Movie Review: Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)


Title: Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Release Date: June 22, 1988
Director: Robert Zemeckis, Richard Williams (animation director)
Production Company: Touchstone Pictures | Amblin Entertainment | Silver Screen Partners
Summary/Review:

I was 14 when Who Framed Roger Rabbit was released and greatly anticipated seeing the movie having always loved animation and in the midst of a phase where I was obsessively watching old Warner Bros. shorts.  When I finally did see the movie, I was disappointed.  I found Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer) to be annoying, Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) to be overly creepy (especially in his ultimate demise), and everyone using the term “toons” to be overly affected. I feel like the movie was poorly received at the time, but it has been reconsidered as a classic so I had to watch it again.

Revisiting the movie as an adult I find that I have a better frame of reference for the film noir pastiche which is well done.  I also appreciate incorporating the real-life story of powers-that-be wanting to dismantle the Los Angeles streetcar system and build freeways.  The anti-car ethos resonates with me. Bob Hoskins does an excellent job as the gruff straight man portraying detective Eddie Valiant investigating the murder of Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye) and why Roger Rabbit was framed for the killing.

This movie, of course, wows with the technical brilliance of incorporating animated characters into live action with a level of reality never before achieved (and never since as computer animation soon became the dominant form of the art).  There’s a scene where Eddie enters Toon Town for the first time and drives through the psychedelic world of toon’s singing “Smile, Darn Ya, Smile!” that is absolutely brilliant, and that was my favorite part when I was younger. I kind of wish more of the movie was like that, because for all its technical brilliance, I still don’t find Who Framed Roger Rabbit to be funny for the most part.  And for a family film, it also has a lot of elements that are over kids’ heads.

I definitely like this movie a lot more than I did when I was younger.  Roger Rabbit is still annoying and Judge Doom is still creepy, but there’s a lot of style and mood as well as nods to film history that I can appreciate.  I just feel that this movie had the opportunity to be a whole lot more.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Jungle Cruise (2021)


Title: Jungle Cruise
Release Date: July 30, 2021
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Davis Entertainment | Seven Bucks Productions | Flynn Picture Company
Summary/Review:

Disney theme parks typically adapt movies into attractions, but sometime it goes in the other direction, successfully with The Pirates of the Caribbean, and not so successfully with The Haunted Mansion. The Jungle Cruise was an opening day attraction at Disneyland in 1955 and actually was inspired by the True-Life Adventure movies, a series of nature documentaries that Walt Disney produced from 1948 to 1960, as well as the non-Disney movie The African Queen.  The ride was originally planned to cruise past live animals but when it was realized they would mostly sleep during the day, they created audio-animatronic animals in naturalistic settings.  Over time, the Jungle Cruise skippers began incorporating jokes and puns into their educational narration, and then some sillier scenes were added to the ride.  All of this history is summed up well in a recent three part series of the Disney History Institute Podcast.

The Jungle Cruise seems almost destined to for film adaptation, the question is whether or not that adaptation was worth it.  I’d say yes.  Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt, returning to Disney after starring in Mary Poppins Returns) is an adventurous botanist pushing against the chauvinism of the scientific world in 1916 who goes to the Amazon to seek a legendary tree said to be able to heal all illnesses.  She hires Frank (Dwayne Johnson, returning to Disney after starring in Moana) a punning trickster of a riverboat skipper to carry her up the Amazon to the tree.  Along for the ride is Lily’s stuffy brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall).

The film is carried by Blunt and Johnson who have a great chemistry.  The story is designed to undermine gender roles, but doesn’t make the mistake of pushing to far in the reversal.  Lily and Frank each have strengths and they each show vulnerabilities.  Even MacGregor proves not to be as useless as he initially appears.  While Jungle Cruise is undeniably formulaic, there are some twists in the plot that are genuinely unexpecting.  And as a delivery system for jokes and action sequences it is effective.

The downside of Jungle Cruise is that it is way too long.  The movie may have been pared down if they chose one antagonist to develop instead of two.  Instead the crew of La Quila have to contend with the German Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) pursuing them in a submarine as well as the cursed conquistador Aguirre (Édgar Ramírez).  For a movie set in Brazil, there is a distinct lack of Brazilians among the many European characters.  Indigenous people are still represented stereotypically even if it’s done as part of another gag about reversing expectations.

Jungle Cruise is a summer popcorn flick with some underlying substance, but not too much that it goes beyond just being a fun ride.  In that way it is a worthy of the Disney attraction that gave it its name.

Rating:

Movie Review: Luca (2021)


TitleLuca
Release Date: June 18, 2021
Director: Enrico Casarosa
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

Pixar’s latest release is part Pixar formula, part innovation.  The story is a coming-of-age comedy mixed with fantasy elements that is similar to other Pixar films.  The animation veers away from the more photo-realistic style of recent Pixar releases with more cartoonish character designs and a fairy tale rendering of the Italian Riveria.  The biggest disappointment is that Disney chose not to give this movie a wide theatrical release because I expect it looks amazing on the big screen.

The story centers on Luca (Jacob Tremblay), a young teenaged sea monster who is curious about the human “land monsters” and their artifacts that fall into the sea, but his strict parents warn him to keep away.  Before he can get all moody and start singing “Part of Your World,” he is accidentally scooped up onto land by Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), an older teenage sea monster who has made a home for himself in an abandoned tower. The sea monsters take human form on dry land, the transformations being a great visual effect used throughout the movie.

The boys bond in friendship, and dreaming of exploring the world on a Vespa, they go to the local town.  They meet Giulia (Emma Berman), an adventurous teenaged girl and misfit, and the trio work together to earn prize money in a triathlon of swimming, past eating, and bicycling.  The movie tells a story of young people forming friendships and finding a place where they feel like where they belong, while dealing with bullying and prejudice.  As you can expect from Pixar, there’s a lot of humor, charm, wonder, and tear-inducing heartfelt moments.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Lady and the Tramp (2019)


Title: Lady and the Tramp
Release Date: November 12, 2019
Director: Charlie Bean
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Taylor Made
Summary/Review:

The 1955 Disney animated feature Lady and the Tramp is a cute romantic comedy about jokes that attempts to derive humor through the aggressive deployment of ethnic stereotypes.  Of any movie to get a modern day “live-action” remake, I figured Lady and the Tramp would be bound to be improved, especially since my favorite maybe-they’re-a-couple celebrities Tessa Thompson (as Lady) and Janelle Monáe (as Peg) were involved.

The remake succeeds at it’s basic point of being a cute, family-friendly story about dogs.  It’s a movie that I expect parents will enjoy watching with their younger kids (although my kids were not interested in watching it). I’m not sure how much of the animals is CGI and how much is live animal actors, but the dogs looked like real dogs with animated faces.  The cats and the rat, on the other hand look totally fake.  The movie is overly long and seemingly didn’t have a director who could restrain himself from trying to make every moment magical.  The movie would be improved with some judicious pruning.

The story is essentially the same as the 1955 original without the racism.  In fact, the cast is racially diverse including a mix-raced couple as Jim Dear (Thomas Mann) and Darling (Kiersey Clemons). Hopefully no one will be watching a talking dog movie for a historically-accurate depiction of early 20th century America, but the fact that all the racial harmony is just as fantastical makes me feel a little sad.

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: ****

Every Walt Disney and Pixar Animated Feature Film, Ranked


The past three years I’ve been working to watch every animated feature film released by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios.  With that project complete as of December, I have now put together a ranking of these movies for your review.

This list includes all 58 animated films from Walt Disney Animation Studios and all 23 animated films from Pixar Animation Studios released theatrically to date.  It does not include:

  • animated shorts
  • live-action films
  • hybrid live-action and animation (ex. Mary Poppins, Who Framed Roger Rabbit)
  •  animated features made as partnerships with other studios (ex. The Nightmare Before Christmas, Studio Ghibli films)
  • direct-to-video/direct-to-streaming/tv movies (ex. Disneytoon Studios productions)

This list is certain to court controversy, so share your feelings (politely) in the comments.  If your favorite movie appears to be ranked too low for your tastes, keep in mind that I’d recommend any of the top 70 movies as being worth watching, and at least the top 50 movies can be considered classics.  So there’s a lot of quality here, despite the rankings.

Here’s the ranking.  The title of each movie will link to my review.

82. Peter Pan

81. Make Mine Music 

80. A Bug’s Life

79. Chicken Little

78. Fantasia 2000

77. Fun and Fancy Free

76. Home on the Range

75. Meet the Robinsons

74. The Good Dinosaur

73. Atlantis: The Lost Empire

72. Pocahontas

71. Robin Hood

70. The Three Caballeros

69. Cars 2

68. Alice in Wonderland

67. The Emperor’s New Groove

66. Treasure Planet

65. The Black Cauldron

64. Monsters University

63. The Aristocats

62. The Rescuers Down Under

61. Oliver & Company

60. Ralph Breaks the Internet

59. Melody Time

58. Dinosaur

57. Tarzan

56. Cars 3

55. Saludos Amigos

54. Incredibles 2 

53. Cars

52. Lady and the Tramp 

51. Dumbo 

50. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad

49. The Great Mouse Detective

48. The Sword in the Stone 

47. Sleeping Beauty

46. Hercules

45. Toy Story 2

44. Cinderella

43. Mulan

42. The Princess and the Frog

41. Toy Story 4

40. Finding Dory

39. Frozen 2 

38. Winnie the Pooh

37. Bolt

36. Brother Bear

35. The Hunchback of Notre Dame

34. Pinocchio

33. The Jungle Book

32. Wreck-It Ralph

31. Bambi 

30. Onward 

29. Soul

28. Big Hero 6

27. The Fox and the Hound

26. Raya and the Last Dragon

25. The Incredibles

24. Coco 

23. Fantasia

22. Tangled 

21. The Rescuers

20. Aladdin

19. Beauty and the Beast

18.WALL-E 

17. Moana

16. Zootopia

15. Ratatouille

14. Frozen

13. Brave

12. Toy Story 3

11. Inside Out

10. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

9. The Little Mermaid

8. One Hundred and One Dalmatians

7. Lilo & Stitch

6. The Lion King

5. Finding Nemo

4. Monsters, Inc.

3. Up

2. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh

1. Toy Story

So what are YOUR favorite Disney/Pixar animated features? Let me know in the comments.

Recent Movie Marathon: Soul


Title: Soul
Release Date: December 25, 2020
Director: Pete Docter & Kemp Powers
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

The latest film from Pixar continues the studio’s exploration of the liminal space between life and other planes of existence begun in Coco and Onward. The movie is the story of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a jazz musician who works as a high school band teacher in New York City to pay the bills until he gets his big break. On the very day that break comes, the opportunity to back jazz star Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) at a gig, he falls to his death. Finding himself as a soul heading up on an escalator to “the great beyond,” he runs away and ends up in “the great before,” where souls are prepared for their life on earth.

Through a series of misadventures, Joe ends up as a mentor for the recalcitrant Soul 22 (Tina Fey). Further misadventures result in Joe and Soul 22 on Earth, although not in the way they expected. This portion of the film has some hilarious hijinks but also the opportunity for Joe and Soul 22 to teach one another about the meaning of life. As you might expect from a Pixar film, the finale is tear-inducing in its honesty and beauty.

The movie has been criticized for its depiction of Black man not actually inhabiting his body for most of the movie (and that a white woman occupies that Black body for a good portion of the film). This criticism should not be overlooked especially considering that this is the first Pixar film ever with a Black lead character, but it also does not mean that one cannot enjoy this movie. Soul is a thoughtful, funny, and inspirational film that is a small story on the surface but it resonates deeply.

Rating: ****

Holiday Movie Marathon: Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas (1999)


Merry Christmas! Today I will be posting my reviews of my binge-watch of holiday movies. Enjoy!

Title: Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas
Release Date: November 9, 1999
Director: Alex Mann, Bradley Raymond, Jun Falkenstein, Bill Speers, & Toby Shelton
Production Company: Walt Disney Television Animation | Disney Video Premiere
Summary/Review:

This anthology film is made up of three shorts staring the Disney Fab Five. The first segment (and the best) has Huey, Dewey and Louie wishing every day would be Christmas and finding that the day is less special when it’s repeated Groundhog’s Day style. Next, Goofy tries to make a perfect Christmas for his son Max, who begins doubting the existence of Santa Claus. Finally, Mickey and Minnie create a modern interpretation of “The Gift of the Magi.” It’s a good holiday film to watch with young children although it’s not anything special.

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: The Queens of Animation by Nathalia Holt


Author: Nathalia Holt
Title: The Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women Who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History
Narrator: Saskia Maarleveld
Publication Info: Hachette Book Group, 2019
Other Books Read By the Same Author: Rise of the Rocket Girls
Summary/Review:

Walt Disney’s animation studio was famed for making feature films about the lives of princesses and fairies, but especially in its early decades it was an all-boys club. The hiring practices at Disney were not at all subtle about not wanting to hire women, and the few women who did work at the studio met with great resentment from their male colleagues. Nathalia Holt sets the record straight on five women who left their mark on the Disney’s style and success, even if there names were not always credited: Bianca Majolie, Grace Huntington, Sylvia Holland, Retta Scott, and Mary Blair.

Blair is probably the most well-known of these artists with her concept art significantly influencing the style of Alice in Wonderland and Cinderella, and her work on it’s a small world and the mural at Walt Disney’s World’s Contemporary Resort still persisting. Her personal life is marred by an abusive husband (also a Disney artist) and alcoholism that is the antithesis of her sunny art work. Majolie was the first storyboard artist and developed the stories for Pinocchio, Cinderella, and Peter Pan. She also discovered a recording of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite – virtually unknown in the US at the time – and used it is a basis for a segment of Fantasia and thus popularizing the music and the ballet.

Grace Huntington was the second women to work as a story artist, but fascinatingly she was also an experienced aviator who set solo altitude records despite test piloting also being a restricted career for women. Holland, another storyboard artist with a musical background, used her experience to inform “The Pastoral Symphony” segment of Fantasia, the “Little April Shower” sequence of Bambi, and “Two Silhouettes” in Make Mine Music. Scott was the first woman to be promoted from ink and paint (a laborious task where most women at the studio worked) to a full animator, and contributed her art to Bambi, Fantasia, and Dumbo.

The book offers great insight into animation and Hollywood culture in the 30s, 40s, and 50s and the doors that were opened to women during that time and those that remained close. Holt does bring the story fully up-to-date with Jennifer Lee rising to the Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation after the success of Frozen, and the much broader representation of women on-screen and behind the scenes at Disney in the present day. But the book is best and richest in detail on the early decades telling the fascinating stories of these pioneering women and their enduring legacies.

Rating: ***1/2

TV Review: The Mandalorian (2020)


Title: The Mandalorian
Release Date: 2020
Creator/Head Writer/Showrunner: Jon Favreau
Episodes: 8
Production Company:  Lucasfilm | Golem Productions
Summary/Review:

WARNING: LOTS OF SPOILERS HERE! DON’T READ IF YOU HAVEN’T WATCHED THIS SEASON AND WANT TO BE SURPRISED.

The Mandalorian returns with Din Djarin (Pedro Pascal) on a quest to reunite The Child (a.k.a. Baby Yoda) with the Jedi, assuming he can even find Jedi in the galaxy. Familiar faces from season 1 return to support The Mandalorian on his quest, including Peli Motto (Amy Sedaris), Cara Dune (Gina Carano), Greef Karga (Carl Weathers), and Migs Mayfield (Bill Burr).  But this season is also about tying in The Mandalorian with wider Star Wars lore, featuring the live action debut of the characters Bo-Katan Kryze (Katee Sackhoff) and Ahsoka Tano (Rosario Dawson), as well as the return of Boba Fett (Temuera Morrison), now teamed with Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen).  The biggest character reveal, though, is reserved for the final moments of the season finale.

Each episode is still largely self-contained with the Manadalorian typically involved in carrying out a favor for someone in return for information that will help him on the quest.  Tantalizing details of the larger story trickle out but also there are some huge revelations through the season.  For example, we learn that “Baby Yoda” is actually named Grogu, and that he was a youngling who survived the Jedi Purge.

Pedro Pascal continues to provide some wonderful, nuanced acting in the lead role. His character learns a lot about his people and his beliefs this season and makes some dramatic choices out of his love for Grogu. The rest of the cast also remains uniformly brilliant, and I particularly like Bill Burr bringing a bit of morally ambiguous wisdom to his Space Boston character. The Mandalorian is a great mix of action, drama, mystery, and humor and remains the only show my whole family eagerly watches together.

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