Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Series Report Card: Disney Animated Features (2005-2008)

45. Chicken Little
I feel like such a heel for liking this one. It includes so many of the aspects I hate about modern animated films. First off, it’s CGI and could be seen as the death knoll for hand-drawn animation. The humor is decidedly modern with pop culture references and some low-brow shtick thrown around. The story is all around light and nonthreatening and there’s also modern pop songs inserted over the action.

And yet… I enjoyed it. The chemistry between Zach Braff and Garry Marshell is great. They’re quite funny and are very believable as father and son. I suppose the themes just appealed to me. The dysfunctional father/son relationship and all the main character being losers and outcast are themes close to my heart. The inclusion of old seventies pop-songs is also something that made me laugh. So it’s completely fluffy and easily dismissed, but I liked it anyway. Better then anything DreamWorks animation department has cranked out in recent years. [Grade: B-]

46. Meet the Robinsons
A move in the right direction, perhaps, but “Meet the Robinsons” doesn’t quite sing. The picture starts off kind of slow. I found Lewis to be largely uninteresting as a protagonist and his whole unwanted orphan bit is pretty old hat by this point. Wilbur and Bowler Hat Guy were far more interesting characters and the movie picks up with their entrance. However, as soon as we get to the future, the movie hits another snag. When we first meet the Robinsons themselves, the mindset is frantic, shrill, and annoying. And for being so prominently placed in the title, none of the futuristic family members are actually developed beyond gimmicks, some not even that much. Sure, it’s cool to hear Adam West as a futuristic pizza delivery boy but we never spend enough time with his character to really care about him. And he’s one of the more prominent members.

Once introducing everyone is finally out of the way though, the movie gets a little better. The sequence involving the dinosaur is by far the funniest in the film. (To digress, if I was gifted with a time machine, the very first thing I would do is go back in time and get myself a pet dinosaur. It’s only natural.) There’s a brief moment where we feel settled in with this family a little bit and you actually feel something for little Lewis.

However, the mood is hijacked again following that as we set off for the high-stakes final act in which the filmmakers attempt to bring some classical Disney drama into the picture. But, as all ready established, since we don’t really care about anyone, any drama is ineffective so the climax just comes off as jarringly dark. I though the theme of “The past is the past, look forward to the future!” was overstated and, frankly, wrong. There is a twist revealed midway through that is easily predicted. Still, at least the filmmakers tried to actually do something with the story instead of just shoving out a product. You get the impression that they actually cared about the characters and the story. It’s a cute flick with some funny moments but the Mouse Factory isn’t quite there yet. Bonus points for actually casting Tom Selleck in a key role, though. [Grade: B-]

47. Bolt
“Bolt” could’ve been just another CGI talking animal cartoon in a sea of them. It hits the majority of story steps common for such a tale. The hero goes through the expected cycle of delusion and self-doubt, before finally learning the true strength of his virtues. Under most circumstances, it wouldn’t be anything to write home about. However, there are a few important details that allow the movie to rise above the concept.

The movie opens with a faux-blockbuster sequence, one that skews many of the cliches of current action films while also managing to be pretty exciting in its own right. It isn’t long afterward that the driving element of the story, its sense of heart, is introduced. This relatively routine cute animal story actually has some real emotion to it. I suspect this is due to the involvement of John Lassiter, the former head of Pixar who is now running Disney’s animation department. Maybe it’s just because the central relationship is between a cute little girl and her fluffy puppy dog, but there is a legitimate sweetness here, especially in the scenes where Penny and Bolt are separated.

Another thing I admire about the movie is that it takes place in the real world. Characters are put in danger and we actually fear for their lives, a sensation that hasn’t graced a Disney animated feature since “Tarzan.” The train/ladder sequence and the fiery climax actually had me nudging towards my seat’s edge. At one point, a character actually bleeds. The difference between reality and fantasy is the main theme and this grounded direction helps support it.

The characters are also given actual back stories and, even though the changes they all go through are expected, they’re still done fairly well. Watching Bolt’s transformation from deluded superstar to actual dog is entertaining and Mittens setting aside her cynicism and caring about someone again is somewhat touching. Rhino the hamster functions as the wacky comic relief character but his rabid enthusiasm makes him a unique addition to the Disney canon. He actually helps moves the story along too, which makes him stand out among wacky comic relief characters. John Travoltra and Miley Cyrus might seem like gimmicky casting but both are pretty good. James Lipton also has a neat small role.

The highest compliment I can pay “Bolt” is that in several parts it actually made me feel like a seven-year old kid again. Its not one-hundred percent unique but you can see that Disney magic starting to sparkle again, just a little bit.
[Grade: B+]

And that's it for Disney. "The Princess and the Frog," a return to traditional animation, fairy tales, and musicals is coming later this year and I'm really excited for it.

I honestly didn't intend for this report card to stretch out for five months. I don't really have an excuse other then I've been either busy or lazy. Anyway, "Star Trek" is next. That one won't take as long, I promise.

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