Monday, December 23, 2013

Disney's New Renaissance, Part 2: Are We In the New Golden Age?


In my first entry, I discussed some of the reasons the Renaissance was such an effective period of moviemaking and animation. Summed up, it was a time of ambitious, fearless projects, with strong, relateable protagonists, enhanced by a caliber writing teams creating signature songs for a host of dynamic supporting casts voiced by talented actors. It's a challenge to make all of that come together for a single movie, the fact that it easily managed that several times in a row speaks also to the amazing faith of executives (Jeffrey Katzenberg, Michael Eisner, Frank Wells, Ron Miller) who wanted the animation department to survive, having been very special to Walt himself, and giving Disney some of its most timeless characters.
In this second part of my two-part talk, I want to go into the current set of films, and discuss each of them more in-depth in terms of their Renaissance counterparts.

The creative team behind this current string of movies is certainly worthy of accolade, and the movies themselves are certainly noteworthy, but like I said in the first entry, I hesitate to declare a new Renaissance so readily, so immediately. I understand current society's need and want to have immediate feedback and make each moment so historically important so we can be a part of something and feel a part of something wide-reaching. While the revival movies are certainly wonderful, I think some time and distance is going to be necessary to judge these movies fairly. Remember, the Renaissance movies are now all close to 30 years old and they're still classics years later. I'm not saying that these current movies won't be regarded as classics 30 years from now, but I do want to see how they make a name for themselves after the initial flurry settles down.


The Beginning of the New Beginning: The Princess and the Frog (2009)
Based on the story "The Frog Princess" which itself is based on Grimm's "The Frog Prince", and one of three from the current era based in fairy tale (also common among the three is the fact that their titles change throughout production).
Princess and the Frog marked a return to traditional animation as well as animated musicals similar to what we'd gotten used to in the Renaissance.
Similar as well was the fact that Disney Animation was again facing lackluster movies and low critical and financial returns.
Treasure Planet had been an overblown dud, Brother Bear was mostly unimpressive, both Home on the Range and Chicken Little were seen as failures, and Meet the Robinsons and Bolt were only modest successes.
The New Orleans-set story of a waitress dreaming to own a restaurant and the poor prince turned frog out of a Voodoo curse had a lot going for it: Ron Clements and John Musker had worked through the Renaissance and were directing for this movie.
The strongest parts of the cast are Anika Noni Rose playing Tiana (billed as the canon's first black Disney princess), Jenifer Lewis as Mama Odie, and Keith David as The Shadow Man. David's strong and seductively powerful character also had one of the best villain songs in a while: "Friends on the Other Side", and Mama Odie was a wonderful guide, with an equall strong "Dig a Little Deeper", full of great sight gags, and some awesome lyric.
Also of strong note is Jim Cummings, in one of my favorite vocal performances from him ever, as Ray the firefly. A lot of soul and a lot of love is in his character, and it's actually the more effective love story of the movie to me.
I have some personal feelings about the message that's being put forth by the movie itself due to the choices they make, but that aside, there's a lot to praise: some of the animation sequences are throwbacks to Emperor's New Groove, the ambitious jazz-inspired music of New Orleans pervades much of the sound and helps elevate the story. For once, it feels like a true "American fairy tale" and that's quite an accomplishment.
The first movie to compare it against is The Little Mermaid. What sets the Renaissance apart from the Revival is this immediate comparison: the movie that kicks off the Renaissance is a true fantasy about a mermaid from an undersea kingdom. The movie that initiates the Revival is immediately more relateable without suspending disbelief: a New Orleans waitress who dreams of owning a restaurant? Substitute the location and the dream and you've got every young kid. But both Ariel and Tiana have a dream of something more and it makes us care about the character and get behind them in a big way.
The obvious comparison is to Tiana's counterparts who are fellow minority princesses: Jasmine in Aladdin, along with Mulan, and Pocahontas. In this comparison, I find Tiana almost unique. Jasmine and Pocahontas are both defiant of their fathers and Mulan takes matters into her own hands to protect her father. While an absent father figure is nothing new to Disney movies, a child fulfilling a promise to a parent is something decidedly non-Disney.
I also enjoy the comparison to the non-Disney Swan Princess, which was a little sadder and more meandering in tone and pace respectively, so I enjoyed how Princess and the Frog moved much more.
Tiana's one of the better-developed characters from Disney of recent memory, not just among the princesses and so I think in this case, she gets the edge over the Renaissance, but overall, the movie lacks a bit of magic from that era, though the "friends on the other side" are truly frightening.


A New Kind of Princess: Tangled (2010)
2010 signaled the transition toward computer animation being utilized more permanently (Winnie the Pooh a year later would be done in traditional animation again) with this Rapunzel adaptation which was actually a blend of both styles.
Tangled, though I find the name objectionable on an aesthetic level, was a more familiar throwback to the Renaissance, with an interesting and quirky Princess and Menken provided the music.
The cast, while a bit unorthodox, was quite effective: Mandy Moore as Rapunzel, Zachary Levi as Flynn, and Donna Murphy as Mother Gothel.
What set apart the Renaissance princesses were quirky personalities and subtle subversions of the expected stereotype. Tiana was self-made and Rapunzel was quite adventurous and independent. Moore brought a wonderful enthusiasm to her.
I also love the interesting villain of Mother Gothel, who initially seems like only a protective mother, concerned for her daughter's well-being. And even though the audience knows better, I always enjoy when it's not immediately obvious to the characters in the story why a character is evil. It's a solid surprise that makes them fall even further in the hero's eyes and is the mark of a strongly-written villain character.
Pasqual is also my favorite non-speaking animal supporting character in quite some time.
I compare Tangled most readily to Jasmine as well, someone cooped up, locked away from regular life. She also draws close comparisons to Belle, another bookworm. While I love the music and the animation was lovely, it's hard for me to take this over Jasmine and Belle, my two cartoon crushes when I was a kid. Sorry, Revival.


An Old-School Tribute: Winnie the Pooh (2011)
Everything about a new Winnie the Pooh screamed nostalgia. It's hard to compare the new movie to anything from the Renaissance since most of Pooh and Friends' adventures took place pre-that period.
I prefer much of The Many Adventures but what I'm proud of this Winnie the Pooh movie for not attempting to make a new style of Winnie the Pooh movie, like how they were puppets on Playhouse Disney for a while.
While it was extremely disconcerting hearing almost all new voices on all the characters (except the incomparable Jim Cummings still playing Pooh and Tigger), I thought they were all wonderful, particularly Craig Ferguson's Owl, but everyone made me feel right at home again in the Hundred Acre Wood. The formula for a Winnie the Pooh movie remains entirely unaltered, and surprisingly, the formula still works. While I award the movies based on the merits of their ambitions, Pooh stands quite considerably apart: strikingly traditional, and while maybe occasionally predictable, still refreshing in its familiar-feeling jokes and beats.
It felt like the movie was grossly under-marketed, with the exception of the wonderfully touching trailer, set to Keane's "Somewhere Only We Know". And it's an underrated movie, immediately drawing comparisons for me to Rescuers Down Under, whose marketing got pulled once it failed to do well on its opening weekend.
I loved the old-school throwback, though I do prefer the original voices, who just got the characters more, and the stories are unforgettable in the original Many Adventures.
But on one merit alone, I find this whole franchise truly amazing: for decades I've managed to say the name of the character "Pooh" without feeling weird.


Renewed Confidence: Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
Ralph marks a unique turnaround in the Disney/Pixar unofficial competition: Wreck-It Ralph, made in a Pixar style, was a Disney movie that outperformed Pixar's actual outing, Brave, which had a decidedly Disney feel to it.
In a Freaky Friday sort of situation where they switched with each other, it was Disney that reigned supreme.
Being a non-musical entry, the film most immediately compares to the Renaissance's Rescuers Down Under, and while I have infinite love for the mice and that John Candy-voiced Albatross, I have to give the tip of the hat to Ralph.
One thing that Pixar is especially good at is world-building. In addition to fantastic stories, you are introduced to an entire world with its own set of rules and laws, a sense of hierarchy and tradition, and customs and culture. Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., and The Incredibles are among my highest-rated. There are new kinds of physics introduced, along with environments and philosophies that we as the audience understand because the characters are so clear about them without ever feeling like they're front-loading exposition on us. The characters are vaguely human in this way. The Monsters and the ants of A Bug's Life are factory workers, clocking in, taking breaks, organizing under middle management. Nemo goes to school and his first day includes a class field trip. Wall-E's backstory is dark and while it could have easily been much preachier, easily manages to avoid that pitfall.
The arcade world of Wreck-It Ralph is littered with pop culture references for the video game crowd, both serious and casual, as well as those who grew up in the 80's, 90's, or 00's. But it's governed by specific laws and by-laws that make the world unique. Being based in an arcade of different games allows the sets to be diverse and see so many different, unique aspects of a single world.
For all of its dynamic characters, the worlds of Toy Story are remarkably static, with 1 consisting mostly of Andy's bedroom and some of the house (with a third act in Sid's much more evil room). While 2 has a much more expansive detour to the Toy Barn, the airport, and again Andy's house, it revolves mostly around Al's apartment. And 3 is contained almost entirely within the preschool, with many of the sets similar (the Butterfly room is really only a different color from the Caterpillar room). Many of the other Pixar movies are the same. The worlds are well-developed, but very self-contained. With Ralph, I feel there are quite literally worlds of possibilities and we only got to see a small handful of them (Ralph and Felix's, the race track candy world of Sugar Rush, and the tension-filled first person shooter Hero's Duty, along with the wonderful Grand Central Terminal, where all the video games intersect through the power cords).
Ralph manages to contain both a well-established dynamic world and easily compelling characters, from John C. Reilly's Wreck-It Ralph, to Sarah Silverman's glitchy Vanellope, and Jack McBrayer's Felix and Jane Lynch's Sergeant Calhoun. Even Alan Tudyk's Ed Wynn impression for the Candy King is remarkable, and is another example of a subtly brilliant villain. His speech to Ralph that ends the second act had me fooled and I still didn't think he was the villain of the piece.
Vanellope's character is effectively the "princess" of the piece and she and Lynch's Calhoun easily subvert the Disney Princess trope. Both are strong-willed, independent women and both admirable female role models to me.
I can't think of an immediate comparison from the Renaissance era to match Wreck-It, it stands decidedly on its own, though the Pixar comparison is more apt. It succeeds on levels that only Pixar was once thought capable of, and in many ways it is superior to some of Pixar's weaker entries (I'd rank it above Bug's Life and there's a part of me that ties it closely with Monsters Inc., so I don't know who edges out whom).


Approaching Excellence: Frozen (2013)
And now we reach the instigator of this entire discussion, this years' Frozen. 
Again, going back to Broadway for its roots, the songs were composed by Kristen Anderson-Lopez (who previously did music for Winnie the Pooh and the stage version of Finding Nemo) and her husband Robert Lopez, who is responsible for two Tony Award-winning musicals: Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon, and most of its cast are Broadway veterans: Idina Menzel, Santino Fontana, Josh Gad, and Jonathan Groff.
An unexpected surprise is Kristen Bell as the lead, who, like Mandy Moore, brought a wonderful personality out of her character Anna. She's so earnest and quirky, it makes for a wonderful combination.
What is really curious about the marketing of the film was that they were focusing mostly on Josh Gad's character of the snowman, Olaf. It seemed like they were trying to market something similar to Aladdin's Genie, or Lion King's Timon and Pumbaa. I wasn't sure what the intent was, but the fact that it was about sisters, or the magical powers of Elsa would have been enough to bring people to this film. If anything, I wasn't looking forward to it initially because of the push of Olaf (who is actually way more cool in the full-length film than he is in the commercials). Frozen is a perfect reestablishment of the status quo. Much like Shawn of the Dead simultaneously parodied zombie movies while also creating a legitimately awesome zombie movie, Frozen makes fun of some of the Disney tropes while also wonderfully subverting them and making them feel new. "Love at first sight", and "an act of true love" are both given new meaning. A sister dynamic has never been used in a Disney film animated before. Most of the male and female heroes are decidedly solo acts, either orphans or only children, or a miserable combination of both. It's very interesting to have a Disney movie focusing on a sister act, which makes me love it.
Of course, the music is wonderful, particularly Elsa's solo "Let It Go", and there's strong echoes of Idina Menzel's previous performance as Elphaba in Wicked. There's actually a lot of parallels: a daughter who's powers make her an outcast and set her apart from her non-magic sister who feels neglected and underappreciated, and when she is finally allowed to use her powers it leads to misunderstandings with the "common folk."

That said, I think Frozen is the most fully realized piece of this new Revival era, which compares it to Beauty and the Beast (which also features a powerful, misunderstood outcast). But the Renaissance was faster in that turnaround, with it starting with Little Mermaid in '89, and hitting full-stride by '91, it's taken the Revival twice as long.
This is more a comment on just how good Frozen is rather than how weak the rest of this Revival is. They are all arguably good, but that only goes so far. Are we seeing an improvement in the Disney Animated product overall? Definitely. These last few movies have been the highest-rated and most financially successful animated movies Disney has produced (without Pixar) in a couple decades.
I'm still hesitant to call it a new Renaissance, but there is definitely a reinvigorated energy in the product. With continuing to hire smart composers and songwriters, excellent and unexpected voice casting, and strong stories bolstered by dynamic protagonists (and with John Lasseter now at the helm of animation) I think we're well on our way to seeing something approaching the marvelous films of the Renaissance era. Until then, let's all just enjoy the ride, shall we?