Why I Still Love Frozen (spoilers)

Over a year and a half later, Disney’s Frozen seems unstoppable. It played a big role in the first half of Season 4 of Once Upon A Time, which is basically Live Action Disney Crossover RPG/Fanfiction at this point (not that I mind, it’s an immensely enjoyable nonsense show); a new short called Frozen Fever played in front of their live-action Cinderella remake; a sequel and a Broadway show are on the way; and the merchandise presumably still sells like its going out of style. And yet to me it seems like yesterday that people were rolling their eyes at it in the pre-release stage: too familiar in its design sensibilities, too liberal with its inspiration Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen (imagine if The Little Mermaid came out today), etc. Some people still ended up not caring for the film (which is fine), but overall it became a downright phenomenon, the likes of which we haven’t seen from Disney in quite some time. Other recent films of theirs, Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6, have been successes, but none have quite caught on in the same way. But does the film itself still hold up? I would say quite so, with a few caveats.

Said caveats, so we can get them out of the way: yes, I suppose Anna and Elsa’s designs fall into a lot of the same design sensibilities as past Disney princesses, and it would be really nice to see some non-waist-thin princesses (though I feel the actual character animation for them is still quite excellent). Kristoff and Hans are fun, well-realized characters on their own, but strictly speaking they might not be totally necessary for this story (much of Kristoff’s role is a glorified taxi service). And speaking of Prince Hans, his heel turn is a wonderful shock (“Prince Charmless” is a familiar trope but not one that Disney often pulls, and not at all with such relish), but the build-up is perhaps a bit too subtle to catch on first viewing. Though it’s helped a bit by the Duke of Wesleton (Alan Tudyk in his second of three Disney roles in the past few years) being a giant, memorable red herring. And finally, some parts of the film feel a bit rushed, like Anna and Kristoff’s relationship (though I still think it’s a fun one) or the “Fixer Upper” song, which is fine on its own, and thematically relevant, but comes at a bizarre place in the film pacing-wise. These can be perhaps chalked up to the film’s release date getting bumped up a few months, and perhaps a bit more time would have ironed out these roadblocks.

And yet, in the grand scheme of things, these flaws don’t really matter to me. The film just works even through the bumpiness. I think the main reason for this is that our two heroines, Elsa and Anna, are such wonderfully written, animated and voiced characters, easily amongst the best of the Disney princess bunch (though technically Elsa is a queen). Yes, at first glance, Idina Menzel’s casting as Elsa seems like the world’s biggest musical in-joke; a young woman with magical powers who hides them out of fear for what the world sees her as? Where have I seen that before? Joking aside, Menzel makes Elsa into her own, distinct character, one that’s trapped inside her own head by fear and trauma (Elphaba for all her neuroses had a confidence and acidic sense of humor that Elsa mostly lacks), and she rocks the songs like nobody’s business, especially the now-iconic “Let It Go”.

Yet I feel like Anna is distinctly underappreciated. Yes she’s another “spunky princess”, but they don’t really make a big deal out of that. There are no “wow you’re strong/active for a girl” lines/moments, she just leaps into action without a second thought, like jumping off a mountain, bashing a wolf’s head in with a borrowed lute, or her climactic decision. Kristen Bell brings her wonderfully to life in terms of vocals, with a boundless yet nervous energy and generous spirit, and arguably kicks just as much ass on the singing end of things as Menzel. The relationship between Anna and Elsa is the heart of the film, and I remain deeply moved by the climax that turns the idea of “true love” on its head. (Sidenote: Lilo & Stitch serves as a fascinating contrast to this film in terms of sister relationships. As with Frozen, the arguments and the deep love side by side feel achingly real, but there it’s more of a subplot to the burgeoning friendship between the title characters, and Nani has to handle being a surrogate parent due to being so much older. I may do another essay on this topic at some point).

As noted the other characters are well-done, from Kristoff’s “jerk with a heart of gold” coming off well thanks to Jonathan Groff (though sadly he barely gets to sing outside of a brief, goofy ditty about reindeers), Santino Fontana makes Hans’ wonderfully two-faced nature come through in his line deliveries (and clearly had fun being almost purely villainous in the last part of the film), and Josh Gad is genuinely funny and endearing rather than annoying as Olaf the snowman, the most hated part of the pre-release marketing. The animation on Olaf and Sven, Kristoff’s lovable reindeer sidekick, is particularly well-done and amusing.

The music hearkens back to the Disney Renaissance (while I love The Princess and the Frog, that’s decidedly more jazz, gospel and blues-oriented as a soundtrack) in its ready-for-Broadway orchestrations and lyrics, though “Let It Go” has a distinctly pop edge as well. Robert Lopez and his wife Kristin did the songs, having between them previously worked on stage projects such as Avenue Q, a Finding Nemo stage musical for Disney World, the musical episode of “Scrubs”, The Book of Mormon, and the most recent animated Winnie the Pooh film (which I suspect landed them the Frozen gig). I can’t really think of any duds amongst the songs. There’s “Frozen Heart”, which sets up the film thematically and is reminiscent of older Disney “worker songs” like “Fathoms Below”. “Do You Want To Build A Snowman?” aches with longing and sweetness. “For the First Time in Forever” is super-energetic yet has a neurotic double edge (especially in the reprise). “Love Is An Open Door” is downright self-parody, “Let It Go” is a powerhouse, “In Summer” is a jaunty tune or Olaf, and the aforementioned “Fixer Upper” is a fun crowd song.

In the end, I perhaps have too much to say about this film; I may do separate essays later on some of the themes and character stuff. For now I paraphrase the late, great Roger Ebert’s assertion that if you look at a movie a lot of people love, no matter what it is, you may find something profound. I wouldn’t go that far with Frozen, but I still find it a heartfelt, funny and exciting film that deserves to be held up alongside other Disney classics.

Mr. Peabody and Sherman

With perhaps a couple of exceptions (I’m still reasonably fond of the live-action George of the Jungle, primarily due to its delightfully game cast, especially Brendan Fraser and Keith Scott’s kooky narrator), Jay Ward’s body of animation seems to stubbornly resist theatrical adaptation. This isn’t much of a surprise, as characters like Rocky and Bullwinkle, Dudley Do-Right and the subjects of this review were designed to take advantage of short-burst segments of a larger whole. Still, Hollywood has tried and mostly failed. Mr. Peabody and Sherman is better than the likes of say, the live-action Dudley Do-Right or Rocky and Bullwinkle films (though as with Jungle, I found pleasure in some of the performances), but it’s frustratingly mediocre all the same.

The best part of the film is unfortunately also the beginning, as, in an homage to the first segment featuring the characters on Bullwinkle, Mr. Peabody (Modern Family’s Ty Burrell) explains his own backstory and how he came to adopt the human child Sherman (Max Charles of The Neighbors). It’s a breezy, self-aware intro as Peabody addresses the audience and then ropes Sherman into their latest adventure in the WABAC machine. The ensuing segment in the French Revolution period is also a great deal of fun, poking at figures of the period like Marie Antoinette and Robespierre, although it’s a bit more frenetic and slap-sticky than the show. Still, the way Peabody thinks and fights his way out of situations is enjoyable to watch, and Burrell manages to make the character’s smugly likable personality work more than I thought he would based on the trailer. Originally Robert Downey, Jr. was going to voice Peabody, and while I think that would have been neat, he might have ended up playing himself more than the character since his vocal tics are so distinctive. Burrell is able to disappear into the role more, and Charles is a sprightly vocal presence as Sherman.

Then things shift into the main plot of the film and the goodwill quickly evaporates. One issue I have with some DreamWorks films is that they try and force “heart” into things when many of their films would be better off just being goofy. Megamind for instance is fantastic when it deals with poking fun at superhero and supervillain tropes, particularly with Megamind’s ennui and the toxic “nice guy” qualities of Hal. It is considerably less successful at the romance between Megamind and Roxy, which frankly stops the film dead at several points. I still like that film a great deal, but you get the idea. Peabody has this problem in a big way. Not content with spoofing various historical figures in entertaining ways, director Rob Minkoff of The Lion King and his story team have grafted on a thoroughly artificial conflict to drive the story. Did we really need a film where a nasty child services worker (Alison Janney, putting in immense effort for a perfunctory role that doesn’t deserve it) tries to break apart Peabody and Sherman? The climax where, in addition to a bunch of much more enjoyable time travel craziness, Sherman has to defend Peabody lands with a thud. I didn’t buy it for a second.

That was a common problem with the film, as characters shift allegiances and attitudes with almost no explanation. Penny (Ariel Winter, also from Modern Family) goes from a despicable bully to a more benign “bad influence” character within about 20 minutes, for instance. (That’s another issue: the women in the film are all either blank slates like Penny’s mom, buffoons like Marie Antoinette, or inexplicably rotten like early-Penny, Mona Lisa, or the child service worker) The historical goofiness still has some good jokes (like the Greek soldiers at Troy being a bunch of jocks led by the always welcome Patrick Warburton as Agamemnon), though I could have done without Peabody referring to Egyptian civilization as savage. Other goofy stuff in the margins is decent, like Stanley Tucci’s stereotypical but pleasantly daffy Leonardo Da Vinci or Stephen Colbert being smarmy as Penny’s dad.

Production values wise, the film is fine if a bit generic visually. The backgrounds are nice, the WABAC gets a cool TARDIS-esque makeover, and character animation is pleasantly goofy. The music by Danny Elfman is, well, Elfman so he does an OK if slightly uninspired job. Overall I feel like I have much less to talk about with this film than I do a lot of others. It’s not bad, but it’s not especially good either. It’s the kind of movie you drift across flipping channels, or watch on Netflix with the kids. It won’t murder your brain cells, but it won’t inspire them either. Stick with the TV show.

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.

A Scanner Darkly

Normally I’m not a huge fan of the rotoscoping technique; it tends to look jarring and awkward when put up against regular keyframed animation, be it hand-drawn or CGI (though that tends to have plenty of live action reference). However, it has been used well in different ways by certain filmmakers, most notably the likes of the Fleischer brothers, Don Bluth, Steven Spielberg in his Tintin movie, and in today’s entry, Richard Linklater in his adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. With the help of Bob Sabiston, who had worked with him on Waking Life (though sadly Sabiston was kicked off this project mid-stream thanks to production woes), Linklater creates a great, almost comic-book style to depict the near-future goings-on and drugged-out characters of the story.

Said story is often meandering and goes down dead ends, but that fits the tone of the whole enterprise, focusing on the increasing paranoia and blurred identities of the cast. At the center is Fred (Keanu Reeves), an undercover cop investigating a household for links to the manufacturers of a dangerously addictive drug called Substance D. His roommates include the likes of Barris (Robert Downey, Jr.), Luckman (Woody Harrelson), Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane) and Donna (Winona Ryder). Adding further complications is that Fred has been ordered to spy on his own alter ego, Bob Arctor, since he and his superiors keep their identities secret from each other through the use of “scramble suits” (an ingenious visual effect). As things spiral out of control, Fred/Bob begins to ask himself that age old question: what is real?

I have never taken drugs myself, or been around many people who have taken them, but despite this, there seems to be an eerie verisimilitude to the performances and writing of these characters, ready to turn on each other for the most mundane reasons. An argument about the number of gears on a bike manages to be by turns hilarious and terrifying, the hallucinations are more convincing than they might have been in live action, and a late-film reveal calls everything we thought we knew about the plot into question. The actors all put in excellent work. I feel like Keanu Reeves gets a bad rap for not emoting as much or underplaying things, but I tend to think that works for a lot of his characters. He has a couple monologues here that benefit greatly from his matter-of-fact monotone. Downey is scarily charismatic as usual, and one wonders if there is an alternate universe where he ended up playing supervillains instead of Tony Stark thanks to roles like this. Harrelson provides some welcome comic relief, Cochrane gets excellent mileage out of his Jeremy Davies-esque twitchiness, and Ryder brings some interesting shades to Donna, especially by the end.

The film is curiously non-judgmental in its portrayal of drug users. It probably helps that Dick was one in real life, and had many friends who were, but the anger in the film seems directed more at the manufacturers, rehab facilities and the ineffectual time-wasting of the police going after burnouts like Barris or Freck to try and get to a higher level. The ending, with the horrifying revelation made about the New Path rehab company, seems to reinforce this. There’s a slight glimmer of hope at the end, but the user-rehab-police cycle is shown to be a vicious one. The heartbreaking list of friends and colleagues Dick lost to drug use at the end (including himself-“Phil”) doesn’t help.

All in all, A Scanner Darkly is an excellent curiosity. It tackles material I wish was tackled in American animation more often, and in ways that find dark humor and sadness in the proceedings. Ultimately I was left a little cold emotionally, but it was still very compelling and intriguing in its way.

Whisper of the Heart

Whisper of the Heart resembles other Studio Ghibli films like My Neighbor Totoro or Kiki’s Delivery Service in that there are no grand adventures, no epic struggles. It’s the simple but utterly charming story of a teenage girl trying to find herself. Written by the master Miyazaki and directed by the sadly late Yoshifumi Kondo, it’s a film I find myself returning to again and again for its quiet majesty and good nature.

Much like Kiki’s, the film is eerily good at getting into the mindset of not just what teenagers sound like, but what being one felt like. It captures the boredom of class, the excitement of first crushes, the uncertainty of what you want to do with your future and when curiosity distracted you from doing something important. There’s an absolutely marvelous little sequence where our heroine, Shizuku Tsukushima (Brittany Snow in the English dub), follows a portly cat across town in lieu of returning books to the library. It’s a quiet, yet exciting journey, and Shizuku manages to take the film in a direction we don’t expect as a result, finding a quaint antiques shop and a friendly old man, Nishi (Harold Gould), who turns out to be the grandfather of the boy she’s starting to like, Seiji Amasawa (David Gallagher).

My favorite part of the film is the subplot that develops where Shizuku decides to pursue her writing skills. The teen romance stuff is all very well done, sweet, funny and any complications that arise are dealt with quickly (a potential love triangle is mercifully brief). Yet Shizuku’s struggles with writing resonated with me far more; I consider myself a writer, and much of the pain she goes through attempting to do it is all too familiar, such as her agonized self-critique of a first draft. Yet the encouragement she gets from Nishi is just as important: stories can be rough that first time, but they can also be beautiful and passionate, only needing fine-tuning and refinement.

As usual for Ghibli, the technical merits of the film are excellent. Character designs are smooth and appealing, with the animation being nicely realistic and awkward in its depiction of teenage body language (my favorite bit is probably when Shizuku’s friend, Yuko, has been crying and looks absolutely miserable, but it’s still kind of funny). Yuji Nomi, taking over for usual Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi, provides a diverse score of orchestrations and more modern electronic music, though the best stuff is probably in the brief fantasy interludes where Shizuku imagines the characters and world of her story. The English dub is quite good, with Snow, Gallagher and other teenage actors at the time like Ashley Tisdale and Martin Spanjers giving down-to-Earth performances, with Gould probably being the best amongst the supporting cast, which includes James Sikking and Jean Smart as Shizuku’s parents and Courtney Thorne-Smith as her older sister.

Whisper of the Heart is probably my favorite of the non-directed-by-Miyazaki Ghibli films (outside of My Neighbors The Yamadas, never been much of a Takahata fan), with a subtlety and gentleness that I wish more American animation was willing to try. Arguably it’s far better than a lot of live action teenage-focused properties; authors would do well to study it. They might learn something.