Sunday, November 20, 2016

"The Magic of Disney Animation" Retrospective - #54-55: BH6, Zootopia.

And now to finish off my marathon of the Disney Animation Studios filmography, let's revisit the latest two Disney Revival entries, Big Hero 6 and Zootopia.

Big Hero 6:
With the many masked superbeings of Marvel's massive comic universe now under the turrets of the Walt Disney Company's castle, it seemed inevitable that their animation studio would eventually take a stab at adapting one of their franchises. Specifically going after a source material more obscure and niche than Guardians of the Galaxy, this proved to be an inspired decision, allowing Disney the creative freedom to more naturally integrate their sensibilities with the comic book giant's. The resulting film, Big Hero 6, proves to be a great deal of fun, an appropriately light and fast, as well as heartfelt and exciting piece of entertainment.

When it comes to writing, Big Hero 6 admittedly has its lesser qualities. Once introduced, many of the ensemble characters (outside of the leading duo of Baymax and Hiro) don't have a whole lot of time to go further into their characters, with the film often preferring to focus on the titular team as a group more than as individuals, and perhaps not as fully dimensional or engaging as they could be. However, even if they may be weak individually, when paired up into a unit, seeing this team play off of each other so naturally and hilariously proves to be a terrific touch, brimming with brand new and easily missable background details with every rewatch.

Also, while it's several big emotional ploys may not be entirely surprising or unique, what makes the film able to overcome that is the tremendous level of sincerity to which they're played, specifically in the film's best quality, the friendship between Hiro and Baymax. While most of the film's focus is devoted to the humor, character interplay, and the big action set-pieces, the film still sets apart precious and fitting moments of emotional introspection and the erratic moodswings triggered by the loss of a loved one; The painful depression, the sense of empty aimlessness and confusion, and even the hurt and the enragement that comes with it, the latter case receiving particular showcase in what may be one of the most vengeful and cold actions in a Disney movie to date. Naturally, such a devastating experience for our 14 year old lead Hiro needs a voice of reason and logic to balance out that loss, with Baymax proving the movie's most inspired creation, providing a tender big brother-like desire to cure his young patient's pain (physical and emotional), yet also proving a natural and fast learner for Hiro to bounce off of, as evidenced by his baby-like sense of innocence and movements. Every moment Baymax is onscreen is an absolute delight, managing to remain adorable and huggable even when in red Buzz Lightyear armor, and providing a consistently stitch-inducing level of comic relief.

Even the overall craft of the film on its own merits the film a watch (or two). Being an action film, the film gives the many skilled animators a chance to stretch their legs and have an absolute ball with the set-pieces, leading to exciting sequences worthy of The Incredibles, right down to an Avengers-esque climax that makes for spectacular eye candy on its own. The film also made great use out of the studio's newly updated hardware, showing more expressiveness and vibrancy in regards to character design, and allowing for some truly inventive production design blending American and Asian culture together for the film's San Fransokyo setting. On a final note, in regards to that blend of culture, I must say that in spite of recent heated racial politics and the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, it feels absolutely refreshing to see a movie like Big Hero 6 feature such a diverse array of characters, and better yet manage to do so without falling into easy stereotyping or feeling the need to draw too much attention to it.

It certainly wasn't a huge game changer, but in spite of its lightness, it's charms are still too strong for me to ignore. It's been a couple years since I first reviewed the film, and even after all that time, it still proves just as entertaining a sit as it did the first time. Nothing less than can be expected of Disney Animation. I am satisfied with my care...

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

And to finish it all off, what many now consider to be the Beauty and the Beast, the Pinocchio, the crowning achievement of John Lasseter's tenure as Disney Animation CCO. I initially had no plans to re-review the film after first seeing it in March, preferring to let the original full review speak for itself. However, upon revisiting the film on Blu-Ray and giving it quite a few watches since then, I felt compelled to give it a second look, as it not only proves to hold up tremendously well on a rewatch, but proves much better than I remembered it. While I may still have slight reservations on labeling it as perfect, the achievement here is still terrific.

Obviously, much word has already been devoted to the great themes and social parallels to real life politics, but what makes Zootopia the great film that it is is that, while it is a very ambitious and deep-minded film, it's never to the point where it's biting off more than it can chew, and all of that is mere icing on the cake. The film is first and foremost simply concerned with telling an engaging and entertaining story full of memorable characters. The film mostly relies upon the strength of the main character of Judy Hopps, mainly defined (to an occasional fault) by her self-admitted refusal to quit, brimming with gleeful enthusiasm and dedication for her work at every point, even if her own naivete sometimes proves to be a vice. The character gives voice actress Ginnifer Goodwin a tremendous freedom to let loose and own the role with great charm, but it's her co-star Jason Bateman as the slick and snide Nick Wilde, consistently proving himself a hilarious and sarcastic foil to her overly optimistic worldview, that turns out to be the film's true secret weapon. Above all, it's when the two are able to simply bounce back and forth off one another and grow into a friendship of genuine respect, as well as trade thoroughly humorous quips straight out of a buddy cop movie, that the film is at its apex, and actually makes for a highly entertaining mystery as well.

So once all of those cards are perfectly laid out, that's when the film is given the freedom to more deeply explore the powerful subject and messages at its heart. Zootopia is a movie that directly confronts still ongoing and heated topics concerning casual prejudices within the real world. Zootopia is an amazing place to live, a city teeming with eclectic and distinguishable faces of many walks of life, but despite having evolved into a sophisticated society, is still not devoid of deep-rooted fear and aggression between predator and prey, tying directly into real world issues of racism, stereotyping, profiling, and even lacing in moments of casual sexism and the effects of hard drug use. In a crazy year where an unstable, megalomaniacal TV tyrant has now been elected as the next US President (in a way that only makes the film feel like more a piece of prophecy), it was and still is an especially vital message that needs to be told, refining it into an easily digestible and comprehensible fashion for kids to understand, but not dumbing it down to undersell the seriousness of these topics. I'm especially thankful for that in regards to the lesser, but no less hurtful effects of that prejudice that the film addresses, that being the power of words, and how the things we say, even if not delivered in any aggressive fashion whatsoever, still sound quite careless. Even if nothing is meant of it, to be oblivious to how much a statement can hurt can be just as bad. It's all so thoughtfully presented and laid out that the script deserves every praise and comparison to a Pixar movie that it receives.

Admittedly, when first seeing the film, I thought that these issues, terrific and noble as they were, were unfortunately lessened by the film's general sense of over tidiness. However, nowadays, I don't feel that way. While being a Disney film in nature it's obligated to conclude on a happy note, that's not to say that the film is rendered toothless by it, as the film still acknowledges that imperfections and prejudice will always be there, but wisely expresses that the best and most logical option is to press past it regardless, that change usually only happens one small step at a time, but each step is still vital in creating a more progressive future for all people. Also, even putting aside the skill and the heart of the storytelling, the filmmaking behind the scenes alone makes the film a refreshing watch. The world of Zootopia is a fantastic assembly of gorgeous production design and integration of unique districts of various ecosystems, succeeding a thousand times greater than what Chicken Little tried and failed to do 11 years earlier, and is so vast and expansive a world that any sequels or spin-offs would have unlimited potential and possibilities. The animation also sees Disney's computer team hitting their stride, filling up the scenery with countless expressive and fantastical animal designs and character models (at times, the fur on these animals look so real), and it further allows them more chances at creating hilarious background and foreground details.

Without trying much too hard, it proved to be a marked improvement over Rich Moore's previous Wreck it Ralph, seeing his blend of humor and ambition hit the proper balance the second time around. Zootopia might not be my favorite film of the Disney Revival (that honor still belongs to Frozen), but it is still one of the most thoroughly rewatchable and rewarding movies in the Disney Animation catalogue. 2016 has proven to be a great year in regards to animation, and this is without doubt one of the highlights.

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

And with that, I am finally finished! 56 movies later, I have finally caught up with every movie in the Disney Classics lineup. and yet it's still not over for me. In just a couple days, I'll be back for more Disney when I take on their second big release of 2016, Moana, the latest musical from the Musker/Clements duo. And even then, I still won't be done, because on November 30th, I'll be back to count down my top ten favorite songs in the animated Disney movies, followed by my top ten favorite animated Disney films on December 1st before I cap off the series. For now, I'm going to take a much needed break, and I hope to see you back then.

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