Film #286: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

creator: Walt Disney
language: English
length: 83 minutes
watched on: 28 April 2017

I think I watched this as a child, but it was so long ago I can’t remember it at all. Anyway, recently some of the less reputable shops in Japan have been selling old Disney movies for ¥80 a pop – it says on the sleeve that they’re now in the public domain. I suspect that this isn’t the case in America or the UK, but I don’t know. The knock-off DVDs are pretty low quality, though, of course. You can see the interlacing and it skipped a couple of times during the movie.

I kind of assume you all know what happens in this movie. I knew the basic story already, it’s just the details that have escaped me. I don’t really know what I expected from this period (compare with His Wedding Night (1917), for example), but the gender roles are ridiculously strong in this movie. Snow White controls everything around her with her beauty (the animals do her bidding when she sings), and her role in the dwarfs’ lives is to be a positive feminine force – she basically makes a deal to stay with them if she can do all their housework for them, and before she arrives, they’re slovenly, like college students. As for Prince Charming, I think he has a total of about two minutes’ screen time. Not quite enough to establish a romance, I’d have thought.

Things I liked included Dopey, basically a silent film character whose role is to provide slapstick humour, and the few sequences in the movie that were actually kind of scary, like when the dwarfs chase the witch away up a cliff during a thunderstorm. The dwarf characters are all established well and have distinctive characters, even when they have very little screentime – this is in direct contrast to movies (and indeed books) like The Hobbit. Over the course of that trilogy, I could only reliably distinguish about three of the dwarves by character, and I couldn’t remember any of their names.

It was also nice to hear the songs, although “Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho, it’s off to work we go” is still the only one I actually know in any capacity. And I found the film funny, mostly. It’s nice to revisit things like this. I got two more ¥80 DVDs at the same time, so I will eventually watch and review those too. Watch this space, I guess.

How about you? What’s your favourite Disney movie?

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Film #250: Finding Dory (2016)

findingdorydirector: Andrew Stanton
language: English
length: 97 minutes
watched on: 26 Dec 2016 (plane 1/6)

I put off going to see this movie in the cinema last year when it came out, and I regretted that immediately, because after a week or two, only the Japanese dub was on wide release, and I no longer had the chance to see it. So it was actually one of my eagerly anticipated releases of last year, and I finally had the chance to see it on the plane on the way back to the UK in December.

The movie starts off strongly – it jumps in with wry observations on character archetypes with a married couple of fish, and I started laughing from the beginning. So the movie is at least in safe hands, and it was enjoyable to watch, but it had a much less universal appeal than Finding Nemo – a true modern classic. I found this one was much more aimed at children, and the inclusion of some characters, such as the turtles near the beginning of the film, seemed tokenistic, as if to please younger audiences.

Back when I wrote that last review of Finding Nemo, Finding Dory had been announced, and I wasn’t so excited about it. I still don’t really see why Dory has to have an origin story (although this movie explains why she can speak Whale, and read). I’m overall pleased with this result, actually, but the other main problem I had with it was it was trying to recreate the success of the earlier movie by doing the same thing again. Marlon, Nemo’s dad, has a particularly annoying lack of character development – he’s exactly the same ball of anxiety he had been at the beginning of the last movie, not seeming to have learned any lessons. In this movie, Nemo has to condescendingly talk down to him to get him to do anything.

The new characters are great. My favourite was the octopus, who’s actually a septapus (although I heard later that octopuses can regrow limbs), and the sarcastic British sea lions are great. A lot of the fish that Dory meets in the movie have some kind of disability or weirdness about them like that – there’s the dolphin who thinks he can’t echolocate (although he can, actually), and the blind whale shark who keeps bumping into things. I think the message behind this – that one can thrive despite such ailments – is a laudable one, definitely.

I also liked seeing the fish characters interact with the aquarium environment, there were a lot of jokes to be had there.

And despite what I said in my review of Finding Nemo about Ellen Degeneres playing Dory whinily, I’ve always somewhat looked up to Dory as a character. I saw her central happy-go-lucky message from that movie as the little song she sings, “Just keep swimming swimming swimming”, inspiring in a literal and metaphorical sense. My mother still reminds me sometimes that I used it as a mantra when my anxiety was really bad a few years ago. Thanks, Mum, I guess… In this movie, we find out the origin of the song, as well as the other points about Dory that I mentioned above – but again, I think I was happier not knowing for certain where it’s supposed to come from, and just accepting it as it is.

I’m very glad I could finally see this movie, and I’m glad it wasn’t a bad movie, but it definitely doesn’t live up to the absurdly high standards of its predecessor. That’d be very difficult. Rehashing similar plots rarely works, though.

Film #185: Zootopia (2016)

zootopiaaka Zootropolis, apparently
directors: Byron Howard & Rich Moore
language: English
length: 108 minutes
watched on: 25 April 2016

This was the first movie I saw at the cinema since Star Wars last year, and there’s a pretty simple reason for that: there’s been nothing good on. As usual, Japan was behind with this movie, but only one month instead of the usual four (and for once, not the latest in the entire world). It was also behind with all the Oscar movies, which hadn’t even been released here when the awards ceremony happened, which was just stupid. I think The Revenant was out the same weekend as this, but I still haven’t seen that because I didn’t want to take a full three hours off work.

Anyway, Zootopia, uncharitably called the Furry movie on certain segments of the internet, is a story about sentient animals living in harmony in one city, which has to have different climate sections and architecture designed for all different shapes and sizes. The main character is a rabbit who comes there, wanting to become a police officer, but quickly finding out about discrimination inherent in the system, against small docile animals like herself. The other main character is the fox guy, who, true to his species’ stereotype, is a con-man. They like, fall in love or something, and he helps her with an investigation.

The film has a pretty simple message about discrimination and prejudice, and at its heart promotes diversity. The rabbit character is constantly batting off microaggressions from her massive predator colleagues, for instance. About halfway through there is an event that leads to widespread discrimination against the predators, saying that they’re likely to revert to their primitive ways.

The plot does get a little convoluted on the way, and had an unexpected twist near the end when the villain is revealed. There are more than a couple of unlikely coincidences that save the main characters’ skin, which annoyed me a little – but it’s a movie, and too much extra plot for the sake of avoiding this would have been more annoying in the end.

The main attraction to the film is the attention to detail – especially just seeing how a world with such a diverse array of residents would work and what would be different. A simple example would be the train doors (small ones for the mice and big ones for the elephants) or the different sizes of everyone’s smartphones. Or the tiny town for mice, where the rabbit is huge.

Similarly, it’s visually lush and grand. I really enjoyed watching it for these reasons alone – and if that’s not enough, there’s some light comedy too, like the scenes where they go to the nudist colony (naked animals?? oh no!!), and to the DMV office staffed with sloths, which was pretty relatable for any adults in the audience. So while I’d add the caveat that I don’t think it’s an instant classic of Disney, especially as the plot was pretty forgettable, I do highly recommend it for the reasons listed above. I think it will be remembered for the aesthetic instead of the plot or characters, ultimately.

Film #169: Mary Poppins (1964)

Director: Robert Stevenson
Language: English
Length: 134 minutes
Watched: 13 November 2015

I’ve always quite liked this movie, and I’m glad to report my position on that hasn’t changed.

It’s nice to come at a movie with fresh eyes. This time when I watched it, Mr Banks’ redemption arc was much clearer than it ever had been before – perhaps I’ve started to recognize that kind of thing in my own life. It was also clearer to me that Dick Van Dyke played the old bank owner – while the makeup still flummoxes me, he’s quite distinctively gangly when you see him from afar.

The film is also longer than I remember – it’s famous, of course, for the few big setpieces, like the animated section in the middle, which I should applaud for its technical achievement, or the whole chimney sweep thing, but there were a lot of other scenes that are easy to forget, like the one where they have dinner on the ceiling with the laughing man. If I remember correctly, it’s lifted from the book, where it makes more sense, but here it’s kind of non sequitur. So it doesn’t gel as well with the other sections, I guess – also, everything after the animated section seems morose by comparison.

I also never really noticed before how strict Mary Poppins actually is, too. She seems to hide it behind the magic stuff. And I also noticed this time how Bert is in every scene – even when there’s no need for it. He seems to know every character. It’s weird!

Anyway, still love it.

Film #152: Frozen (2013)

frozenDirectors: Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee
Language: English
Length: 102 minutes
Watched on: 30 June 2015 (2 of 3 on my flight to the UK)

Ahh… Frozen. Frozen was everywhere, for a while, back in early 2014 or so. It appealed to the Japanese market so much that at one point the top three in the Japanese charts were Let It Go, the Japanese dubbed version of Let It Go, and a dance remix. It was a little crazy for a while as fever for the movie (here it’s titled Ana and the Snow Queen, confusingly) gripped Japan.

At that time, as I’m sure you’d perhaps expect, I was put off so much that I avoided it outright, mostly. So I finally decided to give it a try when I was on the long flight back to the UK in July, more than a year later.

I don’t think I’ll have to recap the story too much here, but for all the pictures, songs and character snippets I heard, I still didn’t have a very clear idea of the story before I sat down to watch it – in that case, I probably should recap it! The two main characters are Elsa and Ana. Elsa is the “Snow Queen” of the Japanese title. She has the magical gift to turn anything into ice, but she suppresses it after accidentally turning her sister into an icy statue. She also shuts herself off from the outside world and refuses to come into contact with her sister. Naturally, this all comes to a head at her coming-of-age ball, when she finally snaps at Ana. At that point, she runs off into the wilderness and constructs a castle for herself from ice – but this sends the entire kingdom into a deep winter. Ana then chances after her, to indicate the power of sisterly love, or something.

I found a lot of the themes of the movie a bit hokey, as demonstrated by that particular theme. Ana also falls in ill-advised love with an untrustworthy man, who she foolishly entrusts the kingdom to when she leaves to find her sister. Fortunately, it’s fully explored within the context of the movie that this is a stupid idea, especially as the guy turns into the movie’s big baddie. It’s suggested that the love between Ana and Elsa is a kind of feminist theme, as it shows women looking out for each other and not having to rely upon a man, although I remain unconvinced by this argument in itself – I could perhaps be convinced, if the movie didn’t also show Ana consistently relying on a man for the entire rest of the movie, or if the sisters hadn’t been locked away in a castle without significant human contact for most of her life.

Aside from the main story, there are the songs, as this is very much a typical Disney film. Let It Go is of course the most famous, but there are some more as well, and many that for me were new. Let It Go is so well-known that I could already sing it without having even seen the movie – although the only other one I knew about was the one about building a snowman from near the start.

There are also the side characters – I liked Olaf a lot, actually, and he acted as a kind of comic relief for much of the movie. The Norse-looking guy talking to his reindeer was also funny. They did serve to round out the movie, and I appreciated them for that.

Having seen the movie, I can’t say I quite understand why the movie has become so popular. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s a good movie, but it wasn’t worth the hype at the end of the day, and I do suspect that it’s mostly popular because anything by Disney would be popular anyway. In terms of recommendation, I’d say yeah, go for it. It’s worth watching.

Film #149: Big Hero 6 (2014)

big-hero-6-10.5_046.00_0107Directors: Don Hall & Chris Williams
Language: English
Length: 102 minutes
Watched on: 12 June 2015

I remember being confused when I first saw the name of this movie, in a kind of embarrassing way that also sounds like a bad pun: I thought I’d missed out on the first five movies in the series. Fortunately, the Japanese name of the movie is the name of the main character, Baymax, so about as often in casual conversation I refer to the movie by that name.

The movie is about a boy, Hiro, who is a kind of genius at robotics who’s already graduated high school at the age of 14. His life becomes directionless, and he’s persuaded by his brother to start at the same university. There he meets Baymax, a health care robot designed by his brother.

The movie is set in San Fransokyo, a mixture of San Francisco and Tokyo, with a distinct Japanese flavour too everything, but also recognizably San Francisco in the geography and landmarks. The setting is so convincingly realized that it’s difficult not to want to explore the city in real life.

The film is also effective because it explores notions of loss and depression, along with being pseudo-superhero and a kind of action movie, especially later on. I was generally impressed with its themes and found it consistently funny, so I would certainly recommend it.

Film #104: Brave (2012)

brave480Directors: Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman
Language: English
Length: 93 minutes
Watched on: 26 December 2013

I kind of bypassed Brave a little bit when it came out, perhaps because I assumed there would be no subtitled version in the cinemas here. It took me a long time to realize that it was set in Scotland, actually – the information didn’t sink in straight away. Since I’ve been on a quest to catch up on Disney and other animated movies recently, I decided to watch it.

It’s perhaps a good thing that the information hadn’t really sunk in (even despite the fact that I did know it was set in Scotland) – I didn’t really know what the plot was or how it was going to play out. Like other Pixar movies, it’s an original story, so I was pleasantly surprised when I finally found out what the story was. I even feel like the big twist about halfway through was well-enough hidden from me (like, I haven’t even seen any spoilerish gifs on tumblr) that I shouldn’t reveal it now.

The main character in this is a sassy young princess called Merida. Her father, the boisterous king of a small clan in the highlands, is played by Billy Connolly. Her mother is the uptight queen, apparently played by Emma Thompson, concerned at all times with enforcing gender roles and bringing up Merida to be ladylike – she makes her daughter do humiliating things and there is a competition between the firstborns of all the neighbouring clans with Merida’s hand in marriage as the unwilling prize. Merida won’t go along with it, and runs off. She then finds a witch, and, um, antics ensue.

The story is simple and easy to follow, which has always been one of Pixar’s strengths, and there are plenty of comedic sections and serious sections mixed around. A major theme of the movie is gender equality, and the relationship between Merida and her mother is by far the most important (her father is a warrior type with a lot of physicality and an obsession with hunting a bear that attacked him during Merida’s childhood, and mostly lets her be, whereas her mother wants her to do ladylike things and is always meddling in her life). This is refreshing when you compare it to most Hollywood movies, overwhelmingly about father-son relationships, to the point where I’ve seen so many movies where the mother is completely absent. Perhaps a criticism could be that the focus on a princess fits the mold for straight-up Disney movies much better than Pixar movies (leading some to speculate that Disney and Pixar swapped scripts for Brave and Wreck-It Ralph in 2012), but if I remember correctly, there was an unaddressed gender imbalance in other Pixar movies, so it’s nice to see steps made in that area.

In terms of historical accuracy, Brave is not much better than something like Braveheart (in fact, the titles are even similar!), although to compare it to that would be heartless, as it’s a funny and well-made film. This is mainly because it mixes stone castles with warring dark age kingdoms and tartan… other than that it’s not too bad really. The accents are all mostly genuine, Emma Thompson being the main exception, and as a joke, one of the characters uses a strong Doric accent which no-one else can understand. Perhaps one of Brave’s strengths is that it makes me a little homesick and brings out the latent patriotism inside me, although a lot of that is because the arguments between Merida and her mother remind me of my childhood (either having those arguments or listening to them from my siblings), so not necessarily a good thing.

It would be imprudent of me to write this review and not mention Merida’s hair. I get the strong impression that this film was made in order to showcase the animators’ skill at showing such complex hair, just as Finding Nemo was presumably made to showcase water and Sully in Monsters, Inc. was made to showcase fur. This kind of sudden advance in animation technology happens with astonishing regularity with Pixar, so if anything I just wonder what the next advance will be. It happens so frequently that it literally makes other animation studios look terrible and out-of-date by comparison. Here’s to the next movie.

Film #103: Tangled (2010)

360_tangled_1123directors: Nathan Greno & Brian Howard
length: 100 minutes
language: English
watched on: 20 November 2013

It’s been a while since I’ve watched any Disney. I saw photos and gifs from this movie floating around on places like Tumblr and realized that I’d missed it entirely and should maybe catch up. I actually watched it the same day as Hot Fuzz, but that just shows how slow I’ve been with updating this blog!

Tangled follows the story of Rapunzel, one of the traditional fairy tale princesses from the likes of the Grimm Brothers that Disney somehow managed to miss out. I can’t remember the details of the traditional Rapunzel story, apart from the long hair, to be honest, but in this particular version she’s stolen away from the king and queen by a witch, because her hair is imbued with the power of a magic flower the witch had been using to keep herself permanently young (which also means it can never be cut lest it lose that power), and then a lovable rogue character (I’ve forgotten his name) comes and climbs into her bedroom thinking it’d be a sweet hiding place, and she knocks him out and then convinces him to take her to the city.

The hair is Rapunzel’s defining feature, and it was very interesting to finally see it portrayed on film at the length it would be. I was surprised she manages to keep it in such good shape with comparatively little maintenance, seeing as my own hair tangles so easily after just one night in bed and I’m always having to comb it in the morning. Rapunzel seems to be able to tie things up and trail it around her tower room without tangling it up, which is ironic considering the title.

The movie plays very much like an early Disney movie, with musical numbers (none of which were memorable enough for me), snarky animal characters (the horse is great), and magical kingdoms. The only difference is that it’s computer animation instead of painted cells. It makes a change from Pixar, in any case, which is also computer animation but doesn’t tend to go for the most Disney of the Disney aspects. This one is true to its roots and a return to form for Disney.

I was surprised by the ending, which had a kind of twist right before the end – it gave the film a kind of finality which I wasn’t expecting out of it, as up until that point it had been very predictable. I also liked the fact that Rapunzel’s boyfriend wasn’t actually a prince. It’s difficult for me to compare these aspects to other Disney movies, since I haven’t watched most of them since I was a child (and I’m only assuming that I watched some of them fully because I can’t actually remember), but I do remember the princes in some of the movies being quite single-purpose and one-dimensional. The other thing I liked was the bar full of warriors who all turn out to have girly hobbies.

The plot felt a bit strung-together sometimes, especially the episodic nature of the journey – in particular, the bar full of warriors seemed to come out of nowhere. I’d have a hard time now telling what happened in what order (the standard problem with road movies). Also I thought the little green thing that sits on Rapunzel’s shoulder was perhaps unnecessary, although he fulfills a Disney archetype. I don’t know what he is or why he is.

I would recommend it overall, as it’s a good Disney movie and fulfills the expectations therein very well. However, I felt like it didn’t cover any new ground, just added another story to their repertoire.

Film #90: Monsters, Inc. (2001)

MOnsters-inc1director: Peter Docter
length: 92 minutes
language: English
watched on: 26 July 2013

After watching Monsters University, I just wanted to see the first one again to see how each hangs up against the other. It’s been at least about 5 years since I watched this movie, and thus I’d actually forgotten a lot of the plot besides the basics. I’d forgotten, for instance, that Mike has a girlfriend in this movie, that Mike wasn’t actually a scarer, the whole scene with the Abominable Snowman, and a whole major plot point about Boo and Randall’s evil plans for her. So even though by my count this is at least the 4th time I’ve seen Monsters Inc, I was able to be pleasantly surprised by a few of the plot twists.

One other thing I never realised, or had forgotten, was how little actual scaring there is in this film. In Monsters University, we’re treated to extensive scenes involving scaring by different monsters using different techniques, but here we get only one introductory scene actually showing a scare, which turns out to be a practice drill and therefore not strictly real. I guess we’re expected to fill in the gaps ourselves, or something.

I generally, genuinely like this film a lot, and watching it again was a good experience. Seeing Boo again after watching the other film which didn’t have her in it was particularly good, as she’s one of the best parts.

The only other plot hole I found was wondering how Mike managed to get out of the Himalayas. It seems petty, but it bothered me. And I’m sure when they had the big scene with all the doors opening at once they ran into doors which didn’t open to closets, and I found it unrealistic that people didn’t start randomly walking through the doors. Then I found it strange that the monsters took so long to figure out that people aren’t actually poisonous – and how quickly Sully comes to the conclusion that this is false when he’s actually faced with a little girl in his own living room. On the other hand, I did enjoy little tidbits like the Japanese restaurant owners shouting whenever someone enters, or the side character that keeps ending up with a sock on his back and having to be sterilized.

In any case, it’s the fourth time I’ve watched the movie and I don’t think it’ll be the last. But perhaps I shouldn’t leave 5 years between rewatching films I like in future…

Film #84: Wreck-It Ralph (2012)

Wreck-It-Ralphdirector: Rich Moore
language: English
length: 101 minutes
watched on: 6 May 2013

I’d been meaning to watch this for quite a while, and I’ve seen a lot of praise for it on the internet, but not only was it out late in Japan (as usual), they didn’t even bother to release the original undubbed version … anywhere. I was a little surprised, to be honest. Well, then there’s nothing for it but illegal streaming sites. I’ll come back to the Japanese release a bit later. In any case, once I was watching it, I found it pretty good.

The story is basically that in an arcade somewhere in America, the video game characters, in a manner very similar to Toy Story, come alive at night and interact with each other. They can connect by somehow entering the overcrowded splitter plug, which is known to them as Game Central Station. This scene is set right at the beginning, when Ralph, the villain from the “Fix it Felix Jr” game, attends a Villains Anonymous meeting at the start, and when the camera zooms out, we find it’s in the little ghost room in the middle of the Pacman maze.

Ralph doesn’t want to be a villain, and decides the best way to do that would be to earn a medal, somehowe, and by a convoluted series of events involving sneaking into an action shooter, he ends up getting one, but losing it in the game Sugar Rush, which is basically Mario Kart under a different name, populated mainly by young girl racers. Then he meets Veronica, the little girl, who is a glitch in the game who wants to win a race to prove her glory (so, basically the same motive).

Beyond that, the plot is generally predictable, which I think we should expect from a Disney movie, but it is quite fun, especially when they visit different places. There’s enough action in the film to satisfy, as well, particularly with regards to the action shooter game. The settings themselves were very well thought-out, and looked pretty amazing. Most of the film is spent in Sugar Rush, which is a really colourful (mostly pink, to be fair) world made of candy. I think they must have got a million sponsorship deals just to make it. In some ways it was almost too rich, especially when they’re in places like the forests where players couldn’t be reasonably expected to go in real life, but pretty much all the time they were making references to video game culture, and I liked that.

Sugar Rush is actually the name of the Japanese release, too, just to come back to that. I always wondered about that – perhaps Wreck-It Ralph was seen as too difficult to transcribe or something? Later when I watched the credits, though, they played a theme song for Fix-it Felix and Sugar Rush, and the latter was sung by the famous idol group AKB48 – so I guess the retitling had something to do with the promotion of that.

The characters themselves were basically great. Ralph gets very angry and breaks things easily, although he essentially has a heart of gold, while Veronica is the dictionary definition of quirky. The other two main protagonists are Fix-It Felix, out to find Ralph, and the female captain from the action shooter, out to find and kill the aliens that escaped from her game. They both have quite a distinct manner of speaking – he’s very polite and speaks like it’s the 1950s, while she always talks about everything with military metaphors. Spoiler alert: they fall in love.

The ending was perhaps a bit unsatisfying, to be honest. It was almost completely predictable in general tone, although there are a couple of specific twists that I will avoid revealing. The lessons that the characters learned were rather trite and uninteresting. There’s a monologue that Ralph makes (that I’d seen before seeing this) that seems to come out of nowhere right at the climax of the movie and isn’t actually relevant to the immediate situation, so it’s confusing why he does it in the first place. But basically the lesson learned is that Ralph’s not so bad when he’s off duty, he’s just got a job to do, and the citizens of the little tower block he destroys every day learn this and decide that they will actually start inviting him to parties and treating him with respect when he’s not actually being the villain, and he learns that being a villain is not so bad after all, when you have friends or whatever. And I just saw that and couldn’t believe they hadn’t worked it out already at the beginning of the movie. Felix even seems to know it already himself, if not consciously – at the beginning there’s a party that Ralph isn’t invited to, and Felix feels he has to go out and try and explain embarrassedly to Ralph that he can’t come in, rather than just not letting him in at all.

As a last sinister thought, I’ve seen it suggested on the internet that Pixar and Disney seem to have swapped places this year: Disney has released this, typically Pixar fare about finding yourself with lots of quirky characters, and Pixar has released Brave, which is about a princess and wasn’t as successful (although it’s also on my to-watch list). The implication is that this is because Pixar’s films generally have more success, and now that Disney actually owns it (which I thought they always did, to be honest – even Toy Story was distributed by Disney) they want to shake up the formula and get Disney films to be more popular again. I don’t know the answer to this, to be honest, but I thought it was interesting. Certainly this film was very good and very successful.