Monday, October 10, 2016

"The Magic of Disney Animation" Retrospective - #44-46: Bear, Range, Chicken Little.

With computer animation quickly on the rise, and audience turnout waning in the 2000's, the answer that Disney saw as obvious at the time was this; the art of hand-drawn animation was now passe, and viewers wanted something else. In hindsight, this simply isn't true, as the answers lie less with that and more with Disney's out of touch marketing campaigns and inconsistent ability to greenlight good projects, with Lilo & Stitch being the only fluke among that contemporary lineup. But in the Michael Eisner held belief of "fast and cheap", story clearly was less important to what was hip at the time, and so with only a few hand-drawn films yet to be released, the company announced that all future animated features were to be made by computer.

This was a decision that obviously, justifiably infuriated multiple parties. Party A - The casual moviegoing audience that had every right to feel insulted by these superficially motivated money-leeching tactics, and to whom the company was proving unable to appeal to. Party B - The numerous animators who had been cornerstones within the company for decades, now being evicted from their desks and paintbrushes like garbage, as if their hard work and high standard of quality meant nothing. And Party C - Disney's own cousins at Pixar had not taken kindly to the dubiousness of these executive decisions. With their contract expiration date slowly approaching, this made the relationship between the two feel very testy and heated, certainly not helped by Eisner's arrogance and carelessness as CEO, as well as the outrageous and controversial announcement that Pixar's original IP's were now going to see direct to video sequels under a new branch called Circle 7. These were the type of business practices that proved Disney to no longer be the once proud innovators they once were, but was now instead a toxic and cynical workplace. Ironically enough, even when getting in with what was hip by making their first computer animated effort, that did nothing to improve their terrible marketing and lackluster storytelling of the time, here in the age of Disney's official transition...

Brother Bear:
As one of the last hurrahs for Disney's hand-drawn animation branch, I can certainly see why many thought of this as a great note to go out on. Having previously helmed The Lion King and other great features with traditionally animal casts, Brother Bear looked to be another fun and heartwarming romp, another adventure blending coming of age storytelling with graceful shifts to humor. At least, one hoped the film would be great, only mildly succeeding in its original intentions, and becoming one of the more forgettable Disney entries. Not terrible or merit-less by any means, but just thoroughly adequate and unremarkable.

Brother Bear lacks the same usual depth of the studio's storytelling abilities, covering similar ground previously explored in movies such as The Lion King and Pocahontas, and only barely able to differentiate itself. Much of the movie is based around perspective, and the notion of man vs animal, and which of the two are the real monster. Even extending into the animation style, the animals are built realistically and silent when seeing our main character in human form, but becoming more caricatured and sapient once in bear form, with his own species suddenly becoming more the real monster. It's an interesting little tactic in storytelling, with the best example coming in an effective (but totally obvious) late twist, but unfortunately the idea only goes so deep, and feels glossed over outside of a few quick touches.

Aforementioned characters are entertaining, but hardly leave much of a real impact on any deeper level, with young Koda sometimes proving much too energetic, and the highly marketed moose comic relief Rutt and Tuke being mildly humorous, but completely pointless to the overall film. The animation is once again very good, but compared to the likes of The Lion King and Lady and the Tramp, it's not groundbreaking by any means. Which brings us to the music, and as much as I was willing to stand up for Phil Collins with Tarzan, aside from the Inuit chant during the transformation, I can't easily turn a blind eye to the soundtrack of Brother Bear, which highlights the worst and the blandest of Phil Collins' abilities as a musician.

At best, it's a momentary and undemanding diversion, holding your attention while watching it, but lacking any staying power or memorability to make it a great film. However, as forgettable as it is, it is Beauty and the Beast when compared to the true end of Disney's hand-drawn age.

*** / *****

Home on the Range:
Why? This is the only word I can think of following Home on the Range. In fact, despite the word's brevity and seeming lack of context, it actually takes shape for multiple fitting questions. Why would Disney think this was sufficient? Why did anyone think this was a good idea? Why would this be the hill that their hand-drawn animation staff are now dying upon? Forever ingrained in cinematic history as Disney's - at the time - final traditionally animated film, they left the medium not so much with a bang, but with a whimpering, ailing confirmation that they were but a shadow of the prime innovators they were in the age of Walt and the Renaissance.

After a haphazard, but breezy opening several minutes, the moment that Roseanne Barr's Maggie steps foot on the Patch of Heaven farm, everything goes wrong. Home on the Range is best described exactly how it appears; obnoxious and hasty kiddie fare. The film is riddled with cheap gag after cheap gag, feeling like it was meant to be appealing strictly to young kids in the audience, with no thought gone into how best to balance it out to hit the adults just as well. Worse yet, crude and grating gags like the ones here feel like they've been placed here to deliberately stretch out the running time, and when your movie is only 76 minutes, there shouldn't be any padding whatsoever. There's hardly a moment of actual silence in Home on the Range, littered with constant noise and refusal to take a breath, and because of the movie's rushed pacing, it also leaves all the characters completely underdeveloped or undefined beyond single character traits, which is especially sinful for how the film later attempts to tug at the heartstrings of the viewer, yet the film has simply not earned the right to suddenly thrust this upon us.

But what they may lack in depth, they make up for in annoyance. Through most of Disney's library of films, their voice over work behind the microphone has always felt invisible and perfectly matched with the characters, yet when the characters themselves are grating, this unfortunately brings out the most annoying sides of their actors as well, such as Roseanne's monotone and sardonic Maggie, and Cuba Gooding Jr. going into sugar-rush hyperactivity as Buck. But the characters who get the brunt of the writing are the villains, with Randy Quaid's Alameda Slim being an absolutely unterrifying, unconvincing, and worst of all unfunny, pathetic excuse for a villain, both in menace and in laughter, cementing him as the worst of Disney's villain roster. But apparently he is so terrifying (not really) that he needs three bumbling sidekicks to offset his intimidation. That's before even getting into a black market baron voiced by Steve Buscemi, who shows up in the film's final twenty minutes merely to help set up the climax, and who I can only imagine is meant to be Nucky Thompson after his fallout as Atlantic County's Treasurer.

Creativity has simply not graced this film in any sense, and this even extends into the craft of the film. Even the animation, usually a highlight of Disney films, feels overly simplistic and overly cutesy in execution, showcasing more dated usage of CAPS, and looking only a notch above the work from the company's own Disney Toons branch as well. But what Disney movie would be complete without great music... if only there were any in Home on the Range. I've said before that Hercules was where Alan Menken hit creative burnout, yet this movie strikes me more as creative bankruptcy. Menken's general scoring is tolerable, if not spectacular, but you can tell that his new lyricist, Glenn Slater, must've been struggling to fill the shoes of Howard Ashman and Stephen Schwartz before him. The lyrics are where the songs truly stumble, striking one as generic and slapped together without real wit, and even when hitting a song's mood right on the head with standout "Will the Sun Ever Shine Again" (apparently written as an emotional response to 9/11), it feels unearned in the context of this flat storyline. But out of all of them, Alameda Slim's "Yodel-Adle-Eedle-Idle-Oo" (I feel dumber having transcribed this) might very well be the career nadir of not just Menken, but Disney Animation Studios as well for its absurd and ridiculous presentation.

Home on the Range is simply the end of an era, the film where Disney finally showed that they'd lost their touch, and the film that killed the hand-drawn format that they themselves had been pioneers of. But it's not even the fact that the film did this that makes me mad, it's the fact that Disney didn't even try. So convinced were they that computer animation was the death of their old ways of life, that they never stopped to consider that had their stories actually been great in the first place, those same audiences would have been happy to keep revisiting their hand-drawn efforts. Lilo & Stitch alone was testament to this fact, the one time in that fatal stretch where all the stars aligned and the company reminded viewers why they were the best in the business, but with Home on the Range, it's almost as if they intentionally tried to fail as a means to justify their switch to computers, all the while not learning any lessons as to why they actually failed to begin with. Thankfully Disney would return to traditional animation five years later, but this was a sad, sad end to an era that left viewers in a sour note for years.

*1/2 / *****

Chicken Little:
With their hand-drawn branch being phased out, and with Pixar's contract soon to expire, the only logical next step for Disney to take was to enter the realm of computer animation. Thinking that audiences were cynically over traditional animation, and CG was the way of the future, they must have been convinced their first foray into the medium was a guaranteed recipe for success. A chance to get with what was hip, what was now, what was kewl... and yet they still ended up shooting themselves in the foot, proving that no fancy tools will overcome lackluster stories or shoddy marketing. It's actually astonishing that Mark Dindal, director of the hilarious The Emperor's New Groove, directed five years later what is one of the most ill-conceived mainstream animated features ever released.

Throughout the entirety of Chicken Little, it's clear that the filmmakers really want this to be a Dreamworks movie, going for all of their rival company's same sarcastic and pop culture infused humor, and their wildly erratic presentations and visual styles. Even disregarding the obvious copycatting, the mood and the humor of the film goes beyond sarcasm, to the point of aggressive cynicism. Throughout the entire film, Chicken Little is built up to receive an almost traumatizing level of discontent and cruelty from his own city-folk, so relishing to punish the little guy for one simple (admittedly highly misjudged) mistake, and never letting up in the torment on him. In fact, it's almost as if the film unintentionally enjoys seeing the guy put through all the unfortunate embarrassment and scorn, rarely ever letting up unless it's to do something that fuels the cynical ego of the townspeople, best summarized by Harry Shearer's Kent Brockman-voiced announcer with his musings about baseball being about the gloating and "'we beat you' taunting".

It's bad enough to see all of this scarring attention be thrust onto the little guy from neighbors (before they all of a sudden decide they actually like him), but it's even worse in the case of his own father, seemingly wanting nothing to do with Chicken Little after the incident, desperate to save face for himself, and trying to squander his son's own dreams and ambitions by telling him to play it safe and lay low. It actually leaves similar feelings to the montage from Treasure Planet when Jim's father spontaneously leaves, except the intention here is not the same, as the film is then cheap enough to try and milk unearned sympathy from the situation. That said, while it is harsh to see Chicken Little be subject to all of this, an even greater weakness is that the film doesn't exactly give us much to root for in the character, barely establishing a fully-dimensional personality, and making the film feel emotionally empty. Other characters are defined merely by single traits and awful recurring gags, and all of the players are a sad waste of the talented comedians assembled, including the likes of Zach Braff, Joan Cusack, Steve Zahn, and the late Garry Marshall. Meanwhile, Don Knotts, Fred Willard, and Patrick Stewart are all roped in for totally unremarkable cameos.

Presentation-wise, the film makes absolutely no sense. Starting out as what seems to be a simple comedy based around our main hero's path to redemption and forgiveness, when the film jarringly and without warning turns into an alien invasion action flick in the second half, everything takes a turn for the worst, and scissor slices and input from numerous chefs rear their ugly head. Even for the jokes, something which Dindal excelled at with The Emperor's New Groove, the gags are consistently dead on arrival. The film is littered with rapid-fire sight gags and verbal gags, oftentimes with little regard for how well they flow or grate on the viewers, and just makes the film feel like a schizophrenic collection of whatever storyboard they liked on any given day. But worse yet are the numerous pop culture references that open countless cans of worms, as the film mistakes merely referencing something for being funny, and the nods to countless pop song hits, as well as references to films the likes of Star Wars, Signs, and King Kong come flying at the viewer relentlessly. Oddly enough, since this also takes place in a world populated by anthropomorphic animals with no humans to be found, what sense does it make for animals to be watching live-action footage of Raiders of the Lost Ark? Did the filmmakers even take details like this into consideration? Was there any real thought process that went into these gags, or what sense - if any - they would make in context?

And that's just what Chicken Little is lacking; Context. The film is absolutely unruly from beginning to end, an infuriatingly artificial and bitter effort from a once great studio, and one where even their fancy new animation skills look unpolished and behind the times. One should be thankful that John Lasseter eventually took charge and set the company on the right track again, because had they continued down this route, I've no doubt they would have run themselves into oblivion once and for all. Disney tried to steal Dreamworks' spotlight by trying to make this their Shrek, but what they made instead was their Shark Tale.

* / *****

And so concludes this edition of my retrospective. Join me back on October 20th, when we'll explore the last of Disney's Transitional Era with Meet the Robinsons, Bolt, and a special inclusion just for you readers in the UK and Sweden...

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