Monthly Archives: May 2015

The Great Mouse Detective

Conventional wisdom holds that Disney’s feature animation department got its groove back with the completion of The Little Mermaid in 1989. I do not quite buy into this. Mermaid is a terrific film, a classic, but I believe that the “Disney Renaissance” actually began 3 years earlier with The Great Mouse Detective, a rollicking Sherlockian adventure that’s honestly better than some official Sherlock Holmes media (looking at you, Moffat). I then believe that this in turn led to the successes of Oliver and Company, a slight but immensely enjoyable slice of 80s New York City in animated form, and the genius of Who Framed Roger Rabbit (although that was also a collaboration the likes of which would take until films like Wreck-It Ralph or The Lego Movie to repeat), which then led to Mermaid’s success. Detective remains a blast from start to finish, and it’s easy to see why: it has a vibrant energy sorely lacking from other early to mid-80s Disney efforts like the laborious The Fox and the Hound or The Black Cauldron, which tried too hard to be an “epic” in the vein of Sleeping Beauty and fell flat on its face (though both films still have some good moments, such as Glen Keane’s bear fight in the former, and Elmer Bernstein’s score in the latter).

Part of the reason Detective is so successful to this day is because it’s refreshingly simple. It’s a straightforward mystery that turns into an adventure, and the characters are broadly drawn yet still interesting in their flaws and foibles. Basil of Baker Street in particular is allowed to be a real jerk at times with his smugness and pretensions of superiority (though he IS also truly intelligent, and his deductions frequently make a good deal of sense, and Barrie Ingham’s livewire performance calms down at crucial moments). Dawson is the Watson figure, a bit bumbling, but still able to be counted on in a crisis. Olivia is a spunky child who thankfully does not edge into annoying territory, and Fidget is a memorably menacing yet comical henchman. Musically the film is also a cut above some of the previous efforts, with a rousing score from the great Henry Mancini and a few fun songs.

And then we have our villain, one for the ages, in the nefarious Professor Ratigan. Voiced with delicious, hammy menace by the always wonderful Vincent Price, Ratigan was supervised by legendary animator Glen Keane, and his work here really makes me wish he did more villains outside of this guy, Sykes in Oliver and John Silver in Treasure Planet. Though of course his other work is brilliant, just a bit more subtle. Ratigan bursts with energy even when standing almost completely still, and is so in love with his evil deeds that it becomes almost inspiring. He lacks the complexity and cleverness of later Disney villains like Scar or Frollo (although when one examines it, his plan is actually quite ingenious if ludicrous), but makes up for in sheer gusto. Price gets to sing on both of Ratigan’s songs, the bombastic “The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind” (which was the first great Villain Song from Disney in ages, harkening back to boasts like “The Elegant Captain Hook”) and the jazzy taunt of “Goodbye, So Soon”, and is just as enjoyable there as he is while ranting furiously or threatening in a falsely friendly tone.

The animation of the film is much in the 60s-70s “Xerox” style, but a more refined version of that, with memorable character designs (especially Basil and Ratigan) and a pleasing looseness to the animation. It doesn’t bother to try and be realistic, and why should it? The climax atop Big Ben is terrific, especially with the then-novel CGI gears providing a dangerous arena, and Ratigan’s scary-as-hell feral transformation. The film is also short, so there’s not much in the way of distractions; the pacing moves like a rocket while still having time for good character beats and scenes like Basil determining the location of Ratigan’s lair.

The Great Mouse Detective is still probably one of my favorite Disney films from both the 80s and of their whole canon. I wish they still made movies like this in between their big CGI epics, but c’est la vie.

 

Ranking The Marvel Cinematic Universe

Note: The TV shows Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter are not included on this list because I have not seen all of them.

Nobody really cares about a huge preamble for posts like this, so here it goes: these are my rankings and reasons why they hold that ranking for the films and TV shows of the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far, with the exception of the aforementioned shows.

1. The Avengers-It’s not the “best” of these movies, no. The script is almost gleefully haphazard and simplistic, the cinematography can be flat or over-lit in certain areas, and despite some good moments in the final battle, Hawkeye ends up getting the short end of the stick. But it almost seems churlish to make these complaints when the end product is so damn good at getting a huge grin on my face for nearly the entire running time.

2, Marvel’s Daredevil-A glorious cinematic reintroduction that washes away all the bad tastes of the 2003 film (though I’m still reasonably fond of Michael Clarke Duncan and Colin Farrell in that). Charlie Cox and Vincent D’Onofrio are revelations as Murdock and Wilson Fisk, the former giving an achingly earnest yet badass performance, and the latter bringing his trademark weirdness full-bore to a shockingly complex crime lord. Add in a stellar supporting cast, jaw-dropping, brutal fight scenes and extremely solid writing, and you have easily the best superhero TV series in ages. I can’t wait for the next Netflix shows, as well as Season 2 of this.

3. Iron Man 3-Crackling action-comedy with a terrific reinterpretation of a villain who nobody thought could work onscreen in this day and age. Downey gives possibly his best performance as Tony Stark ever, with Shane Black managing to find a great balance between quippy banter, self reflection, and small-scale fights and shoot-outs alongside the big summer blockbuster set pieces.

4. Captain America: The Winter Soldier-The politics are perhaps a little goofy (apparently nobody thought bringing in former Nazis to an organization diametrically opposed to their ideals was a bad idea, and that nobody noticed until now), but Winter Soldier manages to succeed through terrific action and pathos, as well as strong performances. In particular, Johansson does her best work yet as Natasha, Anthony Mackie is a supportive and cool-headed Sam WIlson, Redford brings an old-school, quiet menace to the proceedings,  and Sebastian Stan manages to convey more with a single glance than he could with whole monologues.

5. Guardians of the Galaxy-Things get wild and cosmic for the Marvel Cinematic Universe here, yet director-writer James Gunn manages to keep things level with a terrific cast (Bradley Cooper and Dave Bautista are particularly great as Rocket Raccoon and Drax), grand space opera visuals, and the wonderful sight of Michael Rooker stomping around being his glorious self in blue makeup and whistle-arrowing people to death. I can’t wait to see what these crazy bastards do next in guarding the galaxy.

6. Ant-Man-A delightful, breezy heist comedy. Paul Rudd makes for an affable lead, while Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lily get a lot of mileage out of their exasperation with him, Michael Pena is the secret weapon, and Corey Stoll chews up a storm of scenery as Cross/Yellowjacket. The special effects are ingenious and endlessly inventive, particularly a mid-stream fight with a certain Avenger and the final battle. Add in a lovely father-daughter bond, and you have a great time that’s basically Honey I Shrunk The Kids pumped with steroids and crossed with Ocean’s Eleven.

7. The Avengers: Age of Ultron-It’s heavily flawed and probably takes on more weight than it needed to, particularly in foreshadowing events in future films. Yet there are still many pleasures found here, particularly in Spader’s oily yet frustrated menace as Ultron, Andy Serkis’ delightful Klaue (can’t wait to see more of him in Black Panther), Paul Bettany’s serene Vision, and clever action-mixed-with-character beats, such as when Wanda finally starts tearing up the place. I’ll file the Natasha-Bruce romance away as an interesting failed experiment, though.

8. Iron Man-Things started off a bit rough, no doubt. The action isn’t as crazy and varied as it would be in later films, and the hints at a larger universe remain only hints, though Clark Gregg is still delightful as Agent Phil Coulson. But Downey tears into the material with a vengeance, and his character development (as well as the delightful montages of him creating his tech) overrides any issues. Also, Jeff Bridges is easily the most underrated of the Marvel film villains, even if he’s ultimately another corporate slimeball.

9. Captain America: The First Avenger-It hurt me to rank it this low, even though it hits a LOT of my entertainment buttons. But it makes a few missteps, such as having the ending be what should have been the post-credits scene, and ultimately Red Skull is just a cackling cartoon villain, though Hugo Weaving plays him with a deliciously over-the-top Werner Herzog impression and fantastic makeup. That being said, it’s still quite a bit of fun. I never thought Evans had this kind of almost-cheesy decency to him, and he makes lines that could sound horrid work completely. And Hayley Atwell is so good as Peggy Carter that the only surprise at her getting her own show is how long it took.

10. Thor-It’s a bit smaller-scale than it probably should have been, perhaps. But Branagh still manages to bring Shakespearean pomp and grandeur to the proceedings, especially in his actors. Chris Hemsworth leaps onto the screen as a fully-formed movie star, and manages to make Thor’s development work even when the script is lacking. And Tom Hiddleston works overtime to make Loki tragic even while he’s doing despicable things (though I prefer his much more overtly villainous performance in Avengers; he’s delightful to kick around in that one).

11. Thor: The Dark World-Hemsworth and Hiddleston manage to make their character stuff work, and there’s some inventive action scenes throughout. But the story is a complete mess and screams wasted potential. Why bother hiring Christopher Eccleston if you’re just going to have him stand around and growl in monster makeup? (Protip: if you are more distinctive and memorable as a villain in the G.I. Joe movie than in a Marvel one, there’s a problem) Jane Foster stubbornly refuses to work onscreen despite the undeniably cool fact of her being an astrophysicist, the other Asgardians are almost completely wasted, and the ending is a hilariously obvious last-minute reshoot. Here’s hoping Ragnarok is better.

12. Iron Man 2-Much like the above, this has some good bits but is ultimately let down by trying to do too much in too little time. Rourke and Rockwell should have been A-list villains, but they’re given almost nothing to do besides weird comedy tinged with menace on the sidelines. Still, Downey is as fun as ever, and manages to give the pat daddy issues subplot some meaning (how did Dominic Cooper transform into John Slattery is what I’m wondering).

13. The Incredible Hulk-This is a decent action flick all things considered, but nothing about it sticks in the mind for very long outside of some fun scenery in Brazil and Tim Roth providing some good menace as Blonsky before turning into a CGI monstrosity.

Song of the Sea (spoilers)

I wasn’t completely enamored with The Secret of Kells, Irish director Tomm Moore and his studio Cartoon Saloon’s 2009 debut animated feature. The visuals and character designs were striking and inventive (especially their interpretation of the mythical Crom Cruach), and Bruno Coulais’ score was terrific (he did similarly great work on Coraline and returns for this film), but outside of Abbot Cellach’s stubbornness that led to heartbreak and the mystery of Aisling, I never got fully invested in the story or characters. Moore’s second feature film, Song of the Sea, rectifies my complaints with Kells and then some. It’s just as visually interesting as Kells, but taken a leap forward and dealing with a Miyazaki-esque mix of modern and magical. I think this or The Tale of the Princess Kaguya could have and should have won over the likes of Big Hero 6 or How To Train Your Dragon 2 at the Oscars, though I’m immensely fond of both of those films. Though if an American film HAD to win last year, I would have given it to the not-even-nominated The Lego Movie.

One reason I feel like this film succeeds more than Kells on a character level is its protagonist, Ben (voiced by Moon Boy‘s David Rawle). I always felt that Brendan, the hero of Kells, was a mite too bland to carry his own film, which is why I found supporting characters like the Abbot and Aisling far more interesting. Ben, by contrast, has much more going on psychologically. He had a deep bond with his mother Bronagh (Irish singer Lisa Hannigan), a selkie spirit (seals who can take the form of human beings). Ben blames the birth of his sister Saiorse for her disappearance (which is not entirely inaccurate, as we see later in the film), as well as their father Conor (Brendan Gleeson, returning from Kells though with much less screentime) sliding into alcohol-fueled depression. As such, he’s frequently mean and condescending to her in the early part of the film. I found this shockingly refreshing; many young boy protagonists of animated films are cheerful and upbeat despite any hardships they might have had. Ben opens up around his dog, Cu, but is cold and resentful to Saiorse. He softens as the film goes on, inevitably, but I was pleasantly surprised with how far they took his nastiness in places.

The other characters are well-drawn and sympathetic. Conor is clearly still in love with Bronagh, and the shots we see of him at bars ache with loneliness. The children’s Granny (Fionnula Flanagan) seems harsh but wants what she feels is best for them, and this doesn’t include staying at a lighthouse all the time. The various magical spirits strike a nice balance between comedy and intrigue (the film being set around Halloween allows for some good gags of spirits hiding in plain sight). And the ostensible antagonist of the film, the owl witch Macha (also voiced by Flanagan; her relationship with her son, Mac Lir, whose cries and sounds are provided by Gleeson, is an uncommented-on parallel with Granny and Conor), is sympathetic and understandable even when she is doing wrong.

As noted the film is as visually lush and interesting as Kells, but I found them to stick in the mind a bit more. The scenes involving selkies and other spirits, particularly Macha and Mac Lir, are completely enchanting and allowed to move at a gentle, unhurried pace. One bit involving Macha regaining her lost emotions is particularly lovely. The character animation is fantastic as well; Ben’s disgruntled nature is perfectly conveyed by his scowls and terse movements, and Saiorse gains a lot of character from her physicality since she does not speak for roughly 90% of the film. The frequently wet, modern unnamed city that Granny takes the children to live in is just as interesting to look at and study as the magical forests and creatures. Coulais’ music, produced in collaboration with Irish folk group Kila, fits the various moods perfectly, especially the titular song, which is deployed to great effect in the film’s climax.

Speaking of which: this is another area where I felt the film improved on Kells. It’s much more focused and tense as Ben and Conor race to save both Saiorse from dying and to restore the spirits from their stone forms. It explodes into visual wonder not unlike the previously mentioned Miyazaki, and the conclusion is bittersweet yet feels completely earned. I also liked how simplified and unexplained certain things were. Mac Lir’s loss is never specified, but we feel his pain all the same, and how the magic works is not buried under confusing exposition.

All in all, Song of the Sea is a terrific step forward for Moore, Cartoon Saloon and Irish animation in general. I’m looking forward to whatever they have up their sleeves in the future.