Archive for category Animation
Guess what? I also like “Frozen!”
One of the nice things about having your own film blog is that you don’t have to worry about generating clicks on your website, so that when your way too late, too short, and positive, but mildly measured review of “Frozen” is published, it doesn’t matter that nobody will read it. So let me be the billionth person to say that I like the film and think it is pretty good. I don’t really have anything new or interesting to say about the film, and more importantly I have no interest in trying. So here it is in brief:
“Frozen” is high-end Disney pop art, littered with great music, compelling digital animation, mostly rich characters and a Bechdel-test passing narrative about the powers of sisterly love, which by Disney standards is crazy, Dennis Kucinich-level progressive. The film isn’t without its flaws (there is some unearned tear bait in the film and an absurd character turn which was downright shamelss. Also, if your daughter has ice powers, maybe teach her how to control them instead of locking her in a room and say, “Try not to kill anybody,”) but by and large these are minor issues or are simply inherent to corporate filmmaking as a whole and gender politics at-large. “Frozen” does everything that you would expect it to, plus a little more.
(I’m not bothering with a summary of the narrative setup. You either know it, don’t care, or can find out from one of the gaggle of people in your life that have seen it.)
Yup, this one is just as great as the other ones.
I have become exceedingly useless when it comes to evaluating the works of Hayao Miyazaki, so much a fan have I become. I just sit there, watching his films with a mystified look on my face and an ever-increasing sense of wonder and awe. So deep runs the imagination, creativity, and story-telling of this, and nearly all of Miyazaki’s films that I find myself unable to do much else but gush about their brilliance like a myopic fanboy.
However, if I must attempt to deconstruct my joy for this film, I’ll start by expressing my incredulity (in a good way) at being thrown into a world for which I had utterly no bearing. Aside from telling us that this is Earth a thousand years after a world-wide war wiped out most of the planet and created an enormous mass of pollution called “The Toxic Sea,” the film careens head first into a bizarre world of jet gliders, gigantic insects, and mixture of ancient and “future” weapons. By way of an example, the first image we see is that of a nameless figure riding what looks like an ostrich and wearing a gas mask that was clearly inspired by Darth Vader.
This guy turns out to be legendary swordsman Master Yupa. While a master swordsman like Yupa might factor heavily into most fantastical adventures, he is really only a bit player here. As part of a settlement of people living in the “Valley of the Wind,” which features a hefty breeze which consistently keeps poisons and other nasty things from troubling them, Yupa was investigating the desolation caused by the recently-expanding Toxic Sea. With landmass dwindling, the few remaining populations of humans have taken to war-mongering and petty conflict.
Without looking it up, I couldn’t tell you the names of any of these population centers because: 1) They are Japanese names for which I lack a meaningful schema to help me remember them and 2) They don’t really matter. Despite the political conflict weighing heavily in the narrative, whatever historical and cultural differences between these quasi-nations exists is irrelevant, because these differences only serve to amplify mistrust and hasten the impending destruction of humanity. These cities resemble medieval kingdoms run by power-hungry tyrants squabbling over turf, albeit with tanks, funky armor, and airships at their disposals. Whatever salvation may be left for humanity, the film makes it clear it won’t come from any of these maneuverings.
So where will salvation come from? The title character, whom I have waited almost four hundred words to mention. Nausicaa is as Christ-like a figure as they come, a teenage princess with a bursting love for pretty much everything, including the enormous crab-like insects known as Ohmu which everybody else is afraid of, and an almost ignorant courage which makes her capable of accomplishing pretty much anything. She flies around on a wind-glider/jet-pack/thing with reckless abandon, hypnotizes Ohmu to send them back into the Toxic Sea, takes out several home invaders with a knife, tames a half-fox/half-squirrel creature, talks down tyrannical queens, all while growing a garden of toxin-free plants and otherwise providing the emotional center of the film. Amidst the legion of chipper heroines that Miyazaki has conjured up in his career, Nausicaa is probably my favorite. More than any of them, she best embodies the androgynous qualities of radiant positivity and fierce recklessness required of an unflawed hero.
There is quite a lot more that merits mention. The score, for one, is excellent. It is equal parts terrifying and wonderous, as though everything could slip into either oblivion or rapture at any moment. The animation is typically great, with thought and creativity behind every detail both big and small. Not least of all is the story, which combines pro-environment propaganda and a Christ parable while somehow avoiding any cliches, contrivances, and anything that might make the narrative feel less organic. (Maybe because the whole concept is so weird, you can’t figure out where this film is going, aside from assuming things won’t end terribly.) Really, if I’m being honest with you, this entire review is extraneous and the only thing I need to say is that watching “Nausicaa” is like being placed in an alternate dimension which consists entirely of Miyazaki’s imagination and that it is an awesome place to be.
A new Minion’s adventure, featuring special guest stars Gru and Lucy.
Sometimes market research does work, Whatever focus group told the studio executives at Illumination Entertainment to include more of the Minions in the “Despicable Me” sequel was spot-on. Those odd little creatures steal the show at every turn, elevating a pleasant, but dull sub-“Incredibles” animated film into one of the most entertaining pieces of pop family entertainment of the year.
For those unfamiliar, the Minions are the numerous bizarre, oblong yellow creatures which serve at the leisure of Gru (Voiced by Steve Carell), a reformed supervillain who has given up the evil life to raise three plucky young girls. The Minions vary in having either one giant eye or two small ones, but all of them have a professional honed sense of comedic timing. They have names and are capable of limited speech, but mostly they utter knobbly gibberish, which means that most of their humor manifests itself visually. This might sound like tedious barrage of pratfalls, fart jokes, and sight gags. Quite the contrary. These visual bits are inspired by the legends of silent film, in particular Buster Keaton and they inject that spirit into a film that would otherwise feel like a dreary cash grab.
The plot, as it were, revolves around Gru’s attempts to fight a new supervillain threatening to take over the world, whilst avoiding the numerous blind dates his neighbor insists on inflicting upon him. Helping him on both fronts is Lucy Wilde (Voiced by Kristin Wiig), a member of the anti-villain league and surrogate mother-figure to Gru’s three girls who also happen to be single. Together they scope out the local mall where the villain is hiding amidst the colorful array of shop owners. Is it Eduardo Perez (Voiced by Benjamin Bratt), the purveyor of the Mexican restaurant “Salsa & Salsa?” Perhaps it’s the owner of the toupee shop, Floyd Eagle-san (Ken Jeong)? Who cares?
None of this is of much consequence. The narrative is spliced together from well-traveled cliches and well-worn ideas from other films, providing a meaningless excuse to string together eye-popping 3-D sequences and a succession of gags. The film isn’t really about anything, unless it is saying blandly that there is a romantic partner for everyone, even middle-aged former-villains with obnoxious eastern-European accents, or worse, it is making some sort of hetero-normative claim about every child’s need for a mother and father. No, this is shameless commercial family entertainment, but it ends up being clever shameless commercial family entertainment, which is really the minimum you can ask for from your mainstream summer films.
While Gru has a couple of good riffs in the film, without the Minions, this would have been a pretty hollow and tedious film. Normally, when a successful component from an original film is accentuated in a sequel, the balance is thrown off and the results are middling. Not so with “Despicable Me 2.” The Minions are the most vibrant and inventive part of the film. I daresay there wasn’t enough of them. I must admit, makes me excited at the prospect of the Gru being eliminated as a middle man when the Minions get their own film next year. Will that be too much of a good thing? I doubt it.
Mothers, daughters, and bears, oh…wait what, a bear?
Not having spent any time as a mother or a daughter, I won’t pretend to understand the complicated mother/daughter relationship at the heart of this film. However, if observations gleaned from watching my sisters and mother duke it out is meaningful evidence, then “Brave” at least gets that much right. An eternal struggle for dominance that includes gender politics, self-identity, and a raging need for independence generated by an influx of hormones, exchanges between mothers and teenage daughters can be incredibly complex. This is why I find the film’s use of a bear transformation/curse perplexing. As a metaphor or narrative device, I just don’t get it.
The eldest and only daughter of a Scottish King, Merida (Kelly MacDonald) is a fiery-haired adolescent who wants nothing more than to ride her horse and shoot her bow. Her mother Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), meanwhile, has her sights set on making a Merida a proper lady (you know, sewing, cooking, acting prim and proper), just in time for her arranged marriage to one of the sons of the many clan leaders under her fathers’ rule. As an independent and assertive young woman, Merida naturally resents this, so she purchases a spell from a bizarre old crone in the forest, which turns her mother into a literal bear. Merida is then given 48 hours to reverse the spell by “fixing the bond that was broken” lest the spell become permanent. As fairy tale curses go, this one is just weird.
I dwell on the bear thing only because it is so integral to the film, so distracting, and so utterly confusing. The more I think about it, the more confused I get. I started thinking maybe the bear meant that people/parents/mothers get so involved in their ideas about things should be and how people should behave that we become like a bear, bellowing out loud roars and unable to see past our own needs. That sort of works, but then this is about how Merida transformed her mother into a bear, so perhaps this film is about how daughters transform their mothers into monsters. This works sort of, but don’t mothers transform their daughters into monsters as well? Isn’t it mutual incomprehension which causes these fights? Why a bear and not something else? What does any of this mean? Frankly I just got uncomfortable when Merida starts teaching the bear-version of her mother how to fish and the sappy music starts playing to indicate that this is a mother-daughter bonding moment. What the hell is going on with this bear thing?
The chief criticism of “Brave” is that the storytelling isn’t quite as strong as many other Pixar films. This is quite valid. While Merida and her mother are strong and realized characters, the side characters aren’t quite as compelling and are brushed mostly to the side. The film just doesn’t quite know what to do with Merida and Elinor as evidenced by the odd bear-curse. Also, at 93 minutes, the film feels like a massive rush job. By the end, what is the film trying say anyway?
The animation is as great in “Brave” as it is with any Pixar film, but this is what we’ve come to expect from the once-transgressive studio. There are some laughs to be had from Merida’s rapscallion triplet younger brothers and the antics of all the Scottish clansman gathered for games and drinks as part of ritual which theoretically ends with Merida marrying one of their sons. The film is on the whole, not bad, but it isn’t particularly good either. When you’ve churned out films as consistently excellent as Pixar, an O.K. film is going to feel like a massive let down.
Films in which young women triumph over outdated and sexisst cultural norms are valuable and deserve praise for giving girls and young women strong role models to look up to. “Brave” certainly qualifies, even if the message gets lost amidst the general strangeness of the film. Beyond this, the film doesn’t quite know what it wants to say, either about men’s role in shaping daughter’s self-image, nor indeed about the role of mother’s in this process either. Are mother’s complacent in limiting their daughters view of the world? Innocent victims of a sexist institution generated by men? How should parents interact with headstrong teenagers? Perhaps I’m overthinking this film and I should just accept that “Brave” wasn’t meant for me. Whatever. As a 29-year-old non-mother and non-daughter, I think “Brave” is just O.K. Do with that what you will.
Hayao Miyazaki makes children’s films. He is not interested in more “mature” animated films, whatever I may wish. So I had to remind myself after watching “Porco Rosso,” a film which teeters on the edge of hard-nosed film noir before the weird tropes of Japanese comedy come bumbling in to undercut any sense of danger or repressed coolness. Nevertheless, this is a Miyazaki film, and I’ve yet to see one that I didn’t enjoy immensely, even if its most compelling themes get mere passing references before being pushed so far down into the background of the film that they barely register at all.
Amidst a catalog of odd characters, Porco Rosso (voiced by Micheal Keaton in the American dub), may just be the strangest. A crack fighter pilot in World War I, a curse inexplicably transformed him into a man-sized bipedal pig. This turns out to be not much of a problem. Everyone in the world seems to adjust reasonably well to the existence of a man-pig, and Porco himself doesn’t seem too bothered by it. He doesn’t express the least bit of interest in resolving the curse, which to him is a sort of penance for past sins. Instead he spends his time as a freelance pilot, fending off goofy comic relief air pirates for the Italian government at high prices.
In contrast to the casual oddness of Porco, the film’s setting is starkly realist. Taking place in interwar Italy, a country whose difficult social conditions creep into the fringes of the film to paint a sharp portrait of life during that time. A friend in the military warns Porco that leadership has changed and his cushy arrangement with the government is over, to which Porco exclaims “I’d rather be a pig than a fascist.” Porco has to dodge some Italian government agents who now want to bring him in as an enemy of the state. Under conditions of extreme poverty, the men of Italy are off working in far away places. This leaves a whole host of women at home to work on fixing Porco’s plane. Inflation and economic hardship rule the day.
Porco carries a shield of aloof detachment which stems from a deep emotional scar he received during the first World War. Amidst a airfight in which his entire squadron was shot down one by one, Porco flees, leading to the film’s most wondrous sequence. Half awake and delirious, he sees hundreds of dead pilots from every nation with an airfleet ascend with their planes into heaven. So it is perhaps out of shame that Porco wallows around in an existential milieu of nihilism couched in self-loathing and hedonism.
Despite being one of Miyazaki’s most compelling characters, Porco feels oddly wasted in this film. The ending is a big bland mush of shallow character resolution brought on by a plucky young teenage engineer named Fio (Kimberly Williams-Paisley), who helped redesign Porco’s plane after it was shot down despite his concerns that her femaleness somehow prevented her from doing the job well. As a feminist, “We Can Do It!” icon, Fio is fantastic. As a means of resolving Porco’s character arc, Fio is infuriating. Naturally Fio uses her cute, girlish charms to see through Porco’s rough exterior into his soft and sweet core, forcing him to face his unresolved emotions via an airfight with his chief rival Donald (Carey Elwes), all while she reduces the air pirates to bickering boys who just want to do right by her, so enamored are they by Fio’s looks and preachy moralizing.
Despite numerous threats to kill each other, this battle is utterly toothless. The airfight between Donald and Porco devolves into a listless exchange of insults and punches revolving around the affections of a woman. The most interesting aspects of Porco Rosso as a character -his survivor’s guilt, his self-induced emotional exile, and his disgust with the government-go largely unexplored, and the tropes of film noir are completely abandoned in favor of more generic storytelling.
It is not really fair to criticize a film for what it isn’t, but nevertheless, that is where I find myself. Miyazaki usually wows with his ability to incorporate adult concepts into imaginative children’s tale while making those concepts digestible for children without insulting their intelligence or sense of wonder. “Porco Rosso” does not work this way. “Porco Rosso,” wows with its maturity before throwing in childish antics to blunt its edges and render inert the complex psychological forces driving the film. I’m not sure how this film would fair with kids, but I suspect they would get less out of it than any of Miyazaki’s others. Do children really respond to the regret and self-inflicted misery fueled motifs of film-noir? This film certainly hopes they will.
“ParaNorman” opens with a couple of characters watching a zombie film. One of them suggests to the other that the dispute between the zombies and the humans on-screen is only the result of a simple misunderstanding, and a little bit of communication would resolve it straight away. Such a notion might seem laughably naive, but this line is indicative of just how the film wants us to rethink our assumptions. In most of the best horror films, the terror utilized is a symptom of a culture-wide malady afflicting us all. It is as if these horror films are mirrors, reflecting societies ugliness back on itself. This is a lesson which “ParaNorman” takes to heart, flipping the script on typical horror narratives by understanding the ways in which fear and mistrust can transform even the most innocent of humans into villains. Misperception, mistrust, and resentment are the real fodder for monster-making.
Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is the somber preteen protagonist with an unfortunate penchant for speaking to the dead, a la “The Sixth Sense.” Naturally such a gift makes one an outcast, particularly in the insecure confines of Jr. High, where overcompensation runs rampant. Even his own family seems to find him unpleasantly weird, and none moreso than his bellowing conservative father Perry (Jeff Garlin.) Perry’s chief concern is that Norman not turn out like his uncle, Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman.) Allegedly crazy, Norman’s uncle is also able to speak with the dead, but he also seems genuinely crazy.
As it turns out, Norman is part of a long-line of seers that have secretly kept a terrible curse at bay. Every year on Halloween, a vengeful witch, executed by townspeople 300 years ago, wakes up in order to resurrect the dead and wreak havoc on the citizens of Blithe Hallow, Masscahusetts. Only by a reading from a certain book can the curse be delayed, so when Norman fails to do so, the dead start to rise and all hell breaks loose. However, if the citizens of Blithe Hallow are troubled by this recent development, you wouldn’t know it. They are all too ready to pull out shotguns and start blowing off heads.
This film is too smart to follow the beaten path. Things are much more complicated then they seem. As Norman tries to get to the bottom of the curse, he is aided by his cheerful and plucky friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), Neil’s macho older brother Mitch (Casey Affleck), his cheerleading, boy-crazy older sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick), and former tormentor turned ally Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). It is a testament to the quality of the storytelling that I have gone this far into the review and not mentioned the gorgeous stop-motion animation. The film looks great and sight gags abound. (A car ride with a zombie clinging to the hood is particularly spectacular.) While the animation punctuates all of the underlying drama, horror, and humor, it never overshadows it.
This is really excellent filmmaking. It is clever in the manner it weaves in adolescent-sized portions of adult themes, including the potential grotesqueness of consumerism, the danger of mob mentality, and the ways in which cycles of violence repeat themselves, with bullying begating bullying. (Note: Parents beware. This is not exactly a children’s film.) It is also surprisingly hilarious. The film pops with a manic energy that does not let up, and lands a lot more jokes then it doesn’t, including a couple of gags about burgeoning sexual impulses. The characters are all vibrant and likable, even the zombies, which is impressive given the fact that nearly every character is a little bit guilty of violating the morale of the story.
Hayao Miyazaki seems to possess a bottomless bag of cinematic wonders. Just when I think I have found the crown jewel of his excellence-filled filmography, I discover a new treasure, and am forced to reconsider. “Laputa: Castle in the Sky” is such a treasure. With gripping action, vibrant characters, a haunting soundtrack, and an eye-popping proto-steampunk aesthetic, the film combines a carefree sense of adventure with mature science fiction themes, a genuine sensation of danger, and just the right amount of oddball Japanese humor for what is easily my favorite Miyazaki film. For now.
One of the dangers of Miyazaki’s inventive visual style is that its brilliance is capable of swallowing up a flimsy narrative that is not capable of matching it. Fortunately the narrative is “Laputa” is up to the task, with the script and animation in full lockstep. Eschewing any orienting voiceover narration, the film begins with a giant airship under attack by pirates on what looks like riding lawnmowers with insect wings attached. Inside, a plucky young girl being held prisoner escapes her captors amidst the chaos and in desperation climbs out a window. She falls, but on her way down a stone in her necklace begins to glow and allows her to fall gracefully to the ground, where she is discovered by a boy named Pazu (James Van Der Beek).
We soon find out that the girl’s name is Sheeta (Anna Paquin). She and Pazu become fast friends as they are pursued by both the goofy pirates known as the Dola gang, led by a fearsome matriarch who insists on being called captain (Cloris Leachman) and the army, led by the ominous and mysterious Colonel Muska (Mark Hamill). As it turns out, Sheeta’s necklace is the key to finding Laputa, a floating castle built by a civilization that has long since passed out of living memory, which the Dola gang wants for its treasures and Colonel Muska wants for much less opaque reasons.
The floating castle is one of Miyazaki’s most inspired creations. Hovering amidst the clouds, it is a glorious behemoth paradise, equal parts fortress and botanical garden. A giant, ancient tree rests at its center, with flowers and greenery growing amongst the metal and computer terminals. Abandoned centuries ago for reasons unknown, a gangly robot silently tends to landscaping, though many of his brothers and sisters have fallen into disrepair and simply lie on the ground, gathering moss. Without humans to tend it, even technology bows to the forces of nature.
The film is jam-packed with action, as the Dora gang, Colonel Muska, and the two protagonists vie to seek out and take control of Laputa. These scenes are thrilling and well-staged, whilst evoking a sense of actual danger and consequence. In one scene, Pazu gets grazed by a bullet across his cheeks, and with much of the action taking places in the air, the film is quite conscious of just how high up the characters are. A seen with a robot coming to life in order to defend Sheeta is frankly terrifying. Yet for its frenetic pace, the film finds ways to cram in character development and humor for its cast, like a brief moment for Captain Dora and her mechanic husband reminisce, comically, about the similarities between Pazu and Sheeta and themselves as children.
Miyazaki has one of the most vivid imaginations in all of film, animation or otherwise. He works almost exclusively with child and pre-teen protagonist, granting them each depth and personalities, and gives them really, really interesting things to do. Not only is “Laputa: Castle in the Sky” a great animated film, it is a great science fiction film, rich with ideas about technology and human development, while evoking a sense of wonder and curiosity. I’m sure I’ll change my mind with his next film, but this is my favorite film from a director who only seems to make great films.
Reviewing a Hayao Miyazaki film is an exercise in utter redundancy. You start by acknowledging the sense of whimsy and wonder that pervades whichever of his films is being discussed, paying special attention to its casual insertion of magic and fantasy into everyday life. For “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” this takes the form of a thirteen-year-old witch (named Kiki as per the title) that is able to fly on a broom (or quasi-brooms) and talk to cats. Next there should be some chatter about how Miyazaki eschews the narrative structure of most American films, with no antagonists to speak of and relatively minor conflict, of which most is of the common everyday variety of drama. Again, that applies here, in which young Kiki, on a magical walkabout of sorts as a rite of passage for witches, starts a delivery service in which she has no rivals, no competition, and meets generally nice and helpful people that help her achieve her goals, with the possible exception of one teenage girl whose greatest transgression is to make a rude comment about her grandmother’s cooking. Finally, there should be some discussion of the film’s themes, whether they be overt or otherwise. In “Kiki,” that would be the conflict experienced by adolescents between embracing the impending responsibilities of adulthood and clinging to the last vestiges of that joyful freedom of childhood, along with some tension between the desire for independence and the need to rely on others.
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately for an amateur film blogger, “Kiki” has one key distinction between it and the rest of Miyazaki’s films: Visually it suffers from a serious lack of whimsy, magic and wonder. In this, it is somewhat the inverse of “Howl’s Moving Castle,” a film which is an absolute visual feast but which has a narrative that struggles at times with basic coherence. “Kiki’s Delivery Service” has none of those problems, but is woefully bland to look at. This is of course relative to Miyazaki’s other films, as in general the animation is quite good and the film is substantially more interesting then of most of the films of Dreamworks. Miyazaki has established such a high standard for himself, a couple of his films will doubtless be unable to live up to them.
It must be said though, as a film for pre-teen girls, “Kiki’s Delivery Service” is among the best I’ve seen. In it Kiki, voiced in the American version by Kirsten Dunst, leaves her parent’s house in the country on her thirteenth birthday so that she may spend a year as an apprentice elsewhere. Excited, she finds her way to a giant city, but she soon finds herself overwhelmed. Luckily, she meets a kind baker that is willing to give her a place to stay and provide help in starting her delivery service. She befriends a nice elderly customer, is pursued romantically by an exuberant boy that is an avid fan of flying, and gets in a couple of thick spots with her sassy and sarcastic cat, voiced by the legendary Phil Hartman.
The importance of a film in which the teen female protagonist is never rewarded for being attractive, has a brain, and does not do anything at the end of the film that she was incapable of doing at the beginning of the film, but she nevertheless ends the film a hero, should not be understated. There is not a malicious bone in this film’s body and there simply are not mainstream animated films in America that are made like this. Of course, there absolutely should be. It’s just that I’ve become a bit spoiled with Miyazaki films. When I’m watching one and I’m not filled with awe, not captivated by the characters, however sweet and earnest they may be, and dare I say, a little bored, I can’t help but be disappointed. That might not sound like much of an endorsement for the film, but in a weird way, it really is.
There was a time, back in the ancient era of the early 1990s, before he became a film-remake machine and his esthetic had become trite and bland, when Tim Burton was actually a well-spring of creativity. Everything he did felt original and inventive, as he made a certain kind of film that had not been seen before, at least in mainstream film-making. One of the more weirdly wonderful byproducts of that all too brief period of time is this stop-motion animated musical about a Halloween-obsessed realm that decides to dabble in Christmas with mixed results.
While Burton only generated the story and produced the film, the parallels to his directing career are striking. Take the character of Jack Skellington (voiced while speaking by Chris Sarandon and while singing by Danny Elfman), the slender, spindly skeleton that is the king of Halloweentown. Filled with an existential malaise about how redundant and repetitive his life and work have become, Jack eventually accepts that he is a scary weirdo that keeps doing the same again and again, because that is who is and that is what he knows. Is Jack Burton and is Halloweentown his filmography? A sort of alternate dimension, Halloweentown is filled with sentient and odd castoffs of horror movie monsters that are in love with all things ghoulish and Gothic. In this sense, they are not unlike The Addams Family, except that life in Halloweentown exclusively revolves around preparing for Halloween on the 364 days a year that Halloween does not take place. I admit I have never understood whether or not these entities travel to another dimension to spread Halloween cheer in the “real world” or if the celebration is more localized.
At any rate, Jack has resided over the spooky festivities for so long, it has become listless and dull. He puts forth the minimal effort, yet receives incredible praise for, well, whatever it is he does in Halloweentown. After a morose-fueled walk through a dingy forest, Jack finds a ring of trees that are portals to other holiday-themed realities, including Thanksgiving, Easter, and Christmas. No sign of any trees leading to Veteran’s or MLK Day realities, however. Discovering Christmastown, Jack decides that instead of Halloween, his subjects will celebrate Christmas. There is simply something about Christmas which both captivates and baffles him. Presumably this was the case for Burton with regard to his “Planet of the Apes” remake.
As a narrative, the film leaves much to be desired, especially given the generally flat nature of all the characters save Jack and his love interest Sally, a decomposing reanimated corpse voiced by Catherine O’Hara. I was especially baffled by Oogie Boogie (Ken Page), despite having his very own song attempting to explain how villainous he is. What terrible things can he do trapped in that dungeon, and isn’t doing terrible things the point of Halloween town? But let’s not kid ourselves, the real star of the film are the lights out visual effects which still look great twenty years later. A ghostdog with a bright red nose like Rudolph, a mad scientist able to nonchalantly open his skull and scratch his brain, demonic trick or treaters, and a whole host of other inventive oddities, the animation is filled with visual delights. The added touch of making this film a musical only increases its originality. Eschewing more traditional tunes, the music is written and in most cases performed by Danny Elfman, channeling Dead Man’s Party from his Oingo Boingo days for pleasantly goofy and mildly operatic musical numbers.
It is easy to forget in the post “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Alice in Wonderland” Tim Burton era just how original his film-making was in the 90s. There really was no director making films quite like his. While “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is not without its problems and certainly doesn’t stand as the best film he made at that time, it is a nice reminder of just how inventive and cutting edge he was capable of being.
It is perhaps of some use for viewers of “Wreck-It Ralph” to possess a nostalgia-infused appreciation for the video games of the 1980s and 90s. Given the gob-smacking amount of references to video games of that era and cameos by the characters which star in them, the fact that I spent much of my teen years alone in a dank and dingy basement, embroiled in the act of hitting buttons which corresponded to bits of colorful data certainly added to the whole experience. Luckily, such a personal history is not a prerequisite for enjoyment of the film.
The film’s love of retro gaming aside, “Wreck-It Ralph” is actually about the benefits of a modern-day caste system. With video game characters permanently forced to work in whatever job they were born into less they risk their own destruction, “Wreck-It Ralph” is about knowing one’s place in society and accepting it. There is no upwards or even sideways mobility in the reality of video game characters. Just the same job everyday for however long your video game remains plugged in. The only real criticism being about a lack of appreciation for the overlooked or pre-judged. With the level of sentience on display in this film, I had hoped that it might contain some sort class warfare revolution by the bit characters on the grounds of insufficient wages, a general strike against the tyranny of their human oppressors, or at least a monologue about freewill and the injustices of being programed, especially when one of the characters gets access to an arcade game’s mainframe enabling the manipulation the coding of the game and fellow characters. Alas, this was a fool’s hope.
Ralph (voiced by John C. Reily) is the villainous star of a Donkey Kong-era arcade game called Wreck-It Ralph. In it, Ralph angrily tries to destroy a new high-rise apartment building while Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer), controlled by the user, frantically makes repairs. Like Toy Story, the characters in video games have strict protocols regarding how they must act in the presence of humans, but can do pretty much whatever they want when the arcade is closed. Having played the bad guy for thirty years, with a generally crummy personal life, it isn’t that Ralph hates his job, it is that he hates not being appreciated for what he does. Everyone assumes he is a big jerk, because his day job is being a big jerk. Naturally Ralph is really a nice guy who just wants some friends and to move out of the dumpster he is forced to live in. He attends AAA-like group to deal with these frustrations, but like Edward Norton in “Fight Club,” it doesn’t work, and more desperate measures become necessary.
Fed up, Ralph takes matters into his own gigantic hands by entering into a Halo-style first person shooter called Hero’s Duty in order to claim a medal as validation for his inner goodness. (Nevermind about why and how characters can transfer between games.) Ralph succeeds but inadvertently brings a rapidly-multiplying parasite into a Candyland-inspired go-kart racing game called “Sugar Rush,” which threatens all of the characters in all of the video games in the arcade. While in “Sugar Rush” Ralph meets Vanellope von Schweetz, (Sarah Silverman), his impossibly cute and plucky young foil, who bears a “glitch” that has caused her to be banned from racing by King Candy (Alan Tudyk), who is less benevolent then his name would suggest.
The film is every bit the visual extravaganza one has come to expect from high quality digital animation. The colors explode off the screen in a series of eye-popping and heart pumping sequences occurring amidst layered and vibrant backdrops that will have even the most hyperactive child sitting in rapt attention. It is just a shame that the narrative is not quite as rich and textured as the film’s visual effects, which peak with an ending containing the standard fare of chases and last minute showdowns. As a clever bit of highly-commercialized, animated fun, Wreck-It Ralph delivers. As a challenging piece about class struggle or free will, “Wreck-It Ralph” is sorely lacking.