events of the film, Kumandra is beset by the Druun, a kind of malevolent virus that turns people and dragons to stone.  The dragons put all their magic into a gem to help defeat the Druun and unfreeze the people, but the dragons remain frozen.  The people fight over the gem and form five warring nations named for parts of a dragon: Heart, Fang, Spine, Tail, and Talon.

Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) is raised by her father, Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) of Heart, to protect the dragon gem.  Benja also dreams of reuniting Kumandra and hosts a summit of all five tribes in Heart.  Raya befriends the daughter of the Fang chief, Namaari (Gemma Chan), but is betrayed as Namaari only sought to gain her trust to gain access to the gem.  In the tussle over the gem, it breaks into five pieces and the Druun reemerge, turning many people to stone, including Benja.

It is up to Raya to find the last dragon and reunite the five pieces of the gem. She finds the dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), early on in the film, who ends up being goofier and perhaps not quite as heroic as than the legends written about her.  Along their journey through the five lands, Raya and Sisu pick up a crew of misfits from each tribe, who work together to find all the pieces.  I’m particularly fond of Little Noi, the con baby (Thalia Tran).

The movie strikes a good balance of humor, drama, and action. Unlike many Walt Disney Animation Studios productions, Raya and the Last Dragon is neither a musical, nor a romance (although if anyone is writing Raya/Namaari fan fiction right now, they would have a good basis to do so).  I think this is the studio’s first attempt at High Fantasy since The Black Cauldron, and much better executed. If the tropes of High Fantasy are familiar and predictable, they are at least deployed in an interesting way. The animation is absolutely gorgeous and the imagination that goes into the world-building and creatures is terrific.  The message of learning to trust others can get heavy-handed at times, but also something we all need to be reminded of.

Raya and the Last Dragon is a worthy addition to the Disney animation canon.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Cinderella (1950)


Title: Cinderella
Release Date: March 4, 1950
Director: Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, & Wilfred Jackson
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Summary/Review:

Well, I’ve gone and done it!  I’ve watched every single Walt Disney and Pixar animated feature film.  I saved one of the most famous for last. Cinderella essentially made the Walt Disney Company as we know it today (or as we’ve known it for most of the past 70 years because the company has changed considerably in just the past decade) inaugurating a new golden age of animated films, ventures into television, and ultimately theme parks.  Cinderella Castle towers over the Magic Kingdom in Florida to remind you of the film’s importance.

Cinderella may also be one of the best known fairy tales outside of the movies, so I figured I knew the basic plot.  What surprised me in the Disney version is that the movie is told largely from the perspective of two mice, Jaq and Gus.  The first 20 minutes of the movie is almost all about the exploits of the household mice with Cinderella as an incidental background character.  It’s both a daring storytelling choice but ultimately a bit off-putting.  I just kind of wanted the Cinderella’s story to get started already.

While I had no idea the movie so prominently featured mice, I was well aware of the Fairy Godmother and her famous song “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo”.  So I was surprised that the Fairy Godmother literally appears in just one scene and there’s really no explanation for her existence other than to get Cinderella to the ball.

The movie is well animated and the music is solid and the mice are cute, but something about Cinderella just feels off.  I think Sleeping Beauty, a movie considered less successful than Cinderella, did a much better job with mixing story, character, humor, and drama.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: The Lion King (1994)


Title: The Lion King
Release Date: June 24, 1994
Director: Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Feature Animation
Summary/Review:

I first saw The Lion King in the movie theaters with a group of college friends and we all had an enjoyable time and loved the movie.  Oddly, I didn’t see another Disney animated film in the theaters until Moana 22 years later (although I did see plenty of Pixar films).

The Lion King draws upon Shakespeare’s Hamlet (and possibly a Japanese anime series) for inspiration, but this is the first Disney animated feature that’s not an adaptation of another work and I think it was very freeing for the creators.  They were able to create a universe within the wilderness of Africa to tell a story of love, betrayal, and redemption.  And I think this may also be the first Disney movie with no human characters.

The opening scene with Simba’s presentation is perhaps the most awe-inspiring animation Disney has ever created. And having it all end with a dramatic sting and the movie’s title is a bold choice before beginning the movie proper.  The Lion King strikes the right balance of humor, drama, romance, and adventure.  And the music drawing on African traditions is amazing.  Elton John as composer was an odd choice (and the beginning of a trend of pop artists composing soundtracks for animated movies), but even if his songs do get a little cheezy at times they are definitely memorable.

The Lion King is a great film that I believe will continue to reward viewings for quite some time.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Aladdin (1992)


Title: Aladdin
Release Date: November 25, 1992
Director: John Musker & Ron Clements
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Feature Animation
Summary/Review:

I missed Beauty and the Beast when it came out and didn’t see it until years later, but I have good memories of seeing this movie in the theater with my sister.  The big attraction for Aladdin was Robin Williams as Genie.  Even kids who had no idea who Ed Sullivan and Senor Wences were enjoyed Williams many celebrity impersonations and overall manic performance.  It was the first time a big-name movie star voiced a character in a Disney movie and it would not be the last.  I suspect the animators had a lot of fun animating Williams’ bits especially the constant flow of gags in the songs “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali.”

Speaking of songs, the movies of the Disney Renaissance were known for their great music, and The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast sold a lot of soundtracks and earned Oscars and Grammies.  But it was Aladdin that made a full assault on the music charts.  If you were not around in 1992-1993, I can’t begin to explain the inescapability of the movie’s love song, “A Whole New World,” in the aural soundscape of the time.  Perhaps only “Let It Go” from Frozen could compete with the utter ubiquity of a Disney movie song.

I hadn’t watched Aladdin in a long time, and mostly only remembered the Genie parts.  I was impressed that overall the movie is very funny and clever.  Aladdin (Scott Weinger) and Jasmine (Linda Larkin) are well-characterized and likable characters and while their romance may be swift it is believable. The themes of being true to oneself and escaping imprisonment (real and metaphorical) are well-done. Even Gilbert Gottfried – who usually annoys me – is pretty funny as the sardonic parrot Iago.

If there’s a downside to Aladdin it is that it relies on some tired stereotypes of Arabic people.  Also, the casting of Aladdin and Jasmine makes them sound like white teenagers from an American suburb rather than from the Middle East. To its credit, the Disney company has gotten better about cultural sensitivity and representative casting in recent years in movies like Moana. But it would’ve been revolutionary if they’d offered more positive representation of Arabic people and culture in 1992, especially so soon after the Persian Gulf War.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Sleeping Beauty (1959)


Title: Sleeping Beauty
Release Date: January 29, 1959
Director: Clyde Geronimi
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Summary/Review:

In the public imagination, Sleeping Beauty is what people imagine Disney films are like (or at least they did until more recent years): a fairy tale story where a princess survives dangers to find true love with her prince.  Sleeping Beauty Castle was even given prime real estate in Disneyland (which opened four years before the movie was released!). The reality is that after this movie performed poorly at the box office, Disney waited a whole 30 years before making a fairy tale princess movie again with The Little Mermaid. The Disney Princess marketing angle wasn’t even introduced until the 2000s!

The movie is good enough and competently-made but nothing jumps out as exciting.  While the characters and their movement are excellently animated, it strikes me as odd that the movie relies on rather flat backdrops which make it look cheaply-made.  Although there are moments when the characters are frozen against those backgrounds that look like woodcuts, so maybe that was what they were going for.

Despite being referred to in the title, Princess Aurora (alternately Briar Rose) is not the main character of the movie.  The protagonists are the good fairies Flora, Fauna and Merryweather who are responsible for just about every action in the movie, or at least reactions to the villain Maleficent.  Even when Prince Phillip is charged with rescuing Aurora, it is the fairies who are helping out along the way.  So let’s have a Disney live action remake called The Good Fairies that focuses on their stories.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)


Title: The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
Release Date: March 11, 1977
Director: John Lounsbery & Wolfgang Reitherman
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Summary/Review:

I’m surprised that I’ve never reviewed this movie before because I put it on a lot for the kids when they were little.  Granted, I did often use that time to take a nap on the couch, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love the adventures of Pooh and his friends.  I’m a fan of A.A. Milne’s classic books and the movie is not exactly a great adaptation.  And yet it ends up being great in it’s own way, even with the parts that are “not in the book.’

I love the voice work of Sterling Holloway and Paul Winchell.  I love the songs by the Sherman Brothers. I love the way the characters interact with the pages of the book.  I love the way that Owl’s house sways in the wind.  I love the drug trip of “Heffalumps and Woozles.”  I love the bee that laughs at Pooh.

It’s amazing that one of Disney’s most consistent films is actually an anthology consisting of three shorts made over the course of a decade.

Rating: *****

See also:

 

Movie Review: Finding Dory (2016)


Title: Finding Dory
Release Date: June 17, 2016
Director: Andrew Stanton
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

I know I watched Finding Dory, but for some reason I didn’t review it on this blog.  Watching it again there were big parts of the movie I didn’t remember at all (I know, ironic, considering Dory’s condition) especially the conclusion when Hank the Septopus (Ed O’Neill) is driving a truck and crashes while a Louis Armstrong tune.  Did I not review this movie because I didn’t finish watching this movie? Did I fall asleep?  I hope not.

Anyhow, I’m glad I got to rewatch this sweet gem.  Dory (Ellen Degeneres) works through her short-term memory loss by trying to find her parents. The search leads her the fictional Marine Life Institute on the coast of California. There she meets and is helped by cranky Hank, Destiny the Whale Shark (Kaitlin Olson) and Bailey the Beluga Whale (Ty Burrell).  Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence) follow along and try to catch up to their friend Dory, learning to be more like Dory in the process. And we meet Dory’s parents, voiced by Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy.

This movie is more of spinoff than a sequel to Finding Nemo, and it makes good use of the undersea universe to tell a fresh, funny, and heartwarming story.  I especially like that Dory and most of the animals at the Marine Life Institute have a disability and the movie serves as a metaphor of how people live good lives with disabilities without being heavy-handed about it.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Reviews: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)


Title: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Release Date: June 11, 1982
Director: Steven Spielberg
Production Company: Universal Studios | Amblin Entertainment
Summary/Review:

E.T. was a huge monster hit right at the time when I was the target demographic for this story of an alien botanist stranded on earth and his friendship with a young boy.  And I didn’t really like it.  Watching this movie again for the first time in decades, I found myself far more moved by it than I did when I was 8.

I do remember seeing this in the theater with my family and my sister and I were allowed to go up to the balcony on our own.  Except that I found the movie too scary and forced my sister to go back downstairs to sit with our parents.  Well, it turns out, the first 20 minutes or so of this movie are pretty creepy from John Williams’ music to the slasher film perspective of E.T. running through the woods.  Later in the movie, when a bleached-out E.T. is discovered in a ravine and then the government agents invade the house are also creepy and scary moments.

Of course, the whole movie isn’t creepy.  It’s actually very sweet and a remarkably well-written (by screen written Melissa Mathison) story that balances the humor, drama, and pathos of a realistic childhood friendship (in a Sci-Fi setting, of course). It helps that the movie stars some terrific child actors in Henry Thomas as Elliot and Drew Barrymore as his little sister Gertie. All in all, this movie is much better than I remembered although it does tend to get overly manipulative of the emotions towards the end.  While I wouldn’t put it on my favorite movies of all time list, it is definitely worth watching.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Muppet Treasure Island (1996)


Welcome to Muppet Mondays! Over the next several Mondays I will be working my way through the various movies in the Muppets and Jim Henson oeuvre.

Title: Muppet Treasure Island
Release Date: February 16, 1996
Director: Brian Henson
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Jim Henson Productions
Summary/Review:

Muppet Treasure Island follows the same formula as The Muppet Christmas Carol: Adapt a 19th-century British literary work, cast a veteran English actor in the starring role, have Gonzo (Dave Goelz) and Rizzo (Steve Whitmire) as the audience identification Muppets, and have the rest of the Muppets portray supporting characters and the chorus. I remember seeing this movie in the theater and was a bit underwhelmed, but on rewatch Muppet Treasure Island proves to be the rare movie that ends up being better than I remembered.

Much more so than the often somber A Christmas Carol, a pirate story plays to the Muppets’ anarchic strengths.  Tim Curry brings roguish charm to Long John Silver, and Kevin Bishop is a a good-natured Jim Hawkins with a nice singing voice.  Kermit (Whitmire) is perfect in the role of Captain Smollet. The music numbers are enjoyable, especially the bonkers setpiece “Cabin Fever”. I also love the running gag of rats going on a cruise.

Rating: ***1/2