Frozen (2013, Directed by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck) English 6

Voices of Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Alan Tudyk, Santino Fontana

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(6-Good Film)

Strong. Bright. Satisfying.

Before Tangled was released in 2010, Dinsye bigshot Ed Catmull said it would be the last Disney princess film. Tangled was a huge success, and four years later comes Frozen, with two princesses for the price of one. Anna (Bell) feels shut off from her sister Elsa (Menzel) after the death of their parents. On Elsa’s coronation day, Anna, as well as the rest of the kingdom, learn the secret she was concealing when she turns the land into a frozen tundra and runs away. Anna sets off to find her with the help of her new companions: courageous Kristoff, his reindeer Sven, and the loyal snowman Olaf. Frozen was a colossal success, and it’s easy to see why. It has all the hallmarks of a Disney classic. It fails to rank for me with the cream of Disney’s crop, however, falling somewhere in the middle of the studio’s canon. Mainly, I feel there’s a huge gulf between the classic work of Alan Menken with the various brilliant songwriters on old Disney films during the Renaissance, and the soundtrack to Frozen, as popular as it is. There are plenty of catchy tunes, but they’re just not on the level of, say, The Little Mermaid, or Beauty and the Beast. The story lacks a strong villain in my eyes, and though the female empowerment elements prove a nice message, films like Mulan and The Princess and the Frog covered similar territory with more compelling endings.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(41)

 

 

Shrek 2 (2004, Directed by Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury, Conrad Vernon) English 9

Voices of Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas, Julie Andrews, John Cleese, Jennifer Saunders, Rupert Everett, Larry King

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(9-Great Movie)

Funny. Clever. Imaginative.

Shrek 2 represents the last great movie made by Dreamworks Animation, in my opinion, but they really did nail it here. The first Shrek took everyone by surprise with its edginess, creativity, and humor. Most of the freshness is gone by the sequel, but Shrek 2 overcomes that by being deeper, better story-wise,  with much help from the wonderful new character of Puss in Boots (Banderas). Newlyweds Shrek (Myers) and Fiona (Diaz), with Donkey (Murphy) tagging along (does anyone have a last name, by the way?), are invited to the Kingdom of Far, Far, Away to meet the King and Queen (voiced by John Cleese and Julie Andrews), a.k.a Fiona’s parents a.k.a the in-laws. It’s a frightening prospect for Shrek, and, just as he fears, the King immediately disapproves of him. In fact, the King goes so far as hiring the aforementioned Puss in Boots to kill Shrek. Behind the scenes, a sinister Fairy Godmother (Saunders) plots for her son, Prince Charming (Everett), to steal Fiona from Shrek and become next in line as King. Shrek 2, like the first, is very funny, playing off of expectations and the audience’s knowledge of fairy tales. It’s the right amount of sweet, spoofing fairy tales, while also delivering a great fairy tale story.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(19)

Christmas Challenge Film #1: The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993, Directed by Henry Selick)

First, the clichéd, age-old question: is it a Christmas or a Halloween film? The clear, non-insightful, only-correct answer is that The Nightmare Before Christmas is bizarrely, wonderfully both. I’ve made a habit of watching it either Halloween or the day after as an essential Holiday transitional piece. I gobble up the Halloween candy and fortify myself mentally for the onslaught of too-early, bad Christmas music around the immediate corner. I love The Nightmare Before Christmas, and prefer it as my first Christmas movie each year, because it’s dark, sly, and has a hint of malice to it. Until late in November, my yuletide cheer hasn’t switched on yet- it’s not Christmas time until Thanksgiving is over- and I’m not ready for all of your red and green treacle. Films like this one, Bad Santa, or Die Hard are more my speed until that point, at which time I fall victim to the Christmas spirit, and you can throw any level of corn at me, and I’ll bite.

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Anyways, I watched The Nightmare Before Christmas this year before work, on the first of November, by myself through Netflix, on a small computer screen. I’ve seen it enough times for the setting and conditions of my viewing it to be irrelevant. It’s a wonderful film.

If you haven’t seen it, I’d like to invite you to reexamine your priorities. Sprung from the mind of Tim Burton (Batman), executed and rendered in stop-motion by Henry Selick (Coraline, James and the Giant Peach), it tells the story of Jack Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon and Danny Elfman), loved and revered in his home community of Halloweentown, a land dedicated to the Fall holiday. Jack’s going through something of an existential crisis (there’s really no way of gauging how old he is, but I assume he’s middle aged). “Is this all there is?” he ponders.

         Year after year, it’s the same routine

And I grow so weary at the sound of screams

And I, Jack the Pumpkin King

Have grown so tired of the same old thing.

It’s an instantly relatable feeling, and The Nightmare Before Christmas has its heart and depth, that something that makes it more than just a breakthrough in stop-motion animation, more than a series of special effects, or a ghoul show. When Jack stumbles into a new world, one dedicated to Christmas, he believes he’s found his new destiny. Astounded by what he sees, he breaks into the film’s best song (which is saying something), What’s This. He decides to give Santa Claus a vacation, and fill in for him during Christmas. This proves a folly, one foreseen by Sally (voiced by Catherine O’Hara), always nearby, who, too, longs for something else in life. She’s desperately in love with Jack (clueless), and wants to be more than  Dr. Finkelstein’s lab assistant. Unable to convince Jack that his Christmas idea is a disastrous one, he goes through with it, and the results are humorously macabre. In the end, like John L. Sullivan in Sullivan’s Travels, Jack Skellington finds meaning in being himself, and takes pride in doing what he does best. It’s a meaningful theme given special credence considering how weird and oddball of a story we’re just gifted with, pulled off beautifully by filmmakers being themselves.

The whole production is a testament to strangeness and originality. How much time do you allow for appreciating the little things in film? Take some time with The Nightmare Before Christmas. It’s a gorgeous movie from a design standpoint, and seemless, technically amazing in its craft. No strings attached, you don’t see the hands of the artists unless you want to peak behind the curtains. You can watch it and be swept up in the incredibly efficient storytelling (76 minutes) without wondering how they make clay models look like they are talking (moving their lips) effectively. Howver, when you’v seen it twenty times and that question persists, perhaps it’s time to investigate. I’m sure there’s some “Making of” featurette I could watch.

Danny Elfman’s soundtrack is pretty iconic and it, like the film, is a major part of an entire counterculture. It’s to the goths what Easy Rider and its soundtrack was to hippies.

Strong and dependable start to my Christmas movie viewing.

(9-Great Film)

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

 

Corpse Bride (2005, Directed by Tim Burton) English 7

Voices of Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Emily Watson, Joanna Lumley, Richard E. Grant, Christopher Lee, Albert Finney

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(7-Very Good Film)

Offbeat. Beguiling. Distinctive.

Tim Burton has his own style of film. Ornate visuals, bizarre stories. His Corpse Bride, a lovely Gothic fantasy, follows awkward Victor Van Gort (Depp), unsure about his upcoming arranged marriage to Victoria (Watson), and, through a chance mishap, newly engaged to the corpse of Emily (Bonham Carter), murdered years before. Burton and his team of animators do amazing work from the elegant character design to the dark lighting scheme. It’s a morbidly beautiful film, and a fittingly oddball tale. Emily is a wonderful character. The major drawback is the slight runtime. I would have enjoyed a fuller story, and more time.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(48)

Shrek (2001, Directed by Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson) English 9

Starring Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, John Lithgow, Vincent Cassell

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(9-Great Film)

Funny. Clever. Unforgettable.

 After maybe a few dozen viewings in my life, watching Shrek will never be fresh again. No matter how long I go without seeing it, as soon as it’s on, I will know it line for line. It’s hard to recapture the feeling of when I first saw it in theaters, and was so blown away by how funny it was, but Shrek remains a wonderful movie. So well-written, animated (though somewhat diluted by time), and performed, with iconic voice work from its stars. The best spoofs to me are ones that poke fun at their genre, but also tell a great story within that genre (Scream, The Incredibles, The Princess Bride). That’s definitely the case with Shrek. The adventures of Shrek (Myers), the ogre, Donkey (Murphy), and Princess Fiona (Diaz) still make me smile.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

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Smallfoot (2018, Directed byKarey Kirkpatrick) English 5

Voices of Channing Tatum, Zendaya, Lebron James, James Corden, Gina Rodriguez, Common, Danny Devito, Yara Shahidi

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(5-Neutral Film)

Uninspired. Competent. Obvious.

I wish these animation studios, if even just occasionally, would risk making a terrible movie for the sake of reaching for greatness. Mix it up. For every three bland, guaranteed-to-turn-a-profit pictures they produce, how about make one where they take a chance? Instead, they’ve settled in, satisfied enough to make lucrative mediocrity. Everyone knows Pixar is still king of the mountain. Walt Disney Animation Studios is doing great work again (though their upcoming slate bears too many sequels), and Laika is making special movies (go watch Kubo if you’re unfamiliar with their work). Meanwhile, Dreamworks, Sony, and Warner Bros. keep giving us unexceptional, uninspired offerings, and I’m bored of it. Smallfoot, Warner Bros.’ latest, imagines a world where yetis are afraid of humans (does it sound like Monster’s Inc. to you too?), though they’re told by their village leader that humans, or smallfoots, don’t exist. Channing Tatum voices Migo, a skeptical yeti, who meets a human, but without evidence, is unable to prove it. He then sets out to find the legendary smallfoots, and show his people that they’re real. It’s a fine story, with enough humor and colors and cookie-cutter songs to entertain, but I’m remembering that Warner Bros. animation was once a powerhouse producing Looney Tunes shorts and features, and now, no matter how much money this makes, they are completely irrelevant. Everything about this feature is just okay, and I find that sad.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

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Edmond was a Donkey (2012, Directed by Franck Dion) French 7

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Disconsolate Edmond is pranked by his office coworkers who put a pair of fake donkey ears on his head. To their astonishment, Edmond never takes them off. Never. Not while he’s asleep. Not when he’s at home. A bizarre take on mental illness and severe depression, this animated short also captures the monotony of a life doing a thankless job. Strong work though with an ultra crude visual style. Bleak. Perplexing. Vivid.