Monday, November 24, 2014

2014 - Big Hero 6

Well, it’s that time again, when Disney sends a new feature careening into theaters and I, your humble blogsmith, go see it to tell you what I think. This year’s entry, number 44 overall, is Big Hero 6, an alleged adaptation of the obscure Marvel comic of the same name. Announced pretty much as soon as the Marvel merger was, the instant word, even among comics fans, was “Huh?” Personally, I thought it referred to six big heroes, like DC’s “big three”. After a while being stumped (because let’s be honest, Marvel doesn’t have an iconic “big six”. Even if you throw in Spider-Man, who they can’t use, they’ve got four, and everyone else is on teams), I learned that it was a three-issue miniseries from 1998 that had had a recent six issue revival with some different characters. A real Guardians of the Galaxy type. Apart from those nine issues, they had only a handful of background appearances in big crossovers and such.

Extensive changes were made. Original team members Sunfire and Silver Samurai were out. As X-Men characters, they’re owned by Disney, not Fox. Replacing them were variations on the replacement characters Wasabi No Ginger and Fredzilla. (Their original replacements in the comic were Sunpyre and Ebon Samurai. Really? Were you even trying with that?) But the problem with Big Hero 6 in the comics was that frankly, they could be a little racist. So Wasabi No Ginger, a sushi chef who fights with his knives, became Wasabi, a laser engineer who fights with sweet laser knives. Fredzilla, who mentally projected a big Kaiju, became Fred, a mascot in a powered suit. The other characters were also streamlined Honey Lemon’s vaguely defined super-purse became a chemical lab, Gogo’s propulsion-based powers became a motorcycle suit, and Baymax…

Well, I'll get to that. But enough about the comic. Let me talk about the movie. Specifically Baymax. Baymax is a medical robot intended as a sort of nurse. Developed by the older brother of teen genius Hiro Hamada, Baymax is large, round, and huggable, with an inflated balloon body covering his mechanical core. He is programmed to attend to his patient until they are healed, and after Hiro’s brother is killed, Baymax emerges to diagnose him with a stubbed toe, puberty, and depression. Seeking to help him heal his mind, Baymax encourages finding closure and connecting socially with family and loved ones. Hiro does this by forming his brother’s friends into a superhero team and going after the guy who killed him.

Baymax is a wonder of design, animation, writing, and performance. The timing of his every move, his little fussy walk, his constantly looking down and checking his surroundings, it’s all gold. He loses something in personality when Hiro rebuilds him into a fighting robot, but that’s mostly intentional, I think, based on a rather terrifying scene where Baymax beats up the entire team when Hiro removes his ethical programming so he’ll kill the villain. The animators masterfully worked his expression when he had the programming restored. Confusion, shock, and shame cannot be easy to render on what is essentially a circle with a line segment on it. His dialogue is typical “overly literate robot doesn’t understand people”, but written so well I didn’t at all mind the cliche. And though I was at first surprised at Scott Adsit (Moral Orel, Frankenhole, 30 Rock) being cast as the voice; I thought of him as a more darkly cynical sort of performer. But now that I’ve heard him, I can’t think of anything else.

In the comics, Baymax is a half-clone, half-robot dragon with the brain of Hiro’s dead dad.

And that’s why I barely consider this an adaptation. More of an… implication? Three of the six characters are so changed as to be unrecognizable apart from their names, the other three skirt that same line. Nobody looks anything like they did in the comic, the entire supporting cast, plot, and backstories are entirely original. And that’s a good thing. Big Hero 6 in the comics was a goofy mishmash of Japanese stereotypes. When they announced that the setting was being changed from Tokyo to “San Fransokyo”, and that the cast would be diversified, many took that to be a sign that whitewashing was on the way. But in the end, the team stayed properly diverse, with the only white male being the goofy comic relief. (Baymax is technically white in color, but is not coded as particularly white. He also seems technically genderless, but is coded male via his voice and other characters’ reaction to him.)

So that’s a lot about the development, because it interests me personally and because I want to avoid spoilers, but how is the movie? Really good, I’m pleased to say. The directors had previously done Winnie-the-Pooh and Bolt respectively, so their sense of character, action, and humor is on point. The action is particularly excellent, with the various characters’ powers being completely distinctive and complementary. There’s a bit toward the end where the villain has each of them cornered and they have to use their power in an unexpected way to counter him, and I like that creativity in a kids’ movie. The villain, who controls a swarm of inch-long robots with his mind, creates some amazingly impressive visuals. This represents a huge leap forward in animation, and I highly recommend the 3D.

The voice cast is also phenomenal. Japanese-American teen heartthrob Ryan Potter brings great youthful energy to Hiro, and Adsit as Baymax is perfect, as I said. For the rest of the team, Damon Wayans Jr. plays panic and fussiness excellently as Wasabi, as if Brad from Happy Endings became a superhero; Genesis Rodriguez bubbles as the cheerful Honey Lemon; Gogo is played by Jamie Chung, TV’s Mulan, who plays the “girl power” vibe as cartoonish but not insulting, no mean feat; and T.J. Miller as Fred adds another notch on the very small list of “time I am watching a movie with T.J. Miller in it and I don’t want to murder him.”

The supporting cast plays to their strengths. Maya Rudolph plays a frazzled oddball, James Cromwell a grizzled father figure, and Disney’s go-to shady rich guy Alan Tudyk plays a shady rich guy. And while it may not be a Marvel Studios movie, it is based on a Marvel comic, so Stan Lee gets a cameo. The kids I saw it with went nuts at this, which makes me happy.

And really, that’s what it’s all about. I made sure to see it at a time when kids would be around, and they were attentive, excited, and interested. It wasn’t a perfect movie. The villain is shallow and there’s no payoff to certain threads. But it worked, and it was fun, and it engaged the kids, and that’s what a superhero movie should be. Take notes, DC. Your Justice League movies are going to be garbage. Try to have some fun.


* This is pretty long for a mini-review, but I really do want to avoid spoilers.

* I also liked T.J. Miller in How to Train Your Dragon and Cloverfield, so it’s entirely possible I just hate his face.

* I saw this at the dine-in theater, and ordered the chicken fingers, because they’re low-effort and I had a temporary crown in. I was pleasantly surprised. Nice and crispy, good variety of sauces, and the fries were plentiful. Server was kinda creepy, though. I also got a waffle sundae, because hey, it’s a party. That was freaking delicious. Not to be one of those internet bacon people, but candied bacon is the best ice cream topping.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

A Troll in Central Park (Sullivan Bluth, 1994)

The story is told, that when starting production on this movie, Bluth told his animators that if they couldn’t bring their absolute best, they can just leave. Some of them did. They were the lucky ones.



all joy is gone from my life.

it’s a troll in central park.


I mean, I knew that his budgets were slashed when he lost funding from Goldcrest. I knew that the tendency to make films for a younger audience came from both his personal tastes and the new financiers. I knew that he had none of the time, the money, the staff to do the kind of things he wanted. But… I still thought he was better than this.

The story (such as it is) involves a troll named Stanley, who lives in the troll world, one of those tedious “good is bad” places endemic to 1980s children’s television. You know the kind. People say “bad morning” and “have a rotten day” and stuff like that, they eat garbage, the usual. Stanley, though, is different. He loves flowers, which he grows with this magic thumb, and he’s nice all the time, and you can tell he’s a good guy because he looks more human than the other trolls. He’s found out to be a dirty flower-lover, and punished by being sent to New York City, which the king of the trolls calls “a place where nothing grows”. Stanley lands in… Well, you read the title. It’s a huge park right in the middle of town. It’s a full six percent of Manhattan’s land area. You’d think the king would have noticed. Well, he never actually describes the city to the queen. It’s possible he doesn’t know what it is.

But it does apparently have underground caverns.

By this point, I had already worked out that the movie was going to be terrible and stupid, but I thought it would be the regular sort. But then the story takes a HUGE shift and becomes something magically, insanely, horrifyingly awful. See, you’d think, from that opening, that this is a story about the value of individuality and being yourself, right? NOPE. In Central Park, he meets two kids. I’m sure they had names, but I don’t remember them, so let’s just call them Boy Child and Girl Child. Their parents (who are, absurdly, played by Jonathan Pryce and Hayley Mills) are very busy lately, and can’t take them to the park, so the kids go on their own and hook up with Stanley. He shows them his magic thumb (stranger danger!) and grows a “dream boat”, because why not. They get aboard his boat and sail through his dream, and that’s when things get CRAZY.

See, when we’re on that boat, we see Stanley’s dream. He is dreaming of his perfect world, where all the other trolls are friendly, and they all love flowers, and they all share his beige skin and tufted tail... Look, Bluth, when your protagonist literally says “The world would be a better place if everyone thought like me and also looked like me”, you’re coming dangerously close to making a kids’ movie about Hitler. Yeah, I’m Godwinning a kiddie flick. I don’t care. This movie has some of the most messed up morals I’ve seen since Jiminy Cricket graced my screen.

My kingdom for an iceberg.

And it’s not just in this one dream number. I could overlook that. But after his dream boat sails, he lets Boy Child take the wheel, and Boy Child has a fairly mild dream about racing a speedboat around. Stanley is distraught because this is the wrong sort of dream, and they almost get attacked by pirates. It’s Stanley’s magic, the pirates don’t show up because the kid is making them, they show up because his dream upsets Stanley. Basically, Stanley doesn’t like his dream, and tries to kill him. Later, while the kid is asleep, Stanley tells him that he “needs to get some better thoughts”.

There’s ostensibly some moral in here about the kid learning… Well, I’m not sure what. At the beginning, he’s shouting at his parents “WHY CAN’T WE EVER DO WHAT I WANT TO DO!?” and at the end, he’s quietly asking his parents “Today, can we do what I want to do?” I think we’re supposed to get that he’s learned to be respectful, but since his parents were ignoring him at the beginning, and offering to take him somewhere at the end, it looks like they learned a lesson while we weren’t looking. Possibly while they were in England? I’m not really sure what they were doing the whole time. I think the dad’s a lawyer and the mom’s a realtor, but my brain is pretty damaged by now. Whatever it is, they were Busy Parents, and left the kids with the housekeeper.

Shortly thereafter, they learned the difference between a housekeeper and a babysitter.

At the end of the movie, the king and queen of trolls utterly destroy Central Park, and Boy Child gets turned into a troll for some reason. I honestly don’t know why. And I was watching. I was, by this point, projecting it on my wall in order to stave off boredom, so the movie was five feet wide. I couldn’t have looked away for more than half a second, and I still don’t know why he became a troll. Maybe because he was mean to Stanley? When Stanley was too scared to help rescue Girl Child, Boy Child yelled at him and called him a coward, but A) He is, and B) The boy never apologizes or seems to have learned his lesson. He just turns into a troll, and gets a magic thumb that can turn things to stone. The queen has the same power, and also can control other thumbs apparently? So as she’s dying because Stanley turned her into a rosebush (seriously), she makes Boy Child stone Stanley. Then she dies, and Boy Child turns back because her spells were undone with her death, only Stanley is still stone, and at this point, I start using the movie as Nerf target practice.


So then Boy and Girl Child take Stanley to Central Park, where the boy uses his magic thumb that I guess he still has to turn Stanley back, whereupon Stanley conquers the Earth. No, I’m not kidding. He’s seen laughing in a tree and the next thing we know, there’s a montage of New York City being entirely overgrown with vegetation. I mean all of it. Stanley has had enough of man’s rules, and covers the city, and presumably the world, with what Stanley wants. Wasn’t vines choking skyscrapers part of Tyler Durden’s fantasy world? Is Stanley about to start Project Mayhem?

And that’s not even touching on the filler that comprises most of the film. I know it sounds like a lot happened, but that’s maybe 20 minutes worth of story. An astonishingly long portion of story is made up of.
  • Chase scenes
  • Stanley bringing flowers to life and then they dance around.
  • Boat rides.
  • Charles Nelson Reilly’s unfunny hamming.
Speaking of which, I suppose I should talk about the actors.

Cram it, Feivel.

Not much to say, though. Thankfully, Bluth is still good at casting. Reilly may not be all that funny, but he can commit to a bit, and Cloris Leachman as the queen is typically solid. Dom DeLuise (his last role with Bluth) is Stanley, and any moments that I even slightly didn’t want to murder the little freak are entirely down to his acting skill. And the Gender Children’s parents, as I mentioned, are played by Jonathan Pryce and Hayley Mills, rather bafflingly high status actors for characters with like ten lines and two minutes of screen time. Pryce sounds like he wasn’t sure if he was supposed to do an American accent, so he hedged his bets and did half a one. Mills sounds like she knew she was supposed to do an American accent, but only remembers for one out of every six words.

The animation is... Well, it’s actually fine. It’s cheap, and not even close to what Bluth is capable of, but it looks better than this movie deserves. At least Bluth gets his little animation fetishes in early. Sparkles are literally the first thing we see. And I’m beginning to think his love of characters whose skirts fly up to reveal poofy bloomers are a subset of a general fondness for ill-fitting clothes. Boy Child has a shirt that flares out weirdly, and doesn’t quite reach the top of his pants, which are visibly too tight.

The songs are surprisingly inoffensive. Not good, not by any stretch of the imagination. But not as hideously awful as the rest of his. “Absolutely Green”, Stanley’s big dream number, is thankfully free of murder imagery, and DeLuise’s voice carries it nicely.But other than that one, they’re entirely forgettable. The villain sings “I’m the queen of mean”, stuff like that. It’s bad, but tolerably so.

Dammit, Stanley, that cab is someone's freaking job.

This movie hurt me. It’s worse than Home on the Range. It’s worse than Chicken Little. It’s worse than the live-action bits of Osmosis Jones. It’s worse than Rock-a-Doodle. DO NOT ALLOW YOUR CHILDREN TO SEE THIS MOVIE. Bury it deep underground where it cannot harm anyone. Send it to a place of rock and metal where nothing grows. And tell your damn wife where that is, so she doesn’t send him to Central freaking Park instead.


  • There’s a truly atrocious scene near the beginning where Stanley almost gets caught with a flower by another troll. It’s too tedious to get into, but at the end, the other troll walks away, singing, “I’m a baaad troll! A very baaaad troll!” It’s so dumb, and yet probably the best song in the movie
  • On the way into NYC, Stanley flies over the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the World Trade Center, and the Tavern on the Green. Just in case you forgot where Central Park is.

That face is just begging for a frying pan.

  • Boy Child has oddly colored hair that makes him appear to be wearing a yarmulke at all times.
  • At one point, Stanley plants an acorn, and it grows into a vine. EVERYONE KNOWS WHAT ACORNS GROW, MOVIE. IT ISN’T VINES.

  • I am informed by my younger brother that the lyricist for Thumbelina did the lyrics for Newsies, which makes him the only person to win a Razzie and a Tony for the same score. Though to be fair, his Razzie winner was taken out of the show for Broadway. He also worked with Manilow before, writing not only “Copacabana”, but also Bette Midler’s song from Oliver and Company. And I’m sorry for not informing you earlier that Barry Manilow was one of the eight hundred songwriters for Oliver and Company. 

  • I rarely feature fanart here, of course, but sometimes it's too good to pass up. Here is the Beast from a direct to video ripoff of the Disney film designed to trick grandmas at the supermarket. The artist was sad that people on the internet made fun of the ripoff beast, so here he is getting comforted by Stanley, Fluttershy from My Little Pony, Rex from We're Back! (watch this space for more info, true believer), and Zazu from The Lion King, who has brought a note from the Disney Beast apologizing for his fans' bad behavior.

It is glorious.
  • Here's that movie, by the way. Not to get too off topic. But seriously, watch the first 45 seconds and see if you can work out what the hell they were thinking and why anyone would defend this movie from mockery.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Thumbelina (Sullivan Bluth, 1994)

In my anger-driven haste to force my dislike of Rock-a-Doodle out of my brain, through my fingers, and onto the internet, I neglected to mention a key element. The financial fortunes of All Dogs go to Heaven. It FLOPPED. HARD. Well, that’s unfair. Coming off of two massive successes, though, it was a disappointment. It sort of pathetically limped to making its money back, getting savaged by critics along the way. And the reason for this is clear. The Little Mermaid came out THE SAME DAY. Not even, like, a week later. Of course the weird, disjointed, god damn dead dog cartoon was going to draw unfavorable comparisons to the Return of Disney. As a result of the mediocre box office against the inflating budgets of Bluth’s in-development films, their new producing partner, Goldcrest films, withdrew funding. Sullivan Bluth’s next four - and, as it would turn out, final four - features were sold off to a Hong Kong holding company called Media Assets, with severely diminished budgets.

Now, the trend of Rock-a-Doodle and the following films is to shoot for a young audience, and I’m not sure how much of that is Bluth’s intention, or how much of it was demands from Media Assets in order to go after a home video market. What I do know is Bluth was stung after The Little Mermaid, and if Disney was going to win the public’s minds with a musical Hans Christian Andersen adaptation starring Jodi Benson as it’s redheaded, prince fetishizing heroine, HE’D GIVE THEM MORE OF THE SAME.