Sunday, May 26, 2013

Blue Sky's "Epic" Is Slightly Less So But Still Fun

Summer movie season has kicked off, and amidst the blockbusters there are always a few animated ones thrown into the mix.  First up is Epic from Blue Sky Studios, based on the book The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs by William Joyce.

The story is straightforward and painfully predictable.  Teenager Mary Katherine (or M.K. for short to sound cool *cringe*) goes to live with her eccentric father who is obsessed with discovering the secret world of the forest.  After attempting to run away from home, M.K. is  accidentally shrunk and caught up in the struggle of the miniature Leaf-Men as they fight to protect the forest from the evil Mandrake and his army of Boggins who seek to destroy it.

The whole thing feels like the sort of movie Don Bluth would have made back in the '80s and early '90s (Think The Secret of NIMH or Thumbelina).  Despite the filmmaker's claims to the contrary, there are flavors of Avatar and Ferngully, although it lacks the overt humanitarian/environmental messages of either.  The movie is more about the usual believing in yourself and remembering the importance of family, especially fatherhood.  Everyone in this movie has some sort of father issue, even the villain.  Part of Mandrake's motivation comes from the loss of his son and top general early in the movie.  It doesn't exactly make him more sympathetic, but it's an interesting twist on an otherwise completely over-the-top performance by Cristoph Waltz.  

The rest of the cast suffers from the all too common problem of too many celebrity voices.  Ever since Robin Williams was cast in Aladdin, studios have used high-profile celebrities in their casts to hype the movies, usually to the detriment of the characters. Amanda Seyfried, Josh Hutcherson, and Colin Farrell voice the main cast and all do a solid enough job.  The real problem is the secondary cast which is filled with popular names, especially musicians.  Beyonce, Pitbull, and Steven Tyler all lend their voices to the film, and each of their roles would have been much more satisfying had they been played by proper voice actors instead.  They even gave Tyler's quasi-sage Nim Galuu a little song-and-dance introduction.  No.  Just no.  The one exception I'll make here is Aziz Ansari's role as a slug named Mub.  I went into this movie fully expecting to find every single line out of his mouth to be stupid and forced, but some of his them were actually funny, so he gets a pass.

The visuals of the movie look great from far away, but less so up-close.  The forest setting looks incredibly real and fantastic to the point of making me want to take a hike afterwards.  The way that the miniature world of the Leaf-Men is portrayed is both believable and captivating.  Who ever would have thought that a mouse could be so dangerous?  The character acting and posing is also quite good, but the characters themselves don't stand up quite as well.  Beyonce's Queen Tara in particular looks like Mother Nature Barbie.

Perhaps my favorite part of the movie however is M.K.'s pet pug, Ozzy.  Animal companions are usually a given in movies like this, but Ozzy is unique because he is an older dog but is not played with the usual lazy hang-dog approach.  Even though he's half-blind and only has three legs, Ozzy is a little ball of love and energy, and never stops moving throughout the picture.  As the owner of a 12 year-old dog who still bounces around like a puppy, I'm thrilled to see this type of pet portrayed accurately in a movie.

This may be the best animated dog since Huckleberry Hound

Overall, Epic is a good movie.  It falls into some conventional traps, but there is plenty of action, humor, and feeling to make this a solid family flick.  With summer just getting started, the movie is a good reminder to go outside and enjoy some of the beautiful scenery that surrounds us every day.  So stop reading this and go out and play!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Better Know A Studio Part II: Pixar

My ongoing series about animation studios continues with Disney's new right hand man in feature films, Pixar.

Pixar's first film was Toy Story in 1995, but the company's history reaches back much farther.  Founded in 1979 by Ed Catmull, Alvy Ray Smith, and Steve Jobs, The Graphics Group, as it was originally known, was part of Lucasfilm and developed rendering software and special effects along with Industrial Light & Magic.  In 1983, Jobs bought the company outright from George Lucas who was starting to lose steam after Return of the Jedi.  The name Pixar derives from the Pixar Image Computer that the company produced and sold to high-end clients, including Walt Disney Studios which was at the time experimenting with computer animation to replace the traditional ink-and-paint system.  John Lasseter, a Pixar employee, had been creating short animated segments to show off the computers capabilities.  The first of these, Luxo Jr., features the hopping desk lamp that has since become the company's mascot. This is a much better mascot than the hideous baby that starred in Tin Toy.

Oh, God!  It has come to take our cute children!

After a few years of struggling to stay afloat, Pixar finally struck a deal with Disney to produce three computer-animated films.  The success of Toy Story started to build faith in the company, but the relationship between Pixar and Disney was often contentious until the former was purchased in full in 2006.

Pixar is the current critical darling of the animation scene.  Over the last ten years, they have produced some of the most acclaimed animated films ever and are always the horse to watch when award season rolls around.  This is partly due to the company's emphasis on nurturing creativity and story.  Employees are encouraged to work on their own projects using company resources when available, and the results are breath-taking.  My personal favorite is Enrico Casarosa'a La Luna.  The short is like a children's book come to life and fills me with a sense of wonder that only animation can achieve.

Story is king at Pixar.  Rather than cram in pop culture references and memorable one-liners, Pixar strives to create strong, believable narratives with rich characters that connect with audiences.  Several of them feel like folktales in the way they portray simple messages like love, family, and loneliness and touch something basic in the spirit of the audience.  If you have never felt a swell of emotion watching at least one Pixar movie, you have no soul.

After 25 years of success though, Pixar is starting to wander over a few speed bumps. For one, even though early on the studio had an unofficial policy about not cranking out loads of sequels, that's pretty much what we're getting now.  We've already had three Toy Story movies (with a rumored fourth) and Cars 2, plus a Monsters Inc. prequel later this year and a sequel to Finding Nemo called Finding Dory in the works.  I'm not saying all of these are bad; I'm excited for Monsters University and Toy Story 3 made me cry like Santa Claus just killed my dog in front of me.  Pixar just needs to make sure that they don't just become a franchise factory.

There have also been some issues about the studio being a boy's club.  This isn't unique to Pixar, but the controversy surrounding Brave, its hero Merida, and Brenda Chapman being fired as director all cast a bit of doubt over the studio's ability to embrace a female point-of-view.  Also, with John Lasseter now serving as the chief creative officer of both Walt Disney Animation and Pixar, the lines between the two companies have started to blur slightly.  Compare Brave, from Pixar, and Disney's Wreck-It Ralph.  The two have a slight feel of switched-at-birth syndrome.  I'm even concerned that Disney is placing all of its animation stock in Pixar so that it doesn't have to worry about making animated movies anymore.

The story of Pixar, much like a fairy tale, is the story of a young beautiful princess who goes to live with the successful prince.  The marriage is happy, but after a while, the politics of ruling start to change the way the princess looks at the world.  She's still beautiful, but she has to decide whether she wants to rule with grace or with power. Hopefully, Pixar will make the right choice.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Real Housewives of Magic Kingdom

The Disney Princess product line has been a major cash cow for the Walt Disney Company ever since it was created.  Today, the sorority welcomes its newest member, Princess Merida from Pixar's original fairy tale, Brave.  Disney is pulling out all of the stops in honor of the fiery-haired Scot, including a coronation ceremony at the Magic Kingdom in Orlando.  With her new status also comes a new look so that she can fit in with Snow White, Cinderella, and the rest of the Stepford Princesses

Here is Merida as she appeared in Brave:

And here's the redesign:

Holy HGH, Batman!

Some family and progressive groups have been up in arms over the changes claiming that Merida has been made sexier, more mature, and robbed of her sporty self-reliance. I'm not going to get into the gender politics of the Disney Princess franchise. The issue is a big enough quagmire already and I don't feel like wading in and soiling my good sandals with summer right around the corner.  Plus, it obfuscates the real issue here: the redesign looks AWFUL and adds to the detrimental legacy of the entire Disney Princess concept.

Judging art may be largely subjective, but I really don't feel like this is the same character.  Obviously Merida would have to be redesigned for two dimensions, but there is a right and wrong way to do it.  The red hair and the styling of the dress are the only indicators that this is supposed to be Merida, but even those have been changed to look sleeker and more stylish.  Her hair was a primary symbol of her personality, and to limit that is a crucial mistake in her characterization.  This isn't new though.  Go check out the rest of the Princesses here.  They've even included pictures from their respective movies so you can see just how badly they screwed up when adapting their character models.

My male gonads may be showing here, but I just don't see the Princess line as anything other than a cheap marketing ploy.  I won't deny that there are legions of kids who want to be able to dress up and play with their favorite Disney characters.  That is a fair enough point and there was very likely a market for it prior to its conception.  I'm not even going to fault the company for doing something that is designed to make money. As much as I love prestige pieces and have a strong "ars gratia artis" attitude towards animation as a whole, it is show business.  My beef stems from the fact that these ladies have forced a creative bottleneck in the output of the studio.

As an example: of the current eleven princesses, only three of them are from the classic Disney era (Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora).  The rest were all created after 1989. Nine princesses in the last twenty-four years versus three in the first fifty!  Because of the company's insistence on perpetuating this brand, great original movies like Lilo & Stitch don't get the same level of recognition because they lack a princess.  It's gotten so bad that when I saw the first preview glimpses of Big Hero 6 earlier this week, my first thought was, "this really doesn't feel like a Disney movie."  Me...whose favorite Disney film is Fantasia!  

Disney needs to start experimenting again.  Wreck-It Ralph was fantastic as well as completely different from anything else in the studio's library.  Big Hero 6 is the first Marvel-based animated film since the comic company was purchased outright and also looks refreshingly different.  We need more of these and less princesses.  Go back to the way the studio was in its heyday, and even the few decades afterwards if necessary. Kids will still buy the toys even of they don't pander to the Pretty Pretty Princess crowd.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Where Have All The Virtual Bands Gone?

Music and animation have a long history together.  Silent cartoons, like their contemporary films, relied on musical accompaniment to immerse the viewer.  The earliest Merry Melodies and Looney Tunes were designed to feature music from upcoming Warner Bros. films, effectively making them proto-music videos.  Composers like Raymond Scott and Carl Stalling have created soundtracks unlike any other.  In most of these cases, music tends to follow the animation to accentuate the zany action or characters.  Every so often however, music does the leading, and we get what has been dubbed, "the virtual band."

Real musicians, real music, fake (usually animated) band members.  The concept alone is brilliant enough to make me giddy.  The idea has been around much longer than the name though.  It all started with Alvin and the Chipmunks back in 1959, but it wasn't long until cartoon bands were everywhere.  There were The Archies, Josie and the Pussycats, The Neptunes, Jem and the Holograms, and several others.  What's interesting though is that these bands all rose to prominence during the decline of American animation that would persist until the '90s.  The bands had a very cookie cutter feel to them, and outside of the occasional pop hit (think "Sugar Sugar") the music is largely forgettable.

Things changed for the better in 2001 when Gorillaz released their first album.  Unlike the previous "corporate shill" efforts, this band had some talent behind it.  The music was handled by Blur front man Damon Albarn and the characters and animation by comic artist Jamie Hewlett.  They took the concept of a virtual band and blew it into the stratosphere.  Fictional band members Murdoc, 2-D, Russel and Noodle aren't just one dimensional Saturday morning cartoon characters.  They have real personalities, back-stories, and despite the outlandishness of some of it, they feel like a real band.  The trials and tribulations of the band can get kind of out there, with story lines involving ghostly possession, super soldier programs, faked deaths, and android duplicates.  It's all entertaining as hell and somehow manages to stay cohesive through the group's three albums.

The real shining point are the music videos.  To this day "Clint Eastwood" remains my favorite music video.  The art is full of energy and personality and there are undead dancing gorillas.  What more do you need?

And is there anyone out there who didn't see this video when it came out:

The third album Plastic Beach featured the group's first outings into 3D.  I don't think the results are as pleasing to look at, but I do think bad-boy bassist Murdoc makes the transition well enough, especially in the video for "Stylo" (he's the one driving the car):

Gorillaz are really the only virtual band to hit the mainstream.  Other groups like Dethklok or Hatsune Miku are too niche-oriented to have the same level of popularity.  I would love to see TV animation use this more often.  Unfortunately, I think the stigma of investing a huge amount of creative energy only to be branded as cheesy makes artists and producers somewhat wary.  If Gorillaz shows us anything, you don't need corny pop songs or a wise-cracking animal sidekick to make a virtual band stick.  If the worry of being lame still is a cause for concern though, remember that "Sugar Sugar" was number one on the Billboard charts in 1969 for four weeks.  That's a hell of a year in popular music to be dominated by a group of animated teenagers.