Thursday, October 20, 2016

"The Magic of Disney Animation" Retrospective - #46.5-48: Wild, Robinsons, Bolt.

Part 2 of my October reviews.

The Wild:
I know I'm going to get some raised eyebrows for this one, as Disney themselves doesn't actually acknowledge the film as part of their Disney Classics banner, instead being produced by Canadian based studio C.O.R.E. Believe me, it's the last kind of movie I wanted to subject myself to. However, while it isn't included in Disney's list of official films in the US and numerous other countries, in the UK and Sweden, the film is included among those ranks in the place of Dinosaur. Curse you, technicalities, for making me have to endure the official - or unofficial - worst movie that Disney's storied animation history has ever given us.

Coming out only ten months after Dreamworks' Madagascar, it isn't hard to see exactly why critics and audiences weren't enthusiastic about the film, despite the fact that the copycatting is the least of the film's worries. But while we're on the topic, yes, that comparison is incredibly distracting throughout, down to how they even attempt to recreate plot points and scenarios from their rival film shamelessly. The filmmakers have tried to get around this by claiming that the film had been in development and production since the mid-90's, yet I don't believe that for a second. Forgetting the obvious superficial elements like the animal ensemble cast that features a lion and a giraffe, it's quite coincidental in how it carries over the set up of several animal friends banding together to bring another one back to their New York zoo, before ending up traveling across the ocean and ending up in the jungle themselves, meeting strange and cartoonish creatures along the way, all the while trying to stay one step ahead of the vicious creatures trying to eat them - as represented by the Fossa in Madagascar, and a cult of Wildebeests here. It simply feels like another attempt to one-up Dreamworks by cashing in on their cartoonish, more sarcastic fare, yet misfires in all but a very rare few moments of genuine tickles.

But even without adding insult to injury due to the close proximity, the true death knell for The Wild is the simple fact that its story, characters, and central conflicts are painfully generic and uninspired. With most of the jokes in the film being based around dialogue, The Wild for a good chunk of its running time becomes something of a talking heads movie. However, when your film is this dependent on dialogue to tell the story or tell jokes, it falls apart when the actual interplay and lines feel obnoxious and unnatural, especially when this is meant to be the main carrying point for the characters. Like Madagascar, The Wild depends on the chemistry of its cast in order to carry the film, but unlike Madagascar's rapid-fire and improv heavy back and forths, that same level of camaraderie isn't present in the main five. Despite the film constantly reminding us that these characters are all good friends, rarely does it ever actually appear that way, instead looking like five animals banding together just because.

Unlike previous animated Disney movies, where voice over and character movement melded together seamlessly, The Wild's chosen cast of voice-over actors always feel incredibly self-aware and flat, with future Big Boss himself Kiefer Sutherland proving especially unnatural behind the microphone. At least William Shatner seems to be having fun as the villainous, cult leading Kazar (who takes until the last third of the movie to finally show up), but the subplot of these wildebeests who desire to eat a lion to rise to the top of the food chain pushes even the most absurd lengths of this movie to ridiculous extremes. In general, the humor of the movie feels largely misplayed, falling back on one-note, one-scene appearances from numerous comical characters, from an inexplicably Indian-accented pigeon, to a group of secret agent chameleons. The film wants to embrace a very surreal and zany nature, but is so caught up with dull conversations and boring characters (as well as intrusive and out of place pop songs) that it never feels free to go all the way, even appearing so desperate for a laugh that they have to lace in poop jokes and characters getting hit between the legs to appease the lowest common denominator. Oh, and they also rope Eric Idle into writing a song for the movie... For whatever reason.

Maybe it appears cynical of me to be so harsh against the film, but the sad fact is that even at its most basic fundamental requirements, The Wild is simply a failure of a film. It has little value or worth to watching it outside of completionist's sake, cluttered beneath failed gag after failed gag, and even as simple kids' fare isn't worth the time. Unofficially or not, this film sees Disney at the most artificial, most pointless, most puddle-deep, and most grating in their entire history. I can tell you one thing; After this, I'm *not* having a really nice day...

* / *****

Meet the Robinsons:
The first film to be released under the new creative leadership of John Lasseter, Meet the Robinsons didn't make much of a dent to restore Disney back to its enviable position atop the animation pedestal. Following in the footsteps of such critically reviled films like Home on the Range and Chicken Little, and struggling to garner word of mouth to build the film up, Meet the Robinsons came and went with a very tepid response. Yet at the same time, one can't help but feel that it was sadly swept under the rug, actually showcasing more depth and subtlety than given much credit for, and despite its occasional faults, proved yet another thoughtful edition to Disney's eclectic library.

But before getting into the real meat of the movie, let's talk about the basic set-up of the movie. The film deals with a great deal of time travel logic, sharing strands in common with Back to the Future in that regard, in how much attention is devoted to the butterfly effect, and the actions of the past altering the space-time continuum. At least that's what it starts out devoting its time to before it chucks time travel logic out the window, equipped with truly confusing and contradictory timeline gaps with little to no ill effects, and events that shouldn't even be taking place, or disasters that one needn't have even concerned themselves over with these alterations, and yet the knowledge and the impact of those events are still felt despite the fact that characters should have no memory of them happening. It's honestly the type of inconsistency that would torture and confound the mind of the most nit-picking scientist, but it's thanks to the otherwise strong material that these issues still don't ruin the enjoyment of the film.

Quite obviously brimming with the enthusiasm of main influence William Joyce, Meet the Robinsons features an infectious level of imagination and wild creativity. Despite not sharing the same creative team, the film actually feels much closer to the same spirit of The Emperor's New Groove than Chicken Little did, managing to better balance its dramatic chops with the eccentric and over the top sense of humor, the latter which is often put on manic and inspired display, but unlike the very haphazard approach of Chicken Little, what aids the humor of the film is how they're directly tied to the storyline and effective character moments rather than simply pure randomness. The humor is best represented by the Jim Carrey-esque villain the Bowler Hat Guy, who despite his sinister looks and his attempts to be seen as an intimidating and conniving mastermind, is really more of an eccentric and stumbling goof whose bitterness has warped his mindset, overplaying his maniacal and villainous sides in all the best and most campy of ways, and stands alongside Hades and Yzma as one of the funniest villains in the Disney roster. I also love that, despite the film having been released in 2007, some of his original lines and gags feel even funnier than they were before, or even if they weren't intended to be. There's something of a freakish meta quality watching some of his gags now, reflecting recent phenomenon within pop culture, seeing as how he uses a unicorn folder one might compare to the growing Brony fanbase, or that he apparently doesn't seem to be a big fan of Frozen.

But what's most surprising about Meet the Robinsons, and is the true standout merit of the film, is how effectively and powerfully its main message is delivered. With young, brilliant, but frustrated aspiring inventor Lewis growing more obsessed with finding his mother who left him at an orphanage, he becomes increasingly distracted from moving ahead, so focused on changing the past that he doesn't stop to think about his actual future, as well as so overly critical of his mistakes that it kills his spirit. This is the kind of feeling I imagine anyone can, or has related to at some point, but at the same time, such a focus can often be toxic, creating more bitterness and heartbreak from disappointment due to lack of acceptance. The past isn't something to be feared, something to be ignored, or something we can, or should change. Keep Moving Forward, as the Robinson family so frequently put it, as it's often those mistakes that we make that teach us more than our successes. Short-term failure is a natural course in life, and only by learning from those experiences and continually pressing through them will someone truly be able to find great happiness. The ending - which I will freely admit gets me choked up watching it - is especially powerful in showcasing all of this, in that while Lewis will be able to get his happy ending, he still has to work for it, and make the right choices; to keep moving forward.

In fact, one could say Disney certainly took that motto to heart through this unfortunate recent string of theirs. Despite the fact that films like Home on the Range and Chicken Little were in no way going to work, Disney knew that it had to keep pressing forward despite the missteps, and only by learning from those prior mistakes were they finally able to rejuvenate themselves and return to their former prime. Great ideas take a great amount of work and trial and error, but those errors are nothing to be ashamed of, but rather guide us to creating a better future for ourselves. If only for reasons like that, Meet the Robinsons shows a more mature and ambitious series of ideas on its mind than such a film would seemingly have any right to.

**** / *****

Originally under the direction of Lilo & Sitch's Chris Sanders, Bolt was once a very different breed of film, but after the appointment of John Lasseter to oversee production of Disney's future animated films, the film was eventually reworked into the little charmer that we all know and love it as today. Despite only becoming a lukewarm success in ticket sales, it saw Disney return to their creative and enchanting ways with storytelling, carrying its executive producer's deft and welcome ability with story and characters, and helped to lead into the next great age of Disney films.

"If the dog believes it, the audience believes it" says James Lipton's theatrical and obsessively precise television director, knowing that to shatter the illusion of our title dog's reality as a genuine superdog would immediately disenchant the viewers at home. But believe the viewers do, as this very movie lives and breathes based on the reactions and experiences surrounding our titular hero. So convinced is he of the authenticity of the scripted and fantasized world around him that the mere rumble of any false threat is enough to set the little pup on edge and on the defensive, so once the character is off-set and lost in the outside world, it soon becomes overwhelming and strange when he experiences a splash of reality and a lack of real powers. It essentially sets up what could be a basic fish out of water story, but what gives the film much of its strength is how gracefully the film goes between humorous, to tragic as Bolt's own personal role he's obsessed with slowly begins shattering, and even mirroring the exploitation and upsetting conditions of child stars in such a vein, themselves sometimes seemingly unable to escape that role and public perception that comes to be a false identity to them.

But at the same time, while occasionally a little tragic, Bolt still makes for a very fun and funny film to watch. Bolt's own misconceptions and deadpan observations often elicit a hearty chuckle, thanks especially to John Travolta's invisible voice performance, but more often than not, it's more the subtle body language of the character that gets good chuckles, showcasing a refreshing less is more method of storytelling. Comedic support also comes in the form of inspired and colorful personalities he meets on his journey, including his tag-along co-stars, such as the deadpan and street smart Mittens, and the hyperactive and fanboyish hamster Rhino. I also love the clever digs they make at cookie-cutter action shows on TV, complete with respected English character actor as the villain, humorously mimicking the hokey and silly dialogue, and composer John Powell intentionally throwing in cheesy electronic effects that sound right out of the 90's. That's all before tossing in a hilarious jumping the shark moment at the end - whose punchline may even be a sly dig at Chicken Little. But above all, what makes Bolt such a good film is the simple fact that is has such a good heart. The movie certainly doesn't lack doses of familiarity or simplicity, but those can easily be forgiven for the movie's very modest and unassuming sweetness. It's simply a fun adventure that survives on the strengths of its endearing and memorable characters, and is built up with such a warm and charming sense of heart underneath that it becomes hard to resist it, and has us rooting for our hero dog the whole way through.

The animation is also great, and the film comes equipped with some lovely soundtrack accompaniments, particularly from the Jenny Lewis sang "Barking at the Moon". Bolt may not have done anything to break any boundaries, and certainly didn't strive to be the next Beauty and the Beast, but in many ways, it didn't have to. It knew exactly the kind of story that it wanted to tell, delivered on being a sweet and engaging journey, and restored confidence into the filmmakers at the studio. It was a highly entertaining adventure that even managed to choke up the viewer, and a small stepping stone into an even greater future...

**** / *****

And that does it for this edition, and for the Transitional Era. Join me back on October 30th, when we take a venture into Disney's second great rebirth age, the Disney Revival...

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