Big Hero 6

Marvellous.

Big Hero 6 (2015)

Big Hero 6 has been on my radar for a long time. Disney have been on a bit of a streak since 2010’s Tangled and since then both Wreck-It Ralph and the inescapable Frozen have raked in the critical acclaim and sweet, sweet money. Here’s the long and short of it. Big Hero 6 is loosely based on a rather obscure Marvel comic book only really known for featuring superheroes Sunfire and The Silver Samurai, both of whom don’t feature in the film due to different creative directions and complicated rights issues. It’s a Marvel property, but it’s a very Disney take on a Marvel property if that makes sense, and it fucking better do as I’ve tried and deleted about 8 different ways to say this and I officially give up.

Hiro Hamada (voiced by Ryan Potter) is a 13 year old tech genius who lives in the futuristic city of San Fransokyo. Tragedy strikes and Hiro is left with an inflatable robot medic companion by the name of Baymax (Scott Adsit). Hiro soon discovers that there is a masked madman with access to an army of microbots on the loose and decides to go after him, but not before recruiting his science-whiz friends and gearing up for a massive fight to save the city. If I may get slightly reflexive on you for a moment, I wasn’t sure whether the very lines you just read spoiled too much and had to check official blurbs to see what they reveal. The summary is fine in terms of spoilers, but I think it’s the fact that the film takes a while to get there that makes it feel like I’m blowing the whole film for people. The film taking its time is completely a good thing too. It spends time fleshing out its characters and stokes the fires of emotional investment expertly. If I had to criticise, I would say the villain story is a bit weak, but as with Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s more about the team coming together than the big bad they have to defeat. This is a Disney production, so the voice acting is top notch. Scott Adsit’s Baymax gets a lot of the big laughs in the film thanks to his gentle, but matter-of-fact way of talking.

Like How to Train Your Dragon or E.T., the film works on the bond of boy and companion. Hiro’s relationship with Baymax is as funny as it is touching. In the original comics, Baymax is a dragon creature, but the decision to make him a cuddly, friendly robot is a sound one. It’s fun just watching Baymax totter around and interact with things. I’m a grown-ass man and I wanted to reach through the screen and hug him. There’s an inspired bit briefly seen in the trailers where Baymax is low on battery and basically acts drunk. His pratfalling and slurring are incredibly funny and charming. He’s not just a joke character though, as Baymax is key in some of the film’s more emotional moments and some of his interactions with the depressed Hiro are genuinely moving. Big Hero 6 has got a lot of heart and it shows. It reminded me of The Iron Giant in a lot of ways (there are more than a few plot similarities) but Big Hero 6 nails what Iron Giant did and makes you care about the characters. This is clever and mature storytelling and it’s great to see they didn’t just slap some superhero shit together haphazardly and took the time and effort to make it something special. Storywise, the film slightly falters when the team get together. Some of the team get proper arcs, some not so much. I was really enjoying the team dynamic and wanted to have each of them walk away with something learned. It’s a minor flaw in the grand scheme of things.

I know this may sound like a weak statement, but I was caught up in how colourful and fun everything was. The city of San Fransokyo is a brilliantly designed place, with evidence of American and Japanese culture colliding. I could have done with seeing more of the city, but was happy enough with what Hiro and crew were doing for it to become a problem. I’m looking forward to the Blu-ray so I can pause and appreciate all the tiny details put into it. The action is fun and frantic and seeing all the tech in action is a delight.

I loved Big Hero 6 hard. It’s now my favourite of the newer Disney animations. It’s got wit, action, emotional gut punches, the lot. It has a big ol’ beating heart at the centre too, which can’t be faked. Highly recommended.

The Aristocats

 
Crazy Old Cat Lady: The Movie
 

The Aristocats (1970)

It’s strange how the majority of Disney’s ’70s and ’80s output falls by the wayside when brought up in discussion. With a company like Disney, there are very few truly forgotten films, but the 18 year run of animated theatrical releases between The Jungle Book and The Little Mermaid struggle for a place amongst the “proper” classics. To be honest, it’s a quality issue. After Uncle Walt cursed the Jewish faith one last time and turned up his toes, the company staggered about trying to recreate the original Disney magic. The films from this time aren’t bad per se, but they are shallower in terms of heart and ambition. As there seems to be no proper term for this time, I shall refer to it as “The Hollow Era” as I’m sure I’m going to have to refer back to it. Hate to say it, but The Aristocats seems to have kickstarted the tailspin.

“Ladies don’t start fights, but they can finish them!

Pampered cat Duchess (Eva Gabor) and her three kittens live the life of luxury with an old rich Madame (Hermione Baddeley) in 20th century France. Madame Bonfamille draws up her will and having no family, she intends to leave everything to the cats, with the loyal house butler Edgar (Roddy Maude-Roxby) to inherit after the cats die. Edgar overhears this and kidnaps the kitties, dumping them in the wilderness to cut out the middlecats and become the sole benefactor to her estate. Duchess and the kittens meet Thomas O’Malley (Phil Harris), a streetwise alley cat who endeavours to return the family home. Here’s the thing with The Aristocats– apart from it being a pale facsimile of Lady and the Tramp, none of evolves past Duchess’ desire to get home. Homeward Bound had this too, but the characters learned something about themselves and each other. The Aristocats is a series of disconnected sketches featuring new characters and the occasional musical number. Most of it is just scenes that happen sequentially rather than having a reason why scenes are happening. The voice cast are great. Eva Gabor is cool, the richly-voiced Phil Harris does his Baloo schtick again, but it works. Fellow Jungle Book star Sterling Holloway also lends his unique voice to Roquefort, a plucky mouse who is determined to rescue Duchess and co. Scatman Crothers pops up as the jazz-loving Scat Cat, confusingly doing a Louis Armstrong impression to match the character design. Whatever the reason, it’s a whole lot of fun. Let’s not talk about the buck-toothed “me rikey” Siamese cat.

The Aristocats is charming, don’t get me wrong. The animation and art are beautiful. I’ve seen a lot of detractors calling the film rough-looking, but I think it suits. It’s not as clean as previous films, but I like it. Plus, the animation on the animals is fantastic and realistic. The songs are high points too, especially the catchy “Everybody Wants to Be a Cat”. To me, the film seems like a series of vignettes. We have the two dogs Napoleon and Lafayette who don’t impact on the story at all, apart from making it more difficult for Edgar to cover his tracks. The cats then meet two geese Abigail and Amelia, who don’t do much. It goes on like this. The story is dictating what the characters should do, instead of the characters’ decisions driving the story. It’s practically a recipe for ensuring your film has a limit on how much it can appeal and entertain. Plus, when it doubt, the film puts Marie in danger. It’s lazy, basically. That’s not to say these scenes are bad. Whilst I’m not a huge fan of the two dogs (despite Napoleon being voiced by the awesome Pat Buttram), I have a soft spot for the ditzy English maid geese and especially their Uncle Waldo. The Waldo sequence is genuinely funny and features some of the best drunk voice acting you’ve ever heard: 

My main problem with the film is that there’s no real heart to it or lesson to be imparted. Duchess and the kittens don’t learn anything from their big adventure, aside from maybe having their world view broadened. Madame doesn’t learn anything. O’Malley doesn’t learn anything. Nobody does. There’s an undercurrent about the difference between Duchess and O’Malley’s attitudes towards humans, but it’s mostly forgotten about. A lot of ideas in the film are like this. The sheltered kittens have a very specific idea of what an alley cat is, but aren’t surprised by O’Malley and like him from the get-go. They float an idea and then just drop it. It’s frustrating because there’s evidently some top quality work gone into making it, it’s just disappointingly hollow. A lot of decisions seem arbitrary. For example, why is the film set in Paris? Apart from making sense of Maurice Chevalier’s opening number, there’s nothing about the story that specifically requires a Parisian backdrop.

“Aloha, auf Wiedersehen, bonsoir, sayonara and all those good bye things, baby.”

Despite all this, I still like The Aristocats. As I said, it’s charming and that takes it a long way. Whilst it doesn’t hit the highs of other Disney films, it still has enough energy and playfulness to make it worth a watch.

Aladdin

After noticing that I’d bought rather a lot of Disney films lately, I decided to write about a few of them to plug the gaps between new releases. After the genuinely shocking news of Robin Williams’ untimely death, there seemed to be only one place to start, really.

Robin Williams was, and will remain, a hero of mine, having grown up seeing and enjoying a whole bunch of his films like this one, Jumanji and Mrs. Doubtfire. As I “matured”, I found new admiration for him in classics like Good Morning, Vietnam, The Fisher King and Good Will Hunting as well as some of his more offbeat films like World’s Greatest Dad and Death to Smoochy. He was one of only a rare few who I found just as funny and entertaining as an adult as I did as a stupid kid. I think one of the main reasons for this was the fact that as a performer, the guy was fearless. Whilst most of us lose it when we hit our teens, he maintained a childlike manic energy and an absolute confidence in what he was doing throughout his career, making him engaging no matter what age you were. It seemed fitting to me to rewatch not only a real childhood favourite of mine, but reacquaint myself with what is sure to be one of the longest lasting components of the legacy of a uniquely funny and talented showman.

Aladdin (1992)

After the runaway successes of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, which both marked much needed changes in direction for the company, Disney relaxed and settled on adapting Arabian Nights for their next project, comforted that it didn’t have to bring in Mermaid numbers. What went on behind the scenes of Aladdin is interesting as they had basically completed the script and storyboards before being forced to chuck everything out and start over from scratch when then boss Jeffrey Katzenberg reportedly “hated” what he was shown. With cancellation looming, the team hired Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio to punch up the script and trim the fat.

“Welcome to Agrabah. City of mystery, of enchantment…and the finest merchandise this side of the River Jordan! On sale today! Come on down!”

Aladdin tells the story of a young, kind-hearted street urchin (Scott Weinberg) who dreams of more than his life of crime and poverty allows. After he’s used and betrayed by the scheming advisor to the Sultan, Jafar (Jonathan Freeman), Aladdin stumbles across an old lamp and frees a magical genie (Robin Williams) who has the ability to grant him three wishes and the opportunity to improve both his stock in life and get closer to the Sultan’s daughter, Princess Jasmine (Linda Larkin). The plot is an amalgamation of all sorts of Arabian legends and fables. For the most part, it works. The screenplay is pretty smart in places. It was certainly a lot funnier than previous Disney efforts and I suspect Elliot, Rossio and Williams are the culprits. There’s more of an anarchic feeling to the humour, with several instances of fourth-wall breaking and the Genie’s impressions of people like Jack Nicholson and Rodney Dangerfield. I would argue that in this respect, Aladdin was kind of a trailblazer. A big celebrity voice actor, computer animation (for some background shots and for the intricate design on Carpet) and the generation-spanning humour appealing to both kids and adults etc. It’s the Dreamworks template, basically. Visually, the film’s a stunner. I love the art style. It’s bright and colourful with character designs taking inspiration from American caricaturist Al Hirschfield and his elegant, simple linework. All of these elements add up to something that’s loud, colourful and a lot of fun. I can see why my VHS tape stayed put in the VCR for so long when I was an ankle-biter.

Story wise, it’s pretty solid. A lot of it is about people being true to themselves and various characters’ yearnings to be free of some kind of imprisonment- which is fair enough. The obligatory romance aspect is a bit thin, going through the standard Disney motions until the blah blah…”happily ever after” stuff. It has the same beats you’d expect, right down to a shared song implying mutual love. Having said that, it’s nice that Jasmine isn’t just the unattainable dream girl for our hero to work towards. She wants to be free from her father’s protection and from Draconian laws forcing her to marry within a certain immediate timeframe. Whilst they could have been a bit bolder with Princess Jasmine, it’s cool that she’s the one busting out of the palace, instead of staying put and waiting to be rescued like so many of her royal predecessors in the Disney stable. Linda Larkin does a good job of selling a tough character.  Jonathan Freeman is deliciously evil as Jafar, making for one of the best Disney villains ever. His double act with the raucous parrot Iago (Gilbert Gottfried) is also massively entertaining. Aladdin himself is a bit of a square and looks like a mawkish ’80s sitcom character in fancy dress. He’s fine, I guess, but he’s hardly the most compelling hero we’ve had.

It’s no secret that the film belongs to Robin Williams’ Genie.  I mean, wow. I love the fact that they kept Williams’ improvisational nature when bringing the character to life, especially the opening with the (also Williams voiced) merchant. It’s impossible not to like Genie. The combination of the madcap, unhinged animation and Williams’ constant riffing and changing of voices works incredibly well. Genie’s “Friend Like Me” number encapsulates all of this perfectly and is easily one of my favourite Disney songs.  In fact, all of the music is top quality. Aladdin continued the tradition of having big Broadway-style numbers (arguably) kicked off by The Little Mermaid. Alan Menken takes Howard Ashman and Tim Rice’s clever lyrics and puts them to catchy Arabian flavoured jazzy music and it works beautifully. Whilst it has the modern rep of being saccharine as anything and of being played at thick peoples’ weddings, “A Whole New World” is a great song in the context of the film. It’s lovely. There- I said it.

“Oh, Al. I’m getting kinda fond of you, kid. Not that I wanna pick out curtains or anything.”

So, I can’t really mark Aladdin down on too much. Aladdin is one of the first films I remember seeing at the cinema (the other coincidentally being Ferngully ) and I have watched it countless times since over the years. It’s a cherished early memory of the cinema coupled with a deep childhood affection. I am qualifying my bias here- I couldn’t be further from being objective if I tried. There is no way I can view it as an outsider looking in. Luckily, when rewatching it, I found that I had to forgive very little (some of the character designs are questionable, especially as Aladdin looks nigh-on Caucasian) and was swept along for the ride all over again. I hate to end on a rubbish pun, but I thought of the word and now I can’t get it out of my head- it’s magical.

The Lone Ranger (Redux)

 
Tonto and the Lone Ranger were riding across the prairie. Suddenly, Tonto dismounts his horse and puts his ear to the ground.
He looks at the Lone Ranger and says, “Buffalo come.”
“Wow, that’s amazing! How did you figure that out?”
“Face sticky.”
 

The Lone Ranger (2013) (Redux)

So, whilst my first Scenes of the Year list was well received (thanks, by the way), it raised a few eyebrows. Biggest brow lifter was my inclusion of the universally loathed Lone Ranger alongside more “legitimate” picks like Gravity and Django Unchained. The Lone Ranger was one of 2013’s highest profile flops with reported losses being around the $190 million mark. Fingers have been pointed and various elements blamed. The production history is fascinating though. It went way over budget (apparently due to goddamn werewolves not making that up), was cancelled thanks to Cowboys & Aliens stinking up the box office, only to be resurrected and bomb regardless. Anyway, like the disgusting narcissist that I am, I was re-reading my original review of it and found it to be lacking. I basically used the film as an example of the bloated corporate side of filmmaking that spawned it rather than focusing on the film itself. So, against better judgement, I went out, got myself a copy and rewatched it for the purposes of a more in-depth redux review. Guess what? My opinion has changed somewhat.

“Horse says you are spirit walker: a man who has been to the other side and returned.”

The Lone Ranger starts with a framing device of an old Tonto (Johnny Depp) telling a small boy about his adventures back in the day. We flashback and see the idealistic lawyer John Reid (Armie Hammer) arriving at the small town of Colby, Texas to visit his Sheriff brother Dan (James Badge Dale) and his wife, Rebecca (Ruth Wilson). To celebrate the new railroad connecting towns like Colby to the rest of the United States and beyond, Mayor Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson) brings in notorious cannibalistic outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) to publicly hang him in the town square. Old West tits go up when Cavendish escapes, leaving Tonto and Reid to become unlikely allies and uncover a plot that involves much more than a simple heart-eating psychopath. As I’ve said before, the performances are all decent. Depp’s insistence on playing Tonto as another wacky-as-fuck character is a bit out there, but I think he’s pretty amusing. The film has plenty of actual Native Americans in the wings, so the decision for Depp to go redface is baffling. Still, John Carter proved that not having a big name in your film knackers you straight out of the gate, so it’s understandable, if not exactly politically correct. I think Armie Hammer does a great job too. He’s shackled by the Tonto focused script, but he manages to really sell both sides of Reid.

In my original review, I stated that the film’s cynicism was one of the main things that turned me off about it. That’s still true to a certain extent, but I think it runs deeper than that. The film has little to no love for the source material. I’m nothing approaching a Lone Ranger fan. The radio plays, the TV show and subsequent films were all way before my time and I never saw the Filmation cartoon growing up. I knew just about as much as the standard pop culture osmosis grants, including the little joke at the top of all this. All the famous Lone Ranger hallmarks that I, a Ranger pleb, would expect are in the film but they feel token and concessionary. It’s almost like it’s too cool for school and wants to distance itself from its origins. In fact, this rewatch reminded me of the similarly afflicted Star Trek Into Darkness, which had a script made up of famous “bits” and not much else. The story they went with is not a good Lone Ranger tale, it’s a dark western inexpertly made to fit the property. It certainly doesn’t feel organic. Another film it reminded me of was the apparently ubiquitous Batman Begins. You may scoff at this, but when you take into account the fact that the basic story is a young man returning to his home town to find it full of criminals and corruption and adopting a masked, vigilante persona to take the fight to them, it may not seem that ridiculous. Add in the overall dark tone, the casting of Bat-actors Tom Wilkinson and William Fichtner, along with canned Batman Armie Hammer in the lead role. It even has a train finale that could have very easily contained the line “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you”. One could argue that these are basic story points and coincidences, but I don’t know. Begins has been the cheat sheet that a metric fuckton of films have worked from for about ten years now, to the point where I refuse to believe that any kind of hero origin story hasn’t had Nolan’s name chucked about at least once during scripting. Cynicism does hang over the whole production, so it probably a case of “what’s popular right now and how can we fit it to this?” rather than “how do we make people care about the Lone Ranger again?” My guess is they just had “Pirates of the Caribbean (x Depp) + Batman Begins + HORSE (LOL) + ???? = $$$$$$$” written on the first draft of the script.

Without all the Ranger dressing, the basic story is actually pretty decent. It’s not the whitewashed classic Western “cowboys r awesome” yarn we’re used to seeing. It definitely takes a revisionist view of things. Nobody’s a hero and violence reigns supreme. It’s a more realistic take on how the Old West actually was, rather than how it’s been portrayed for decades. In an odd direction for a PG-13 crowd pleaser, the film plumbs the darker depths often. Examples? Well, in one scene, Reid fires a lucky shot. After bouncing off things in a comedic manner, including Tonto’s “I am Crow” headgear, it hits a suspended plank and takes out two villains. Standard stuff, but respectable enough. However, we then see that instead of just knocking them out or non-specifically killing them, the wood CRUSHED THEIR FUCKING HEADS. I ain’t squeamish, but fucking ow! If a similar scene appeared in Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (great flick, by the way), I’d have laughed my little socks off. Here it just jars. There’s a grisly sequence where a Comanche army get mowed down by superior American firepower. There’s also a Tonto flashback later on that’s pretty grim viewing too. Thing is, these scenes would be effective if the film wasn’t trying to have its cake and eat it too. You can’t have Tonto and Ranger larks coupled with a grisly, post-modern take on how the West was actually won. It just doesn’t gel. There are some decent, challenging ideas here, especially considering the blockbuster forum. They just appear in the wrong film.

With all this we come back to the film’s other major problem of tone. The Pirates films had some dark stuff along with the swashbuckling adventure, but it was handled with a lot more care. Pirate stories usually have more than a few elements of the macabre about them anyway. Having scenes of realistic-feeling mass murder appearing in the same film as japes with Silver and a completely left-field decision to have CGI carnivorous rabbits creates a very odd final product. The script is a mess, but it’s a fascinating one. It’s a multi-car pile up, but the vehicles involved are brightly painted and make cartoon sound effects when compressed. Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio show no signs of returning to their golden age when their scripting was sharp and witty. From the looks of it,  the third writer Justin Haythe may be the one responsible for grounding the film, steering the script away from some bonkers direction a pair of writers high off their own farts were intent on going. It still feels like a continuation of the duo’s work on the Pirates films, however,  albeit with characters that you’re not utterly fucking sick of. Outside of the fun Tonto/Ranger interplay, there are some real clunky lines of dialogue and a distinct lack of subtlety when it comes to exposition. Had I not observed their decline, I wouldn’t have even dreamt that the writers responsible for Curse of the Black Pearl could have written something as hacktastic as some of this.

This may shock readers and past lovers of mine, but I’m not a machine. I’m a squishy human being who doesn’t work in binary. I very rarely purely hate or love something. My opinions change and evolve as I do. Despite all the nitpicking and grievances above, I’ve come to the realisation that I actually like The Lone Ranger, quite a bit. There is a lot of good in there striving to escape. The Tonto/Ranger bits are fun, the action sequences well executed and memorable (especially the finale) and some of the ideas are great. Yeah, it’s bloated and overlong but unlike something like Desolation of Smaug it still has a strong focus on the main story. Yeah, Helena Bonham Carter’s character is completely pointless and adds fuck all to the story, but she adds some colour to proceedings and has a fun ivory gun leg (that may be my favourite sentence that I’ve ever written). Gore Verbinski is a fantastic director and gets to fill the lens with iconic Western scenes and vistas that are just as impressive as they always have been. He knows how to shoot action properly (still a rarity) and keeps things feeling pacy, even if the film is taking its sweet time to tell a relatively simple story. It’s all too weird and surreal to be completely dismissed. It’s a strange potluck type of film.

“It was a ranger, Butch! A lone ranger!”

I get the feeling that The Lone Ranger may be looked on as “misunderstood” rather than simply terrible in a few years. Let’s not go mental, it’s never going to be a hailed as a classic or anything, but I think people were a little too harsh to judge it (myself included) and it may just find an audience yet. It’s not the mass-made production line sludge that I initially took it for. It’s a hell of a lot more interesting than that. Hollywood doesn’t usually make this sort of film and that could have been one of the reasons it failed. The Lone Ranger is the sort of film that I’ll admit to liking just to see monocles drop at fancy parties. Whereas there’s nothing of any real substance to discuss with hated Hollywood dreck like the Transformers sequels, The Lone Ranger provokes discussion. Even when it’s bad, it’s interestingly bad. That’s why it’s not only getting a decent three star rating but the caveat that it’s a good three stars as well, even edging on four. Haters to the east because I’m all about the west.

Frozen

 
Deep & slick & even
 

Frozen (2013)

Kids’ films, be they good or bad, are interesting in their own right. I’m always up for finding out the overall message and themes they’re trying to bring to the younglings. The very reason for kids’ films existing is to teach children big, adult concepts in a safe, entertaining and consequence-free way. Think of all the childrens’ films that feature death, loss and despair. It’s a hell of a lot isn’t it? That’s why I normally toddle off to the nearest cinema to check out these films. They’re uniquely fascinating. Having said all that, Frozen didn’t interest me in the slightest, with its eye-rolling trailer that focused on an annoying talking snowman, unfunny slapstick and whimsy out the arse. However, I then heard the positive word of mouth and decided to see for myself. I was already constructing the review in my head in case it did turn out to be great, intent on decrying the trailer for completely underselling the film. Turns out EVERY goddamn reviewer had the same idea and ran with the “Hey, it’s not so bad, guys!” angle. Here’s the important part though – turns out we were all being played like an orchestra of particularly gormless violins as this Forbes article argues. Well, damn.

“The snow glows white on the mountain tonight/
Not a footprint to be seen/
A kingdom of isolation and it looks like I’m the queen.”


Frozen
follows two princess sisters, Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel). Through some quirk of fate, Elsa was born with the power to control and create ice and snow, an ability that is seen as more of a curse than a blessing. After she accidentally hurts her sister, she locks herself away from the world and Anna, who is cured at the cost of having her memory of Elsa’s powers wiped. Anna and Elsa’s parents (the last two people aware of what Elsa can do) die at sea, the pair grow up and Elsa has to face becoming Queen of Arendelle. During the coronation celebrations Elsa’s powers get the better of her and she flees, opting for a life of isolation rather than one of persecution and fear. During her very public display of her powers, she unwittingly sends Arendelle into a permanent winter and strands all the citizens and visiting dignitaries inside the snowy kingdom. Anna sets off to find Elsa with the help of Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer Sven and the trailer-ruining Olaf (Josh Gad), a snowman accidentally brought to life by Elsa’s magic. The voice cast are all great, with a special mention going to Idina Menzel as Elsa who gave me actual goosebumps as she belted out some of the film’s best songs. Kristen Bell also gives a likable naive and classical Disney princess turn as Anna.

One of the signs of a bad review is someone who just regurgitates the plot with no real attempt at analysis or critique, so I usually try and keep the plot summaries brief. Thing is, I feel that Frozen needs that long intro above as it not only gives you some needed context, but it gives you an idea of the sheer volume of things it’s bringing to the table. Whilst it meanders a bit at times, the basic story is solid. It’s practically a parody of the classic Disney tale of a princess meeting her Prince Charming. I’ve read stinging criticisms of Disney’s portrayal of love and empty promises of a “happily ever after” for everyone. Frozen seems to be a response to that. It’s the Scream of Disney films i.e.  it takes a sideways look at established conventions and reinvigorates the genre at the same time. In a similar vein to Pixar’s Brave which had a mother/daughter relationship at the heart of things, Frozen is all about the sister/sister dynamic. It’s a hell of a lot more relatable than finding “the one” and as such manages to tug at the heartstrings more effectively.

Most of my fears brought on by the trailer were unfounded. I even started to like Olaf, a snowman who dreams of summer and hot weather, unaware of what happens to frozen water in heat. He’s still a goofy, kiddie-centric character, but this film is for them after all. The two princesses angle is handled very well and nowhere near as twee and retch-inducing as I thought it would be. They’re presented as actual people, rather than statuses and it’s goddamn refreshing. You just get where they’re coming from. You feel for the innocent Anna who, to her mind at least, has been shut out by her sister for no apparent reason. You feel for Elsa too, having the heft of responsibility weighing her down as well as a tremendous fear of her abilites. She’s half Rogue from X-Men and half Carrie from er…Carrie.

Frozen is a deliberate return to the spirit of Disney’s run of great films in the ’90s, complete with Broadway style musical numbers. Nothing’s worse than a crappy kids’ film that forces you to listen to some terrible dross written by a hack musician on their fag break. Thankfully, Frozen has some true belters. They’re not all instant classics – the troll song “Fixer Upper” in particular felt like it belonged in a different, shittier film. However, when they hit- they hit big. Elsa’s number “Let it Go” is truly fantastic, Menzel’s voice coupled with the gorgeous animation gave me actual chills- not the fake kind that most reviewers got to merely service a groaner pun. Every time Disney comes out with a decent film, people trip over themselves and start sputtering about a “Disney renaissance” and the House of Mouse being back to its best. Thing is, if they keep this up and continue marrying great songs with messages deeper than “love is nice”, I think these knee-jerks might be on to something.

“Hi, I’m Olaf and I like warm hugs!”

The film has its flaws, don’t get me wrong, but on reflection they don’t seem to matter as much. Frozen is exactly what it needs to be. It’s a smart, funny film suitable for all ages and contains songs destined to feature in lists of “Best Disney Songs Evarrr!”.Getting back to that overall message and the point of kids’ films I rambled about in the first paragraph. I think Frozen should be commended for having an overall message that won’t leave the little girls and boys watching it with a head full of sugar-coated nonsense about romance and entitlement. It’s got a realistic, down-to-earth message to it and a more relatable take on love in general. It’s simply a great film. Recommended.

The Rocketeer

 
I’m not the man they think I am at home…
 
 

 The Rocketeer (1991)

I’m back, baby! Expect regular burblings from now on. Anyway, do any of you people remember Disney’s The Rocketeer? For me, it became a childhood classic. I’d taped it off the TV and watched the damn thing to the point of knackeration. After seeing it pop up as a limited release on Blu-ray, I jumped at the chance having not seen the film for close to 20 years, eager to see if it still holds up. You know what? It’s still bloody brilliant.

“[donning the Rocketeer helmet] How do I look?”

“Like a hood ornament.”

Set in 1938, The Rocketeer tells the story of stunt pilot Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell). After having their hopes of glory and fortune shattered, Secord and his mentor “Peevy” (Alan Arkin) find a top secret rocket pack prototype by chance and discover it’s been designed and built by Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn). Seeing an opportunity to make some much needed money, they hang on to it, keeping it a secret from everybody, including Secord’s actress girlfriend Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly). The pair aren’t the only ones interested in taking to the skies, however, as Hollywood A-Lister Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton) has hired the mob to retrieve the rocket for himself. Meanwhile, Secord’s antics earn him the attention of the press, who start printing fevered acticles about this new, exciting and mysterious Rocketeer and it soon becomes the talk of the town. Cue lots of whizz bang action an’ shit.

In a move that John Carter would repeat 20 years later and pay a similar price for, The Rocketeer was controversial for not having a “proper” star in the lead role. Actor Billy Campbell was cast despite being an unknown. As a kid, I never understood why Campbell wasn’t the most famous actor ever. He was a good looking guy with the reluctant hero thing down pat. Looking on with adult eyes, his performance is still a fine one, although he looks distractingly like a mix between Crispin Glover in Back to the Future and Ryan Reynolds. Alan Arkin does well as Peevy, giving us a stock mentor character that crucially doesn’t feel like a stock mentor character. The lovely Jennifer Connelly lovelies stuff up as Jenny Blake. Despite her character veering into standard damsel-in-distress territory at the end, she gives a memorable turn. Star of the show for me is Timothy Dalton as the Errol Flynn-a-like, Neville Sinclair. I love him in this film.  Whereas most actors would look at the script and play the role a bit tongue in cheek, Dalton commits to the role 100% and gives us a proper sleazy bastard to boo and hiss at.

The Rocketeer is a simple story, but it’s done very well. If you’re still struggling to picture what exactly The Rocketeer is all about, think Iron Man set in the Thirties with the pulp adventure tone of Raiders of the Lost Ark thrown in. It’s exactly as fun as that all sounds too. I’m happy to own up to my own bias as me and this film got history, yo. However, I feel The Rocketeer is exactly the sort of blockbuster they just don’t make any more. It has a very strong story focus with careful attention paid to characters. The film is chock full of foreshadowing, thematic links and everything else that makes a film a satisfying watch. Back in the ’90s, it may have been overlooked as simply being a run-of-the-mill functional blockbuster- today it looks like Citizen Goddamn Kane in comparison to most of the high budget dreck spunked into theatres.

The Rocketeer is a fascinating case study as if it had released about 10 years later, it would have fallen in line with the superhero trend and would have done a lot better than it ended up doing. When it came out back in the dizzle, it flopped pretty damn hard, despite a huge marketing push. It did particularly terribly in Britain, barely scraping £1 million over two weeks. Despite mentioning Iron Man, there’s a superhero film that resembles The Rocketeer even more. You heard of a small film called Captain Titfuckin’ America? Yeah. Both are directed by Joe Johnston and both have that lovely period feel to them. One of the things I loved about Captain America was how earnest everything was. Everything’s played straight down the line without a trace of the sort of cynicism and audience second-guessing that poisons modern blockbusters. The same is true with The Rocketeer. It’s a classic Boys’ Own adventure flick.

Despite ILM’s effects work being dated, the action still packs a punch. The flying scenes are fun and the grand finale aboard, in and outside of a huge Zeppelin is brilliant. I like the fact that Secord isn’t a superpowered badass when he straps on the rocket, he’s a squishy, easily hurt human being like the rest of us with an unpredictable combustible machine strapped to his back. It adds a real element of peril to the action sequences. The film’s slightly goofy at times and the lumbering character of Lothar (“Tiny” Ron Taylor) doesn’t really work. It’s a strange cartoony element that is at odds with the rest of the film. Maybe the comic does a better job.

“Prepare yourself for a shock: I’m the Rocketeer.”

“The Rocke-who?”

“Oh, for crying out loud, haven’t you read the paper?!”

“No, I’ve been working all day.”

We don’t have any quality control as kids. We’ll enjoy any old shit when it’s on. A childhood classic that is still enjoyable and watchable years later once you’ve had all your childish innocence and enthusiasm knocked out of you by a harsh, uncaring world is a very rare thing indeed. There’s been talk of a remake/belated sequel to The Rocketeer for a few years now. I’m usually against remakes on principle, but I’d be delighted if Disney announced they were doing something with it. Anyway, seek it out if you can. It’s a blast. (That’s not a rocket pun by the way, I’ve just used up all my brain power and it’s the only word I can think of that aptly describes what it is. I’m doing this extended bit in brackets because I couldn’t just end a review on something that could be interpreted as a shitty pun. Savvy?)

Wreck-It Ralph

I’m starting to get worried. 2013 is starting to treat me too well. All the films I’ve seen at the cinema this year have been great. Now, granted I haven’t seen Movie 43 or the latest Die Hard yet, but all the films I choose to watch in the company of a couple of dozen other mouthbreathers have been of high quality.  I’m wary of the streak building. It’s bound to come crashing down at some point. Luckily, Ralph doesn’t wreck it.

Wreck-It Ralph (2013)

Those of you with fully-functional eyes might notice that the release date above this very sentence is a lot earlier than the UK release date of February 8th. For some arbitrary reason, both Wreck-It Ralph and Cloud Atlas were out in the U.S. months before they finally crawled over here. There’s probably some infuriating financial reason or bullshit market research behind all this, but to me it’s just another instance of the U.K. getting screwed. We pay more for our tickets than the U.S. does on average, yet we get films incredibly late and sometimes even get them delivered to us all chopped up to fuck.  Still, that’s a gripe and nothing really to do with the film. It’s another example of me loving the product but hating the business behind it.

“I’m bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be then me.”

Wreck-It Ralph is basically a gaming version of Toy Story. After their arcade is closed for the night, the characters from various games come to life. Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) is the villain of Fix-It Felix Jr, a classic arcade title, who is sick of being maligned and underappreciated whilst the eponymous Felix (Jack McBrayer) gets rewarded and adored. Ralph leaves his game in search of a medal of his own and ends up “game-jumping” through various game worlds including the violent first person shooter Hero’s Duty, where he meets the tough-as-nails Calhoun (Jane Lynch) and the saccharine racing game Sugar Rush, where he encounters annoying pipsqueak Vanellope (Sarah Silverman). As soon as I saw the trailer for this film, I knew it’d be for me. Having been a gamer for a long time, the whole concept of a video game twist on the Toy Story conceit, with Ralph encountering some real game characters like Pac-Man and Sonic the Hedgehog excited me. I was preparing myself for a shallow, but enjoyable 90 minute fluff piece containing in-jokes and kiddie humour. Whilst both those elements are present, what blindsided me about Wreck-It Ralph was how much heart it has. The film manages to tug at the heartstrings without being mawkish or hackneyed. As with all animated features, the voice acting is flawless. Reilly makes a fantastic lead and people like McBrayer, Silverman and Lynch consistently bring the funny. Especially Lynch, who gets to spit out some amazing military one-liners. She’s like a family friendly version of R. Lee Ermey from Full Metal Jacket. I loved Alan Tudyk’s King Candy as well. He nearly steals the show.

Despite it being a pure Disney production without any input from everyone’s favourite animation studio, Wreck-It Ralph takes its cue from Pixar and it shows. The film doesn’t get hung up on the superficial stuff and concentrates on the characters. Ralph is completely relatable. He’s an outsider who just wants a little recognition. You can’t help but feel sorry for him when Felix gets to go into a penthouse full of people congratulating him on a good day of fixing, whereas Ralph sleeps in a dump with bricks as his duvet. It’d have been so easy to turn Felix into a massive douche, but the film resists that and actually makes him a compelling character too. You can ape and imitate the way Pixar goes about approaching a story and characters, but at the end of the day, you can’t fake heart, something which most of the entries in Pixar’s library have in abundance. Wreck-It Ralph has plenty of heart to spare and manages to really be touching at times.

I’m going to stick with the Pixar thing for a bit . Apart from the obvious Toy Story parallels, I was reminded of The Incredibles, where an obvious love of comics and the superhero genre permeated every aspect of the film. In much the same way, Wreck-It Ralph has gaming in its veins. It’s very hard to fake this passion and enthusiasm for the medium. Sure, it could be said that Wreck-It Ralph is a video game company’s wet dream from a marketing standpoint as for the right amount of dollar, the latest Disney characters can be sharing the screen with characters like Zangief from the Street Fighter series or Bowser from the Super Mario games. I’d like to think it’s not quite as cynical as all that. All the little nods to games I grew up with just added an extra layer of brilliance on top of an already solid story with compelling characters and an overall decent moral. A love or understanding of games isn’t necessary to full appreciate Wreck-It Ralph as it works perfectly well without all the intertextuality. Having spent over half my life feeding unforgiving machines endless 50 p coins, I loved the extra layer of gaming stuff. I practically squealed with delight at a bit where Ralph goes through a Lost and Found box and pulls out all manner of game hallmarks.

I felt that the film didn’t quite take full advantage of the world it created. We’re stuck in Sugar Rush for a long time and once you’ve heard a couple of sweet puns, you’ve heard them all (having said that, a famous biscuit take on the classic Wizard of Oz guard chant had me chuckling). I would have liked to have seen Ralph visit a few more game worlds, but would much rather have the level of characterisation on display here in lieu of a few more gaming nods and a forced and hurried dynamic between Ralph and Vanellope.

“Doomsday and Armageddon just had a baby and it… is… ugly!”

So, as you may have guessed, I loved Wreck-It Ralph. It’s bright, colourful and really enjoyable. To me, Disney out Pixared Pixar with this one, especially considering Pixar’s last effort was the deeply flawed Brave. When even the credits are entertaining, you know something’s gone right. Catch it if you can.