The landing page, with rationale and links to other posts in this series, can be found here.
Big Hero 6
2014, directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams
There are times when a movie being boring is kind of the point. Loving is sort of a boring movie. There are long stretches of Stalker which are well short of exciting. Columbus is not a thrill ride. Incidentally, those are three of the most meaningful movie-watching experiences I’ve had in the last two years. They sacrifice excitement for a pensive mood, forcing you to live the story in your head as much as you watch on the screen. Big Hero 6 is just the opposite. There’s always something happening, and somehow none of it is even a little interesting. There’s an intrigue as to who, exactly, is wearing a mysterious mask and doing mysterious things, although this intrigue is only arresting if you’ve never heard of Scooby-Doo. It’s the future and our protagonist is a tech prodigy whose microbots are indistinguishable for magic, as the saying goes; he’s followed around by his late brother’s last invention, a health services robot he has reconfigured to become a blow-up warrior. Baymax is the best part of the movie running away, but there’s a limit that anything which is only a punchline ex machina can do to build character, change us as viewers, and so on. I get a kick out of “Hairy baby!” even more than the next guy, but Baymax is sort of a tiny asteroid. He is personal depth personified compared to the the other members of the group that Hiro puts together to expose the INCREDIBLY ABSTRUSE BAD GUY WHOSE IDENTITY IS IMPOSSIBLE TO GUESS AHEAD OF TIME. Baymax gets to do friendly, opaque, drunk, and noble; everyone else in this group gets to be a single thing, and then gets to be that single thing over and over again until roll credits.
The thing that’s most annoying about this movie is how much time it spends on Hiro’s grief. When Tadashi goes up in flames, the kid brother who worshiped him is broken. He recedes into his bedroom, refusing to leave, not eating, actively rejecting his mother’s attempts to help him work through the pain. Hiro’s response is entirely understandable; grief is anger and impotence and untouchable sadness in waves of unpredictable size, and the movie does an adequate job of showing his unhappiness. In practice this can’t take up more than ten minutes of the movie, but it feels absolutely interminable because the movie has a hard time making this grief engaging. The text it reminds me most of, and this is meant to be a jab in the ribs, is Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. In that novel, which runs over 800 pages in the 2003 hardback edition, Harry spends virtually all of his time mourning one character before being given reason to mourn a much more important one by the end. It’s endless, and Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter) appears to have learned how to grieve from Harry in OotP. Big Hero 6 suffers even more when one considers that just a year later, Inside Out did a better job discussing (not to mention caring about) how to work through sadness by orders of magnitude.
Meet the Robinsons
2007, directed by Stephen John Anderson
Big Hero 6 has “Hairy baby!” Meet the Robinsons, another story largely set in the future with gizmos and gadgets aplenty and featuring a brilliant but troubled young man as its center, does it one better. Lewis, our genius, is cowering in between two exterior walls, amazed that he has managed to escape from an orange T-rex wearing a little bowler hat. The villain, Bowler Hat Guy—it’s a necessary alias, but yikes—wants to know why his dinosaur has not accosted the child. The theropod’s response will live forever. “I have a big head and little arms,” he says. It’s the movie’s high point, and whoever does the commercials knew it too: it was the kicker of every ad for the movie. And even if it never got any better, the movie at least has a little heart. Meet the Robinsons is a time travel story, which I understand is cool again, and as neat as the Tomorrowland of the film is, the movie focuses primarily on people rather than the nifty things they wield. Indeed, technology is understood to be a danger. It turns out that Bowler Hat Guy is controlled by the hi-tech bowler hat (“Doris,” who at least gets a name you could give a cat), not the other way around, and the world she imagines winning over is an industrial hellscape. For technology to be a benefit, it must be made and used with some kind of noble purpose, and such are the purposes that Lewis and his older self, Cornelius, envision. It’s the tool that he uses as a child to end up adopted, to change young Michael Yagoobian’s life for the better, to tie together the enormous family that the title hints at. Primarily what drags the film down is that the people we are meant to become so invested in are largely corny and one-note. It doesn’t help that the time-travel aspects of the movie are immediately jarring not just in the usual ways, but in basic characterization. Why doesn’t Wilbur’s mother immediately recognize the face of her husband from when he was a child, as he was when she first met him? Why don’t Lewis’ adoptive parents do the same? Why does a twelve-year-old let himself be renamed “Cornelius” in the space of four seconds? I have a big head and several questions.
As a teenager I remember being amazed and a little hurt at how Disney movies had essentially set down musicals for straight stories: so many of them were so successful, and what I was running into as a pre-teen and beyond was, as a rule, not. Meet the Robinsons has a surprisingly good set of musical pieces. Danny Elfman’s score is fine, as far as that goes, but there are two songs in the thread of the movie which are pretty good. One, playing over a montage of Lewis building his new invention starving Goob of his sleep, is “Another Believer,” sung by Rufus Wainwright. The other, “Where Is Your Heart At?” is sung by Jamie Cullum and performed within the movie by frogs.
The frogs got a fair share of commercial time as well, even though they never really amounted to much in the movie itself. But the song is a fun little kick in the pants just when the movie is about to get bogged down in its full time travel-ness, and of course the visual of Lewis in a Carmen Miranda-style hat, playing maracas while a small orchestra of frogs performs the song is winning, too.
1959, directed by Clyde Geronimi
Remember that Boy Meets World episode where Cory and Topanga have broken up and he decides to get hammered for the first time in his life to deal with that? Before he gets hammered, he and Shawn are in class learning about feudalism, and Shawn raises his hand. “Mr. Hunter?” Feeny says.
Shawn: I don’t wanna.
Feeny: You don’t wanna what.
Shawn: Boring. It’s boring!
Courtesy of Rider Strong, that’s my three-word review of Sleeping Beauty, a movie which I have tried to like on multiple occasions. I think it was a wise choice to put lyrics to Tchaikovsky’s music, like the wonderful “Once Upon a Dream” adaptation of the Garland Waltz. I think the muted color scheme, a surprisingly green and gray and brown affair, is beautiful, and simultaneously it doesn’t help the movie with the whole “boring” problem. Is there a Disney Princess with less devotion to her than Aurora? (Technically, yes: Eilonwy from The Black Cauldron, who I don’t even think the people at Disney think should count.) Even Cinderella and Snow White have more personality; I cannot remember a single thing that she says in this movie, although all of it is in the same sort of euphonious tone of voice. Where Snow White gets to eat a poisoned apple, which is wired, Aurora gets to prick her finger on a spinning wheel, which is tired. And although her presumptive near-death experience holds rather more sway over the kingdom—Comatose Beauty’s vegetative state ultimately causes everyone else in the kingdom to go to sleep, which is geopolitically quite interesting—it never reaches any state of suspense or interest. The animation, beautiful as it is, really does need more of a kick to keep us involved. Nor does she have the goofy sidekicks lined up that her princess peers have. We’ll talk about Cinderella’s mice; Snow White has those funny little fellas and a militia of woodland creatures. But Aurora, short of a very good scene with an owl, has three likewise dull fairies bustling about and no more. One waits for something to happen for an awfully long time in this movie, and one is largely disappointed.
I think out of the club of villainous old biddies from pre-1960s Disney movies (the Evil Queen, Lady Tremaine, etc.), Maleficent has a panache that none of the rest can match, a yas mean par excellence. There’s no ulterior motive to benefit someone else by being cruel to our poor little heroine. She is like Eris, the Greek goddess of spite, and she does wicked things seemingly just to do them; it may be that she is more like Lucifer, for when she comes to see why she has not been invited to the christening of baby Aurora, even the queen refers to her as “Your Excellency,” and certainly her pride is hurt when she is told that she was not wanted at the ceremony. Her look, although it must have been indebted to the Wicked Witch of the West in the by-then twenty-year-old Wizard of Oz, is wonderful. In a world where the people are Teutonic, she is minty green, wearing purple eyeshadow above yellow eyes. The horns are great. Such a shame, then, that there really isn’t much for her to do besides look menacing, and that when she engages in her final battle she chooses to do so not as herself, but as a dragon who spits green fire and dies a lame death at the hands of a truly milquetoast prince.
2011, directed by John Lasseter
Cars 2 has such a terrible reputation that I was a little scared going into it. It’s not good! I have it pretty firmly as the second-worst Pixar movie of the twenty that have been released so far, and it is annoyingly preachy (about loving your friends for who they are) even by the standards of movies made for children. But Cars 2 is, at least critically, a sacrificial lamb from the time when virtually every Pixar movie had been an instant classic, and the worst of its predecessors was its origin story. The resentment of Cars 2 outstrips its fairly low quality even into the present, I’d say, because I’ve had worse times watching a movie than the spy games that one Tow Mater finds himself wrapped up in. The opening scene of Cars 2, in which the pornographically named Finn McMissile (voiced by definite non-Scot Michael Caine) blows up the better part of an oil platform and escapes a number of cars and like, battleships which are arrayed to capture him, is active and exciting. (As much as any other scene in this loose trilogy, it made me ask a lot of epistemological questions about what it means to live in a world where all the people are cars.) The idea of a Grand Prix in which a bunch of international cars get together and race is fun in a sort of Speed Racer kind of way, although it seems incredible that what amounts to a number of assassination attempts is sort of shrugged off by whatever the automotive version of Interpol is. The homage to Witness was entirely unexpected, probably the most unexpected animated homage I’ve run into since that episode of Bob’s Burgers where Gene definitely lapses into Amarcord. I even bought the idea of Mater as a spy who is so bad he’s good, which, as far as plots go which I assumed would be awful, was surprisingly compelling. Cars 2 also hides its villain slightly better than Big Hero 6, so good on it.
The issue with Cars 2 is much the same problem that haunts Finding Dory. As a sequel, it is beholden to the set of characters that got it made in the first place, but the people making the sequel seem to have been much more interested in the goofy sidekick than they were in the protagonist of the previous movie. Cars 2 is the movie where we learn that Mater has more depth to him than Dory (I know), and it’s a movie which tries to give him a little bit of dignity between scenes where he obliterates an unfamiliar plate of wasabi and where he disguises himself as a taco truck. He is a fool, but he is well-meaning and genuine, and so the movie desperately wants us to grant him some grace, even though his antics literally jeopardize lives in this bizarre dystopia where cars are being with agency and feelings. That means that Lightning McQueen is more like a Lightning McGuffin in Cars 2. He has basically learned enough humility from Doc Hudson to make him a decent individual, but he hasn’t reached the obsolescence he’ll need to work around in Cars 3. In other words, the movie really doesn’t know what to do with him other than take him on a worldwide tour which then gives Mater a good hour to make mincemeat of western Europe.
1950, directed by Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, and Wilfred Jackson
I adore accidental absurdism in my mediocre movies, and one of my absolute favorites is in Cinderella. I went a very long time without seeing this movie, so although I knew the songs and understood the mice spoke in these curious high-pitched voices, I didn’t realize how weird they were until I was assaulted with them. They sound like French children trying to speak English at the speed of light. Scenes where they talk to each other without Cinderella’s intervention border on sheer lunacy. Even if I were not an avowed cat person, I kind of imagine that I would root for Lucifer (who runs like a paddle steamer would if it were forced on land) to eat these little nuggets up anyway. I mean, look at him. On the whole, the animals of this movie—who take up a surprisingly large chunk of the first half of the picture!—are amusing enough, and it’s worth it to indulge their presence. If nothing else, they put a riff on what is quite possibly the world’s most famous story, and they are at least more memorable than the prince’s belligerent father and his skinny, maladroit secretary.
There’s some really intricate animation in Cinderella as long as it’s not about people. During the “Sing, Sweet Nightingale” segment, there’s about forty-five seconds where Cinderella is washing the floor, which often comes in this blue-green, a tile look that appears to belong at the bottom of a pretty swimming pool. As she sings, each bubble takes her reflection, and the soap bubbles, iridescent rainbows that they become, show a kaleidoscope of Cinderellas; they pop and explode all at once when she realizes that Lucifer, in the most kitty-ish way possible, has found her abundantly full dustpan and begun to bounce around with the debris. “So This Is Love,” aside from being sneakily the best song in the movie (those of you voting for “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” will find the plank you’re going to walk down the hall), is animated in salmon and blue contrasts, the light of the castle seeping out into the gloaming as the stars twinkle and the fountains ripple. This most beautiful animation, however, is rationed; a movie that luminous would probably have taken forever to make and cost all the money, and our loss is the movie’s loss here as well as most of the tropes of mid-century Disney animation are on display here. Only the villain is even slightly memorable—Lady Tremaine is voiced wonderfully by Eleanor Audley, who would go on to voice Maleficent—and our whitebread heroine pales in contrast to the simple cruelty that her stepmother brings to bear. Although she has no magic at her fingertips, Cinderella’s stepmother has the power to force her sweet ward to work shift after shift. It’s almost comforting to believe in a malefactor like Maleficent, who is obviously fictional, in lieu of Lady Tremaine: all of us know what it’s like to have a boss.