One Good One Away
Catching up on Animated Films

Quite recently, I've been lamenting the death of the traditional animated film.  Most of Hollywood's major animation studios (i.e. Disney) has been saying that there's no more money to be made in traditional animation; all the money's in computer animation now.  I, really, don't want to believe that.  I think there'll always be a place for the traditional animated films.  "A resurgence is just one good film away," Mr. Anderson told me recently.  But then, I started reflecting on the past few years.  There was a time not too long ago where I was first in line for every animated film.  But not so since about 2002.  So, this afternoon, I rented every major traditionally animated film that came out in the past two years (the ones from Disney and DreamWorks) and watched them.

Lilo & Stitch

Directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders

Starring the voices of Daveigh Chase, Chris Sanders, Tia Carrere, David Ogden Stiers, Jason Scott Lee, Ving Rhames, and Kevin McDonald

I remember reading a lot of high hopes for Lilo & Stitch.  It was the one that Disney was sure was going to break them out of "the formula."  They even whipped up some insanely brilliant teasers that featured Stitch busting up some of Disney's recent classics.  But then, the hype began.  One of the last things I saw on TV was the "making of" TV special, and I just saw one too many similarities to my all-time favourite The Iron Giant.  And I said, "Screw that!  I ain't seeing it."  But then, good reviews started coming out.  And I finally sat down to watch it. 

We start off in deep space, in the council chambers of the Galactic Federation.  An evil genius is being convicted for illegal genetic experimentation.  His experiment:  a destructive little beast eventually named Stitch.  Stitch is ordered to be destroyed, but on the way to the prison, Stitch escapes, and he crash lands in Hawaii.  Here, we meet Lilo.  Lilo is an eccentric little girl who feeds peanut butter sandwiches to the fish, takes pictures of fat tourists, and loses herself in Elvis music.  Things have been rough for her and her big sister Nani ever since their parents died.  Then, believing Stitch to be a dog, Lilo adopts Stitch.  But, Stitch's destructive rampages soon make things tough for Nani, who's trying to keep Social Services from braking up her family.  Meanwhile, back in space, the Galactic Federation can't destroy Earth, so they send the evil genius and their expert on Earth to re-capture Stitch.  They can't kill Lilo, though, so they sit and watch, waiting for their opportunity.  And along the way, Lilo teaches Stitch about family, and Stitch realizes he doesn't have to be the weapon of mass destruction he was created to be. 

I was completely blown away at how good this film actually is.  For the late-1990s, most of Disney's animated films seemed like such soulless engines for merchandise.  But Lilo & Stitch managed to have an actual heart and soul to it.  The emotion was genuine.  And Stitch has to be one of Disney's better creations of recent years.  He's essentially a Disney animated gremlin.  Seek it out.  It's actually very satisfying.

3.5 Nibs

Treasure Planet

Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements

Starring the voices of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brian Murray, Emma Thompson, David Hyde Pierce, and Martin Short.

It's generally tough for a director to get his/her pet project made.  That's even more true in animation.  With an average production time of 3 years, animation directors are lucky to make one or two animated films in their career.  That makes it very difficult to get the clout to make your pet project.  So, I was curious about Treasure Planet.  This was the longtime pet project of John Musker and Ron Clements, the duo responsible for two of Disney's "early 1990s resurgence quartet."  (The Little Mermaid and Aladdin.)  Apparently, they've been trying to get Disney to make it since 1985.  And, they finally got to do it.  The premise:  a sci-fi re-imagining of Treasure Island

Jim Hawkins is a troubled teenager.  He's always dreamed of sailing out in space, and as such, his head is perpetually in the clouds.  Then, one day, a pirate shows up at his mother's inn and dies on their doorstep, leaving Jim a treasure map.  The map leads to the fabled Treasure Planet, where a very fierce pirate hoarded all his loot.  Naturally, Jim wants to go find it.  With physicist Dr. Doppler and the sturdy Captain Amelia, they set out to the planet.  But, they hired a very motley crew, including a shifty cyborg chef, John Silver.  But, Silver soon takes a liking to Jim, and, when they arrive at the planet...well, we've all read the book or seen one of the earlier movies. 

Visually, this is an amazing movie.  Tall ships redesigned as spaceships...giant spacefaring whales...imaginative aliens...and just brilliant space vistas.  Character wise...well.  Jim Hawkins isn't too different from Aladdin or Hercules or any other Disney hero in recent years.  Great supporting characters though, and a great voice cast bringing them to life.  I was almost afraid they'd change the identity of the villain, but they stayed true to the book.  This is a worthy attempt at doing something more grown-up, like The Black Cauldron and Atlantis.  And, just like those two earlier films, it falls just short of being something truly spectacular.  All in all, not bad from Mr. Musker and Mr. Clements.

3 Nibs

Brother Bear

Directed by Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker

Starring the voices of Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Suarez, Jason Raize, D.B. Sweeney, Michael Clarke Duncan, and Bob & Doug McKenzie.  Uhh, I mean Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas

I like bears.  They are such a majestic animal.  This film, however, just kind of slipped in under the radar.  I heard little bits online, but it never really piqued my interest.  I only started paying attention when I read the complete voice cast and saw two familiar names:  Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas.  I knew immediately what the directors were doing.  I asked myself, "Hmm.  Now what animals have Bob & Doug McKenzie been reincarnated as for the comic sidekicks?"  The answer:  moose.  I now had a reason to be interested. 

This takes place at a time when wooly mammoths still roam.  We focus on an Inuit tribe, and a teenager named Kenai.  Kenai is desperate to prove himself a man.  And, when his older brother is killed by a bear, Kenai vows to hunt down the bear and gain vengeance.  Kenai gets his vengeance, but the spirit of his brother is saddened by this act.  So, as punishment, Kenai is turned into a bear.  Now, in order to be turned back, Kenai must journey to where the northern lights touch the mountain.  Along the way, Kenai becomes guardian to a bear cub named Koda.  As the journey continues, Kenai and Koda become fast friends, and Kenai learns to let go of his hate.  But now, Kenai's other brother, believing bear-Kenai killed Kenai, is hunting down Kenai!  Can Kenai transform himself back before he's killed by his brother?  Can he protect Koda?  And yes, along the way, they meet up with Tuke and Rutt, two moose who are surprisingly a lot like Bob & Doug McKenzie.  ("Good day, eh?  I'm Tuke and this is my brother Rutt."  "How's it going, eh?"  Yes, that's how they introduce themselves.)

This film was just kind of...meh.  Plotwise, it offered nothing new, as there were similar thematic elements to The Lion King and even bits of Shrek thrown in.  Most of the characters seemed rather bland.  Phil Collins' songs were equally bland.  The whole thing was just kind of bland.  The Northern Lights were beautifully animated, though.  And yes, Bob & Doug McKenzie still make me laugh my ass off, even if they are now moose. 

Oh, and to everyone making an animated film in the next few years:  stop with the animated bloopers during the end credits.  That joke is now officially old. 

2.5 Nibs

Now, let's head across the street to DreamWorks.  It was always thought that DreamWorks would be the real contender to take down Disney's dominance of the animated films.  Hell, one of DreamWorks' founding fathers was Jeffery Katzenberg, who headed Disney animation during for their "early 1990s resurgence quartet."  But, after only 4 traditionally animated films, DreamWorks made the decision that all the money now was in CGI.  So, I finally got around to seeing their last two traditionally animated films.

Spirit:  Stallion of the Cimarron

Directed by Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook

Starring the voices of Matt Damon, James Cromwell, and Daniel Studi

I first saw the trailer for this on the Shrek DVD and thought it was the most mind-blowing piece of animation I'd ever seen.  But then, it hit theatres, and I had very little interest in seeing it.  Maybe it was the "selling point" that Bryan Adams did all the songs.  It still seemed like an interesting concept though:  a western from the horse's point of view.  And the horse's don't talk, to boot.

So, our hero is Spirit, who's the "horse king," as it were.  He narrates our tale and describes his life in the old west.  The film opens with his birth (yes, a fully-animated horse birth) and we see his idyllic childhood and his eventual ascension to ruler of the herd.  But then, one day, he investigates some strange lights in the distance, and he is captured by some cowboys.  And thus begins his odyssey though the world of men; from a cavalry fort to a Native American tribe to a railroad work camp.  Along the way, Spirit finds love and sees both the good and bad sides of the human race.  Through it all, he just longs to be free once again.  Will Spirit ever return to the wild?

There is still some mind-blowing animation in this film.  The horses seem so real sometimes.  And the landscapes, too.  I had real problem with Matt Damon as the voice of Spirit, though.  He just seems so lifeless.  And the songs are a little more lively than Phil Collins, but they still kind of don't work for me.  An interesting concept well-animated and executed, though, more than make up for it.  This is a really good film.

3 Nibs

Sinbad:  Legend of the Seven Seas

Directed by Patrick Gilmore and Tim Johnson

Starring the voices of Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Michelle Pfeiffer, Joseph Fiennes, and Dennis Haysbert

Again, here was another one that kind of slipped in under the radar.  There seems to be this compulsion in animation to try to make action-adventure films.  It's kind of like when the toy companies try to make action figures for girls:  they know the market probably exists, but they're unsure of how to tap it.  That's why we get so many "almost great" films.  Sinbad got several good reviews, though, so it was worth checking out.   

Sinbad is the ultimate swashbuckling pirate.  He loves his life on the open seas, looting and pillaging.  Then, one day, he happens to loot his old friend Proteus, in an attempt to steal the Book of Peace.  This causes Sinbad to change his mind, but Eris, the goddess of discord, hatches a plan.  Eris swipes the Book of Peace and frames Sinbad.  Proteus, believing Sinbad when Sinbad says he's innocent, takes Sinbad's place in prison.  Now, Sinbad has just 10 days to make the perilous journey to the Realm of Chaos and recapture the Book of Peace.  Along on the journey comes Marina, Proteus' betrothed wife.  Naturally, she and Sinbad don't like each other that much, but their arguing soon gives way to...well, you know.  Can they recover the Book of Peace and save Proteus in time?

There's a great voice cast in this film.  Brad Pitt is having a lot of fun as Sinbad, and Michelle Pfeiffer is just wonderful as Eris.  Character-wise, though....  Marina is just the same plucky, adventure-starved princess we've seen since Ariel first wanted a pair of legs.  Despite the hype about the action sequences, I didn't find them all that spectacular.  Most of them were dominated by somewhat cheesy computer animation.  Like all other animated action-adventure films before it, a worthy attempt, but still a little bit short.

2.5 Nibs      

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© Mark Sladen Cappis, 2004