The Best and Worst of Disney – Part VII: The Second Renaissance

The Second Dark RenaissanceAlso referred to as “The Disney Revival,” the Second Renaissance is the era we’re currently in for the next foreseeable future. This era is where Disney would abandon trying to court the teenage male audience (they solved that problem by buying out Marvel Comics and Lucasfilm) with an attempt to win back their bread-and-butter (read: little girls) by merging the traditional, throwback fairy tale musical-style narratives with modern touches. The modern touches ranged from “Oh my god, it took this long to get a black princess?” to “We said we were going to bring back traditional 2D animation but we like money more so have some CGI.” In addition, Disney would alternate their throwback fairy tale features with ultra-modern sci-fi features that were wisely targeted at a younger general audience – basically, they figured out why Lilo & Stitch worked and the other sci-fi movies of the 2nd Dark Age didn’t. On the administration side of things, this is the post-Eisner era. He was ousted in 2006 for arrogantly concluding that Disney didn’t need Pixar, and replaced by Bob Iger (who has unfortunately made some very questionable decisions in Disney’s live action division, so I don’t know how long he’ll last). Most importantly, Pixar superstar John Lasseter was installed as Disney’s Chief Creative Officer, giving him unprecedented creative control over Disney’s future animated features.

Note that these are all very recent movies, and I don’t avoid spoilers when I discuss things. So BEWARE OF SPOILERS!

JUMP TO:

Bolt, The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Winnie the Pooh, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6, Zootopia, Moana


bolt_ver2Bolt (2008)

Not long after WDAS had troubled production issues with The Emperor’s New Groove and Meet The Robinsons, this film had production issues of its own. Bolt was originally titled American Dog and was to be directed by Lilo & Stitch‘s Chris Sanders, but John Lasseter more-or-less threw the entire film out, test reels and all, and started again from the beginning (and only retained the “dog actor doesn’t realize he’s an actor” high concept). The fallout resulted in Chris Sanders departing WDAS for Dreamworks, and since then he’s directed How To Train Your Dragon and The Croods for them. I’m not sure it was wise to break ties with the director who’d given Disney their only mega-hit during a decade-long period, but if you believe some of the people who worked for Disney at the time, Sanders’ reels were absolute garbage and he was unwilling to take any feedback on them. The only way we’re going to know for sure is if those reels turn up somehow, but seeing as Brad Bird’s decades-old pencil sketches for a film adaptation of The Spirit managed to turn up recently, you never know!

THE BEST:

  • The opening sequence showing footage from Bolt’s eponymous TV show, which is a completely off-the-wall parody of Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer/Roland Emmerich-style action movies, is by far the best part of the movie. (Which means it only goes down from there, but eh…) It uses some really dynamic camera angles, completely impossible physics, over-the-top acting, and every cliche you can think of. It falls apart a little once you realize that there’s no way they would have been able to pull off these special effects without the dog realizing some of what was happening was staged, but I guess we can chalk that one up to artistic licence. One of the best things about the TV show sequence is Malcolm McDowell’s performance as Dr. Calico, because it’s so incredibly hammy, his scenes should have a pineapple glaze.

THE WORST:

  • The general opinion I got when I asked people what they thought of this movie was that it was forgettable. I agree completely, and I think the reason why is because there’s nothing really original about it. Although this film is certainly watchable, it’s basically Inspector Gadget (Right down to the girl deliberately being named Penny!) + The Truman Show + Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey. The reason why the opening sequence works as well as it does is because big-budget action films/series are almost always played 100% straight – there aren’t a lot of people in Hollywood willing to invest that kind of money into a parody. Most of the movie concentrates on the Homeward Bound plot, which, in addition to being something I’ve seen many times before, feels like a complete drag after being given this giant heaping pile of silly ridiculousness at the beginning of the film. I guess I just don’t find the emotional hook of a dog learning how to be a dog while traveling across America all that interesting.

princess_and_the_frogThe Princess and the Frog (2009)

Despite having helmed a disastrous bomb in Treasure Planet, John Musker and Ron Clements were given one more shot at the director’s chair. John Lasseter fervently believed that the traditions that Walt Disney Studios had been built on needed to continue, and because Musker/Clements were the ones who really started the whole Disney Renaissance thing, they were put in charge of an adaptation of The Frog Princess. The major twist this time was that although it would be a traditionally animated musical fairy tale, it would be set in 1920s New Orleans and the newest Disney Princess would be Tiana, their first African-American protagonist. Musker/Clements stumbled a bit in the past with how they’d depicted Medieval Middle Eastern characters in Aladdin (I’ll leave aside that can of worms), so they were trying to be as careful as possible this time around. Tiana was originally named Maddy, and worked as a maid, but “Maddy” was seen as too similar to “Mammy,” and her being a maid was a bit too stereotypical. There’s even a very deliberate attempt at squashing the nastiest of stereotypes by depicting Tiana as an exceptionally hard worker. Although this film wasn’t as successful as it deserved to be (as important as having a black Princess is, there are still way too many people unwilling to see films about black people), it was everything that I’d wanted from Disney after 10 years of crushing disappointment.

THE BEST:

  • There are a lot of things I really like about this movie (Tiana, Charlotte and Dr. Facilier in particular) but the first thing I think of when I think of this movie is always its absolutely wonderful Almost There sequence. It’s one of the best songs Randy Newman will ever write, Anika Noni Rose has an incredible voice (especially that long note at the end!), and it’s lyrically a great twist on the “I Want” song because Tiana explicitly knows exactly what she wants and she is going to get it, even if it kills her. There’s no vague abstract goal for the future Princess here, which is an interesting contrast to her predecessors. Most of all though, I adore the animation style! The visualizations of Tiana’s dreams have a distinct Art Deco flavour (one of my favourite art styles), and everything is bathed in these warm colours that wonderfully symbolize Tiana’s passion and optimism. The gold background is really eye-popping. Almost There is a fantastic character establishing moment for Tiana as well – everything you need to know about her is in that song. The rest of the soundtrack is decent, but Almost There is far and away the best of the bunch.

THE WORST:

  • Although in general I feel that Tiana and Naveen spent too much of the film’s runtime in their frog forms, I wouldn’t even know where to change things since it would take apart the entire narrative structure. So I’ll leave that aside, and instead talk about one of the scenes during the Second Act. The scene with the hillbilly frog hunters is awful. It seems to just serve as a slapstick comedy bit, and its tone is almost (Ray’s ‘butt’ jokes aside) contradictory to the rest of the film. The designs of the frog hunters are so ugly they’re unappealing, and the trio have maybe one identical joke about their characters between them. About the only thing I can think of to justify the scene’s existence is that Tiana and Naveen stop arguing with each other after they outsmart the hillbillies. But whenever I rewatch this movie, I actually skip through this scene, I find it so pointless and tedious.

Tangled_poster_cTangled (2010)

The followup Disney Princess throwback film was significantly more successful than The Princess and the Frog was. Disney themselves concluded its popularity was due to it being a CG film. Others (myself included) wondered if its superior box office take was also because the Princess was once again white, since the two films are comparable in quality. These days, though, Tangled is usually compared with Frozen (mostly arguments about which film is superior – and I think you all know where I stand on that debate!). So this is another film that languished in Development Hell for decades (and was once called Rapunzel, then Rapunzel Unbraided and finally This Movie Isn’t Worth Making If We Can’t Get Dicks In Seats), and Glen Keane instructed the artists to make the film look like a moving rococo painting. Whether or not that effect was successful is up for debate, but if you ask Arcade Fire, no one actually knows what “rococo” means anyway.

THE BEST:

  • I have already written at length about Mother Gothel’s effectiveness as a villainness – this is related to that. Of all of the songs in Tangled, Mother Knows Best is the strongest because of just how chillingly mentally and verbally abusive the lyrics are. It’s catchy, but there’s a perfect balance struck between backhanded compliments and outright overprotective malice. In general, the songs in Tangled are really good, though it took quite a while for them to grow on me. The acoustic guitar used in When Will My Life Begin? sets the mood really well and is a good metaphoric instrument for Rapunzel’s personality (she’s naturally creative and earthy). At Last I See The Light is quite a sweet love ballad too, though the really beautiful lighting effects help a lot with that. The film’s soundtrack also has a great Broadway feel to it, as it makes really great use of dark reprises. The songs are also performed really well – it was a very wise decision to cast actors who could sing their own parts. (It’s very cringeworthy when I can tell that the singing was dubbed by someone else)

THE WORST:

  • The main reason why Tangled didn’t strike as much of a chord with me as the other 2nd Renaissance Princesses did is because Rapunzel is unfortunately a very shallowly written character. She’s likeable, multi-talented, and Mandy Moore plays her very well, but she doesn’t have any actual flaws. Yes, she’s rather clumsy and paranoid, but clumsiness is not a flaw, and the paranoia was Mother Gothel’s fault. Rapunzel is a bit too much of a throwback to the pre-60s Princesses. Her rebelliousness is completely justified, unlike Ariel‘s (Triton was overprotective but he had genuine reasons for his rules). Other than that, she’s a pile of Princess cliches – she can communicate with animals, is a master at everything she attempts, never loses her temper, etc. I would be a lot more forgiving of a cliched Princess if this film hadn’t come out in 2010, long after Disney had already proved they could write more nuanced characters.

winnie_the_poohWinnie the Pooh (2011)

Of all of the films in the Second Renaissance, this one surprised me the most, and in the best way possible. This is a direct sequel to The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and, unlike many of the other Disney sequels (even the other ones in the Canon), it goes well out of its way to try to recreate the experience of the original film. Everything about this film is a deliberate throwback, right down to the very simple title. The animation even manages to copy the Xerox sketch lines that the original film had, which blows my mind since…well, we’ve gone all digital now. And here’s the crazy thing – with 40 years of nearly endless Pooh spinoffs, straight-to-video sequels, TV series, etc, this is the best Pooh-related media I have ever seen, by far.

THE BEST:

  • This film is incredibly funny. Like, “I actually laughed out loud even though I was watching this alone” funny. As soon as I recognized John Cleese as the narrator, I knew I was going to be in for something irreverent, self-referential and clever. And the film did not disappoint. There are so many hilarious moments, I have trouble narrowing down my favourite. But it’s probably the scene where Rabbit starts acting like some war general when he makes plans to catch the “Backson.” Rabbit’s character animation, which was done by…*IMDB!* Eric Goldberg (who has suddenly become my favourite Renaissance-era animator) is so rapid and fluid, and Rabbit makes the most hilarious expressions. Voice Acting Superstar(TM) Tom Kenny does some fantastic line deliveries as well. (I do recognize the irony of how Rabbit was my least favourite part of the original movie but became one of my favourites here) But in addition to that scene, there are many other great moments. Later, when the toys are caught in a ditch they can’t climb out of, Owl flies out of it to give some sort of pompous speech, then flies back down into the ditch. There’s a Beat where you think the other toys are going to express disbelief that Owl forgot he could fly everyone out, but instead, they compliment Owl on his speech. Now that is some excellent bait-and-switching right there.

THE WORST:

  • One aspect of the original film that this sequel didn’t even begin to recapture was its music. Now, I’m not saying the music was bad. Generally, it was fine. Not particularly memorable, but fine. But the memorable aspect is the key thing here – the Sherman Brothers’ music was incredibly iconic. Every song was an earworm, particularly the main theme song. I did have my mind blown a little bit in the intro to Winnie the Pooh – I never noticed that Tigger isn’t mentioned in the theme song. I also feel that Zooey Deschanel (with M. Ward) wasn’t the greatest choice to perform the opening and ending songs. Her songs weren’t bad, but her voice is nothing special. As you can probably guess, this is a mild “Worst,” as it would have been pretty damn hard to live up to the Sherman Brothers’ compositions. In general, this film is absolutely adorable.

See Also: The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh


wreckit_ralph_ver6_xlg

Wreck-It Ralph (2012)

A love letter to a dying cultural institution (arcades), Wreck-It Ralph is targeted to Gen Xers and adult Millennials just as much as it’s aimed at kids. The concept of an interlocking video game world in which fictional games share a universe with real-life ones was a major focus of the marketing (as you can see in the poster). It’s also a very interesting meta-exploration of characterization – what if the villain of the story is aware of their role, and doesn’t like it? Directed by Rich Moore, who was known for several notable episodes of The Simpsons and Futurama, this film continues a trend of very modern sci-fi films that reflect the time period they were made in – which is notable since Disney was previously known for films that are timeless (even then-contemporary films like 101 Dalmatians).

THE BEST:

  • I watch this film quite regularly, and yet it took me a while to decide what I was going to say in my review because I couldn’t decide what aspect of the film I liked best. It didn’t change my life like Frozen did, but Wreck-It Ralph is a pretty fun movie. I decided in the end that what I loved best was the film’s voice acting. John C. Reilly, a character actor who doesn’t get enough appreciation for just how good he is at expressing a wide range of emotion, is a perfect choice to play the many layers of Ralph’s character. He sounds like an everyman, but demonstrates that he isn’t an everyman at all. Sarah Silverman normally annoys the hell out of me, but she does a pretty authentic-sounding little girl voice, and her expression of Vanellope’s despair over Ralph’s betrayal was really effective. Jane Lynch is basically playing Jane Lynch in combat gear, but that’s exactly what she was hired for. I really love Alan Tudyk’s Ed Wynn impression (Ed Wynn played the Mad Hatter and some supporting roles in Mary Poppins and Babes in Toyland), it really sounds as if he came back to life just to voice King Candy. Jack McBrayer’s performance as Fix-It Felix is just adorable all around. This film really had perfect use of its celebrity voice cast, which is what I want to see more of.

THE WORST:

  • When I did a review of this film back when it first came out, this was one of my more controversial opinions, but I stand by it. (Note: You do not have to agree with me!) The scene where Sgt. Calhoun beats the crap out of Felix for the amusement of the Laffy Taffy vines makes me uncomfortable every time I see it. Given the romantic nature of their relationship, this scene has shades of domestic violence (even though it was clearly meant to be Looney Tunes-style slapstick violence). Even leaving aside their relationship, the scene still normalizes violence against men as being funny, particularly if it’s a woman inflicting said violence. I don’t exactly want to see an end to slapstick violence (given that Looney Tunes is the foundation of my love for animation) but I do think we need to move past the “Woman hitting man is funny” thing, particularly since that mentality has far-reaching cultural consequences.

file_109012_1_frozen-poster-smallFrozen (2013)

I must start with an apology to my family & friends – since this film came out I have been unable to shut up about it. My ringtone is STILL Let It Go, my avatars are (usually) Elsa, my iPhone wallpapers are often Frozen-themed, on and on it goes. So yes, I’m obsessed with Frozen and will continue to be obsessed for a good long while. I will hopefully explain why Frozen has had such a profound effect on me in the “Best” section. VERY loosely based on The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen, Disney basically rewrote the story from the bottom up and transformed it from a girl going on a perilous journey to rescue her male best friend, who had been kidnapped by the Snow Queen, to a story of a young woman rescuing the Snow Queen herself, who is her estranged older sister. Previously, an idea to adapt The Snow Queen had languished in development hell for decades. And by god, did the story rewrite pay off. As of the writing of this review (November 2014), Frozen is the highest-grossing animated film of all time, and the 5th highest grossing film ever. There have been a lot of theories as to why this film has become such a phenomenon – the self-referential and irreverent story made a big difference (contrary to executives’ opinions, girls/women want to see stories about other girls/women!) but I credit its success to the fantastic soundtrack. It’s the best soundtrack Disney has released since…god, Mulan?

THE BEST:

  • Disney struck on something incredible when they changed Elsa to be Anna’s older sister. Out of this seemingly simple story change emerged one of the most emotionally complex characters in Disney history – Elsa, the first Disney Queen. I am very, very enthusiastic about how well this character was written, so you’re getting an extra long review today. Elsa is introduced as a child who is in wonder of her magic, she is shown to be playful and creative, and shows her love for her sister by performing the magic that would make Anna happiest. It is when Elsa accidentally hits Anna with her magic that everything changes – she becomes fearful of her magic, and loathes herself because she sees her inability to control it as weakness. She shuts herself away – becomes a near-complete hermit – because she doesn’t ever want to put her sister in danger again. That kind of self-sacrifice is so profound it makes my heart hurt just to think about it. And as Elsa and Anna have grown older and more estranged, suddenly, all they have left in the world is each other. Anna tries one last time to reach out to her sister, who has now become so insular in her emotional solitude that she doesn’t even reply. Adult Elsa is a bundle of negative emotions – self-loathing, fear, regret – but love lurks beneath the loneliness. And yet, in the moments that Anna and Elsa share together, we see signs that despite their emotional estrangement, they are connected in subtle ways. Anna hopes that someone will “notice” her at the ball – Elsa is the first one to speak to her, and tells her that she looks beautiful. They both express a love for chocolate in the exact same way. And when they argue about Anna’s impulsive engagement to Hans, Anna’s bitter retort that Elsa doesn’t understand love hurts Elsa more deeply than Anna can possibly realize – for it is Elsa’s love for Anna that forced her to keep her distance.
  • In the film’s most famous sequence, Let It Go, I felt for the first time that I was watching history happen. Chills ran up my spine as Elsa released her bottled-up emotions, and she sang triumphantly of self-affirmation, of her excitement at how powerful she is and how beautiful her creations are, and watching the castle and the ice dress form is one of my favourite animated sequences I’ve ever seen. And yet, for all of the necessary emotional triumph of Let It Go, there is a subtext of dramatic irony. For we know that she cannot live a life alone, because there is still someone in the world who loves and forgives her, and what Anna wants most (much more than her stated goal of falling in love) is to have her big sister back. We also know that there is a duality of Elsa’s powers, just like there is a duality in her personality – the dangerous, uncontrolled, emotionally repressed side vs. the loving, expressive and (yes) selfish side. That selfishness is understandable, however – although she was a Queen, she was going to give it all up in hopes that she wouldn’t have to endure emotional torture anymore, and wouldn’t put anyone in danger. But she can’t escape her fate. “I’m such a fool, I can’t be free / No escape from the storm inside of me.” She continues to believe that the only way that she can keep her kingdom safe is to shut everyone away – the story is full of gate/door metaphors. Her self-loathing eventually turns into anger, and she becomes volatile when challenged by Weselton’s men. Her emotional repression has exploded into irrationality. And the worse she feels, the stronger her powers are, and the worse the weather gets. But when she is made to believe that her lack of control of her powers has killed Anna, she collapses onto the ice she has made in unbearable sorrow…and the snowstorm stops. The revelation that her thoughts of love would allow her to control her powers didn’t come out of nowhere. Grief is, perhaps, one of the most direct expressions of love there is. And when Elsa grieved for Anna, the only person in the world that she loved, the storm stopped. Because for Elsa, there was nothing else left for her. Anna’s own sacrifice, choosing to save her sister’s life over a Happily Ever After with Kristoff, is another important moment in Elsa’s character development. Anna thought Elsa didn’t love her, didn’t like her, didn’t want to be with her. Elsa broke Anna’s trust in her by (accidentally) hitting her heart with the ice magic. Anna is suffering, seconds away from dying, and…chooses to die, rather than to watch her sister die. The Act of True Love – despite the separation, Anna and Elsa love each other most in the world.

THE WORST:

  • Did you survive the wall of text? Well done. The “Worst” part of Frozen is, by general consensus, the Fixer-Upper sequence. I really don’t know why they made the decision to have the goofy sidekick song be the final one in the story (I like the fan edits where they have Elsa sing “Yes, I want to build a snowman” to Anna’s ice statue). And it’s just so…awkward. It halts the narrative completely to rather clumsily push Kristoff and Anna together as ideal mates. Meanwhile, she’s kinda DYING here. The trolls total lack of respect for Kristoff & Anna’s wishes is pretty gross too – trying to force them to get married? Seriously? And as far as how the song goes, it’s…really not good. Fixer-Upper isn’t half as catchy or lyrically clever as the other songs in Frozen. That line about how “People don’t really change” baffles me, too. Yyyyesss they do, why are you being all contradictory, Disney? And ultimately, the trolls are just not likeable characters. The only one with any distinction is Poppy, and he needs a kick in the rocky ass for scaring the shit out of Elsa and her parents without actually giving her the answers she desperately needed. If they do end up making a Broadway adaptation of Frozen, I hope they take this song out and substitute it with a love duet for Anna and Kristoff or something. Just a bad, awful scene in so many ways.

Disney_BigHero6_Poster_BaymaxBig Hero 6 (2014)

So here we are in the present, with Disney’s latest film (as of November 2014) distinctly looking into the future. In the East-meets-West city of San Fransokyo, a bunch of scientific geniuses come together to become superheroes. The protagonist (whose name is literally Hiro, and I could not help but be amused that only one person in the cast tried to pronounce it as it would be said with a Japanese accent) had an older brother, Tadashi, who invented a robot whose prime directive was…health care. And so birthed Baymax, the cuddliest big ol’ robot with a squishy belly that you ever did see. This is also the first Disney Animated Canon film to have its source material derived from one of Marvel Comics’ more obscure titles. They basically did the same thing that the scriptwriters did for The Jungle Book…which was to not pay much attention to the source material at all. Fortunately, Big Hero 6’s obscurity (compared to the characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) allowed them a lot of creative freedom. I fully expect to see more animated adaptations of Marvel properties in the future. Hell, we might even get a Star Wars film in the Canon. Wouldn’t that be so weird?

THE BEST:

  • Baymax, buddy, where have you BEEN all my life? I cannot express how much I adore this character. His voice acting is beyond perfect – his VA, Scott Adsit, manages to express emotion while still “feeling” robotic. Baymax is utterly hilarious, especially that weird little noise he makes when he fistbumps someone. He’s deadpan without actually realizing he’s deadpan. He represents Tadashi’s love for his brother, and love for humanity, in a simple yet profound way. He reinforces the belief that science is a discipline ultimately meant to help people, and Tadashi’s invention is pure love and compassion in a big squishy white body. I also really love the concept of a huggable robot – I had no idea I was bored with metallic robots until now. (Then again, maybe I just need to go bite some shiny metal ass.) Baymax totally saves this movie, and if it ends up having a sequel, I’ll go see it just for him.

THE WORST:

  • On the other hand, for a film with a relatively small cast, the only character besides Baymax who is properly fleshed out is Hiro, and that’s because writing a character arc sympathetically centred around grief is relatively easy. As for everyone else, they have basically one character trait/archetype, and that’s it. Tadashi is loving and compassionate. Honey Lemon is sweet and perky. GoGo is a blunt adrenaline junkie. Wasabi is neurotic. Fred is a wealthy manchild. The most interesting thing about them is their respective inventions, and I still don’t exactly get what it was that Honey Lemon invented. Sticky balls that…do stuff? These characters did have a lot of potential, particularly because they AREN’T the cliche superheroes (the only white guy in the main cast is the one who has the least ability!). The concept of a scientist using their inventions to become a superhero (or assist with their powers) is nothing new – just within the Marvel universe alone we’ve got Iron Man, Spider-Man, Charles Xavier, etc. I couldn’t help feeling disappointed because I really wished I’d had a chance to actually get to know these characters. I will say that I liked that the team became friends so easily and without any drama – no time was wasted on trying to work out why some college students would want to hang out with a 14-year-old (even if he was a genius).

Zootopia-Poster

Zootopia (2016)

The Disney Film Made Especially For Furries (TM).  The premise is pretty simple – what if humans never existed, but civilization progressed anyway and now there is a modern world similar to our own, just entirely populated by (other species of) mammals? Throw in a little bit of a “She’s an enthusiastic do-gooder, he’s a cynical con artist, together They Fight Crime” style plot, and we have Zootopia. Surprisingly enough, this film has gotten Disney’s highest Rotten Tomatoes percentage (currently sitting at 98%) in their recent history – I had to go back as far as Aladdin (RT 94%) to find a film whose score even came close. Of course, that just means that the vast majority of critics liked/loved it, not necessarily that it’s Disney’s greatest film ever, but hey, making films with mass appeal isn’t easy.

THE BEST:

  • I’ve inevitably courted my share of controversy for discussing political issues in many of my reviews. I have been, er, ‘informed’ on multiple occasions that viewing Disney films with a political lens is pointless, that Disney films are not meant to be political at all, and that Disney have no interest in or obligation to take “Racism/Sexism/Homophobia/Etc is Bad” into account when they make their films, blah blah blah. To which I say, HI, DIDJA WATCH ZOOTOPIA YET? 😀 The film is BLATANTLY an allegory for the problems caused by bigotry and discrimination, right down to Judy sheepishly informing Officer Clawhauser that he unintentionally made a microaggression and that “cute” is a G-rated variation on n-word privileges (though much more politely and neutrally worded, of course). The political nature of this film isn’t even subtext, it’s built right into the framework of the plot. It makes some nuanced points about racial profiling, how you can be marginalized in one way and privileged in another, how no one is completely unprejudiced, and how easily we accept stereotypes and how harmful these stereotypes can be. It’s still a little sad that in 2016, we still have to have “Racism is bad” allegories in order to educate people, but I’ll take every little bit of progress we get. (Zootopia did a way better job of presenting this allegory than The Fox and the Hound did, that’s for sure…)

THE WORST:

  • Minor critique first – it’s clearly intentional, but there’s a heck of a lot of modern technology/pop culture worked into this story, with some of it (the Apple product placement stuff in particular) being plot-critical. I have some concern that this will date the film considerably in the future, but that may just be a trait of the Second Renaissance Era in general, since Wreck-It Ralph (and to a lesser extent, Big Hero 6) are firmly products of the 2010s as well.
  • A more major critique, AND HERE BE LOTSA SPOILERS OKAY, is that the plot twist reveal that Ms. Bellwether was the mastermind behind the plot to create fear and distrust of predator species, so that prey species (like herself, a sheep) could rule society…fell flat. This is not because there’s anything wrong with that plot twist, it’s just that Disney has been using the “Third Act Reveals Good Guy Is Actually Bad Guy” (or in Wreck-It Ralph‘s case, “Bad Guy Is Actually Even Worse Guy”) plot device a little bit too often lately. Disney’s last four films have all done it, and if they keep that up, it’s going to make their films extremely predictable. It adds a certain degree of rewatch value (like noticing all the subtle things that Prince Hans says/does that indicate he’s not on the up-and-up), but I still prefer knowing who the villain is from the beginning. Maleficent, Ursula, Jafar, etc are far more entertaining for me because I relish watching them be Evil as All Hell (pun intended) as the story progresses.

csky6rmviaenstq-jpg-largeMoana (2016)

John Musker and Ron Clements’ followup to The Princess and the Frog would take another crack at the Disney film style that made their careers – Princess Fairy Tale Musicals. The ‘twist’ this time is that the characters and story would all be taken from Polynesian mythology, with a special emphasis placed on accurate depiction of these people’s culture and history. (Dwayne Johnson has gone on the record saying how meaningful it was for him to see his people depicted in this film. Lilo and Stitch had Hawaiian main characters, of course, but the story was distinctly American.) Musker/Clements have clearly learned a lot since Aladdin, which is a great movie that unfortunately doesn’t come close to being historically/culturally accurate. In addition to this, Musker/Clements also address some of the more common criticisms of Disney films – Moana is a woman of colour, who does not have a romantic interest, and is given complete agency and capability. Although the plot of this film looks back to the past, Moana is very much a Disney film of the future.

THE BEST:

  • There were a lot of things I loved about Moana, including the gorgeous animation, the history and culture of the Polynesian peoples, and I really liked Moana as a protagonist. But…I can’t get that soundtrack out of my head. I’m trying to type here and all I can hear is “Aue, aue / Nuku i mua / Te manulele e tataki e” echoing in my brain. How Far I’ll Go and You’re Welcome are also quite the earworms. I also liked how the songs are directly woven into the plot, with the lyrics being referenced in spoken dialogue and so on. I’m going to have to get that soundtrack album on Spotify and listen to it until my eardrums melt.

THE WORST:

  • However. I really didn’t enjoy the Shiny sequence. The giant crab Tamatoa irritated me, and I just found him incredibly annoying rather than funny. I was sitting there waiting for the song to end, and it was jarring how severely Shiny clashes with the other soundtrack songs. (Apparently they were going for a David Bowie vibe?) That said, though, when he asks Moana and Maui if they liked his song, I did chuckle.
  • That Twitter joke was a real groaner. Good lord. I know anachronistic pop culture references are a Musker/Clements thing, but I am not looking forward to explaining what Twitter is to my future grandchildren.

 Let’s explore the flip-side of the Disney Feature coin in

Part VIII: Animated Features (But Not Part of the Canon)

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