As I’ve previously mentioned, 2013 was a diresome year for fans of animation. Ideas were low, talent was apparently lower. Stinkers abounded and even the more dependable studios like Dreamworks and Pixar made either dreadful (in the case of Turbo) or underwhelming films (The Croods, Monsters University). The less said about Planes, the better. Thankfully, however, 2014 looks set to remedy the creative malaise experienced in the year we shall no longer talk about, so here are six animated films you should be getting excited about in the next twelve months.
The Wind Rises
Hayao Miyazaki’s latest film should be the main draw of the year based on the ‘directed by’ credit alone, but the fact that this has already been a huge (but controversial) hit in Japan should whet your appetite further. It’s attracted criticism from Japan’s political right wing for being too critical of war and from Japan’s political left wing for lionising the man who made planes that killed lots of people. Miyazaki has claimed he just wanted to tell a good story about a great engineer, so I think I’ll stick with his version of events. The trailer promises beautiful animation – as ever – and a chance for the legendary director to indulge in his love of flight. Expect one of his least fantastical films yet, but still filled with the sense of wonder that characterises all of his stories.
The Tale Of Princess Kaguya
Isao Takahata could be seen as the Ghibli outsider, despite being a collaborative partner with Miyazaki since the beginning of the studio. Although he has made some unforgettable films with the studio, he isn’t a well known name like Miyazaki and few people have seen Only Yesterday. His films tend to be far more low-key and reality based (apart from the bizarre Pom Poko), but that dynamic has shifted as this film – based on an ancient Japanese legend – is about a tiny girl who is discovered inside a bamboo shoot. Promising to be moving and enchanting, it’s Takahata’s first film in fourteen years. Welcome back.
How To Train Your Dragon 2
Almost any film this year could disappoint me and I wouldn’t mind, but my one hope for the year is that this doesn’t suck. I love the first one so much: the score; the animation; the ‘test drive’ scene. The early trailers for this suggest that it will be more of the same, so I’m cautiously excited. Let’s just hope it’s more Toy Story 2 than The Lion King 2 (which is actually ok, as Disney sequels go, but still: whyyyyyy).
Laika’s previous films Paranorman and Coraline were both visual marvels, stop-motion animations that defy the jerkiness often associated with the medium. The team have mastered the art of taking thousands of photos of tiny figurines and turning them into compelling, moving stories. The Boxtrolls is about a boy who has been raised by the titular monsters and has to save them when an exterminator threatens to wipe them out. Expect it to be a little bit macabre, beautifully animated and pushing the envelope for children’s entertainment.
Big Hero 6
Disney are on something of a roll at the moment so my apprehensions about this feature – sounds like the tone will be similar to The Incredibles, and it always irks me when Disney try to be Pixar; not sure I always like concept over character when done by Disney – are outweighed by general positive feelings towards the studio and curiosity as to what the apparently photo-real animation will end up looking like on the big screen. There hasn’t been much information released about this film yet, but I remember being worried that Frozen was going to suck and so I’ve decided to just wait and see with the House of Mouse. They’ve surprised me several times before, so I’m willing for that to happen again.
The Lego Movie
Phil Lord and Chris Miller made the magnificent Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs and the hilarious yet deceptively astute comedy 21 Jump Street, so with a 100% record so far I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt on this one, which could be dismissed cynically as a marketing ploy for the toymaking giants. The trailer already makes me laugh a lot, plus the song ‘Everything Is Awesome’ is, well, awesome. If anything, by casting Will Arnett as the caped crusader, The Lego Movie looks set to have the best onscreen Batman since Adam West.
2014 will also have a sequel to Planes, named Planes: Fire and Rescue. I shall endeavour to remain open minded…
It’s always difficult to say at the end of a year what will be remembered and what will be forgotten, but looking back over 2013 I suspect that very few of the blockbusters of this year will be remembered. What might last, however, are the smaller films championed by a few that will only gain fans over time, or the odder, more difficult films that maybe require multiple viewings to really appreciate.
Man of Steel, one of the worst superhero films ever, topped off a list of disappointing blockbusters like Star Trek Into Darkness and Thor: The Dark World; films that maybe had an impressive sequence or two but were just plain forgettable. They brought in the punters to the box office, but it’s unlikely that anyone will discuss Into Darkness with any affection 5 years from now, or even discuss it at all. Iron Man 3, Pacific Rim and Elysium were all enjoyable in their own ways, and Gravity was technically astonishing and provided the most spectacular scene of the year, but the general consensus is that this last year was disappointing for fans of big franchises and bigger budgets. Perhaps to blame is the increasing homogeneisation of the blockbuster scene as part of the countdown to the Hollywood apocalypse that will be 2015; anything churned out by the formula adhering studio system felt like it was the product of a calculating brain trust as opposed to a team of passionate creatives. On the whole, Hollywood’s output in 2013 was just dull, and the result is that many big name film publications were quick to dismiss the year as a bad one.
Anyone who dismisses an entire year, however, probably isn’t watching enough films. Looking back, 2013 was filled with some wonderful cinema; films that cared more about telling stories than blowing stuff up. Here in Britain, Clio Barnard‘s phenomenal The Selfish Giant impressed just about anyone that saw it, and one suspects that its reputation and respect will only grow with time. Philomena, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, A Field In England, For Those In Peril and, ahem, Les Miserables among others all kept the British end up as well, while the American indie scene was well represented by The Way, Way Back, All Is Lost, The Kings of Summer and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints – all of which were directed by fairly young, new names. As ever, cinema from around the world also produced some exciting, fascinating films with Saudi Arabia’s first ever film Wadjda the best of a list that included Blancanieves, Caesar Must Die, In The House, and a number of films that were only available at festivals such as Attila Marcel, Faro and Historic Centre.
The biggest disappointment of the year, however, was animation in general. From Up on Poppy Hill and Wolf Children, two of my favourites from last year, got limited cinematic releases, while Makoto Shinkai’s astonishing The Garden of Words got its festival debut here, but leave Japan behind and the picture is bleak. Disney’s Frozen was the only American animation that left wholly smelling of roses and Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs 2 managed to be one of the funniest films of the year, but The Croods, Monsters University and Epic were all a little bit disappointing. Then further down the quality scale, Turbo, Despicable Me 2 and Planes were all truly dreadful and I’ve heard bad things about Justin and the Knights of Valour, Free Birds and Walking With Dinosaurs, all of which I sadly missed. It’s been a bad, bad year for animation, but perhaps 2013 will go down in animation history as the year that Sir Billi was released, an execrable independent animation from up here in Scotland. A full review is coming for that film but no words can properly describe just how awful it is. Still, at least 2014 looks to set the animated record straight.
Anyway, below are my arbitrary awards and a list of my favourite 20 films of the year. You’ll notice the general paucity of animation there, and I should point out that Michel Gondry’s brilliant The We and the I was something I was privileged to see at Glasgow Film Festival but I don’t think has had a UK release yet. And yes, I really did like Les Miserables that much and I’m only a little bit embarrassed to admit it. If you were wondering about the title of this article, that’s my favourite quote of the year, taken from the incredible Frances Ha.
My Favourite 20 Films of the Year
1. Wadjda (Haifaa Al Mansour)
2. Cloud Atlas (Tykwer & Wachowskis)
3. The Selfish Giant (Clio Barnard)
4. The We and the I (Michel Gondry)
5. Les Miserables (Tom Hooper)
6. Philomena (Stephen Frears)
7. The Way, Way Back (Rash, Faxon)
8. Caesar Must Die (Taviani Brothers)
9. Blancanieves (Pablo Berger)
10. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints? (David Lowery)
11. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach)
12. A Field in England (Ben Wheatley)
13. Frozen (Buck & Lee)
14. All Is Lost (J.C. Chandor)
15. The World’s End (Edgar Wright)
16. Robot and Frank (Jake Schreier)
17. Leviathan (Castaing-Taylor, Paravel)
18. Lincoln (Steven Spielberg)
19. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley)
20. Mud (Jeff Nichols)
I haven’t included From Up on Poppy Hill or Wolf Children as I harped on about them enough last year. Also worthy of mention is the brilliant Safety Not Guaranteed which barely got released right at the tail end of 2012.
Worst Film: Sir Billi
Film I Hated Most: Pain and Gain
Best Performance: Waad Mohammed, Wadjda
Best Visuals: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (honourable mentions: A Field in England, The Selfish Giant)
Best One-Person-Against-the-Odds Film: All Is Lost
Most Sexist Film: Oz, The Great and Powerful
Best Re-Release: The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser
Best Score: Cloud Atlas
Biggest Disappointment: To The Wonder
Best Film I Didn’t Get: A Field In England
Worst Film I Didn’t Get: Upstream Colour
Best Comedy Cockerel: Blancanieves
Films I Still Haven’t Seen But Maybe Intend To: The Act of Killing, The Place Beyond the Pines, Before Midnight, Beyond The Hills, Something In The Air (Apres Mai), Computer Chess, Only God Forgives, Ernest Et Celestine
Most Bafflingly Adored By Critics: Django Unchained
Film With The Best Extras But Was Otherwise Rubbish: Sunshine on Leith
What do The Purge, In Time and Wreck-It Ralph all have in common? They are all films that squander brilliant concepts in favour of something far more generic. What makes Wreck-It Ralph better and yet more frustrating than those two forgettable films is that the first act really properly explores its central concept in a way that it utterly fails to do in acts two and three. It’s a film built on a fantastic, Toy Story-esque premise – what do computer game characters do when no one is playing – that is subsequently abandoned in favour of something far less interesting about a friendship between two misfits and how they both earn respect. The genius idea that was crying out for a bonkers, cross-game finale instead gets stuck in a swamp of literal and figurative sugar. So, let’s explore this problem further:
Act 1. The Anti-Hero is introduced as Wreck-It Ralph, who works in the arcade game Fix It Felix Jr, where every day he wrecks the building only for it to be fixed by the game’s hero, Felix. As the game approaches its thirtieth anniversary, Ralph begins to resent his role as the bad guy and seeks a little bit of appreciation for his work as a human wrecking ball. He shares these feelings with a group called bad-anon, and here is where the film reveals its trump card: a cast of recognisable computer game characters from decades of arcade and console games. Bowser, Dr Robotnic and Clyde (from Pacman) all attend this self-help group where they build up each others’ self esteem. It’s a witty idea made funnier by the presence of such familiar villainous faces.
The rest of Act 1 builds on this idea, exploring a number of different game worlds, often cutting to show what they look like on 8-bit Arcade screens as opposed to in state of the art CG. Game Central Station, the hub of all the machines, is populated by a vast array of characters to please an audience of die hard gaming fans. Sonic, Frogger and the exclamation mark from Metal Gear Solid all cameo, but what makes the first act so great is that these cameos don’t detract from original, intelligent world-building. The biggest idea of the film is not to cast Pacman in it, but is in the way that different gaming characters interact with one another; it’s the idea of a life behind the screens where people worry, party, drink and commute just like humans do. The jealousy and admiration for the newer, flashier games, and the fear of your arcade getting closed down both feel like real world concerns, which is what makes this world so engaging. Ralph’s infiltration of Starship Troopers-meets-COD game Hero’s Duty shows what can happen when different games cross over. It’s a premise ripe with the potential for excitement and big laughs. And then…
Act 2. Ralph crash-lands a ship from Hero’s Duty in the everything-is-made-of-candy racing game Sugar Rush. He accidentally brings an apparently asexually reproducing bug with him – more on that later – but is more concerned with his medal, his way of proving that he can be a hero, not just a bad guy. He meets Vanellope Von Schweetz, a ‘glitch’ in Sugar Rush, who uses his medal to get in the big race. The two then bond as she learns to race and he continues his existential crisis. Here’s where the main bulk of the story happens, as he confronts the villainous King Candy and helps Vanellope with her car before a big conclusion where she has to race to reset the game, but a horde of violent, viral insects are rampaging through the U-rated universe of Sugar Rush.
There’s a lot to like about this section, not least of which is a dramatic conclusion with a surprisingly emotional slo-mo act of sacrifice to save the day. The problem is that the film then doesn’t leave the world of Sugar Rush, thus ignoring the genius bit of world-building that was established in Act 1. The candy kingdom is nicely realised and allows for a couple of great puns worthy of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, but this film shouldn’t be about Sugar Rush; the racing game should be just one part of a much bigger picture with Game Central Station or Fix It Felix as the central focus. As it is, that Cloudy comparison wasn’t arbitrary, with the second act feeling like an early sequel to that brilliant film, whereas the first act was far more in the vein of The Incredibles or Toy Story. The film spends far too long in this game, outstaying its welcome when the audience are itching to leave behind its candyfloss colours. It’s almost as if two entirely different studios made two different films then forced them together, with the designers behind Sugar Rush apparently more powerful in the editing sweet.
Act 3. So what now, for the future of Disney? The tonal disparity in Wreck-It Ralph is representative of how the studio in the 21st century, bar one or two marvellous exceptions, was struggling to find its voice in the world of modern animation. If the first sugar-free half hour of Wreck-It Ralph was Disney doing their best Pixar, then the second half is Disney looking dangerously like Dreamworks, saccharine in every way and following a fairly rote buddy comedy formula. Ralph shows that the studio is capable of great ideas, of stunning animation, memorable characters and good films. Yet it also shows how unsure of themselves they can sometimes be, a problem which has plagued them since Hercules.
Clearly, the studio are on the up: Wreck-It Ralph is a good film, and it comes after The Princess and the Frog and Tangled, two superb, old fashioned animations quite different to Ralph‘s post-modern sensibilities. And in Frozen, Disney have managed their best attempt yet at balancing the old and new, mixing age old stories with newer ideas and techniques. Ralph goes too far in the direction of the latter and ends up losing its identity along the way. The best step forward that Disney can take now is just that: a step forward, but provided that they do it with an acknowledgement and respect for the generations of Disney films that have gone before them. With such a long lasting legacy of truly excellent film making, Disney are the animation studio with the greatest opportunity to move into the future of animation with a strong foundation in the past. I think Walt himself would look back on the 52 films I’ve covered this year with a pride at the way that his studio has explained whatever the mind could conceive.
Winnie the Pooh seems to be forgotten about in the UK. For some time now, Disney have been putting the number of the classic on the side of DVDs and Blu-Rays. These numbers correspond with when they were released in cinemas and I’ve been following that order for this very project, right up until No.50, Tangled. Number 51, according to the sides of boxes in the UK, however, is Wreck-It Ralph. A confusing blip, as most other sources list Winnie as 51 and Ralph as 52, hence the idea of the project to watch 52 in a year, one a week (though I hardly stuck to that by the end). Yet Winnie the Pooh was undoubtedly made by Walt Disney animation studios and it DID have a theatrical release over here. So why the decision to leave it out of the canon? It’s perhaps a triviality but for an obsessive like myself it’s disconcerting. Will all future Disneys in the UK be one number behind? Perhaps Disney were embarrassed by Pooh, although that hardly seems likely as the film is a charming, child friendly ramble through the Hundred Acre Wood.
Admittedly, the two Winnie the Pooh films are a bit of an oddity in the canon, stylistically and tonally incongruous with the the other fifty. A.A. Milne’s unique brand of whimsy does not translate to gripping adventures or heartfelt fairy tales, instead creating films where the sum total of incident is a stuffed donkey losing its tail and some other toys getting trapped down a hole while they try and catch an imaginary creature. Yet this resolutely gentle style of storytelling means that the charm of the Pooh films is quite unique to these two adaptations. They’re funny without forcing it, quirky without trying and beautifully, inventively animated.
The 2011 edition doesn’t add much to Wolfgang Reitherman’s superior 1977 film The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, but it reuses the meta stylings of that children’s masterpiece often to great effect. By borrowing from brilliance this, too, hints at such invention and wit. Pooh once more interacts with the narrator (here John Cleese on fine form) and occasionally stumbles out of the illustrated sections of his book, and the writing is again affected by the events of the narrative. Words are dragged or blown or fall into the story, and the characters have even more fun with them this time. At one point, they even become a crucial plot point to help the stranded heroes. Such playfulness is always a joy to watch, and it used brilliantly in this second Pooh film.
The animation is once again unshowily beautiful, the backgrounds in particular looking a lot like Shepard’s line drawings. The colours seem to be a bit brighter this time, and the character animation is bolder and clearer than in the ’77 film, but this still looks as though it were made in a different era. It’s as far a cry from the lush lighting and immaculately detailed CG of Tangled as you can imagine from Disney, once again showing that this film feels out of place at Disney. This truly seems to be the last hand drawn film from the studio, a quietly brilliant tribute to the beauty of the medium, showcasing its capacity for invention and atmosphere even as it dies to the onward march of pixellated progress.
The only thing that feels modern about Winnie the Pooh is that the voice cast is noticeably different to the older, familiar voices of The Many Adventures. Put quite bluntly, they are just not as good, voice acting veteran Jim Cummings no match as Pooh compared to the inimitable Sterling Holloway. Bud Luckey’s attempt at Eeyore is disastrous, and the sense of the cast as a whole is that they don’t quite gel in the same way. The less said about Zooey Deschanel’s songs the better.
Winnie the Pooh feels like a small, independent production and a far cry from the studio that made hyper-slick films like Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph. It’s a low key, rusty film that moves at a different pace to everything else that Disney makes. As such, it’s sure to gain a devoted audience of young fans (and a few older ones, too), but it perhaps explains why Disney were not so keen to acknowledge it as part of their canon of classics. It’s a shame, however, that this is excluded when Saludos Amigos isn’t, as this is a happy, charming film full of gentle delights.
One of the joys of having done the Disney 52 project is seeing how the studio has changed throughout the decades but has remained essentially a group dedicated to entertaining people, children and adults alike, and enchanting them with magical, wondrous tales. Each generation has had a new clutch of Disney films to enjoy and nostalgia plays a huge role in the fact that almost every Disney film has someone who claims it is their favourite. The people leaping to the defense of Robin Hood, for instance, would admit to nostalgia playing a huge part in why they like it so much. The Lion King will probably remain my favourite even having seen all 52 of them because of the personal attachment I have to it. What’s nice about seeing Tangled is that you get the impression that Disney are still doing this for new generations of viewers. Tangled, despite using bleeding edge technology, is full of the charm and heart that runs through the best films the studio have made, ensuring that people in future will be citing it as their favourite Disney because they saw it at a time and place that will always be special for them.
Not any old film can earn this accolade, however. It’s unlikely that people will still be talking about Bolt, Atlantis or Saludos Amigos in 30 years time because they aren’t especially Disney. There’s an elusive quality to some films that just makes them undeniably Disney, where you know they couldn’t come from any other studio. This doesn’t mean they tick all the boxes in my arbitrary checklist; it’s something more ephemeral than that. If you think about it, the Disney films of the 60s and 70s don’t really fit the mould of the Golden Age films, while the 50s are a different beast altogether. No, what makes something inherently Disney is not if it follows a certain structure or has stock characters, it’s more about an ineffable mixture of charm, heart and wonder, where animation is used to explain whatever the mind can conceive. Tangled achieves this, even if at first glance it seems entirely different to, say, the Aristocats, Cinderella or Bambi.
Initially, the signs aren’t especially promising. The film opens with a witty voiceover that, while rather funny, represents a modern aversion to sincerity that has plagued post-Pixar animations. After a nice bit of scene-setting exposition to establish the main plot – girl with magical hair is trapped in a tower by a woman who pretends to be her mum – it then breaks into a song about how this lady of shallot wants to leave her tower. It’s a forgettable song, doing the bare essentials of revealing character motivation. She plays with a chameleon, Pascal, who is clearly there to sell toys (Pascal reaction shots are rather overused in the film as a shortcut to cuteness/humour that quickly becomes wearying). It all feels a little perfunctory, and it isn’t until she actually leaves her tower, accompanied by the caddish rogue Flynn Rider, that the film kicks off and becomes interesting.
The banter between the two companions is not only genuinely funny, but at times hints a thematic depth that Disney only achieves at their best. The comic highlight of the film is when Rapunzel first leaves the tower and it cuts between her having the best day of her life and wracked with guilt at what she has done to her mother. Mother Gothel, like Scar, get into the psyche of the victim, making Rapunzel blame herself even when the older woman is the kidnapper, manipulator and jailor. Like Elsa in Frozen, Tangled‘s heroine has a moment of breaking free of the rules, but unlike Elsa, Rapunzel feels conflicted about it. Her restoration to her proper family is not just about becoming a princess but is a process of self-actualisation, where she works out who she is as a person separate from the controlling influences of an older generation. In short, when Rapunzel leaves her tower, Tangled actually becomes about something, as opposed to just another princess story.
(As a side note, I think that’s why I didn’t like Cinderella as much as other princess films, because it wasn’t about anything. The best princess movies use the age old structure to explore a broad theme: Beauty and the Beast is about sacrifice; Mulan is about gender roles (broadly); Tangled is about freedom. Cinderella is just about a ball and dresses and half-talking mice.)
Having explored such weighty themes in the first act, the film transforms when the young princess enters her home town and enjoys life among normal people for the first time. There’s a montage after her hair has been tied up where she starts a dance in the town square, paints, reads books and just enjoys freedom – it’s where the film stops being good and becomes great. What makes this scene so special is that actually, you’ve seen similar sequences several times before, because the film makers are tapping into an age old tradition of falling-in-love montages. Such is the exuberance and unabashed enthusiasm of the scene that there is maybe something there that wasn’t there before. Rapunzel has the (frankly unbelievable) infectious happiness that can get a whole town dancing, twirling and laughing together, and it’s a joy to watch. It’s the culmination of her gradual emancipation, a scene that combines romance with personal freedom. I know I’m prone to hyperbole, but to me personally this scene touches the transcendent.
The film then segues into the breathtaking sight of a thousand lanterns floating through the sky to a generic ballad which, song aside, is beautiful. Neither the romantic lanterns scene nor the dance in the town are especially new or groundbreaking, but fitting into a grand Disney tradition of heartfelt romance and gorgeous animation. Yes, the film ends with the exact ending that you are expecting, but that’s the appeal of Tangled and, indeed, most of the Disneys: it’s escapism in its purest form, a tale of magic, royalty and once-upon-a-times. It’s a fairy tale.
Tangled revels in royalty and romance and is perhaps even more old-school than the traditionally animated Princess and the Frog. It follows a familiar narrative but the familiarity is warm and happy as opposed to cliché-bordering boredom. As such, Tangled could be described as run-of-the-mill for Disney, but only if the mill is a gorgeous, riverside waterwheel and cottage that happens to produce the finest flour in the country; It’s par for the course, but the course is a stunning mountain highway. It’s Disney through and through, which is why children and adults are bound to fall for its immense charm and will still be watching it in twenty or thirty years time.
The Princess and the Frog is the greatest Disney film of the 21st Century.
I was tempted to leave it at that, to just let that comment linger and pass it off as my article for the studio’s 49th film. A controversial statement, perhaps, but what could possibly top it? Tangled fans are probably already in uproar by this point and a few people would probably make a solid case for Frozen or Lilo and Stitch. Apart from these, however, no other Disney film can stake a legitimate claim to that title. The 21st Century had undoubtedly been a dry spell for the studio up until this point but far from being the best of a bad bunch, Princess is a league above everything that had preceded it since the millennium, a creatively, artistically superior product on just about every level. Yes, it functions as a breath of fresh air for a moribund department, but even removed from its historical context (were that possible), Princess stands shoulder to shoulder with some of the A-list Disneys. Flawed, admittedly, but then so were some of the mid-90s films, or the works of Wolfgang Reitherman or even, whisper it, the Golden Age films.
However, bunch of grumpy cynics that that critics are, not many people seemed to get this when the film was released. Glasgow Evening Times critic Paul Greenwood was lukewarm, saying that “the story is one of the weakest elements here… the swampy ragtime vibe is atmospherically realised, but the film never quite develops its own personality,” and he wasn’t alone. Peter Bradshaw at the Guardian arbitrarily compared it to Toy Story, saying it wasn’t as good, representing an utterly pointless trend of comparing the film to Pixar. Because critics were getting used to the gimmicky archness of the studio behind Cars 2, anything that dared to be sincere was treated with suspicion, as if everyone reviewing the film forgot that in a time before Toy Story they, too, fell in love with the traditional Disneys of their generation. The Pixar comparisons further underserve the film as the two studios are trying totally different things, they just both happen to be animated. No critic would make such arbitrary comparisons in live action, suggesting that some writers forgot that animation is a medium, not a genre. Anyway, what this ranting boils down to is that critics accused The Princess and the Frog of being derivative, lacking in magic and invention and out of place in the world of modern animation. They were very, very wrong.
The old school, traditional form of storytelling is precisely the appeal, however, so to dismiss it on those grounds misses both the charm of something sincere in a cynical world, but also the way that it actually progresses the princess formula while sticking fairly rigidly to it. It’s a film that unashamedly has romance, magic and villainy coursing through the film, unafraid of sentimentality and a good old fashioned happy ending, but it does it all with a irresistible vibrancy that makes it a good deal more appealing than something like Cinderella. Yes, it follows trajectories that audiences are familiar with (although more on why that isn’t entirely true in a bit), but it excels in every area as opposed to just ticking boxes.
Take, for instance, the bad guy. Villains don’t come much darker than Dr. Facilier, a voodoo doctor who calls up demonic shadows from his ‘friends on the other side.’ He’s a fantastic, terrifying creation, with a song and grisly demise that ranks among the most memorable in the studio canon. The animators use the look and movement of Facilier to make him unforgettably sinister; with a waist as thin as his pencil moustache and a head of floppy, uncombed hair, he seems to defy physics in the way he slinks from scene to scene, followed by a shadow that moves to its own rhythm. He looks and acts fearsome, but it turns out his power is beholden to even darker forces. He frequently reveals that he is more in danger than anyone else in the film, something which is graphically made real as he is dragged off to hell by his so called ‘friends.’ Needless to say, children of a sensitive disposition may be better off with Winnie the Pooh.
The animation and the songs, too, show the artistry that belies the claims that this is a derivative film. Randy Newman is the man behind the lyrics, but by setting it in Jazz era New Orleans, the stage is set for Disney’s most energetic, lively soundtrack featuring the husky voice of Dr John. Leaving behind the broadway ballads of the 90s, The Princess and the Frog utilises its setting and voice cast to great effect, so even when there isn’t a song being sung it still moves along to a toe-tapping rhythm. Unlike Hercules, the music is entirely congruent with the setting, too: it actually makes sense, here, to have a gospel number. Then there is the animation, which really could have an entire article devoted to it but I’ve already rambled at length about my love of traditional techniques. Needless to say they are given a glorious final gleaming, here, the mansions and swamps of Louisiana rendered in a humid pallet of greens and browns, occasionally glimmering gold, as well, suggesting that magic hangs thickly in the air there. It’s a beautiful, old fashioned animation and a testament to the beauty of hand drawn techniques. It should never have left Disney.
So even if its traditional techniques were all done to the highest standard, even within this structure The Princess and the Frog progresses the old fashioned princess narrative in a way that few give it credit for. Take, for instance, the opening scene in which Tiana and her friend Charlotte discuss fairy tales. Charlotte, a comic highlight throughout the film, expresses her desire to marry a prince. With bright, blue eyes, blond hair, a wealthy background and a penchant for royalty, she fits the Disney princess mould perfectly. However it is Tiana, who couldn’t care less about Princes but wants to run a restaurant, that is the film’s main character, not Charlotte. The colour of her skin is irrelevant – Disney have had non-white princesses since the 90s – but her attitudes and motivations are the noticeably different aspects about this heroine. Throughout the film she is motivated by her desire to run a restaurant and bring people together with her food. As a result, Prince Naveen is the first one of the couple to fall in love, and Tiana has to catch up. He has to win her affections, as opposed to her giddily falling in love the moment she meets him, a la Snow White. It also undermines a second Disney trope, that of wishing on a star, by balancing it with the importance of hard work – magic must be combined with a realistic work ethic.
Yet Tiana still ends up married, wealthy and human again, which perhaps serves to undermine the formula-breaking feistiness she has previously displayed. If hard work is more important than wishing on stars and handsome princes, why is it so important for her to end up with her prince and dreams coming true? Well, it’s a bit much for us to expect the people that directed The Little Mermaid to turn into animated Ken Loaches. Instead, it combines the independence and strength of Tiana with a bit of good old fashioned magic to ensure that the ending is more or less what you are expecting. However, the restaurant building is still bought with Tiana’s savings and ultimately Tiana realises the importance of love in the midst of her business ventures. It takes a callous heart to deny her marriage just because it’s unfeminist. Anyway, in this case the emphasis is not on romantic love, but familial, as Tiana wants to emulate her father, who was a family man above all. So it manages to update many of the tropes of a princess film, but does so maintaining the heart and sincerity of even their most traditional films. The Princess and the Frog miraculously manages to shift the dynamics of a princess narrative to something more palatable to modern audiences, while still revelling in the magic that such stories offer. It has its cake, and eats it.
As I mentioned at the beginning, the film is, of course, flawed. Cajun firefly Ray smacks of sidekick overkill and vague racial stereotyping, while his song and the whole ‘Evangeline’ thread of the film feel tacked on and irrelevant. An encounter with some frog eating swamp-dwellers, while amusing, feels similarly out of place and suspiciously like plot padding. It also verges a little bit on the cruel in its treatment of them as two fingered, stupid inbred hicks, although it does mine laughs from these rather crass stereotypes. But this is the kind of nitpicking that misses the bigger picture, and it’s easy to forget that Snow White – which still ranks as a masterpiece for me – features a painfully dull lead character, while Fantasia has sequences that go on for far too long and the Reitherman films all repeat themselves (a complaint levelled against Princess but rarely an issue with the 70s films). Yes, it’s not perfect, but it is damn near close.
In fact, you could say that it is the greatest Disney film of the 21st Century.
The Incredibles is a great film. It pokes fun at superhero films while managing to be a really good superhero film itself. Toy Story is a great film. It’s about someone who thinks he is more special than he actually is and has to come to the realisation that he is far more normal than being a super spaceman. Bolt is not a great film. It pokes fun at superhero films but isn’t really one itself, preferring instead to have a road trip where the main character discovers himself. It’s about someone who thinks he is more special than he actually is and has to come to the realisation that he is far more normal than being a super dog, although at the end he might as well have superpowers so it is all undermined anyway. Mostly it isn’t great because it’s trying too hard to be The Incredibles and Toy Story.
Still trying to work out what Disney should look like in the 21st Century, the battle between old and new continued with Bolt, which veered firmly the way of Pixar in an anti-Disney move, but ended up being nothing like a Disney film and only a pale reflection of the studio it was trying to emulate. In playground terms, it’s the malcoordinated nerd who can speak elvish trying to play American football in order to fit in with the jocks, but although he has the right kit he can’t find a position to play in on the team. In a desperate attempt to be cool, he just shows up everything he is not.
For starts, Bolt is based on a really contrived concept, about a dog who plays a superhero in a TV show that is specifically orchestrated so that he remains convinced that everything that happens is real. Even an audience with the most willing suspension of disbelief (and I count myself in that happily oblivious group) could find holes to poke in this premise, like who on earth would fund a show so ridiculously expensive (ok, kids probably don’t care about TV funding)? Or why does it only matter that the dog goes method, and not any of the human cast? Perhaps such Truman Show shenanigans would be too cruel if done to people in a kid’s film. Either way, it’s a very roundabout way of setting up the plot, which involves the dog travelling across the States to try and find his owner again, all while going on a journey of self discovery. By the time the plot begins, the audience is bored.
Then there is the tonal awkwardness of the film, as it opens with a cutesy dog home scene before an intentionally over-the-top action sequence as the central premise is introduced. There are explosions, super speed, laser eyes – things that are never explained in their ‘real world’ context – as Bolt fights baddies to rescue his owner. It goes on for aaaages, an interminable cacophony of bright, glossy animation and loud noises. Ultimately, it’s pointless, as the rug is pulled and the fabrication of the whole sequence is revealed; a nifty trick if the first sequence hadn’t been so long and convoluted. As it is, you are just left wondering what it was all for (the answer: nothing). Then it becomes a genial, villain-free, fish out of water road movie as Bolt accompanies as sassy New York cat and a naive hamster across the states. This section tries to establish a theme of abandonment issues – negated because we know that Bolt’s owner is desperate to get him back – and some awkward buddy comedy as the mismatched travelling companions roam the country. The hyperbolic opening is forgotten in favour of something much gentler but irredeemably bland.
This is no Chicken Little (to me a byword for substandard ’00s Disney), and contains a couple of exciting-ish set pieces and some nice jokes. The latter is provided mostly by Rhino, a hamster who believes everything he sees on TV. His moment of glory when they get back to the TV set is a genuinely funny moment in a film painfully lacking in laughs. The animation is also a few steps forward from Robinsons and Little, but it’s still uncannily cold. Children will probably be amused by this film, with its accessible themes and big action scenes, but adults may struggle to be as entertained.
The ultimate issue is that Disney just don’t tell stories like this. Wreck-It Ralph, although considerably more successful, suffered the similar problem of a studio trying to be who they were not. What that film got right was that it kept in a tangible emotional core, which this loses in favour of spectacle. Interestingly, the message of Bolt could be translated as, ‘don’t try to be something you are not,’ a message which Disney would do well to pay heed to.