Friday, December 9, 2016

Frozen (2013) (Movie Review)

     Before I review today’s movie, lets quickly look back at 1994, when the animated event of the year was this little movie called “The Lion King”. When that film came out, it was just this monster hit, breaking the box office more than any other animated movie that came before, selling more merchandise than any other and has a massive devoted fan base to this very day. Sure there were hits after words, and the critical consensus would often say something like “best animated movie sense The Lion King”. But no matter how successful future animated films would get, the critics and fans would still say “best animated movie sense The Lion King”, as if they never did surpass that movie, and all previous films just didn’t matter in the long run. So for the longest time it seemed that no other animated Disney movie could beat “The Lion King”, at least in popularity and success. Then in the winter of 2013 came another little animated Disney movie titled “Frozen”, and it took the world by storm. After all these years Disney did the impossible, they finally made an animated movie that actually surpassed “The Lion King”, but again in regards to box office success, merchandising and a massive fan base. Now I loved this movie when it first came out, but to be honest, I haven’t really thought of it much sense then. So I’m going to finally view this movie again to see if Disney’s runaway hit still holds up ... the short answer is YES!

      Our story is based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale “The Snow Queen”, making this Disney’s third animated adaption of one of his fables. The other two adaption’s are “The Little Mermaid” and a short film version of “The Little Match Girl”. Why Disney hasn’t done “Thumbelina” yet is anyone’s guise, but give it time, I’m sure they’ll adapt that popular Hans Christian Andersen fable as well. By the way, “The Emperor’s New Groove” doesn’t count, because that really wasn’t an adaption of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, they just have a similar title. Anyway, let’s get back to “Frozen”, which revolves around a young princess named Elsa and her sister named Anna. The former is born with mysterious ice related powers, which are also a little out of control. After accidently injuring her sister Anna, Elsa locks herself away in her palace with no connection to the outside world. The years aren’t kind to either siblings as the parents sadly die, the two can’t be there for one another, and Elsa is forced to take on the title of Queen. While Anna tries to make a life for herself, Elsa’s powers are revealed to everyone, forcing her to flee the Kingdome, leaving a terrible snow storm behind in her place. Thus, the young sister Anna embarks on a quest to save the land from an eternal winter, as well as rescue her sister from herself. Along the journey she makes new allies, as well as new enemies and a wild fantasy adventure ensues.

    There’s a simple formula that goes into just about every animated Disney movie, and it’s been my observation that the studio will do one of three things with that formula. Let me paraphrase it this way, there are Disney movies that stay within the box, Disney movies that break out of the Box, and Disney movies that tilt the box. “Frozen” is a Disney movie that takes all their classics tropes, formulas, clichés and tilts them on their side. It’s all very familiar to us, but presented in a way that feels fresh, new and isn’t just being satirical. The 2007 film “Enchanted” parodied the formula, but “Frozen” still maintained the same spirit while changing the game around. Here are some examples, we have a princess locked in a tower, but it’s due to her own personal struggles and not an evil villain keeping her locked away.
We have a magical sorceress threatening a kingdom, but she’s not evil, just conflicted and needs guidance. There’s even a romance that blooms over a short period of time, all while the characters playfully mock the notion of love at first site, but without falling into self parody. The cliché of the princess falling in love with someone she just met is taken a step further as the movie affectionately works in a "stranger danger" message. Without going into too much detail, there’s a surprise villain that I initially didn’t like at first, as it felt like a cheap twist I saw coming from a mile away. However, this villain twist dose convey a really good message to young viewers, alerting them to the dangers of new people who seem perfect, which is all the more relevant today with the advent of online dating. Even the moral of finding true love is given a nice, albeit predictable twist. Needless to say, everything works hand in hand with a well written screen play, and an outstanding cast of memorable characters ... which reminds me.

    I love the Characters in this movie, and it’s one of Disney’s best ensemble casts to come in ages. Princess Anna is just brimming with personality, and I honestly can’t think of a moment in the film in which she didn’t put a big smile on my face. Her antics are funny, I love how determined she gets, I love her passion and I think she’s the cutest of all the Disney royalty. Her sister Elsa also has a lot of personality, the only difference is that she masks her emotions. It’s also a nice touch that she takes on the status of queen, and I’m so grateful that the studio didn’t make her a villain, which she so easily could have been. Thus we have two terrific leading heroines for the price of one, and we latch onto them both for different reasons. Elsa stands out for her internal conflicts and raw emotions, while Anna wins us over with her irresistible charm and likability. The boy friend character named Kristoff is also very likable, and his budding relationship with Anna is another one of the films many highlights. I like that a good chunk of this films comedy comes from the main characters themselves and not just the comedic side characters. Having said that, the films comedic relief is a magical snowman named Olaf, and he’s hands down my favorite sense the genie from “Aladdin”. So many of Disney’s comedic reliefs are so obnoxious and loud, where as Olaf is charming, lovable, soft spoken, has his own character dynamic and is honestly quiet funny.

    The movie also has a nice variety of entertainment, and even some well placed action sequences. In the mid 90’s I felt that Disney lost some of it’s magic charm with perhaps a little too much action and not enough simplicity. “Frozen” strikes this perfect balance by giving us an adventure through a magic kingdom that’s very absorbing and has just enough exciting encounters along the way. The formula is actually kind of like “The Wizard of Oz” in a sense, as we follow one girl on a journey through an enchanted world, she makes several friends along the way, and the experience just feels light as air, even when our hero’s are attacked by wolves or a giant ice monster. The movie also unintentionally reminds me of the X-Men, which may sound like a random comparison, but really look the similarities here. We have a character “born” with magic powers, and is driven away by normal people who fear her gifts. She has ice themed powers just like the character Iceman. She also conceals her powers under her gloves while refusing to let anyone get close to her, just like the X-Men character Rouge. Even strains of her sisters hair turn white after a near death experience, which again is just like the character Rouge.

    Okay, I went a little off topic there so let me compensate by addressing the next big highlight of the film ... the animation. I usually prefer traditional hand drawn animation over 3D computer animation, but I just can’t deny that the art work in “Frozen” is gorgeous. The detailed winter landscapes, the warm lighting, the imaginative designs, the colorful textures, it all just pops, and honestly, I think this is one of Disney’s best visual achievements. I could just get lost in this environment, and the winter setting dose create its own unique atmosphere that makes it stand apart from other fantasy worlds we’ve seen. Okay, lets finally talk about this films iconic sound track, as if it even needs mentioning. The music is unforgettable, and catchy, but it also has substance as the majority of these songs help move the story forward and convey what the characters are either feeling or experiencing. In short, this is an animated musical at its very best. Also, the majority of Disney animated musicals would only feature maybe five songs but this film goes the extra mile with several songs, all of them great and it just feels like a real musical that’s destined to be a Broadway classic.   

     Over the past couple years I’ve seen some wonderful animated movies, and while “How to Train Your Dragon” is still my favorite of the new millennium, “Frozen” is that rare instant classic that disserves every bit of its praise. It’s an important sign for me that Hollywood can still release quality material, and it gives me great hope for what Disney can do in the future. Now to be perfectly honest, I can’t say that “Frozen” is one of my top 10 favorite animated movies, or heck even top 10 Disney, but I do still love this movie, and look forward to watching it again. The animation is gorgeous, the characters are outstanding, the morals are pure, and the music is unforgettable. It’s without a doubt one of the greatest animated movies of the millennium, and I’m overjoyed to hear the critics and fans say ... best animated film sense “Frozen”, instead of “The Lion King”. 

I give Disney's run away hit “Frozen” ... 4 ½ stars out of 5.    

The Polar Express (2004) (Movie Review)

       Life is full of changes, and growing-up has its up’s a downs. My personal transition from Elementary school to Middle school was kind of rough, and a time when I shut myself out from other things. Strait to the point, this was a time in which the Christmas season meant very little too me, and I had pretty much lost all its magic. Then in 2004 a little animated movie came out called “The Polar Express”, and needless to say, this film helped reignite that warm magical spark, which I had lost. Now “The Polar Express” has never been regarded as one of the great holiday classics, and has received mixed reviews, but it’s got fans, and some would regard it as a “small” yuletide classic in its own right. I’ll admit the movie is far from perfect, but it’s still very special to me, and is personally one of my absolute favorite Christmas movies that I love watching every year. The movie is directed by Robert Zemeckis, who’s responsible for some of my favorite family adventure films including “Back to the Future”, “Monster House” and “Who Framed Rodger Rabbit”, and this film is yet another great one to add to his resume.  

       Naturally, the movie is based on the children’s book of the same title, which incidentally is a book I’m quiet nostalgic for. I remember my parents read that book to me every holiday season. However, even with my love for the source material, I never thought they could do a proper book adaption, especially considering how short and strait forward the story is. For those of you who don’t know, “The Polar Express” is the tail of a young boy who’s slowly falling out of the holiday season. Then on one magical Christmas Eve night, he gets whisked away on a train bound for the North Pole. Through his experience journeying to the Pole he rediscovered that magic spark, and in a sense had his “faith” restored. I can actually relate to the kid in the film, because that’s how I was, and it was through the experience of viewing the film that I found myself gradually tiptoeing back to my love for the holiday again. Personally, that’s what I take away from this movie ... the experience. Where other Christmas movies have great moral values, or are really funny, or very nostalgic, “The Polar Express” is the only one that makes me feel like I’m experiencing the holiday.

     The storytelling is light as air, and the atmosphere is just magical. I also respect how this film took the mythos of Santa and turned it into a challenge of faith, which some kids can probably relate to in their own general way. Having said all that, the movie would probably be stronger if it was a direct to TV special like “The Snowman”, because a theatrical movie needs to be padded out in order to be feature length. While I still love the overall experience of the movie, I’ll admit that the detours are very obvious. There are some action scenes thrown in revolving around the train getting derailed, and those moments do conflict with the films simplicity. To be fair, those action detours are still done well, and can be exciting to watch, but it does feel like the animators are trying to promote a theme park attraction at times. Now for as padded as the movie can get, it at least maintains the spirit of the source material, unlike say the movie adaption of “The Cat in the Hat”, which filled its run time with dry toilet hummer, modern day references and obvious commercial tie-ins. “The Polar Express” at least sticks to its time period, and is trying to be something meaningful.

     Some may argue that it’s still a little manipulative, like some scenes are added in just because most classic children’s movies have scenes of the sort. For example there’s a random scary moment involving a puppet of Ebenezer Scrooge coming to life which has nothing to do with anything, and is basically just there so the movie can have a scary scene. Maybe there’s a little bit of foreshadowing here, because Robert Zemeckis next animated Christmas movie would be “A Christmas Carol”. Well, clichéd or not, I do love the majority of scenes in this film, in fact, it’s one of those movies I love watching just to re-experience select moments. One of the most inventive moments happens when the hero boy loses his ticket, which gets blown off the train leading into an amazing tracking shot following this ticket as it blows through a mountain side and back on board the locomotive. Tracking shots are impressive enough in live action, but for the animators to create a long take with no cuts on a computer is really something to admire. Some of the random moments also help create an otherworldly atmosphere that makes the train feel all the more magical. For example, the lead boy frequently encounters the ghost of a homeless man, but only he can see him. We’re never given any clear answers about this character, but his presence gives the train a more mysterious yet lively feel. I especially love all the little details, like this one moment in the opening when the boy boards the train, he looks over at his house and a strong gust of wind gives the illusion that his snowman is waving goodbye to him, little touches like that are wonderful.

    For some reason, the scene that always stands out to me the most is when a lonely boy sings about the simple joys he desperately wants to feel around Christmas, which leads into a duet between him and a young girl. It may seem just a little corny to have these children signing, but I just love this song, I love the melody and really love all the colors and visuals that are displayed in this moment. It’s simply a touching little scene with these two kids, and once again it just adds a little more magic to the experience. On that note, the music in this film is outstanding. The score composed by Alan Silvestri is one of the most magical and breathtaking scores I’ve ever heard. The Polar Express theme song is very catchy, and I also love this song titled “Spirit of the Season”, which definitely puts me in the holiday mood. Also, just about every classic Christmas song ranging from Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” to the Andrew Sisters “Winter Wonderland” can be heard in the film. The song “Believe” performed by Josh Groban is personally one of my favorite modern holiday songs. It’s hard to explain but this song just lifts my spirit and really gets me in the “feels”. The only song I didn’t care for was that silly “Hot Chocolate” number, which wasn’t an awful scene mind you, it just didn’t do much for me.

     Now it’s time talk about the characters, who add another rich flavor to the film. I like that we never learn their names, their just kids with distinct character traits, which help them stand apart from each other. The lead boy is like the everyday person who’s wide eyed and observes all the magic around him. The hero girl always takes charge, and acts out of pure faith, which puts her at odds with the hero boy who’s on a journey to rediscover his. There’s a “know-it-all” kid, who’s basically a walking dictionary, and finally there’s a lonely boy who though the experience gains the gift of friendship. Each child has their own arc, each identifiable and I like seeing their friendships bloom over the course of the journey. I especially love that the hero girl is African American, which makes her relationship with the lead boy feel very unique. It would have been so easy for the animators to make her a pretty Caucasian girl that looks like a perfect match for the lead boy, but by giving her a different ethnicity, it makes their friendship feel unconventional, all the more genuine, and it’s even more special considering that the film is set in the 1950’s. Of course I have to mention Tom Hanks, who’s terrific playing various characters throughout the film, ranging from the train conductor to Santa Clause himself. It’s hard to explain, but there’s something about this films portrayal of Santa that has this real presence to him. I’ve been around the block with different portrayals of Santa in various Christmas movies, and while this obviously isn’t the absolute best, he still feels the most mystical in this film than any other portrayal I’ve seen. While the movie makes it clear that Tom Hanks is just playing several different characters, I’d still like to believe that their all the same magical entity taking on various forms. That would have made more sense to give Tom Hanks all these roles if there was something connecting them all together. 

    Now let’s talk about the other obvious highlight of the film, which is the stunning 3D animation. While I regrettably didn’t see this movie in 3D, I was still very impressed with the artistry of the film. However, I can still imagine the transporting effect the 3D adds to the experience. The colors and designs in this movie are just wonderful. Plus there are several individual shots that look like pictures I could frame and hang on my wall. The setting of the North Pole is arguably my favorite I’ve ever seen in a Christmas movie. Many of the buildings are shrunken down to elf size, and there’s multiple colors coming from the chimneys. There’s a great segment near the end in which three of the kids get lost at the pole, which leads to some awesome locations, and terrific set pieces. The only time the animation suffers is with the human characters, who occasionally look like marionettes. This was the first animated movie to combine motion capture performances with the animation, and while it’s distracting at times, there’s still some great detail in regards to the human features, and it obviously can’t over shadow how stunning the animation is overall.

    For me, the best way to describe this film is like going to bed one night, and having this beautiful dream that takes many wild and magical twists, turns, then when you wake up you get this warm feel that you embarked on this enchanting adventure. From beginning to end, the movie makes me feel like I’m living a dream revolving around the Christmas season, and I really can’t think of any other movie that creates a feel as unique as this. Like I said in the opening, “The Polar Express” is far from perfect, but then again no movie really needs to be. All that matters is how much you take away from the experience, and in this regard, I received one of the most magical holiday movie experiences I could possibly ask for. The colors are beautiful, the music is fantastic, the premise is unique, the atmosphere is great, and the 3D animation is just dazzling. Honestly, films don’t always need a stellar story, sometimes I just want to experience something, and “The Polar Express” is a film that I look forward to experiencing again and again every year.

I give “The Polar Express” ... 4 ½ stars out of 5.


Wednesday, December 7, 2016

My Top 10 “Not-So Christmas” Christmas Specials

It’s the Christmas season again, which means it’s time for anther Holiday themed countdown. In the past I’ve posted lists of my favorite Christmas specials, my least favorite specials, but now I’m going to look at the stuff in between. Have you ever noticed that select classic Christmas movies and specials have little to do with the holiday itself, yet we still watch them every year? Then there’s also those select films that aren’t even mandatory to watch around the holiday season, but feel the most appropriate to view around this time of year. So, with all that said, here are my personal top 10 alternate Christmas Specials.

#10 Snow Day (2000)

I can’t make any persuasive argument that this is a “good” movie by any means, but I will say that I love the concept and would love to see it done right. The movie play’s out like an anthology movie that’s set during one really snowy day as we watch various groups of characters going on separate mini winter themed adventures. We see a group of kids waging war with a nasty snowplow man, teenagers in love, snowball fights, and parents forced to stay home from work. While neither the jokes or the multiple stories are that memorable, there is still a great set up here for some fun winter themed shenanigans, and the film at least looks wonderful with lots of snowy landscapes and terrific winter visuals.    

#9 Home Alone (1990) 


When a young boy is accidentally left at home during a family vacation, he finds himself protecting his house from two burglars, which leads to lots of slap stick comedy and a small scale child hood adventure. In sort, the movie has nothing to do with Christmas at all, yet it’s become a celebrated holiday classic. Obviously the film takes place during Christmas, and there’s definitely a warm holiday atmosphere that resonates from seeing all the decorations and the music. Beyond the visual presentation, the film dose embrace some subtle themes and morals that are commonly associated with the holiday season, that of family togetherness and youthful innocence. 

#8 Krampus (2015) 


Christmas themed horror movies have been around for years, but it’s the 2015 movie “Krampus” that surprisingly feels like something to watch during the holiday season. The premise revolves around an evil Santa which descended from English folklore, who terrorizes a family snowed in during Christmas eve. Even though this is a gory monster film, it features a great selection of various holiday themed creatures including snowmen, gingerbread men, elves, toys and of course Santa himself. It’s a very tongue-in-check horror comedy, that’s as over the top as they get, but highly entertaining and full of fist rate holiday thrills.

#7 Disney’s Frozen (2013) 


Much like “Snow Day” the film has zero connection to Christmas, but visually it’s so rich in winter imagery and a magical atmosphere that it still feels right for the holiday season. I don’t think I need to say too much else about this one, the music is great, the animation is great, the artistry is great, the characters are great, and it’s just another “cold” themed movie that just warms the heart with repeated viewings. 

#6 Disney’s The Little Match Girl (2006)


Despite the fact that this is only a seven minuet short, it still stands strong as a wonderful holiday gem. No, it’s not aimed at Christmas, but it’s set during the holiday season, and it's simply Disney at its finest. It’s got great animation, and lots of drama focusing on the fragile nature of human life. It's a truly heartwarming story that focuses on the importance of hope, dreams and helping the innocent. “Little Match Girl” has always been one of my favorite Christmas stories and has always deserved its own holiday special, thankfully in the absence of a motion picture we have this terrific little short film.

#5 Dragons: Gift of the Night Fury (2011) 

Well ...  DreamWorks “How to Train Your Dragon” is personally one of my favorite animated movies of all time, so naturally the holiday special is a personal favorite that I just couldn't keep off my list. It revolves around its own fictional holiday, yet it feels like a Christmas special thanks to its colors and themes. It’s a terrific continuation of their story, it's funny, and it has more than enough warm feel good moments that you just love seeing in holiday specials of this sort. 

#4 Gremlins 


Here it is, the true classic Christmas Horror movie that had no business being a holiday film, but is still a yuletide treasure all the same. The plot revolves around a bunch of nasty little monsters that terrorize a local town during Christmas, and by terrorize, I mean they just want to let loose and have fun and the cost of humanity. It’s funny, it’s scary and visually it really looks and feels like a Christmas film. There’s lots of little details that set the holiday mood perfectly, and the creature effects are outstanding. “Gremlins” is definitely an offbeat little film, but it just works somehow alongside all the other classic’s we watch around the holiday season.    

#3 Die Hard (1988)


In this action adventure, a group of bad guys take over a building, hold occupants hostage, and aim to collect a lot of money, but one lone cop is loose in the complex and dose all in his power to free the hostages, while also defeating the terrorists. Obviously the movie is only set during Christmas, it really has nothing to do with the holiday at all, but at least other films like “Gremlins” and “Home Alone” look and feel like Christmas. Die Hard doesn’t even have that going for it, and has little that makes me think of the season, that is with the small exception of the end credits in which we hear the song “Let it Snow”. Yet with all that said, this film is widely regarded as a holiday classic, and one of the greatest of its kind. Whether or not you see this as a good Christmas movie, it’s undeniably one of the greatest action movies ever made, and a staple of 80’s popcorn entertainment.    

#2 It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) 


Oh yeah, it’s one of the greatest holiday classics of all time, and yet, in truth it has nothing to do with Christmas at all. Don’t get me wrong, I love this movie and watch it every season, but the movie doesn't even take place during the holiday season until the third act. Heck, even "Die Hard" took place entirely on Christmas eve. Having said that, "It’s a Wonderful Life", is still the timeless story about how one man’s life could have such a huge impact on the lives of others, which is just as inspiring as it is enduring, and I suppose there are some themes that can be attributed to Christmas. In the end, this film reminds us what a wonderful and beautiful life we truly do have. With a solid direction from Frank Capra, an outstanding lead performance from James Stewart, and a brilliant premise, “It’s a Wonderful Life” still proves to be a near flawless film, and even though it's not directly centered on Christmas, it still deliverers the biggest impact during the holiday season.

Before I reveal my #1 pick, here are some honorable mentions ...

"Batman Returns"

"Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang"

"Toy Story that Time Forgot"

"Home Alone 2: Lost In New York"

"Die Hard 2"

#1 The Nightmare Before Christmas (1994)


In this stop motion holiday classic, the king of Halloween town is sick of his usual holiday, so he decides to take a shot at Christmas, resulting in the strait forward story of “The Night Before Christmas”, just with a dark Halloween edge. Even though this is one of my favorite holiday movies of all time, I’ve only ever watched it around Halloween. Outside of one musical number in Christmas town and the ending, the majority of the film is spent in Halloween town, with monstrous creatures taking up the scenery. However, while visually the film will get you in the mood for Halloween, the story is still 100% centered on Christmas, so it still works. Even with its dark visual style, there are still some stand out Christmas moments. The musical number in which Jack Skellington discovers Christmas town is one of the most colorful and detailed I’ve ever seen in a holiday movie. Also, Jack Skellington makes for a memorable Santa Clause in his own unique way. The best way to describe this film is Halloween dose Christmas ... which is awesome, why this remains one of the greatest holiday movies ever made. 

The End