Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016, Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson, Alessandro Carloni) English 5

Voices of Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, J.K Simmons, Bryan Cranston, Seth Rogen, David Cross, Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan, Kate Hudson, James Hong, Randall Duk Kim, Jean-Claude Van Damme

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(5-Okay Film)

Amiable. Attractive. Worn.

The third installment in the saga following the legendary dragon warrior, Po (voiced by Black) features more backstory as we meet his father (Cranston) and an entire Panda community. Meanwhile, an undead warrior, Kai (Simmons) returns to wreak havoc and establish himself  as the ultimate kung fu master. Like its predecessors, it goes down easily enough, and some of the diverse animation is spectacular, but the substance isn’t there. There’s nothing very compelling pushing the story forward and the humor isn’t there. It relies too heavily on the cuteness factor of the new panda characters.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(782)

The Princess and the Frog (2009, Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker) English 8

Voices of Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Keith David, Jim Cummings, Jennifer Lewis, John Goodman, Michael Leon Wooley, Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Lovely. Old-fashioned. Underappreciated.

       Traditional animation is a thing of the past for Walt Disney Animation Studios. The lovely, hand-drawn, two-dimensional work that made Disney famous (Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi, Cinderella) has given way to three-dimensional computer animation, first achieved by Pixar (Toy Story), now taken up by just about every American animation studio including Disney itself. Ten years ago, around Christmas, saw the last time Disney released a big-budget 2-D animated flick, The Princess and the Frog, with the more modest release of Winnie the Pooh following 2 years later. Neither film proved a hit financially, though both were critically acclaimed. In the meantime, the computer-animated Disney films Tangled (2010), Wreck-it-Ralph (2012), Frozen (2013), etc., each made at least $450 million worldwide, with Frozen going over a billion on its way to becoming the second-highest-grossing animated film of all-time (not adjusted for inflation). Does this demonstrate that people aren’t drawn to 2-D animation anymore? Has 2-D animation become like black-and-white photography? I don’t think so, though it’s hard to prove. I know it’s different cultures and demographics, but anime is more popular than ever. Your Name made over $350 million worldwide just 3 years ago. And I’ve never heard a kid complain about the animation of Snow White or Pinocchio or The Lion King the way most kids will complain if you try to get them to watch black-and-white classics. So traditional animation doesn’t appear to be “antiquated” in the same way as black-and-white filming.  It’s difficult to put my finger on just what did hold The Princess and the Frog back from becoming the global hit most other Disney princess movies are and I suspect the easy answers aren’t any good. For one thing, traditional animation was floundering for years before The Princess and the Frog. Atlantis, Treasure Planet, Brother Bear, and Home on the Range had varying levels of success but I think it’s safe to say that each of them was disappointing in some way (either commercially or critically). Maybe it’s a case of guilt by association. The Princess and the Frog looks like those movies. Tangled is a huge success. Let’s stop making movies that look like the former and emulate the latter. Whatever the case, it’s a shame that The Princess and the Frog isn’t more appreciated or even seen, because it’s quite a film. It’s not on the level of Disney’s very best but I’d place it on that very next tier which is still pretty special.

The film begins with a quick glimpse at the modest but happy childhood of heroine, Tatiana (voiced by Rose), and then we flash forward many years to see her as a hard-working adult in 1920’s New Orleans trying to save up enough money to own a restaurant. Tatiana is black, making her the first black Disney princess (the only one to date), so from the very first minute, before we know if the film is any good, we know it’s important, and we hope that it’s good and worthy. I say Tatiana is a good role model for anyone watching. She doesn’t have time for much fun, as she sings in the film’s best song “Almost There,” but she’s not a shrew either. Then there is Prince Naveen (voiced by Campos), a cad, recently cut off from his parent’s money. He arrives in New Orleans with two choices: get a job or marry someone rich. His rogue heart is set on marrying someone rich. It’s noteworthy to me, and it’s one of my few quibbles with the movie, that Naveen is ethnically ambiguous, which is fine, but I really would have preferred a black prince. There’s some good to be found in portraying love between a mixed couple, certainly, but there are so few positive depictions of black males in the media in general that I believe an opportunity was missed. Anyways, Naveen gets mixed up with a local voodoo practitioner named Dr. Facilier (voiced by Keith David and it’s a great voice as anyone who’s seen Gargoyles will remember) and ends up a frog. If he doesn’t kiss a princess by a specific time, he’ll remain a frog for the rest of his life. Finding Tatiana at a costume party and mistaking her for a princess thanks to her costume, he convinces her to kiss him, but she winds up a frog as well. The two travel across the bayou looking for Madame Odie (voiced by Lewis), who might be there only chance at changing back.

As the first attempt by Disney to feature black characters in the lead, The Princess and the Frog is open to intense scrutiny. Maybe it suffered a bit from that, but most of what I’ve heard in the form of criticism is nonsense. I recall Paul Mooney complaining that Tatiana spends most of the film’s runtime as a frog. I say who cares, though that’s not much of a counter-argument. Also, there were questions about the Disney princess formula running out of steam. Perhaps The Princess and the Frog is too traditional. It’s classic formula through and through: princess, prince, music, villain, colorful side characters, animals. I love the formula and don’t think the formula will ever truly die. Tangled came out a year later and resurrected it while Frozen put to rest the idea of stopping Disney princess films for good. I don’t know why but The Princess and the Frog failed to surprise people and somehow Tangled and Frozen gave the impression of something completely new, despite all following that same formula. I happen to think The Princess and the Frog is better than Frozen while Tangled is the best of the three. The Princess and the Frog is one of the most beautifully animated films Disney’s ever produced. It has a cast full of great characters including a standout villain, great music by Randy Newman, and a fun story to get you from the opening credits to happily-ever-after. I suppose it will just have to settle for being underrated.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(776)

Home on the Range (2004, Directed by Will Finn and John Sanford) English 6

Voices of Roseanne Barr, Judi Dench, Randy Quaid, Jennifer Tilly, Cuba Gooding Jr., Steve Buscemi

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(6-Good Film)

Modest. Enjoyable. Uninspired.

Caught between the awesome spectacles that Disney Animation produced in the ’90s and the free-spirited energy of classic Warner Bros. animation, Home on the Range is so slight and inconsequential that it’s largely been forgotten among Disney Animation’s official canon. Roseanne Barr voices Maggie, a prize cow making a new home on a farm called Patch of Heaven, but after finding out that the farm’s owner owes too much money to keep the place, she and two other cows turn bounty hunter in order to pay off the debts. There are a number of positives: the voice acting, the distinct characters, the music even is pretty good. However, ultimately there isn’t much to this picture, and it’s best simply for passing time.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(768)

Wreck-It Ralph (2012, Directed by Rich Moore) English 6

Voices of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack MacBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk, Mindy Kaling

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(7-Very Good Film)

Colorful. Clever. Light.

Ralph (Reilly) is the villain of a classic arcade video game called Fix-it Felix Jr., but every once in awhile, he’d like to be the hero. “Just because he’s the bad guy, doesn’t mean he’s a bad guy.” At night, when the game ends, and all the characters go home, he’d like to be treated as part of the gang. Seeing that that’s never going to happen, he sees an opportunity to be a hero by sneaking into other games at the arcade, and eventually he ends up in Sugar Rush, a racing game where he meets Vanellope von Schweetz (Silverman), King Candy (Tudyk), and a host of other characters on his quest to win a medal and return to his game a hero. Top shelf animation, vibrant visuals, and a premise abundant with possibilities. It’s a terrific adventure film and a prime example of Disney’s second Renaissance.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(767)

The Black Cauldron (1985, Directed by Ted Berman and Richard Rich) English 7

Voices of John Hurt, Nigel Hawthorne, Susan Sheridan, Freddie Jones, Grant Bardsley, John Huston

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(7-Very Good Film)

Exciting. Impressive. Undercooked.

A pig keeper, Taran, fights to protect his pig’s mystical powers from an evil king looking for a powerful magic object. The accepted run time for animated movies does not really allow for the full scope of an epic story such as Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, and apparently many of the more creative elements of this film were weeded out by executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, but still, this animated flick boasts great animation, some darker material than we’re used to from Disney, and a thick coating of eighties camp that makes it interesting. I wish they would have followed through on the telling this dark adventure though.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(764)

Little Match Girl (2006, Directed by Roger Allers) English 10

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(10-Masterpiece)

Consummate. Moving. Beautiful.

Based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen (how many great Disney films has he inspired?), this short follows a young orphan girl as she looks to sell matches from her box for money to live on. Later that night, having not sold any, she strikes up all the matches to find their warmth replay the best memories of her life, and she’s able to sink off into a world of fantasy as life leaves her body. This is an incredibly sad story, all the more so since it eschews the traditional Disney fairy tale ending. It’s beautifully animated and moving. The perfect short.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(741)

Get a Horse! (2013, Directed by Lauren MacMullen) English 6

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(6-Good Film)

Nostalgic. Zany. Fast.

Attempting to update a classic Mickey Mouse cartoon for modern times, this short starts off with Mickey in a quintessential premise. The big bully, Pete, is after Mickey’s girl, Minnie, and it’s up to Disney’s greatest creation to save her. Complicating matters, and putting a new spin on the material, is the breaking of the fourth wall, almost literally. Mickey breaks through the theater screen and becomes a three-dimensional figure. The short then sees Mickey using the fourth wall and his bag of tricks to stop Pete. Much of the short is clearly designed to show off the then-booming trend of 3-D. Thankfully, the film avoids being outright gimmicky. It’s a solid piece of animation, though Mickey looks a whole lot better in 2-D.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(738)