Beauty and the Beast

Cast: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson

Director: Bill Condon

Writers: Stephen Chbosky, Evan Spiliotopoulos


Another year, another Disney remake. For the most part I’m not against the idea of updating and modernising Disney films in principle, but in practice I think the result has been mixed at best. Cinderella for example did a lot that worked better than in the original animation, but did just as much that did not. Meanwhile I felt that The Jungle Book did a lot that was different to the 1967 film, but little that I felt was better or worse. In both cases however I was open to the idea of the remake because I felt that both of the animations, while classics in their own rights, left something to be desired. In this, Beauty and the Beast is different. Beauty and the Beast, as far as I’m concerned, is as perfect as Disney gets. Not only is it a marvellous fairy tale with wonderful characters, fantastic music and beautiful animation, it’s also one of the few Disney films that actually gets better as I get older. It may be bias on my part, but I just couldn’t see what Disney hoped to accomplish by remaking this film.

In an 18th-century French provincial town lives Belle (Emma Watson), a solitary bookworm who dreams of excitement and adventure. She lives with her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) and spends her days reading, thinking and rejecting the advances of the oafish Gaston (Luke Evans). When Maurice gets lost venturing through the forest, he seeks refuge in a castle where he is taken prisoner by the Beast (Dan Stevens). Belle comes to the castle in search of her father and offers herself as a prisoner in his place. The Beast, cursed by an enchantress to live as a horrific monster unless he should learn to love another and be loved in return, agrees. Also living in the castle are the Beast’s servants who, thanks to the curse, have taken the form of animate objects. These included Lumiere the candelabra (Ewan MacGregor), Cogsworth the clock (Ian McKellen), and Mrs. Potts the teapot (Emma Thompson). With their help the Beast hopes to win Belle’s heart and break the curse.

Now, while I haven’t been a terribly big fan of the Disney remakes overall, I do appreciate how many of them have at least tried to do something different with the stories that we all know so well. This is why I found this new Beauty and the Beast to be so aggravating. This film, rather than trying something different, is almost as much of a shot-for-shot remake as Gus Van Sant’s Psycho. It’s actually a bit of a paradox really. This film is exactly like the 1991 film, and yet somehow nothing like it. It copies everything the original did but it lacks all of the magic and humanity that made the film work as well as it did. None of the movie’s events occur because they are motivated by the story or its characters, they occur because they’re following what happened in the original. The ballroom dance for example, by far the animation’s most iconic scene, is not built up to in any way. There’s no romantic dinner, no exchange of nervous glances, no playful sense of spontaneity; the film just cuts straight from the couple meeting at the staircase to them dancing in the ballroom. Why are they dancing? Because that’s what they did in the original movie.

I know that I shouldn’t be dwelling so much on how much better the 1991 classic is and comparing it with the remake, but this movie has brought it on itself. It spends so much time trying to recreate the original that I couldn’t help but be reminded of how wonderful and magical these moments felt when they took place in the animation as opposed to how empty and lifeless they felt here. When the film does vary, it’s to the story’s detriment. There are some additional scenes, such as when Gaston and Le Fou (Josh Gad) venture into the woods with Maurice to search for Belle, which only serve to pad the runtime. Occasionally there are some interesting ideas, one being the idea of Belle and the Beast bonding when they learn that both of their mothers died when they were young, but the film never goes anywhere with them. Then there are some elements like the magical teleporting book and the inclusion of a character called Agathe (Hattie Morahan) that are just plain stupid. The film’s greatest accomplishment is that it looks like Beauty and the Beast, which I think is the secret to the movie’s success. The sets, costumes and visual effects in this movie are so evocative of the original that it can sometimes be quite easy to fall for the illusion and think that you actually are watching Beauty and the Beast.

That illusion however is just as easily broken by the missteps the film takes in its direction. The casting of Emma Watson as Belle for example was a great idea on paper but not in practice. Not only is Watson a subpar singer whose voice lacks both power and expression, she’s also quite a limited actress. Her performance as Hermione worked because she was able to build that character very much in line with her own personality, but as Belle the limits of her acting ability became all too apparent. Her facial expressions rarely varied, her line deliveries lacked range and her body language felt forced. The rest of the cast meanwhile varies from bland to passable (with the exception of McGregor’s indefinable accent). Some of the CGI characters do pretty well and Gad gets an occasional laugh (despite his role as Disney’s first openly gay character being grossly overblown. I’m all for inclusivity but I’ve seen gayer characters in The Lord of the Rings!). Watson was the only one who struck me as out of her depth here.

I’d be lying if I said that I went into this movie with a completely open mind. Even putting aside my mixed on feelings on the Disney remakes I had already seen, this was a movie I already felt sceptical towards. After the trailer made it clear to me that this was very much going to be the same movie as the animation rather than a different take, I couldn’t understand why Disney would want to recreate what was already perfect (creatively I mean. The real rea$on Di$ney made thi$ film wa$ obviou$). I would have liked to be wrong. Nothing would have pleased me more than to be moved and enchanted by this film the same way I was by the original Beauty and the Beast. I wouldn’t exactly categorise this movie along with the worse of the Disney remakes. In fact, all things considered, it’s not even that bad a film. It was never as inane as Maleficent or as dire as Alice in Wonderland. On the other hand though, those two movies at least tried to take their stories into new directions. Thus, while Beauty and the Beast may not be the worst of these films, it is, for me, the most pointless.

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Moana

Cast: (voiced by) Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jermaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger, Alan Tudyk

Directors: Ron Clements, John Musker

Writer: Jared Bush


Whenever Disney makes a fairy tale, they have a formula they like to follow. It’s one that’s been around since Snow White was first made and it’s one that they’ve consistently used because (a) it’s recognisable and (b) it works. The protagonist is usually a heroine (often a princess) who is unsure about her place in the world and is searching for something. She will have an animal sidekick who helps out along the way while providing some laughs. The adventure she embarks upon will involve music and magic and oftentimes she will find love along the way. At the end there will be an evil that must be overcome or defeated and then the characters will live happily ever after. The formula is always there, but Disney’s genius is in its ability to introduce a spin or some new elements to their stories that distract us from the formula. Moana is a good, enjoyable film with likeable characters, great music and superb animation, but it is also one of Disney’s more formulaic films.

Moana is the daughter of Chief Tua Waialiki of the Polynesian island of Motunui and is destined to become the tribe’s first female chief. As an infant she was bestowed with an ancient artefact by the ocean, a sign that she had been chosen to fulfil some great destiny. Moana thus grows up with a thirst for adventure and yearns to explore the ocean and see what is out there. Her people however believe that the island provides them with everything that they need and so they are forbidden to venture beyond the reef, even when the sudden scarcity of fish and failure of the crops threatens to famish them. Moana learns that this blight is the result of an ancient darkness released by the mythical hero Maui when he stole the heart of the goddess Te Fiti. It is up to her to take the heart that was given to her by the ocean and find Maui so that he might return it to where it belongs. To do this she must sail the depths the ocean, as her ancestors had long before her, and venture into the unknown.

The film, to its credit, does not exactly follow the Disney formula beat for beat. There is, for example, no love interest. Also Moana, strictly speaking, is not a princess (even though, as Maui points out, she wears a dress and has an animal sidekick). Most of the formulaic elements that are present, (the spirited heroine, the closed-minded father, the comedic sidekick, the obnoxious but loveable hero, the moment of doubt and failure that comes before the moment of triumph) the film does well. The issue is that I was thinking about this formula the entire time I was watching this film because there weren’t any substantial departures or twists to make me feel like Disney was really trying something new. Frozen did this by placing its main focus on the relationship between the two sisters. The Lion King did it by departing the familiar children’s fables and instead adapting a Shakespearian tale of madness, deceit and revenge. Moana has a new setting and some new characters, but the story is one Disney has told before. Even though I enjoyed the film a good deal, I was acutely aware that the film was going through the motions much of the time.

That said, there is a lot to enjoy. Moana, portrayed convincingly by newcomer and native Hawaiian Auli’i Cravalho, is a likeable protagonist and is certainly one of Disney’s most active princesses. Dwayne Johnson brings a wealth of charisma and swagger to the role of Maui. The animation, as always, is stunning, especially at the beginning when Moana first discovers the ocean and at the end after the great evil is defeated. The music composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda (whose Hamilton soundtrack has recently become an obsession of mine) is both memorable and distinctive from what Disney has done before. Much praise has been given to ‘How Far I’ll Go’, which some have predicted will become the next ‘Let It Go’, but my favourite track was ‘We Know the Way’, which plays when Moana learns about her ancestry. The story itself flows well for the most part, but there is one very strange scene involving a giant crab that kind of comes out of nowhere. I wouldn’t exactly call it a bad scene or anything; it’s just… strange.

Those who watch this film looking for a fun, exciting, amusing, pleasant Disney film that the entire family can enjoy will get exactly that. Personally though, with the standard that Disney has set in the last few years, I’d have liked to see a film that took a few more risks and held a few more surprises like Zootropolis. I think that most people who watch this film will be able to predict how exactly it will play out, but whether or not that’s a bad thing will depend on the viewer. There is little in this film that I can fault, my only real grievance is that I don’t think there was enough introduced to the story that could allow it to stand on its own amongst the other movies that Disney has produced. Still, it is to be sure a wonderfully animated, well told, characteristically Disney film that will please kids, grown-ups and die-hard Disney fans.

★★★★

Pete’s Dragon

Cast: Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Oona Laurence, Robert Redford

Director: David Lowery

Writers: David Lowery, Toby Halbrooks


After The BFG, this is the second blockbuster I’ve seen this summer that has evoked within me memories of Spielberg’s E.T. People like to complain that they don’t make movies like that anymore but the truth is that they do. They may not get made often enough or may get overshadowed by something more popular like Minions, but they’re still there for people to watch. Like The BFG, this movie targets itself towards young children but also offers something for the teenagers and adults who remember what it was like to be that age. Like in E.T. the plot in Pete’s Dragon is secondary to the central relationship being focused on. The film is childish in its playfulness and whimsicality but also adult in its tranquillity and stillness. Although they may not get made or seen often, the claim that Hollywood’s children’s movies have lost this thoughtful and wondrous quality is just wrong.

Six years ago, a little boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley) got lost in the forest and was found and rescued by a great but friendly dragon with the ability to turn invisible. Pete names the dragon Elliott (sound familiar?) and goes on to live with him in the forest. When an older Pete spots a lumberjack crew chopping down some trees near his home, he is spotted by Natalie (Oona Laurence), the daughter of the foreman Jack (Wes Bentley). After he gets caught, Jack’s girlfriend, the park ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), takes Pete in and tries to learn who he is and where he came from. When Grace learns about Elliott, she finds herself believing the story her father Meacham (Robert Redford) used to tell her about the time he came across a dragon in the forest. Pete agrees to lead them to Elliott, unaware that Jack’s brother Gavin (Karl Urban), a hunter, has also encountered this dragon and plans to catch him.

One of the things Pete’s Dragon accomplishes so well is that it captures the subtle yet immediately identifiable sense of what it feels like to be a child. The forest and the dragon that inhabits it not only look enormous, they feel enormous the way that everything does when you’re little. It captures that childish sense of adventure in both its wonder and scariness, a sensation that Pete’s parents remark on right before the car crash that would leave him an orphan. Bravery, says his father, is what he needs to see an adventure through and that is what a lost, scared and forlorn Pete finds in Elliott. It is significant that we meet the dragon immediately at the beginning because it means that imagination and fantasy are allowed to reign supreme. How trite would this movie have been if it had opted for ambiguity surrounding the dragon’s existence assisted by misunderstandings and dismissals by joylessly unimaginative grown-ups? This is a movie that appreciates the depths and possibilities of children’s dreams and imaginings and fully embraces them.

In this film Pete names Elliott after the dog in the book he’s reading and their relationship plays out in a classic A Boy and His Dog fashion. The dragon is simply teeming with life and personality and shows himself to be caring, loyal and protective of Pete. He is a smart and perceptive creature capable of reason and thought, allowing their friendship to be a mutual one on an emotional level. Elliott needs Pete every bit as much as Pete needs him. At no point does Elliott talk in this movie, meaning that the movie must convey his character solely through his expressions and personality, something that it does marvellously. A lot of the film’s heart is carried through by the humans as well with their subtle yet affective performances, save its two-dimensional baddie. Howard’s portrayal of a sweet and down-to-earth woman witnessing a phenomenon beyond anything she could have imagined is a moving one. Redford, being the old pro that he is, acts everybody else under the table as he manages to bring a childlike innocence to his role without it seeming silly or even quirky.

There is no shortage of smart and thoughtful children’s movies being made today and not all of them belong to Pixar. Pete’s Dragon, like The BFG before it, is a charming and enchanting movie that I found to be delightful. It takes itself and its audience seriously, but not too seriously. The film is sincere, restrained and heartfelt but it is also bright, exciting, funny and childish. While there are many kid’s movies that make the misstep of always being on the move and constantly making noise for fear of losing the children’s attention, Pete’s Dragon is a movie that allows itself to stand still, take a moment, and just breathe. Perhaps the approach isn’t as nuanced as it is in a typical Studio Ghibli feature, but it is welcome regardless. If it is to be believed that these movies are indeed a dying breed, then I truly hope that audiences will embrace and cherish this film and all the others like it.

★★★★

The Jungle Book

Cast: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken

Director: Jon Favreau

Writer: Justin Marks


Of all the Disney movies to be treated to a live-action remake, The Jungle Book is perhaps the most beloved of all. It boasts of unforgettable characters, enjoyable music and a timeless charm, traits which leave little room for improvement. Although I can understand why Disney might want to update some of these tales and introduce them to a new audience, I so far haven’t been sold by any of their attempts. On one end of the spectrum is Cinderella which contains some aspects that were better than the original but also just as many that were worse. On the other end was Alice in Wonderland which completely and fundamentally misunderstood what it was that made the original cartoon (and the books for that matter) good in the first place. The Jungle Book has posed a curious dilemma for me because while there are very few aspects of the film that I’ve found to be worse than the original, there are just as few that I’ve found to be better. I enjoyed the film, there’s no question about that. The trouble is that I’m not sure whether this film should actually exist.

Like the 1967 cartoon The Jungle Book tells the story of Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a “man cub”. As an infant Mowgli was found alone in the jungle by the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and was taken to the wolf pack led by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) where he was raised by Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o). Years later Mowgli is discovered by Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a ferocious tiger with a bitter hatred of men, who swears he will kill the boy. Mowgli agrees to leave for the sake of the pack and runs away with Bagheera. The two are separated when Shere Khan makes his attack, leaving Mowgli stranded in the middle of the jungle. After an encounter with Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), an enormous python with hypnotic powers, Mowgli falls into the company of the bear Baloo (Bill Murray). The two form a friendship as Mowgli agrees to help him make preparations for the winter. Mowgli however remains in great danger as Shere Khan relentlessly continues the hunt for him.

Although the same characters, songs and basic plot as the original cartoon are all present in this movie, it should be noted that it is by no means an exact copy. The Jungle Book offers a slightly different take on the story by drawing inspiration from Rudyard Kipling’s original works. Thus the film includes such additions as the Law of the Jungle, details of Mowgli’s backstory and the red flower. There is certainly a degree of weight and significance to the characters’ actions that isn’t present in its predecessor but it doesn’t always work to the film’s advantage. Shere Khan for example is an attempt by the film to combine his literary counterpart, a manipulative brute who wants to rule the jungle, with that of the cartoon, a charming but menacing beast who simply does as he pleases, and the result is a confused character with an inconsistent motivation. I was never sure whether Shere Khan’s ultimate plan was to assert his dominance in the jungle or to simply kill Mowgli. In either case the plan he concocts just doesn’t make sense to me.

I think the confusion with Shere Khan is symptomatic of a certain disharmony in terms of story and tone. The original books, on one hand, are serious in their approach as they tell tightly-structured stories with clear morals while the Disney cartoon, in contrast, is much more light-hearted and is more interested in simply portraying comedic highlights and character interactions than in focusing on its narrative. Both of these stories had clear ideas of what they were. It seems to me this film wants to be the best of both worlds: an enjoyable, daring and adventurous family movie with a serious story complete with comedy, music and darkness. While I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to say that the film fails to blend these two different styles together, there were still moments when I felt it struggled. For example in the scene where Mowgli meets King Louie (played magnificently by Christopher Walken), the character comes across as brutally intimidating and for a moment I was afraid for the little boy. The tone in that scene was then shattered when Louie suddenly burst out with ‘I Wanna Be Like You’, a song that has no business being sung by a ruthless, terrifying giant.

However I’m getting too caught up in the negatives and want to talk about the positives, of which there are a lot. For one thing The Jungle Book could very well be the most visually stunning film of the year with its breathtaking landscapes and astonishingly lifelike animals. The animals may not have the advantage of being as expressive as those in the cartoon but that’s when the voice acting comes in. Whatever my issues with Shere Khan I definitely cannot dispute the menacing charm in Elba’s voice. Murray is also perfectly cast as the lovable Baloo and provides the film with plenty of heart and laughs. The bond he forms with Mowgli is a truly affectionate one and when they sang ‘The Bare Necessities’ together I was grinning from ear to ear. Mowgli himself is played splendidly by newcomer Neel Stehi whose performance is especially praiseworthy considering that he was the only living breathing person actually in front of the camera. That the jungle and the animals in it were able to come to life in this movie is a remarkable achievement in both visual effects and direction.

The one issue that continues to nag at me however is that, as much as I enjoyed this movie, the visuals were the only aspect that I found to be substantially better than the cartoon while the characterisation of Shere Khan was the only part that I found to be worse. The rest of the film, while certainly different in terms of content, still felt more or less the same in terms of the impression it left on me despite its attempts to distinguish itself. The film draws so heavily from the cartoon that I don’t think it’s possible to assess it in isolation and, as enjoyable as this movie could be, there were moments when I felt my enjoyment was inspired more by my nostalgia than by the movie itself. And yet, for children who may not have grown up with the cartoon the way I have, I can absolutely imagine their imaginations being awestruck by the visual spectacle and their hearts being captured by the delightful characters. I’ve tried for so long to reconcile my feelings for this film that I’m not sure I could ever choose a star rating that can truly encompass them. However, in the words of the great Roger Ebert, “your intellect may be confused, but your emotions will never lie to you”. On that basis I have to give The Jungle Book credit for the enjoyment that I got from watching it, however ambivalently.

★★★★

Zootropolis

Cast: (voiced by) Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrance, Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake, Tommy Chong, J.K. Simmons, Octavia Spencer, Alan Tudyk, Shakira

Directors: Byron Howard, Rich Moore

Writers: Jared Bush, Phil Johnston


I think the greatest strength of Zootropolis is that it isn’t the film it initially appears to be. I walked in expecting to see a fun movie about animals sharing a city. What I got instead was an astoundingly smart and insightful film with a cultural relevance that I never expected from Disney. Zootropolis takes the idea of animals inhabiting a city further than any of us could have imagined and uses it to explore such themes as prejudice, discrimination, diversity and tolerance. Not only does this film succeed in engaging with these themes in a clever and entertaining way, it does so in a format that is targeted towards children. It takes an enormously complex issue that still provokes much debate and controversy in the world today, an issue that even adults still struggle to wrap their heads around, and manages to present it to kids in a way that is challenging but also accessible. If Zootropolis is not the best film that Disney has made in recent years, then it certainly is the most important.

The film follows Judy Hopps, a young rabbit from an idyllic town who dreams of becoming a police officer. She actively pursues her dream as an adult in spite of being told by those around her that she as a critter is too small and too weak to ever succeed in such a job. Even when she proves the naysayers wrong and earns her place at the academy, her boss Chief Bogo, a cape buffalo, refuses to provide her with any real responsibilities and instead places her on traffic duty. However, once she finds an opportunity to land a case involving a missing otter and seizes it, Bogo allows her to take the case under the condition that she agree to resign if she cannot provide any results within 48 hours. To solve this case Judy teams up with Nick Wilde, a fox and a con artist who she doesn’t trust but who has the skills and street smarts she needs to pursue this case. As they get deeper into the case however they find that it might be much bigger than they could have imagined.

This film completely deserves all of the praise it has received so far for three reasons. Firstly is because it is both funny and entertaining. Zootropolis is able to have fun with the animal city concept, leading to some great laughs. I laughed all the way through this film thanks to such jokes as the rabbit population, the elephant in the room and, best of all, the sloths. There are even some grown-up jokes and some self-referential jokes about Disney that manage to add to the humour without seeming forced. The second reason this film deserves praise is because of the animation and design. One of the best scenes in the film is when Judy moves to Zootropolis and sees the entire city for the first time. We see some of the different districts that will be explored later on such as the Polar District and the Rainforest District and even see how the city is able to accommodate for such a large number of animals of varying sizes and shapes in such places as the subway. There is a good chase scene later in the film which leads Judy to stumble into a mouse neighbourhood where she herself is a giant. The film’s very concept is one of limitless possibilities and half the fun was in watching the ways in which it was realised.

The third reason Zootropolis deserves to be lauded is because of the themes it tackles and the morals it teaches. By teaming Judy up with a predator in the form of Nick the Fox, both characters have to learn to overcome their differences and prejudices in order to work as a team. It isn’t done in a corny or half-baked way though; the film goes to great lengths to illustrate why these differences exist and just how much these characters need to overcome in order to work together. Zootropolis doesn’t try to pretend that overcoming prejudice is easy or that it is an issue that can be simply tossed aside. Judy has to work just as hard to learn how to understand and accept Nick as she does to prove herself to the police department. As well as showing children the complexities and challenges inherent in this issue it also manages to promote understanding and acceptance as being the way forward.

Zootropolis is so much more than a fun family-friendly movie about animals. It is a film about overcoming differences and altering perceptions and is a marvellous success. Although it is disparaging to think that this is a lesson that still needs to be taught in this day and age, it is also a relief to see that it can be taught to any and all audiences in such an intelligent and enjoyable way. Usually with Disney films I think it’s better to leave well enough alone, but this is actually a film that I’d like to see be given a sequel. I would absolutely love to see how much further Disney can take this concept and to see how much deeper they can explore these issues. However, if this is the only movie that Disney ever makes, then it stands as an excellent feature in its own right and is certainly a worthy addition to the line-up of movies Disney has released since their adoption of 3D animation.

★★★★★

The Good Dinosaur

Cast: (voiced by) Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Sam Elliot, Anna Paquin, A.J. Buckley, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Steve Zahn

Director: Peter Sohn

Writer: Meg LeFauve


This has been a landmark year for Pixar who have released two films in 2015 instead of just one. Originally scheduled for release in 2013, The Good Dinosaur ended up being pushed back by Pixar due to a problematic production which is why I thought there would be a bit more anticipation on the audience’s part. In the weeks since it came out the reception has been rather mild, considering the kind of attention Pixar’s films usually get, and it looks like The Good Dinosaur is set to be their first box-office failure. I cannot help but be surprised by this. Do people not like this film? I can certainly understand not liking it as much as some of Pixar’s other offerings but it is by no means the worst film they’ve ever made (hello Cars 2). Before this I always thought that the Pixar name was bulletproof and that even their worst films would always find an audience. By delving into this film I hope I can figure out what it is that has turned audiences off.

The film presents an alternative timeline where the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago misses the Earth. This allows the dinosaurs to evolve over millions of years into intelligent beings living lives that are more recognisably human. Arlo is an Apatosaurus whose family run a farm. Arlo is a scaredy-cat whose crippling fear of everything prevents him from getting any work done. His father Henry tries to help him overcome his fears, believing that deep within him he has the potential to do something extraordinary and to leave his mark. After an accident that causes him to be swept away from his family home, Arlo finds himself lost in an unfamiliar place where he must survive and attempt to find his way back to the farm. He runs into the company of Spot, a human caveboy whom he eventually befriends. With Spot’s help Arlo must learn to overcome his fears so that he might find his way home.

In my review of Inside Out I praised it as a shining example of Pixar’s incredible capacity for storytelling. The Good Dinosaur alternatively is a shining example of their extraordinary capacity for creating visuals. The look of this film is stunning. The landscapes are utterly breathtaking, the character designs are superb and there are certain moments in the film that can only be described as visual wonderments (like those moments with the fireflies). The visual quality of this film also extends to the storytelling as it features two characters, a dinosaur and a human being, who share absolutely no overlap in terms of language, culture or intelligence. All of their communication therefore has to be done visually through their gestures and actions. One of the strongest scenes in this film for me was when Arlo and Spot set up camp for the night and are able to talk about their families through entirely visual means in a way that they can both understand. It is such a touching and clever scene that is so effective in its simplicity and poignancy that only Pixar could have accomplished it.

The story itself is a simple one and certainly isn’t as intricate or creative as Inside Out, but I thought the simplicity was a crucial part of what made it affective. The story is simply a young boy’s quest to overcome his fear. It isn’t the most original moral to be taught in a children’s film but it is still a crucial one that I thought the film managed to teach in a clever way. Over the course of his journey Arlo meets some colourful characters and from them learns about finding inner strength and about being brave in the face of adversity. During one encounter he even learns about the value of fear, about how it is only possible to be brave when one is afraid. Admittedly the story and the morals it teaches are hardly new. Anyone who has seen or read this type of story before can guess the basic beats it’ll hit quite easily. However just because a story is predictable doesn’t mean it cannot be affective so long as it is told well. For the most part I think The Good Dinosaur is a well-told story and I enjoyed watching it unfold.

So, as someone who enjoyed this film and found it to be effective both creatively and emotionally, I’m still kind of stumped over why the film has been received the way it has. Do people not like this film or has it simply not found an audience? Pixar has never shied away from doing original stories with original characters but it has never hurt them in the past. The Good Dinosaur may not be Pixar’s most original story but, based on what they’ve done in the past, it still feels very new for them. There are also certainly issues that prevent this film from being the masterpiece that I found Inside Out to be. The characters for the most part are pretty basic, there are a few dark moments that pretty much come out of nowhere and I can understand how the familiar beats of the story could be tiresome for those who weren’t as invested as I was. While it is nowhere close to being one of Pixar’s best films I still cannot see a problem with this film that I feel justifies the poor reception it has received.

Maybe because Pixar has released such amazing films in the past with their most recent one only coming out last summer a certain infallibility has become expected of them that this film fell short of. Maybe the story was simply too familiar for viewers who expect more originality and innovation on Pixar’s part. Maybe people simply didn’t like the film because the story and the characters did not register with them. All I can write about with any real certainty is how I felt about this film and I liked it. I found the film to be visually breathtaking, emotionally satisfying and overall entertaining. Whatever issue people seem to have with this film, I’m just not seeing it. All I can see is an enjoyable film with a simple story, relatable characters and some of the most incredible visuals that Pixar has ever put on screen.

★★★★

Top 10 Disney Animations

To mark Pixar’s triumphant return this year with Inside Out now in theatres and The Good Dinosaur coming out later, I thought I’d put together a list of my top 10 favourite Pixar films. However, upon realising that Inside Out is only the 15th film they’ve ever made, I thought that putting together a top 10 seemed almost redundant which is why I’ve decided to do Disney animations (including Pixar) instead. That’s when I realised that I haven’t watched most of these films since I was a kid. One Disney marathon later I’ve finally finished putting together a list. Disney has made some truly wonderful films over the years rich in heart, creativity and imagination and so narrowing them down to 10 choices was no easy task. While watching these films I found that one unfortunate downside of growing up is that I can’t really enjoy these films in the same way that I did as a kid. The great thing about Disney though is that there’s just as much for adults to enjoy as there are for kids and so I was able to rediscover and enjoy many of these films in ways I hadn’t expected. What follows is a list of the 10 films that I enjoyed the most and that I felt had the most profound effects on me.

 

10. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

I debated with myself for ages over whether I should include this film on the list due to how uneven it is. There are parts of this film that I really, really love but there are other parts that I really, really hate. The romance between Esmeralda and Phoebus is quite generic, the story can be a bit clunky whenever it diverges from Hugo’s original novel and I absolutely despise the gargoyles. However the good things about it were simply too good to ignore. Quasimodo and Frollo are both fantastic characters and their stories are so brilliantly done. Quasimodo’s quest to find love and acceptance amongst others is truly touching whereas Frollo is utterly compelling as the merciless and corrupt judge attempting to convince himself that what he does is God’s will. It is a dark and daring story, especially for Disney, that the music and the animation turns into an incredible viewing experience.

9. Frozen (2013)

Frozen

Two years after its release this film is still everywhere and many people are just about sick and tired of it. However I simply enjoyed it too much not to include it on the list. Disney is of course famous for its many different fairy tales and Frozen is one of the best. I really like how it took the fairy tale format but was able to update it in certain ways that set it apart from its predecessors. One way it did this was by placing the story’s focus on the relationship between the sisters rather than on a romance. Elsa and Anna are both great characters in their own rights and the film did a fantastic job of showcasing the bond between them whilst also allowing them their own individual moments to shine. The film also boasts of stupendous animation and one of Disney’s best (if overplayed) soundtracks.

8. Up (2009)

Up

This film deserves its place for the opening 10 minutes alone which, for me, is the single greatest sequence that Pixar has ever done in any of their films. It speaks volumes for Pixar’s ability to move an entire audience in such a simple yet effective way and its readiness to challenge its audience, particularly the children, with mature and complex ideas. The opening sequence aside, Up stands as one of Pixar’s most enjoyable films. There is a real sense of adventure to the quest that Carl and Russell embark upon as the film marvellously delivers on the thrills and excitement. The film also provides some of Pixar’s best comedy with Dug standing out as a personal highlight for me. Pixar’s uncanny ability to make its audience laugh just as soon as it makes them cry never fails to astonish me and Up succeeds at both with flying colours.

7. Alice in Wonderland (1951)

Alice in Wonderland

How do I even begin to describe this film? The universe this film takes place in does not make any sense whatsoever and that is why I love it. There is no rhyme or reason to Wonderland; it is all sheer and utter madness. Many have tried to adapt Lewis Carroll’s novels to the big screen, but this film is one of the only ones to ever capture the spirit of them. Disney understood that the insanity is what makes Wonderland and so, whatever divergences they may have taken from the original novels, they remained steadfast and true to the story’s essence. Watching the level-headed Alice as she attempts to apply reason and logic to the sheer lunacy of the characters she encounters only to get helplessly lost is both riveting and hilarious. Even as an adult I still cannot get over how bonkers this film is which is why, of all the films on this list, this is easily the one that makes me laugh the most.

6. Inside Out (2015)

Inside Out

The inclusion of this film might seem a bit premature considering that it’s still in theatres but I was so blown away by this film that I didn’t feel like I could leave it out. For me there is no other film by Pixar that better illustrates why they are so good at what they do. With Inside Out Pixar found a way to explore the depths of the human mind and emotions in a way that is both accessible and entertaining for children and adults alike. The themes and ideas of this film are simplified yet intelligent. The mechanics of the universe are complex yet comprehensible. The message is challenging yet poignant. Pixar found a way to explore a large and stimulating idea while still allowing room for hysterical comedy, unforgettable characters and emotionally profound moments. It takes an extraordinary amount of intelligence, heart and skill to create a film of this calibre and Pixar has shown once again that they’ve still got plenty of each.

5. The Lion King (1994)

The Lion King

I absolutely love this film to bits. The Hamlet-inspired story of Simba’s quest for redemption and then vengeance (or justice if you prefer) is a thoroughly captivating one that never fails to grab my attention. Some of Disney’s best characters, from the wise and benevolent Mufasa to the deliciously evil Scar to the loveable duo that is Timon and Pumba, come from this film and provide some outstanding character moments. Even now watching Simba approach his father’s lifeless body is harrowing for me to watch. The soundtrack is also my absolute favourite from any Disney film with the fantastic Elton John/Tim Rice songs and Hans Zimmer’s incredible orchestration providing the film with some of its best highlights. The film does have a few imperfections (for example they do kind of botch the film’s message towards the end), but none of them have ever been able to diminish this film in my eyes. I think that The Lion King is a superb film and love it just as much as I did when I was a kid.

4. Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Beauty and the Beast

I mentioned earlier how Disney is famous for making films based on fairy tales and, for me, Beauty and the Beast is their crowning achievement. Everything about this film is done perfectly. The romance between Belle and the Beast unfolds and develops at just the right pace and the bond they form with one another is such an endearing one. The side characters, from the smugly dense Gaston to the elegantly charming Lumiere to the maternally gracious Mrs. Potts, are all great and all provide the film with a wealth of enjoyable highlights. The songs are all as memorable as they are excellent and complement the overall story perfectly. The animation makes gorgeous use of colour and flows seamlessly. The story progresses naturally and never drags or rushes. There is simply nothing wrong with this film. It has all of the charm, the enticement and the magic needed for a magnificent fairy tale and delivers it flawlessly.

3. Toy Story 3 (2010)

Toy Story 3

There was never a question about a Toy Story film making this list; the only question was which one. The question of which Toy Story film is the best could probably go on forever but my personal favourite is the third. Of all the films in the trilogy, this was the one that had the most profound effect on me. I saw it an age when I wasn’t quite an adult yet but my childhood was long behind me. The film’s theme about growing up yet always keeping a part of your childhood within your heart really struck a chord with me and so this film always provokes me with a strong sense of bittersweet nostalgia. As far as story and character goes there is plenty to praise but, more than anything else, it’s the nostalgia that does it for me. The brilliant characters, the moving story and the hilarious comedy are added bonuses.

2. WALL-E (2008)

WALL-E

For me this has to be the most beautiful and most enchanting film that Pixar has ever made. That the film was able to turn a machine into a loveable protagonist with a fully-rounded personality, form a romantic bond between him and another machine and then send him on a galactic journey, all without any substantial use of dialogue, is a testament to Pixar’s incredible storytelling abilities. One of the fundamental rules of storytelling in films is ‘show, don’t tell’, and few films do that better than WALL-E. The breathtaking visuals in this film convey a moving tale of love, discovery and wonder in such a spectacular way that this film never fails to astound me. There is a certain gracefulness and delicacy to this film that I have yet to see in Disney’s other offerings save the top entry. Watching WALL-E and EVE fly through space with one another was like watching a cosmic ballet. The sense of wonder and majesty this film provides is almost unparalleled.

1. Fantasia (1940)

Fantasia

Fantasia is more than a great Disney film, it is a cinematic masterpiece. This film transcended what was considered the traditional narrative structure for films at the time and played a significant part in redefining what storytelling meant in films. By providing animated sequences to match famous works of classical music, Fantasia provides stories both abstract and narrative, all expressed purely through visual and musical means. One sequence provides a story simply told through colours and shapes while another is a fully-formed short-story complete with characters and a plot. The film shifts in tone from being childish and funny to being serious and profound. My personal favourite sequence is the last one with the Night on Bald Mountain followed by the Ave Maria. The dark intensity of the former becoming overpowered by the divine beauty of the latter provides a poignantly powerful moment with the staggering animation matching perfectly with the music. This film pushed the boundaries of what art and film were capable of and did it in such an unbelievable and affecting way that it remains today one of Disney’s finest achievements and without question my favourite of all their films.

Inside Out

Cast: (voiced by) Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Richard Kind, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan

Director: Pete Docter

Writers: Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley


Pixar has a black belt in emotional storytelling and has an uncanny ability to make films that appeal to every generation in the audience. At its best Pixar can weave a captivating and moving narrative with just the right balance of humour, drama, action and heart in a way that both children and adults can enjoy. Although their films are mainly targeted at children, Pixar is never afraid to challenge them with complex themes and mature ideas. Pixar never talks down to its audience and their films are never patronising or condescending. Their stories are refreshingly original, their characters are wonderfully enjoyable and their films are thoroughly exciting, funny and profound. Pixar’s ability to move its audience is impeccable; from the bittersweet nostalgia of Toy Story to the heartbreaking opening of Up to the wondrous charm of WALL-E, it is clear that Pixar is in touch with its emotional core. It is little wonder then that their newest film, which delves into the themes of emotion and human nature, should prove to be one of their most emotional films. I cannot think of any other film that better demonstrates why Pixar is so good at what it does than Inside Out.

Inside Out takes place in the mind of Riley, an 11-year-old girl going through a big change in her life. Her actions and decisions are determined by her emotions, here personified by Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust. The five of them together guide Riley from the control centre inside her mind through her everyday life. When Riley’s life is uprooted from her familiar and comforting home in Minnesota to the strange and unsettling city of San Francisco, her emotions struggle to cope with the change. The conflict and chaos that ensues has a distressing effect on Riley as her new life proves difficult and upsetting for her. Joy, Riley’s chief emotion, tries to keep her mind as happy and as optimistic as possible while keeping her negative emotions at bay. Through this story the film demonstrates how complex and interchangeable human emotions can be. As Riley’s emotions learn more about how her mind works and develop a greater understanding of themselves and the ways in which their actions can affect her, Riley grows more as a human being.

Not unlike how The Beatles had a singular ability for writing incredible yet astonishingly simple songs, Pixar has a knack for tackling complex and challenging themes and presenting them in an easy and accessible way that looks almost effortless on their part. Nevertheless it is plainly clear that a lot of thought and work goes into these films and Inside Out is no exception. This film explores the substantial subject of human emotion in a way that is both easy to understand and enjoyable to watch. The film is able to simplify what it needs to and to provide as much explanation and exposition as it needs to without disrupting or slowing down the narrative in any way. Half of the time the visuals do such a strong job of speaking for themselves that no explanations are even necessary. The mechanics of Riley’s mind are more than I can possibly explain in a brief summary and no descriptions I can provide could possibly do justice to the skilful way in which the film presents its world. It really is better to let the film speak for itself in this case.

What I can talk about is the characters. The five emotions who inhabit Riley’s mind are all brilliant and enjoyable in their own ways and complement each other perfectly. Joy stands as their leader and so it is her job to guide the other emotions whilst also keeping them in check so as to allow Riley the happiest life possible. This becomes more difficult as Riley grows older and her other emotions, particularly Sadness, become more powerful and potent. Watching the emotions interact with each other and then witnessing the effects their actions have on Riley is both fascinating and entertaining. Their reactions to the happenings of Riley’s life are often hilarious and yet they also provide stark reflections of how our own emotions work, especially at that age. The purity of the emotions makes them very identifiable which is why I think many in the audience will find Riley’s emotions entirely relatable if not the character herself. The emotions can be absolute, irrational, unstable and inexorable, much like our own emotions. Another character worth highlighting is the endearingly delightful Bing Bong who provides the film with some of its funniest and most moving moments.

I could praise Pixar and this film until the end of days. Inside Out is everything a Pixar film should be. The story is both clever and accessible, the characters are memorable and identifiable and the universe that this film creates is creative and absorbing. The film delivers on the humour, the adventure and, above all, the emotion. It also delivers a profoundly mature message about human emotions and how truly essential they are. As much as we might like to be happy all of the time, the film shows that sometimes we need to allow ourselves to be angry, to be afraid, to be disgusted, and even to be sad. The film shows us how difficult and how unbearable life can sometimes get but maintains that the only thing worse than allowing ourselves to feel bad is not allowing ourselves to feel anything at all. It is a powerful message and it takes a powerful film to deliver it. The emotional maturity of this film might be a bit much for younger children in the audience more interested in laughs and thrills, but I don’t think that line of criticism should diminish what Pixar has done with this film. Inside Out is a wonderfully entertaining, smart and insightful film that I think ranks amongst Pixar’s finest.

★★★★★

Cinderella

Cast: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Stellan Skarsgård, Holliday Grainger, Derek Jacobi, Ben Chaplin, Sophie McShera, Hayley Atwell, Helena Bonham Carter

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Writer: Chris Weitz


Live-action Disney remakes seem to be on the rise now with the confirmation that such films as Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo and Mulan are about to get their own. While I’m not against the idea of updating these classic films per se, I do think that that the execution has for the most part been underwhelming. This has mostly been due to either the filmmakers changing what doesn’t need to be changed or not understanding what made the original a classic in the first place. I don’t think Alice in Wonderland worked because it tried to introduce logic and reason to a world that is supposed to defy those conventions and I don’t think Maleficent worked because it tried to change the one part of the film that I didn’t think needed to be changed at all, its villain. Therefore I wasn’t really expecting much from the Cinderella remake.

Cinderella is, of course, the classic story of a young girl who is forced into servitude by her evil stepmother but who is then given the chance to go to the ball and meet the prince after being visited by her fairy godmother. The updated version offers an account of Ella’s exceedingly happy childhood which is cut short by her mother’s tragic death, during which she imparts onto Ella her greatest lesson: “have courage and always be kind”. Ella (Lily James) takes this lesson to heart as she never allows her sunny disposition to ever be diminished, not even by her new, unwelcoming stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and stepsisters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera). When her father passes away Ella is gradually revoked of her status as a daughter and instead becomes a servant to the household. As life gets harder for her Ella maintains her sunny disposition and never forgets the words that her mother spoke to her.

In Disney’s attempt to update this story there is a lot that works better than the original but also a lot that does not. Perhaps the biggest downgrade from the original film is Cinderella’s character who, rather than a determined, strong-willed girl trying to make the best of the life she has been given, is reduced to an irrationally cheerful dreamer who greets adversity with apathy rather than resolve. Her struggle becomes less believable and less compelling because, at the risk of sounding heartless, she doesn’t really suffer enough. The first ten minutes of the film, which I found to be a cringingly schmaltzy ordeal, show Ella and her parents living this excessively joyful life in which everything is sunshine and rainbows, a temperament that Ella maintains for the remainder of the film. Therefore her attitude towards any hardship that she encounters is to greet it with a smile and to hope for something better, an attitude that I felt diminished the oppressive nature of the life she had been subjected to. As opposed to the original character, who suffered a great deal at the hands of her wicked stepmother and in turn became all the more determined not to be dispirited or defeated, this Cinderella never seems to suffer all that much due to the excessive complacency she exhibits and her inability to feel any sort of pain or sorrow.

Another character who I felt was a step down from her original counterpart is the stepmother. Although the film does give her a few deliciously evil moments (and Cate Blanchett relishes every second of them) they are far too little. The film attempts to add a bit of depth and complexity to her character by providing her with a backstory and a motivation behind her actions, but the personality is a sheer downgrade. This stepmother is not nearly as threatening or as menacing as the original character nor as enjoyably evil. I found this villain to be far too silly and camp to be at all intimidating and not in an entertaining way.

With all that in mind, there were plenty of things about this film that I did like. One character who is a vast improvement over his original counterpart is the prince (Richard Madden) who in this film has an actual personality. This time around he and Cinderella actually meet beforehand and are able to form a bond with one another. Additionally his story-arc about succeeding his father (Derek Jacobi) as the king and being pressured by him and by the Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgård) into marriage is actually quite a compelling one. Cinderella is also a gorgeous film to look at with its stunning sets, magnificent costumes and enchanting visual effects. Helena Bonham Carter provides a breath of fresh air in her quirky cameo as the Fairy Godmother.

What really bothered me about this film was Cinderella’s character and the way she affected the story. The incessant chirpiness that she maintains in light of the adversity and oppression she undergoes negates any sense of suffering and so I was less invested in her struggle. Her hardships do not seem at all tragic because she refuses to acknowledge them as such. Rather than try to make the most of her difficulties, she instead accepts them as they are and smiles as she bears them. Such an attitude is much too naïve and foolish for the smart, independent character that she is clearly supposed to be and betrays what the original film stood for. When Cinderella finally gets her reward at the end, it doesn’t really feel like she’s earned it. All of this is supposed to hammer in the film’s moral about having courage and being kind, a moral that gets repeated often but that is never actually taught (or at least isn’t taught very well). I did not hate this film, far from it, but I do think it is a failure as an upgrade to the original tale. What it attempts to add in reason and logic it loses in character and emotion.

★★★

[On a side note: The film opened with a showing of Frozen Fever which I liked a great deal. It was fun and enjoyable and the perfect way to get an audience into the Disney mood.]

Big Hero 6

Cast: (voiced by) Ryan Potter, Scott Adsit, Daniel Henney, T. J. Miller, Jamie Chung, Damon Wayans, Jr., Génesis Rodríguez, Maya Rudolph, Alan Tudyk, James Cromwell

Directors: Don Hall, Chris Williams

Writers: Jordan Roberts, Dan Gerson, Robert L. Baird


Nobody does animation like Disney. For nearly a century they’ve made dozens of incredible films and are still going strong. So, with the recent ascent of the superhero genre brought about in large part by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it seems right that Disney should have a go at making a superhero film since they haven’t really done one before. A combination between Disney and Marvel seems like a guaranteed recipe for success and so I was absolutely looking forward to seeing the result. Ultimately, the result is pretty good. Not bad and not great, but pretty good. It has all the elements that it needs to be a good film: the story is pretty good, the animation is pretty good, the characters are pretty good and the action is pretty good. As a matter of fact I’m kind of stumped over what else I should say about this film because “pretty good” more or less sums it up for me. However I’ll try to go into more detail.

The protagonist, a 13-year-old robotics genius called Hiro (see what they did there?), lives in the futuristic San Fransokyo and spends his nights taking part in back-alley robot fights. His older brother Tadashi, who often has to bail Hiro out of whatever trouble he’s gotten himself into, sees Hiro for the child prodigy that he is with limitless potential and feels that all he needs is a bit of direction. Tadashi takes Hiro to the robotics lab at the university where he and his fellow students are working on groundbreaking inventions and discoveries. Hiro is amazed by what he sees and is inspired to enter a competition that will allow him entry to this university. He comes up with an invention that wows the crowd and the judges, winning the competition. However Hiro’s glee is short-lived when a fire breaks out in the building, claiming Tadashi’s life.

Having lost his older brother, who was both a father figure and role model to him, Hiro falls into a depressive state and secludes himself from his family and friends. A few weeks later he accidently activates one of his brother’s inventions, and thus we are introduced to Baymax. Baymax is an inflatable robot designed as a healthcare attendant. His one and only desire is to help people and he views Hiro as a patient in need of his care. His complacency and robotic cluelessness make him an endearing character, and the bond he forms with Hiro (which kind of reminded me of John Connor’s bond with the T800) in an effort to help him overcome his grief proves to be the highlight of the film. When a masked villain emerges onto the scene along with Hiro’s invention, which was supposed to have perished in the fire, Hiro calls upon his friends and on Baymax to form a team of superheroes.

The team consists of Hiro, Baymax (who has been updated with a martial-arts program and an armour-plated suit), and the four students from the university who worked with Tadashi. The other four members of the team are pretty basic and unimaginative. There’s the lazy stoner; the ditzy, hyperactive geek; the cool one who chews gum; and the big, strong one who’s actually a softie. There’s nothing wrong with them per se, they’re not bad nor are they unlikeable, it’s just that they aren’t exactly new. They are characters that we’ve all seen in other films before this one. In fact, the same thing can be said about everything else in this film.

Big Hero 6 is a very safe film. There’s nothing actually wrong with it, it’s only vice is that it doesn’t offer us anything that we haven’t seen before. The characters are safe, the humour is safe, and the story is safe. It is a fairly enjoyable film but it is also fairly predictable. It’s not as if the filmmakers were lazy or uninspired, it’s clear that a lot of effort and creativity went into this film. It’s just that they never took any risks with this film and never dared to venture further than the films that had come before.

There is however one aspect worthy of praise and that is the relationship between Hiro and Baymax. Baymax is quite a loveable character because of how complacent he is. He exists only to help others in need and has no other wish or desire except to fulfil his purpose. There is nothing he wants more than to help Hiro through the tragedy that he has suffered and his function is not complete until Hiro is satisfied with his service. It is both touching and enjoyable to see how dedicated Baymax is to Hiro and how much pleasure and satisfaction he gets from helping him. It is no wonder that Hiro is eventually won over by his companion. Overall it makes for an enjoyable, if otherwise unremarkable, film.

★★★