Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Saturday cartoons: "Olaf's Frozen Adventure", Coco, and The Breadwinner

The worst thing about going to see an animated movie as an adult who likes the medium is not the sinking feeling that you're not supposed to be there (because you're in a room filled with kids and parents or at a nearly-empty 9pm show) or the like: It's the inevitable group of terrible trailers for terrible movies that play before them, generally from Open Road, the Weinstein Company, or the like, showing animation that is clearly below the standard that the big studios set, C-list celebrity voices, and jokes so terrible that you look on the 88 minutes that didn't contribute to the trailer with a sort of dread. Ferdinand doesn't exactly look good, but its vague competence after trailers for Sherlock Gnomes and Peter Rabbit is refreshing, while Paddington 2 looks like some sort of miracle.

Stuff like that is why I can't really fully join in the outrage at being forced to sit through "Olaf's Frozen Adventure" and kind of laugh at how the ticket-ripper was warning folks in the audience that it was playing before Coco - I mean, Gnomes seems like something far more horrifying, though I suppose that the main issue here is people coming out to say something's wrong, rather than it being bad.

(I am kind of surprised this wasn't a bigger part of the promotion for Coco - or at least, not in places where I'd see it; maybe ads on The Disney Channel pushed it hard.)

One thing I'm kind of curious about with both of Saturday's animated features is just how well they play to the folks who share ethnicity/culture with the main characters. Coco was directed by Pete Docter, who is not Latino as far as I know (though Adrian Molina is listed as co-director and has writing credits), and I'm pretty sure The Breadwinner's Nora Twomey is not Afghani. Neither seems particularly exploitative, but I'm hardly in a position to judge. I've seen some positive word on Coco, but I do find myself kind of wondering how people closer to the stories might have handled them differently, especially in the light of how, last year, the makers of Moana seemed to get a lot more pushback on them telling a Polynesian story than they got with Aladdin back in the 1990s.

Anyway, in terms of niece-appropriateness, I think the 6/7-year-olds would probably go for Coco (even if two would be mostly down for the Frozen "short"), while The Breadwinner should probably be saved for the 11-year-old, content-wise, as it's a fine example of how something realistic can be scarier than the thing that has skeleton's running around. She likes realistic stories about girls her own age anyway.

"Olaf's Frozen Adventure"

* * (out of four)
Seen 22 November 2017 in AMC Boston Common #18 (first-run, RealD 3D DCP)

Would "Olaf's Frozen Adventure" seem like less of a slog if it appeared where it belonged - on ABC at 8pm on some weekday night in December, maybe leading into the Toy Story special that's been running for a few years? Maybe. It still wouldn't be good, of course, but it would be twenty minutes less for kids to sit still in a theater with 3D glasses on, including something like three musical numbers and the feeling that you've gone through a whole narrative cycle before the one you actually paid for. It's a small meal rather than the creative aperitif that usually plays before a Pixar film.

That said, it's not a bad idea. If you liked Frozen - as I and many others did, including my Elsa-crazed nieces - there's a worthy next chapter at the heart of this short, as Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) and Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) find themselves trying to figure out how to celebrate Christmas as both a royal and conventional family after Elsa being shut away for so long. It's a plot that the audience actually cares about and which doesn't lose track of how a huge part of the movie's appeal is their relationship as sisters. It makes Kristoff (voice of Jonathan Goff) kind of a third wheel, but so what? He could easily fit into the part of the story that keeps things moving, as Olaf (voice of Josh Gad) tries to inventory individual holiday traditions to find one for the ladies.

The thing is, Olaf's a weird comic-relief character who makes for fun out-of-nowhere jokes (including some truly bizarre slapstick), but really doesn't fit in terms of a guy you'd want to hang the plot on; his child-like naivete seems foolish rather than charming in this context. It also shifts what could be a really charming core for the story - that everyone has different holiday traditions that are beautiful in their own ways - into something to snark at rather than celebrate, and that's before considering Kristoff's troll-inspired holiday traditions being played as gross-out gags.

Disney's done worse piggybacking off their animated classics, and despite this thing's almost-certain TV origins, it looks pretty good on the big screen in 3D, if not quite so smooth as something built for that format. This is just filled with enough bad decisions to obscure the good Anna & Elsa stuff that the kids who really want it would actually care about.

Coco (2017)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 22 November 2017 in AMC Boston Common #18 (first-run, RealD 3D DCP)

The latest from Pixar saves the gut-punch for the end, and it's good to see they can still manage one every once in a while. They've been doing good work but had fallen a bit behind the main Disney group in both inventiveness and emotion.

Coco, fortunately, shows that they're still quite capable of making a movie that punches way above the weight class of the inevitable trailers for terrible animated films that run before it. Though the story seems a little stretched and unlikely at first - that many generations of people (including in-laws) acquiescing to an inherited disdain for music requires swallowing a lot - the cheery design and animation style makes up for it, at least long enough to get to the part where this sort of broad set-up feels right, as music-living kid Miguel finds himself in the Land of the Dead.

There, things get more fun, as the skeleton characters and the gravity-defying landscape give the designers, animators, and stereographers plenty of room to create an eye-widening world, a quest based on a metaphor can work without question (Miguel must literally obtain his family's blessing), and the expected big musical numbers and action pieces can impress but gracefully move aside as the script gets clever, folding what sends like a side sorry into the center of the movie.

It might be nice, perhaps, if the writing was a little sharper in the details - aside from the trouble getting started, I've kind of seen enough animated movies where fantasy-world bureaucracy mirrors reality to last me a long time - but when a movie is not just great-looking and well-voiced, but actually has a moment when the audience might just tear up, it gets a little slack.

The Breadwinner

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 November 2017 in Landmark Kendall Square #8 (first-run, DCP)

The Breadwinner is a pretty terrific film that may not get the attention that it might have even a year ago because of certain changes to Academy Award voting rules expected to favor big-studio blockbusters over more adventurous, individual films from around the globe. That's a crying shame, because nominating movies like this and getting them onto people's radar is where the Oscars are most useful - this one, for instance, is not what most expect from an animated film, but it uses the medium for clear, powerful storytelling that leaves a strong impression.

In Kabul, under the rule of the Taliban, one-time teacher Nurullah (voice of Ali Badshah) is reduced to selling his family's prized possessions on the street and taking money to read and write for those who can't, with 11-year-old daughter Parvana (voice of Saara Chaudry) assisting because he is disabled. He passes the time telling her stories, at least until he gets on the bad side of a young man happy to use the regime to settle scores and is carted off to jail. The is devastating to the family, because his only living son is a toddler and women and girls like daughters Parvana and her older sister Soraya (voice of Shalasta Latif) are not allowed out unescorted. When his wife Fattema (voice of Laara Sadiq) tries to make her way to the jail to plead his case, she is beaten badly. With food and water running out, Parvana cuts her hair, puts on the clothing of her dead brother, and hopes that this deception will allow her to work and buy what the family needs.

It's a fairly sharp turn for studio Cartoon Saloon, whose previous films were grounded in the folklore and history of their native Ireland, to do a film set in modern Afghanistan, but they keep their signature style of simple, sometimes almost geometric character designs and still make them remarkably expressive - the silent acting of Soroya when she knows that she's more or less been sold into marriage to guarantee the family's safety is the most notable. There's a particular sharpness to the characters' features that not only marks them as Middle Eastern but signals their determination, and a fine attention to body language even when the women are dressed in something deliberately shapeless and unrevealing. Little details help, like the way one corner of Parvana's head covering tends to fly away and get tucked back in, signalling how she has to remain nondescript even if it isn't in her nature.

Full review on EFC.

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