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

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(7-Very Good Film)

Bleak. Perplexing. Vivid.

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 life doing a thankless job. Strong work though with an ultra crude visual style.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(813)

Peter Pan (1953, Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske) English 6

Voices of Bobby Driscoll, Hans Conreid, Kathryn Beaumont, Bill Thompson, Heather Angel

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(6-Good Film)

Inventive. Spirited. Winsome.

A flying boy, with the help of his loyal friend and fairy, Tinker Bell, takes a trio of couped-up children to the magical, adventure-filled world of Neverland, where nobody ages. Peter Pan is an extraordinary story (by J.M Barrie) that has never translated into an extraordinary film. As nostalgic as Spielberg’s Hook is or as wonderfully animated as this, Disney’s 1953 version is, they lack the depth and the magic of Barrie’s original. Disney instead goes for pure adventure and succeeds on its terms. The animation is impressive, exciting, what-have-you. The designs of each character, especially Pan and Tinker Bell, are iconic. The story, however, loses something with very little time given to character development. It’s more about personalities than characters.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(810)

The Grinch (2018, Directed by Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney) 6

Voices of Benedict Cumberbatch, Rashida Jones, Kenan Thompson, Pharrell Williams, Angela Lansbury

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(6-Good Film)

Sweet. Appealing. Unspectacular.

Dr. Seuss’ wonderful stories have yet to translate to cinematic gold. There’ve been commercial hits, this version of The Grinch included, but none of them are great and I do think the potential is there for something exceptional. Nineteen years after Jim Carrey’s bizarre but interesting take on the green misanthrope, Benedict Cumberbatch takes over in a much sweeter, animated version. You likely know the story but in case you don’t, it features a hairy green creature, known as the Grinch, who lives life as an outcast in the jolly land of Whoville.  Christmas is the town’s favorite time of year but the Grinch hates Christmas and decides to do something about it. He pretends to be Santa Claus in order to steal everyone’s gifts and sabotage the holiday. The Jim Carrey led Grinch was pretty obnoxious and the Whos were materialistic and unlikable, although I think Carrey was a force of nature in the role. This Grinch is much more likable. It’s a pleasing, beautifully animated picture but suffers from a lack of real menace out of its title character. That’s disappointing. As a result, it’s not funny enough, his transformation not astounding enough, and this rendition of The Grinch ends up being pretty forgettable.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(807)

Frozen 2 (2019, Directed by Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck) English 5

Voices of Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Sterling K. Brown, Evan Rachel Wood, Alfred Molina, Jeremy Sisto, Ciarán Hinds, Alan Tudyk

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(5-Okay Film)

Dim. Joyless. Meandering.

When it comes to film, it’s not that I necessarily enjoy going against the grain of popular opinion. I just don’t mind it. I’m confident, assured, not that my opinion is right, but that my opinion is honest and fair.  Untainted by malice or lurking variables. I go into every theater wanting to like what I’m watching. I don’t prepare my headlines beforehand (unlike many professional critics for Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto). I don’t formulate my bottom-line until after the credits roll, usually a day or two after. At the same time, my feelings about a film ten minutes into watching it are typically pretty close to my feelings after its finish. Ten minutes into watching Frozen 2, I was bored and waiting for Disney’s latest to kick it into high gear. For me, it never did. Some may appreciate the darker-toned adventure tale. I think Frozen 2 feels more like a spinoff than a sequel. Better yet, a series of deleted scenes from the first that are inessential but intriguing if you’re a massive fan of Anna and Elsa. I am not. I liked Frozen. I liked Frozen 2 less.

It starts off with Anna and Elsa as children, told their family’s history by their father and mother. Through the latter pair’s epic story, we learn of King Runeard, Anna and Elsa’s grandfather, of a distant land known as Northuldra, of a foreign people who befriended the knights of Arendelle and who wield the magic power to control the elements (water, air, fire, earth). At this point, I wistfully thought of Avatar: The Last Airbender and much of the intrigue Frozen 2 attempted to create blew past me. Fast forward to after the events of the first Frozen and Christoff contemplates how he’s going to propose to Anna. Olaf and Sven have become like members of the royal family. All is good in Arendelle and yet when Elsa continues to hear voices, she sets off on a journey to “discover the truth about the kingdom’s past.” I find this to be a pretty abstract goal for characters to pursue in an adventure film (rainbows need gold at the end, not secrets), let alone a family movie. If you are going to shape an epic quest about discovering a secret, it better be mind-blowing. Frozen 2’s secret would be elementary for Dr. Watson. There are only 2 options. Someone started the feud between Arendelle and Northuldra. Forget spoilers, it’s either someone from Arendelle or Northuldra. Frozen 2 hides its simple mystery in convoluted plot construction. At no point was I 100% sure what the characters were striving for or where they were going. I hoped that the movie would get more entertaining once they got there.

Elsa really becomes the focal point this time around and, out of fairness, let me disqualify myself a bit here. She’s incredibly popular, but I’m uninterested in Elsa unless she’s singing me a song. I was uninterested in her angst and now that that is gone, she is even less interesting. How would you describe her character? It was okay when she was a supporting character to point to “Let It Go” as character development, but now that we’ve come to the sequel and she’s the star, I need more. They give less. She’s a moth chasing a flame the entire story. All of the interesting stuff online written about Elsa lives in the world of fan-fiction. She’s a queer icon, for example. You could say that Ursula from The Little Mermaid or Cruella De Vil from 101 Dalmations or Merida from Brave are lesbians if you wanted to, but even if you don’t, they have other characteristics. Elsa’s nothing if she’s not a queer icon. They might as well have made it explicit (the implication, not the content obviously). Or would that be implicit? Whatever the case, she doesn’t do anything in this movie to deserve that admiration from part of the gay community.

The other characters are much stronger. Anna is an incredibly likable heroine, though she spends most of the film trying to follow Elsa and they’re both just plot devices in this sequel. Christoff, Sven, and Olaf provide the movie its only sense of fun, humor, and character motivation.

The animation is naturally first-rate. Disney is a first-rate animation studio. They have an insane amount of money and resources to work with and they didn’t skimp on Frozen 2. I wouldn’t suggest either that the filmmakers or actors mailed it in. Frozen 2 takes chances in abandoning any past template used for a Disney Princess picture (although maybe it’s a little similar to Moana). It seems more inspired by superhero origins stories than past Disney movies, but I’ll say the same thing I said about Moana and Brave. If there’s no romance and no villain then I’m probably bored. I honestly spent the first half of its running time thinking that the main plot hadn’t started yet. And I don’t have much to say about the soundtrack except that I won’t be buying it.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(803)

Lorenzo (2004, Directed by Mike Gabriel) English 7

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(7-Very Good Film)

Lovely. Entertaining. Slight.

A pompous, over-fed cat gets his due once a shabby stray puts a hex on him, or rather, his large, luxurious tail which then comes alive to torment its owner. Perhaps inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes,” the cat’s tail refuses to stop dancing, leading to some desperate acts and crazy situations, all in tune to its tango soundtrack. It’s an inspired piece of film-making, with incredible hand-drawn animation, aided by some computer wizardry. Beautifully expressionistic work recalling Disney’s masterpiece, Fantasia.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(797)

Klaus (2019, Directed by Sergio Pablos) English 7

Voices of Jason Schwartzman, J.K Simmons, Rashida Jones, Joan Cusack, Will Sasso, Norm MacDonald

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(7-Very Good Film)

Lovely. Offbeat. Winning.

Young, rich, entitled Jesper (Schwartzman) is given an ultimatum: post 6,000 letters in a year or face being cut off from his inheritance. His family owns the postal business, so working as a mailman in a miserable, remote island of Smeerensburg is a real come down. Finding, on arrival, a town torn by family feuds, Jesper doesn’t see any chance of hitting that 6,000 letter-mark until meeting a mysterious toymaker named Klaus (Simmons) who gives Jesper an idea to turn things around. Fresh take on the Santa Claus myth, Klaus tells a good story and compliments it with unique, well-crafted animation. It may seem an odd complaint but it lacks what I would describe as the Christmas spirit for most of the film. For the majority of its run time, we see everything through Jesper’s jaded eyes and Christmas is seen as a commercial opportunity. It’s not until the very end that Klaus really brings it home.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(792)

Monsters Inc. (2001, Directed by Pete Docter) English 9

Voices of Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, James Coburn, Jennifer Tilly, Frank Oz

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(9-Great Film)

Endearing. Cute. Attractive.

In the city of Monstropolis, monsters can live freely away from the terror human beings can inflict. Two monsters and best friends for life, Sully (Goodman) and Mike (Crystal), work as “scarers,” monsters whose job it is to get human children to scream which fuels their city. Soon the two buddies get caught up in a plan that sees an infant girl kidnapped and set about returning her to her home. Endlessly creative and inspired family comedy. Represents what makes Pixar king when it comes to animation. Funny and endearing, with top-notch voice acting.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(790)

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)