Animation can explain whatever the mind of man can conceive – Walt Disney

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disney chicken little“I’m yet to see Chicken Little, Home On The Range or Meet the Robinsons, but it is unlikely that any of them will feel as rote or humdrum as this sub par effort.” So I foolishly said about Treasure Planet, a film which, with the hindsight that Chicken Little affords, comes across as a masterpiece of Golden Age proportions compared to this CG sci-fi dreck. The absolute nadir of ’00s Disney, it is currently threatening Saludos Amigos for the claim to ‘worst in the canon.’ Maybe because it’s come after a long run of mediocrity so it was simply frustrating to witness yet another less-than-spectacular film, or maybe because it is a genuinely dreadful film. Either way I hated it.

Structurally, it’s all over the place. The first act of the film consists entirely of the titular poultry basically being a loser to a soft-rock soundtrack before acts two and three become an alien invasion film. The theory being, supposedly, that the central dynamic between rooster and son should be established before the main ‘plot’ kicks in, but the execution suggests that everyone involved is far more interested in the aliens than in a young chicken trying to reconnect with his father who is (rightly) embarrassed by his son. The first act, therefore, feels completely extraneous and incongruous with the rest of the film, containing an entire arc for the main character that turns out to be completely unnecessary to the rest of the film. Chicken Little’s foray into baseball is utterly, utterly pointless. The rest is hardly interesting, too.

chicken 1

Then there is the humour, which tries to be a bit knowing and meta but fails to actually be funny. The film opens with the narrator unsure of how to start the story, going through a few clichés before just starting at the beginning. Such jokes are nice if the rest of the film is going to be a self referential deconstruction of Disney tropes, á la Enchanted, but it isn’t, so the opening feels like a studio desperately trying to capture some of the wit (and box office) of Shrek. It’s worthless poking fun at clichés in the first 5 minutes if the ensuing 75 are full of them. Then occasionally throughout the rest of the film it remembers that it wants to be arch and witty so makes an arbitrary reference to something like King Kong. A clever pastiche of Hollywoodising true stories at the very end of the film is the only joke that really registers, but it is far too little, far too late.

The sci-fi elements of the film are underdeveloped, a far cry from the likes of Lilo and Stitch which used its genre setting to great effect. The aliens are (perhaps deliberately) generic and no thought has gone into the design of the ships or creatures. The ‘twist’ at the end is mildly unexpected but undermines anything that has gone before and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense given the apparent desire for violence shown earlier in the film. The design is weak, the story weaker, adding to a litany of laziness that amounts to a whole lot of boredom when watching the finished product.

chicken 2

Then there is the animation. Sweet mother of mercy, the animation. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, made 68 years before this abomination, was using technology that was still in its infancy. The people working on it were still discovering how it worked, no one was sure if the film would be a success or not, yet the result was triumphant and it still looks good today. Chicken Little was made using technology that had successfully been the medium of feature length films for 10 years but was still, granted, a fairly new innovation. Today it is one of the ugliest films ever made, only 8 years old now but horrendously dated to the extent that it is almost unwatchable. Blocky, textureless characters and flat, detail deprived landscapes add up to a thoroughly unappealing aesthetic that looks like a gifted 14 year old has taught himself computer animation. Think Spyro the Dragon on PS1 or Jimmy Neutron on an off day. Every single frame should be destroyed and we should probably forget that this film ever happened.

disney Home on the RangeWith this underwhelming, slightly strange critter Western, the death knell for traditional animation at the House of Mouse pealed across the land. While the studio resurrected the medium for two more films, they were but the final, beautiful throes of a whole department about to enter a state of rigor mortis. This was the film where they decided to leave 2D behind for good – Princess and Winnie the Pooh were afterthoughts. If Home on the Range is where it came to die, Chicken Little is the ugly xenomorph that burst from it in death. Maybe if this half hearted Western had been a little bit better then hand drawn films would have stood a chance. As it is, this article is more an announcement of a death than a review. The Princess and the Frog will be my eulogy.

If this all sounds a little macabre and morose it’s because I got confused and accidentally watched this and Chicken Little out of order and the latter film has the honour of being one of the worst films in the canon. As I saw it, I wondered why Disney were so determined to leave one medium behind to replace it with something that was, at the time, underdeveloped and just plain ugly. It made me want to root for Home on the Range so it could be celebrated as the triumphant last hurrah of cels before the march of coded progress trampled it beneath its glossy, soulless feet. Alas, it was not to be. Instead of going out in a blaze of glory, 2D died with a wheeze of half remembered beauty.

home range 2

Attempting a Western for the first time since the package films of the Forgotten Forties, Home on the Range tells the forgettable story of three cows who want to save their beautiful dairy farm from a villainous land-grabbing cattle rustler. Japes ensue. Taking more of a road-movie adventure approach in the style of The Rescuers Down Under or (sort of) Dinosaur, the structure is undermined by the fact that every new place they encounter looks exactly the same as the last. Films about journeys, especially animated ones, work well when it opens up the creative team to explore different locales. As it is, Home on the Range is merely a tramp through various different versions of one boring desert.

Perhaps the strangest choice made in the film is the voice cast, which features Judi Dench (as a cow in the deserts of the US?), Roseanne Barr and Cuba Gooding Jr. Each one of them voices their character like they are in different films to everyone else, an uncertainty which is carried over into the haywire tone of the film. At times it’s a slapstick comedy, at others a heartwarming ‘Save the Farm’ drama. At one point it features an utterly bizarre technicolour trip of a musical interlude that once more feels as though it has wandered in from another film (or even studio). None of these elements are particularly bad but they don’t gel as a whole, resulting in a film that feels uncertain of itself and never hitting the heights it is aiming for.

home range 1

This last gasp of traditional animation from Disney suffers from the studio’s determination in the ’00s to try something different and leave behind old stories with princesses and magic. When it works, it works well, as with Lilo and Stitch and The Emperor’s New Groove.  However when they pushed this desire for difference too far, Disney forgot what made them great in the first place: beautiful animation; enchanting story telling; a big, beating heart beneath it all. Home on the Range is torn between the draw of modernity and a dying medium and the result is something that, while diverting and occasionally funny, fails to register on most levels. It is representative of a studio having an identity crisis and it came at the cost of hand drawn animation, which is a lamentable shame.

Disney Checklist Brother BearPhil Collins is, of course, a musical genius. Anyone who has seen Tarzan can attest to this incontrovertible fact. Lyrically, musically, emotionally, spiritually, he hit all the right levels and I am not exaggerating for an instant when I say that. However, even Einstein had his off days, so it is with a heavy heart that I write about Brother Bear’s biggest problem: Phil Collins. The Genesis front man and modern day Bach was called up to write the songs for Disney’s Canadian legend about a boy who becomes a man by becoming a bear. Only something must have gone wrong along the way because the resulting soundtrack is so painfully on-the-nose that it feels like he just sang the synopsis of the film. There’s actually a point in the film when there is a big emotional reveal and the two main characters confront some brutal truths. Just as they begin discussing such a problematic issue as matricide, ol’ Phil kicks in with an earnest melody that actually includes the lyric ‘brother bear…’

I‘m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the beginning and discuss the plot and positives of Brother Bear. A young inuit named Kenai is disappointed when he is told that his life’s totem and dominating characteristic that will make him a man is… love. He doesn’t display this love when he goes on a revenge killing and murders a bear. The great spirits who watch over everything then decide that he should pay for his crime by turning him into a bear himself. Once ursine, he has to look after a little cub, Koda, and try and reach the place where the lights touch the earth so he can be returned to two legged, fleshy form. Bonding happens along the way, moose are canadian, and there’s fish out of water humour in literal and figurative senses.

brother lights

The biggest positive is, naturally, the animation. Even on their off days, Disney could pull out fairly magnificent looking films and given dramatic Canadian landscapes to work with, the Brother Bear team excel. There’s an interesting, largely unnecessary choice made by the directors to change the aspect ratio and colour scheme once Kenai becomes a bear. Presumably it’s related to the fact that now he can see more clearly, but it’s a welcome change as the film becomes breathtaking in widescreen. It’s the best looking Disney film since Tarzan. It’s also regularly funny and, in the credits ‘outtakes’ has the best laugh in any Disney film, ever.

But the problem is that the plot and ‘message’ of the film are hammered home with about as much subtlety as being mauled by a bear. The film starts off with a song about how the great spirits unite all creatures of the earth in one great big circle of life family. This apparent hymn to vegetarianism seems an oddly patronising and culturally suspect song to sing about a group of hunter-gatherers, however spiritual they may or may not have been. Then once Kenai is transformed, he has to learn to love others, particularly the immensely annoying Koda. His journey feels painfully obvious, but the pseudo-spirituality of the film particularly grates as it brings back unwelcome memories of Pocahontas. There’s nothing quite as annoying as the magic leaves, here, but it has a similar sense of ignorance and Hollywoodisation of complex beliefs.

brother wide

To cap this all off, there’s Phil’s song lyrics coursing throughout with such painful writing as ‘This is our festival / you know and best of all / We’re here to share it all’ to induce winces in audiences all around the world. The themes of family, love and peace are so broad and movieish that when hammered home by Phil – who was clearly writing these on a day off – it becomes an endurance test as to how long you can sit through the songs before getting out your copy of Tarzan. On a positive note, Mr. Collins also wrote the score to the film with Mark Mancina, and that’s actually great. Even in his darkest hour, Sir Phil is still a talented son of a gun.

Sandwiched, as it is, by some of the worst films in the Disney canon, Brother Bear actually comes out looking pretty good. It’s beautifully animated, very funny and largely entertaining. You just wish it was a bit more subtle, which is saying something when talking about a Disney film…

Disney Checklist TreasureYarr, let me spin you a tale about an animation studio that had forgotten how to convey emotions honestly, and the lacklustre film that represents this creative malaise. Tis a sad story of a once great power reduced to half-hearted adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson books and how it struggled to be interesting in the middle of a decade where other studios were sailing the seas of creativity with swaggering confidence. Tis a short story, too, for the film itself, Treasure Planet, is barely worthy of extensive comment. If ye think this poor attempt at pirate speak is underwhelming, wait til ye see the film itself…

I’ll stop that now, for the sake of anyone that has read this far. Treasure Planet follows the same narrative as Stevenson’s Treasure Island, where a young dreamer, Jim Hawkins, gets hold of a treasure map and travels across the seas in a ship. On his journey he befriends the not at-all-suspicious Long John Silver, but obviously not everything goes according to plan when it emerges that Jim is not the only one aware of the map’s existence. Beat for beat, this is about as faithful to the book as Muppet’s Treasure Island, only instead of hilarious songs like ‘Cabin Fever’ it has maudlin 00s rock music playing over montages. The big change is, of course, the relocation from the Seven Seas to space. Long John Silver is no longer wooden legged, but a cyborg with a couple of handy mechanical limbs. The castaway they meet on the planet (not island) is a robot with a missing memory chip. Most of the baddies are sinister aliens, while the captain of the ship is the kind of anthropomorphic cat that furries go nuts for.

treasure ship

As with most Disney films of the 00s, the design is the strongest element, with the animators clearly revelling in the fact that they can go all out with their sci-fi stylings. Ships are powered by solar sails, giant space ports form entire moons, and Jim’s Inn at the beginning of the film is populated by customers that wouldn’t look out of place in a Mos Eisley cantina. Silver’s shapeshifting companion is particularly fun, and would probably be a popular character within Disney merchandising if anyone still watched this film. It’s a shame that Jim himself is a surly, badly designed rebel without a cause.

Jim is probably the centre of the film’s issues, a bland, forgettable hero with nothing more to his character than dreams of travel and ten-a-penny Daddy issues that make up the central dynamic of the film with the unexpected father figure Silver. The problem is that the emotions feel cheap, which is quite a claim to level at a studio notorious for saccharine sentimentality. But think about the Disney films that provoke the strongest emotions in you and it becomes clear that in those films the makers have invested far more in the characters, so the audience do, too. When Simba tells his dead Dad to wake up, it’s resonant because only moments earlier the two of them played together in a field under the stars. Here, it seems to be far more a case of ticking off the boxes in a checklist of how to make an emotional animation, and the result is perfunctory and oddly hollow.


Wide shots of the ship are pretty much the only interesting thing about the film

Wide shots of the ship are pretty much the only interesting thing about the film

Disney were in something of a rut at this point, making visually interesting but uninspired films that cared more about plot than heart. I’m yet to see Chicken Little, Home On The Range or Meet the Robinsons, but it is unlikely that any of them will feel as rote or humdrum as this sub par effort. There’s still a long way to go before Princess and the Frog

Disney Checklist LiloIn the early 00s Disney seemed to be going through an iconoclastic period where they avoided the genres and styles that had, time and time again, made them so beloved. This meant having a zanier sense of humour, genre settings (sci-fi was a particular preoccupation) and rejecting princess stories, big musical numbers and conventional romances. The Emperor’s New Groove, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Lilo and Stitch, Treasure Planet, Chicken Little, Meet The Robinsons and Bolt all fit in this category before The Princess and the Frog proved a magnificent return to form (who knows what Brother Bear and Home on the Range are…). Lilo and Stitch is one of the least Disney films of this period, but is also the most interesting of the bunch. Not everything works, but it is so low-key and unassuming, whilst still having ideas and a sense of humour, that it feels wholly unique in the canon. It’s The Descendants meets Men In Black in animated form. Sort of. Here are some of the aspects that, taken together, make the film one of a kind in the canon.

Lilo is a fascinating central character, younger than many Disney heroines and a whole lot more real than most of them, too. She’s a child, and directors Dean De Blois and Chris Sanders (the geniuses behind How To Train Your Dragon) don’t shy away from making her as annoying and self centred as children can be. She argues with her sister and fails to see how much she is sacrificing for her. She is petulant, stubborn and a little bit odd. But she is also immensely charming, curious and resourceful. Like many children she has her own weird quirks and obsessions, including a penchant for Elvis and taking photos of overweight tourists. This combination of immaturity and childish wonder make her one of the most realistic main characters Disney have created. Humans are flawed but essentially good, and Lilo and Stitch is the first time that Disney has caught up with this. The closest comparison is probably Alice, 29 films ago.
By making the central character significantly younger than most of their teenagers, Disney are able to ignore a need for romances in the centre of the film. There is a little bit of a subplot between her sister and a local surfing hunk, but even that is underplayed in favour of the sibling relationship. This film could easily be described as a character drama, as the sci-fi is only there to compliment the main story, which is the developing relationship between Lilo and her sister.
While the 90s had seen a greater variety of settings round the world (Arabia, the Serengheti, China), all of those choices were informed by the narrative – for instance, Mulan can only happen in China. Lilo and Stitch could happen just about anywhere in the world, apart from the need for somewhere with no large cities, which begs the question as to why they chose Hawaii. My best guess is that the atmosphere and aesthetic of Hawaii is just an interesting one to explore. The azure, wave lined coasts and verdant mountains of the volcanic islands are gorgeously, but unshowily rendered, while the culture of the state lends the film an irrepressibly laid back vibe that again feels far more like an American indie than more plot heavy films from the studio. The tone and pace feels a world away from Atlantis or Treasure Planet, which come either side of this film.
Elvis Soundtrack
There’s no need for it particularly, but it sounds nice and makes a change from 00s rock ballads.
Monsters Galore
Stitch is a kind of gross, destructive monster that flies in the face of ‘appeal,’ one of the core principles of character animation. But somehow, like Toothless in How To Train Your Dragon, something potentially hideous becomes immensely charming. He represents an intergalactic group of aliens of all different shapes and sizes, displaying a variety in design that is evidence of lots of time and effort in the worldbuilding. It shows the kind of inventiveness that marks this period in the studio’s history – design is the hallmark of even the dreariest of films from the 00s. Combined with the investment in character and the impressive animation, it makes Lilo and Stitch one of the best films from this era.
lilo stitch
Late Title Card
This is just something that interests me and probably no one else, but there is quite a lengthy bit of set up before Lilo is even introduced, and the title doesn’t roll until 10 minutes into the film. Just another thing that is a little bit different.

Disney Checklist AtlantisRemember The Black Cauldron? That slightly weird, plot-heavy fantasy that made no money for Disney with impressive design but nothing noticeably Disneyish? Well, Disney didn’t apparently, because they were at it again in the 00s with Atlantis: The Lost Empire, a film that shares the adventurous, fantasy DNA and emphasis on plot over character or, well, gaining an audience. It’s not quite as strange and not nearly as dark as Cauldron, but is still Disney’s attempt at worldbuilding and creating a mythology in a way that their more traditional fairy tales don’t. It also goes pretty insane towards the end However, also like the unfairly maligned 80’s obscurity, Atlantis: The Lost Empire is actually pretty decent. It’s no way near a classic, but it’s a good deal more entertaining than something like Dinosaur, as it crammed with events and contains some interesting designs.

The story, for the majority of you that haven’t actually seen it, is set in 1914, where a young museum intern dreams of completing his father’s work and finding the legendary lost city. He leads a group of slightly surly, slightly suspicious experts in various areas, down a sinkhole in the sea to find it. Once he gets there, however, it’s not quite as simple getting out, especially given some ulterior motives of the crew. Milo learns leadership, falls in love and beats the baddies – who they are won’t be a surprise to anyone who has ever seen a film before.

atlantis digger

There’s an admirable Jules Vernian sense of adventure to the film, abetted by some inventive, CG augmented steampunk designing. This is old, old school sci-fi, and starts a continued studio interest in the genre – they followed this up with Lilo and Stitch and Treasure Planet, both of which are even more sci-fi based than this (later Chicken Little continued the 00s trend). The design is the strongest element of the film, all pistons, drills and clanking metal. The Atlanteans themselves have built an impressive world of ancient mech that is all powered by a a mysterious blue light. The film as a result often looks incredible. It’s not particularly original, but it is arresting.

In this sense it feels, at times, like Disney’s attempt at a Studio Ghibli film, most particularly Laputa: Castle in the Sky, containing that film’s eye for inventive means of transport, a mythical destination that few believe in, giant robots and underground shenanigans. It’s not as good, but very few films are – either way, it’s a marked change in tone for the studio, focussing more on creating an impressive, well rounded world than they previously have done. What separates a Ghibli from Atlantis, however, are that the design and beauty support the film as opposed to dominate it. Beyond the aesthetic elements of the film, Atlantis struggles.

atlantis ships

The group of misfits that Milo travels with to the underwater kingdom are a crudely drawn group of racial stereotypes that don’t extend beyond their initial one line descriptions. Admittedly, the same accusation could be leveled at Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but somehow the group here are even more crudely drawn than Grumpy and Dopey. Perhaps it’s the fact that they aren’t inherently interesting – let’s just say the mechanic would be played by Michelle Rodriguez if this was live action. There’s one scene of obligatory ‘character development’ where they reveal their motivations for being on the journey that has some forced attempts at humour and falls painfully flat. They regularly churn out direlogue that clangs louder than the steampunk engines. The lead double act of Milo and Kida are hardly better – although the latter surely deserves a place in the Princess canon? She’s better than Cinderella at any rate.

The film also isn’t really about anything beyond its plot. It just zips from event to event without really letting the film breathe. There’s barely any text for their to be subtext beneath, so the result is a thematically dissatisfying film that doesn’t hold interest beyond the surface of the narrative – and means you’ll probably forget it after it has finished as well. The more damaging result is that there is no real emotion to the film, it all passes by without engaging the head or heart. So you may be dazzled temporarily by Disney throwing everything into the art and design department, you will be left longing that they had spent a little more time on the script. They clearly didn’t notice as the exact same problems plague Treasure Planet, only two films later.

atlantis robots

Disney Checklist DinosaurThe dawn of a new era: an old way of life is about to die out after a violent and unwelcome explosion in the world. I’m talking, of course, about the unstoppable force of CG wiping out traditional forms of animation like a meteor crashing to earth. This is also the plot of Dinosaur, Disney’s underwhelming venture into the world of CG animation. Gone is the hand drawn beauty of their finest work, in comes blocky, glossy character design and the slight sense of soullessness behind the dead eyes. Admittedly, Dinosaur is a hybrid of CG animation and real locations, so a lot of it looks very pretty, but it heralds a new age and the passing of an old way, that is thoroughly unsavoury.

Before you all shout ‘PIXAR’ at me, I’m aware that there are several good computer animated films out there. I love How To Train Your Dragon, Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs, Brave, the Toy Story Trilogy and a few other Pixars. I’m even a fan of lesser loved CG animations like Surf’s Up and Rise of the Guardians. The medium doesn’t mean the film is going to be either bad or good. But it’s just not the same, and I couldn’t quite tell you why. I think part of it is that I’m yet to see a CG film that captures wonder or heart in quite the same way as the arguably more escapist traditional animation. There’s almost a sense that you are watching a series of codes instead of a work of art; it feels cold, in spite of incredible advances in technology allowing for some truly breathtaking sights – I’m thinking fantastical scottish landscapes in Brave, the flying sequences in Dragons – it feels more calculated than imagined.

6 years earlier, Jurassic Park did this way, way better

6 years earlier, Jurassic Park did this way, way better

This feels unfair to the many people that put a lot of work and creativity into making a computer animated film, but I’m just trying to explain why it doesn’t work quite as well for me. Animation, to me, is about transporting you to a totally different time and place – animation can explain whatever the mind can conceive. Arguably CG makes that more possible, able to create places with astonishing realism, but it loses some of the charm and heart that takes it there in the first place. I think I resent it more because it gradually led to the end of traditional animation at Disney, and I think the studio lost a vital part of its heritage and culture in doing so. Progress is not always the best option, particularly if it means discarding a valuable history and entire art form. It doesn’t help that Disney are yet to make a computer animated film that can sit alongside the best the studio have created using traditional animation. Tangled is decent, but I’ll come to that in December.

Anyway, this is all beside the point because the medium is irrelevant if the story is boring and boooooy is the story boring for Dinosaur. The problem is that the dinosaurs speak, and when they do they say very little of interest. The dinosaurs get wiped out by an asteroid crash landing on earth, and one iguanodon saves his family of monkeys and takes them, along with a herd of other generic dinosaurs that all look the same, to a paradisical land of green grass and fresh water. Along the way he teaches leadership through compassion, argues with another dinosaur who teaches survival of the fittest, and falls in love with another iguanodon. There is not one single element of the plot that is surprising and not one character that is interesting. Even the choice of dinosaur is boring – why choose iguanodon when your main character could be a triceratops?

It's a whole new world, kids.

It’s a whole new world, kids.

I’ll make one concession for both Dinosaur and CG animation: it has the capacity for the spectacular. The villainous not-T-Rexes that chase the herd are properly menacing, and a showdown in the rain captures almost Jurassic Park like tension. These moments are few and far between, however. If I’ve used an article about Dinosaur as a bandwagon for my opinions on CG animation that’s because the film itself isn’t really worthy of much discussion, which says all you need to know about it.