Seven Family Films from Disney
Big Hero 6 (December 4/14)
Based on an obscure Marvel comic book, Big Hero 6 follows Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) as he becomes a bona fide superhero after teaming up with a ragtag crew of gifted friends. There's little doubt that Big Hero 6 fares much better in its first half than second, as filmmakers Don Hall and Chris Williams have infused the early part of the movie with a fast-paced and impressively energetic feel that proves impossible to resist - with the film's compulsively watchable atmosphere heightened by its memorable characters and vibrant animation style. It's clear, too, that the film benefits substantially from the thoroughly appealing relationship between Hiro and his brother's robotic creation, Baymax (Scott Adsit), while the movie's laundry list of affable periphery figures, including T.J. Miller's Fred and James Cromwell's Robert, perpetuate the thoroughly agreeable vibe. It's rather disappointing to note, then, that the film takes a turn for the worse past a certain point, as Hall and Williams slowly-but-surely transform Big Hero 6 into just another run-of-the-mill, hopelessly generic superhero movie. The narrative's growing emphasis on the title group's origin story is tedious and overly familiar, while the excess of action that crops up towards the end ensures that Big Hero 6, in its final stretch, becomes an almost interminable experience. The end result is a Disney flick that fares just as poorly as the company's other 2014 endeavor, Planes: Fire & Rescue, with the movie's failure made all-the-more-disappointing given the effectiveness of its opening half hour.
Disney The Secret of the Magic Gourd
Disney The Secret of the Magic Gourd follows a young boy named Wang Bao (Qilong Zhu) as he discovers a magical gourd that can grant his every wish, with problems ensuing as it becomes increasingly clear that said magical gourd's wish-granting abilities could use some work. It's an appealing setup that's employed to consistently (and shockingly) bottom-of-the-barrel effect by director Frankie Chung, as the filmmaker, working from Tianyi Zhang's screenplay, has suffused the proceedings with a larger-than-life and relentlessly over-the-top feel that grows tiresome almost immediately. The movie's amateurish atmosphere is perpetuated by Zhu's nails-on-a-chalkboard turn as the annoying central character, and although the special effects here are actually rather impressive, Chung devotes much of Disney The Secret of the Magic Gourd's running time to one silly, kid-friendly set piece after another (eg the gourd brings an entire toy store to life, helps Wang cheat at a swim meet, etc, etc). It seems clear that small children will thrill to the gourd's childlike personality and penchant for wacky antics, but viewers over a certain age are left with absolutely nothing to sustain their interest - which, in the end, cements Disney The Secret of the Magic Gourd's place as a thoroughly worthless family film that squanders a decent premise from start to finish.
Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, Frozen follows Kristen Bell's Anna as she teams up with a kind stranger (Jonathan Groff's Kristoff) and a goofy snowman (Josh Gad's Olaf) to track down (and save) her misunderstood sister (Idina Menzel's Elsa). It's precisely the sort of irresistible, family-friendly premise that Disney has long-since perfected, which, of course, ensures that Frozen is generally as entertaining and engrossing as one might've anticipated. Filmmakers Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee effectively capture the viewer's interest right from the get-go, with the inherently-captivating narrative heightened by eye-popping animation and an assortment of memorable musical numbers. It's just as clear, however, that Frozen does stumble to a slight degree in its midsection, as the emphasis on the central trio's ramshackle trek puts a strain on the movie's momentum - with the wealth of compelling characters, for the most part, compensating for the less-than-engrossing narrative. (Gad's scene-stealing turn as Olaf is, for example, a consistent highlight within the proceedings.) Once it passes a certain point, though, Frozen assumes a palpably propulsive feel that carries it right through to its effective (and affecting) conclusion - which ultimately does cement the movie's place as a typically above-average effort from Disney.
Inside Out (June 26/15)
Pixar's distressing run of watchable yet far-from-exceptional pictures continues with Inside Out, which is certainly quite a shame, of course, given that the movie boasts a typically eye-popping visual sensibility and a number of almost astonishing creative set-pieces. The narrative follows an adolescent named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) as her life is thrown into turmoil after her parents decide to move to San Francisco, with the bulk of the movie transpiring within the deepest recesses of her mind - where five emotions (Amy Poehler's Joy, Phyllis Smith's Sadness, Bill Hader's Fear, Lewis Black's Anger, and Mindy Kaling's Disgust) attempt to keep Riley on an even keel during this difficult time. Filmmakers Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen have infused the early part of Inside Out with a freewheeling, episodic vibe that's more amusing than engrossing, with the emphasis placed on the emotions' oddball exploits and the admittedly clever workings of Riley's mind (eg the revelation of where earworms come from). It's only as two emotions, Joy and Sadness, embark on a road trip-like journey through Riley's candy-colored subconscious, with the majority of the film's midsection suffering from a dumbed-down, for-kids-only sort of vibe that proves impossible to wholeheartedly embrace (ie it's just so silly). And although there are a few nice moments between Riley and her parents in the movie's final stretch, Inside Out's relentlessly broad atmosphere ensures that its emotional impact is virtually non-existent - which confirms the movie's place as an ambitious effort that never quite achieves liftoff.
Pete's Dragon (July 30/15)
Saddled with an absurdly overlong running time (128 minutes!) and a raft of forgettable songs, Pete's Dragon quickly establishes itself as an unusually tedious Disney musical that boasts few positive attributes - with the movie's sole bright spot its agreeably pleasant animated treatment of the title character. The padded-out narrative follows a young boy named Pete (Sean Marshall) as he and his pet dragon arrive in a small town after escaping from his abusive foster parents, with Pete's eventually forming (and benefiting from) a familial bond with a friendly lighthouse keeper (Helen Reddy's Nora) and her alcoholic father (Mickey Rooney's Lampie). Pete's Dragon, in its initial stages, comes off as an affable (if far-from-memorable) family picture that grows less and less interesting as it progresses, with filmmaker Don Chaffey's head-scratching decision to employ as deliberate a pace as one could envision highlighting the various deficiencies within the proceedings. (It doesn't help, either, that Chaffey, along with director of photography Frank Phillips, suffuses Pete's Dragon with a grainy and unusually unpleasant visual sensibility.) The dragon, conceived and executed by Don Bluth, is admittedly a charming figure and its chemistry with Marshall's Pete is palpable, yet the pair's scenes together are far too scarce to overcome the otherwise interminable storyline (ie who cares about Reddy and Rooney's respective characters?) The decidedly bottom-of-the-barrel atmosphere paves the way for thoroughly underwhelming climactic stretch, and it's finally impossible not to wonder just why Pete's Dragon is regarded as anything but a total trainwreck.
The Princess and the Frog (August 13/15)
Set in New Orleans, The Princess and the Frog follows Anika Noni Rose's Tiana as she and a handsome prince (Bruno Campos' Naveen) are transformed into frogs by a voodoo sorcerer named Dr. Facilier (Keith David) - with the movie detailing the would-be couple's inevitable efforts at regaining their human identities. It's hard to deny that The Princess and the Frog gets off to a thoroughly entertaining start, as directors Ron Clements and John Musker have infused the proceedings with precisely the sort of easygoing, visually-stunning atmosphere one expects from the Disney studio. It's clear, too, that the movie benefits substantially from Randy Newman's assortment of impressively memorable songs, while the New Orleans setting paves the way for a number of innovative, original set pieces and sequences (eg a dream sequence unfolds in a striking art deco style). And yet The Princess and the Frog remains unable to wholeheartedly sustain the viewer's interest during its second half, with the movie suffering from a been-there-done-that feel that slowly-but-surely renders its positive attributes moot. It does, as a result, become virtually impossible to care about the protagonists' ongoing exploits, and there's little doubt that the action-oriented climax only exacerbates the movie's less-than-engrossing vibe. The sweet finale ensures that the whole thing ends on a positive note, admittedly, but it's simply not enough to compensate for The Princess and the Frog's otherwise lackluster, overly familiar sensibilities.
Robin Hood (August 11/15)
One of the worst animated films ever produced by Disney, Robin Hood reimagines the iconic title character as a feisty fox and details his ongoing adventures in Sherwood Forest alongside such familiar figures as Little John, Friar Tuck, and Maid Marian. It's a well-worn tale that's told with as little energy and momentum as one could possibly imagine, with the movie progressing at an almost impossibly sluggish pace and suffering from a serious lack of compelling sequences. It is, as a result, not surprising to note that the episodic narrative is devoid of elements designed to hold the viewer's interest, with the uninvolving atmosphere compounded by a selection of hopelessly underdeveloped characters that are, for the most part, impossible to root for. The bright, vibrant animation is Robin Hood's sole saving grace, although even this aspect of the proceedings rarely manages to impress as much as one might've expected (ie there's just something mechanical and by-the-numbers to the film's look). Filmmaker Wolfgang Reitherman's decision to gear the movie primarily towards small children is evident in virtually every frame, as most sequences are lined with bottom-of-the-barrel jokes and simplistic characterizations - which, in turn, prevents the viewer from forming any kind of connection to the material. By the time the noisy, frenetic climax rolls around, Robin Hood has completely snuffed out any potential its premise may have possessed and cemented its place as a justifiably forgotten Disney endeavor.