Sunday, October 30, 2016

"The Magic of Disney Animation" Retrospective - #49-51: Princess/Frog, Tangled, Pooh 2.

After the fallout of the initial death of Disney's hand-drawn division, numerous in-house employees, devoted audiences, as well as Disney's own brethren at Pixar felt some bitterness over the greedy moves made by Michael Eisner. Pixar in particular, despite their welcome creative partnership with the studio, felt tensions heat up having blame for Disney's traditional efforts floundering placed at their feet, but even more hurt by the studio's decision to take away Pixar's own IP's, and create new direct-to-video sequels (seemingly the only thing at the time that was keeping them afloat) under their Circle 7 branch. It was clear that the once innovative studio was now a toxic workplace of backhanded deception and business decisions.

At least, that's the way it looked to be going, until a corporate shake-up within the Walt Disney Company led to Michael Eisner's resignation as CEO. In his place came businessman Bob Iger, who looked to turn the studio's grim fortunes around, and restore it back to its former glory. One of these very first key decisions was in repairing the fractured relationship with Pixar, with both companies realizing that they were too important to each other to throw away their years of collaboration. Disney later purchased Pixar for a total of over 4 billion dollars, making the studio a permanent staple of the mouse-house's castle. But that's not where it stopped, for Disney's animation branch still needed a new CCO to turn things around. Iger knew that there was only one choice...

Enter John Lasseter. An ambitious former animator from Disney's 80's age turned one of the initial founders of Pixar, and by far the most important voice in getting the studio to become the powerhouse it is today, Lasseter has often proved himself reliable and deft at being able to shape endearing and fantastic stories, and to give his knowledge to young up-and-coming future directors, bringing out the utmost potential in those uncertain in their own abilities. In many ways, Lasseter has proven himself to be the modern day answer and heir to Walt's creative legacy, filed with just as much wonderment and limitless imagination as the studio's fearless founder, and now dividing his time equally between his Pixar kin and his new Disney family, he's proven himself one of the most vital and unique voices in the studio's history. His appointment would soon lead to Disney's next great era of films, the Disney Revival, and after overseeing Meet the Robinsons and Bolt, his first greenlit project would be a return to Disney's hand-drawn roots. It was a film that generated tremendous hype among Disney's enthusiasts, and to start off this next great age of animated features, Lasseter would be turning once more to the very voices who had propelled Disney back to its glory days just twenty years earlier...

The Princess and the Frog:
Resurrecting the style of animation that Disney had proven themselves masters of, John Lasseter knew that the only ones who could see it done justice were the duo of John Musker and Ron Clements. Despite the catastrophic failure of Treasure Planet, the two were more capable than anyone of getting the company back on track, repeating their trend setting success experienced twenty years earlier with The Little Mermaid. While it didn't break many real boundaries, or set the world ablaze like their earlier masterwork, The Princess and the Frog still earned its status as one of the most unabashedly charming and gentle entries in the studio's history.

Not to say it wasn't without its own inspired merits, one of which being the creation of the film's main character Tiana, the first African-American princess in Disney's legacy. While it wasn't free of its fair share of controversy upon its release, I do find it rather clever that Disney's first princess in this mold is one who's had to work her way to the top. While it does gloss over emphasis on race (though to be fair, being a fairy tale, I'm willing to give it some leeway), it doesn't totally ignore the topics either, with Tiana constantly working and moving at rapid-fire rhythm in order to stay afloat and achieve her dreams. She's the type of character whose happy ending feels earned rather than handed to her, and through it all (as well as being turned into a frog), what gives her some much needed energy is her unmistakable spunk, determination, and her well-meaning ambition, even if her heavy workload often means she has to put her own social life on the sidelines. She's an energetic and emotionally strong character the whole way through, and it's particularly thanks to Dreamgirls actress Anika Noni Rose for giving Tiana such a powerful vocal performance.

This even leads into one of the most enjoyable and sweet romances in a Disney film, with Prince Naveen proving a perfect antithesis and natural sparring partner for Tia. While Tiana's personal ambitions and her heavy responsibilities often tend to be a great weight on her, Naveen is consistently convinced that his simply don't exist, instead preferring to take a very care-free and spoiled approach to life, one built around gaining as much enjoyment as possible out of a short existence. It's not an easy relationship, but the two consistently prove to bring out the best in the other, with Tia slowly learning to value her friendships and family as much as she does her personal goals, and Naveen learning to take responsibility and live a more modest existence. It's not necessarily changing the characters that make them great, but unlocking those untapped sides of themselves they never knew they had, leading to progressively more endearing interactions.

The film also has a terrific batch of supporting players along the way, with the Musker/Clements duo rediscovering their excellent way with comic relief players for some genuinely hysterical creations. From Tia's childhood friend Charlotte, a hyperactive and wildly erratic debutante obsessed with fairy tale happy endings,  to a jazz loving, trumpet-playing alligator named Louis, to a hilarious and hopeless romantic Cajun firelfy named Ray. But the true standout character isn't even a comic relief one, but the film's suave and sinister villain Dr. Facilier, a clear callback to the directing duo's Ursula, stealing the show with each wicked and supernatural second onscreen, and voiced with charismatic temptation by Keith David. Just seeing the film take advantage of so many possibilities with the Voodoo world around the "Shadow Man" oozes with invention and inspiration, especially when coming to a head in standout song "Friends on the Other Side." Speaking of which, despite a bitter and lengthy five-year hiatus, the cel-style animation that Disney had proven themselves to be unmatched in producing once again showed the company at the peak of their abilities, capturing the eclectic and rich environment on Louisiana's bayous and French Quarter with a beautiful eye, and bringing the most out of their impressive character designs.

But what would any Disney musical be without great music? Originally to be composed by Alan Menken, in an intentional decision to not burn out the overused musician, Lasseter instead suggested to hand duties over to his friend of the Toy Story movies, Randy Newman. While a highly obvious selection, and not totally free of his usual Newman-isms, that still didn't make it any less of an inspired shake up thanks to his deep-rooted love and knowledge of Louisiana's musical ingenuity. Attempting to create as accurate and as faithful a representation to the eclectic New Orleans music scene, Newman branches out into countless genre styles that include Dixieland Jazz, Big Band instrumentation, Blues, Zydeco, Southern Gospel, swinging Cabaret tunes, and even recruits natural Jazz talent to provide solo instrumentals such as Terence Blanchard and Terrance Simien, as well as Jazz legend Dr. John to perform the introductory number. It's actually quite terrific and enjoyable to see Newman stretch his legs with such varied and complex compositions, and even his lyrics feature a great deal of clever wordplay and addicting catchiness. The only real blemish in this otherwise great batch of songs is the end credits number by Ne-Yo, an overly poppy and mainstream deviation from jazz to R&B.

While not the overwhelming smash one might have hoped, the usual high standard stamp of quality was undeniable. What The Princess and the Frog may have lacked in invention, it made up for with great, thoroughly entertaining enjoyment, and more catchy tunes to add to their already stellar library of hits. It did precisely what it needed to in reinvigorating the spirit of Disney's classic mold of storytelling, and its charms only continue to reveal themselves to those who dig a little deeper...

****1/2 / *****

With the modest success of The Princess and the Frog behind them, Disney Animation Studios found itself regaining it's groove in storytelling, and in another attempt to recreate their success from the Renaissance era, their next feature came in the form of Tangled, a musical inspired by the fairy tale of Rapunzel. Coming out one year after its predecessor, while it may not have been quite as consistent as The Princess and the Frog (though, only mildly), it proved yet another warm, comforting, entertaining and funny addition to Disney's library, and another breath of fresh air during Disney's great rebirth.

Much like The Princess and the Frog before it, what helps Tangled overcome its air of familiarity is owed to the strength of the characters on display. Each of them are very witty and memorable in their unique ways, from Mandy Moore's feisty and passionate Rapunzel brightening up the screen with every adorably giddy new experience, to Zachary Levi's cocky and smarmy thief turned noble and charismatic hero Flynn Ryder. These two unlikely friends on their own are very entertaining to see spar and playfully interact with each other, making for a thoroughly adorable romance. And as in any Disney movie, what would our heroes be without a great villain, here represented by a vain, manipulative, wicked, and cunning Mother Gothel, voiced by a delightfully sinister and theatrical Donna Murphy.

But generally the true scene stealing characters are those without dialogue, including Rapunzel's faithful and ever attentive chameleon sidekick Pascal, to an obsessively determined royal horse named Maximus, relentlessly pursuing Flynn with all the ferocity of Javert. The humor is a very integral part of giving the film its soul, with the studio seemingly taking a few cues from the Shrek series, yet weaving those influences seamlessly with their own unique qualities, and managing at once to create a great blend of nostalgic, warm-hearted sweetness, and rapid-fire laughs and adventure to create a little something for everyone. In fact, beyond cute dialogue remarks, much of the comedy is owed more to the animation quality, yielding a surprisingly high level of clever background details and hilarious facial expressions, and always showing a good variety of new details with every watch.

Speaking of which, the animation of the film is beautiful, unmistakably carrying the depth and the scale of a computer generated feature, but also built in a lovely stylistic mold calling back to Disney's own hand-drawn animation, utilizing a great array of color and expressiveness. Also proving a great return to form is the music, because with memories of Home on the Range long behind us, and the composer having been able to rest his creativity, Alan Menken comes back with yet another fantastic musical score, tackling a wide range of musical styles for each of his songs, and the melodies of his orchestral score are so beautiful. Unfortunately, the one thing undercutting him is once again Glenn Slater's admittedly inconsistent way with lyrics, with the writer sometimes making inspired wordplay with a refreshingly witty or heartfelt eye, but other times sinking a bit into generic or simplified territory that's lacking punch.

Still, for what small missteps it may have to contend with, Tangled's strengths far, far outweigh them. As with The Princess and the Frog, while it didn't do anything groundbreaking, it's execution and homage to Disney's musical formula, as well as its delightful heart and humor, still make it a very entertaining little experience. Still, as successful and as fun as it always was, it was clear that it was a set-up for their next great musical, one whose execution of the Renaissance mold and deconstruction of its thematic elements would be fully realized three years later...

**** / *****

Winnie the Pooh:
Only rarely have Disney's Animation branch ever made a sequel to one of their movies (their direct-to-video movies don't count!), and in many ways, it's been a very refreshing stance to treat every movie as a one-and-done standalone before moving onto the next film, as you wouldn't want to be overly reliant on one brand. Still, you can't help but wonder what it would be like to get a follow-up to a beloved movie, and while I think it unlikely that more adventures in the Winnie the Pooh universe was one of them, once again the movie succeeds thanks to its modest and simple charm.

One word springs to mind when watching Winnie the Pooh; adorable. Excellently recapturing the childlike innocence and deeper slice of life atmosphere of the original Winnie the Pooh short films, the film once again moves in a very nonchalant and tender storybook fashion, certainly catering to young children within the audience, but deep beneath the surface, yields a lot more grown up and charming splashes of intelligence and wit. The overall lightness of the film and the breezy pace proves to be a great virtue of the film, wasting none of its running time on unnecessary - or at least unentertaining - filler, cutting right to the point with a few cleverly selected diversions, and making great use out of its humorous characters. Yet at the same time, it also proves to be the film's biggest vice, at times pushing its luck for what merits a feature film, stripped down to bare bones basics in comparison to the original collection of shorts, and proving something of a long drive for a short stay, barely scraping past the hour mark - 10% of which is owed to the end credits!

But two important things allow me to ignore the stripped down length of the film, and those are content and lasting value. As said before, I would sooner take something with the same amount of value at a shorter running time than I would something at well over twice the length, but in Winnie the Pooh's favor, it lacks nothing in the way of effort, utilizing an exceptional selection of voice actors that deliver fantastic impressions and updates to older counterparts (with John Cleese proving a particularly wonderful narrator), and using a simplified, but often hearty sense of tickling humor through observations and silliness. Also, despite being produced on a comparatively shoe string budget, the animation lacks nothing in beautiful sketchbook detail and wide range of personality, and the Lopez spouses, in what I assume was their audition tape for Frozen, showcase a lovely and clever batch of original songs (with the occasional guest vocal by Zooey Deschanel), while also paying loving ode to the Sherman Brothers.

While it may lack in lengthy or complex depth, Winnie the Pooh makes up for those shortcomings in loving and thoroughly charming quirks, breezing by all too quickly, but well before wearing out any welcome. Sadly it had to contend with a lack of proper buzz and low box office income, opening alongside the massive finale to the Harry Potter series, but was at least a cute shake up to Disney's lineup leading to a greater variety of originality.

**** / *****

We're almost there folks, and from here on, I'll be taking on two movies every new edition. Join me back on November 10th for more of the Disney Revival...

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