Saturday, December 18, 2010

Tangled...a little too straightened

This movie has been hyped up as Disney's big return to form, especially after years of sub-par movies in the shadow of its partner studio, Pixar. I actually thought Princess and the Frog was the true return to form, but it turns out I was wrong (although I still enjoyed that movie very much). Tangled may be a return to form, but one that depends on nostalgia. Aside from the animation, the movie doesn't break any new ground or enter any new territory.

The story is pretty simple. Most of us know the Grimm's fairy tale of Rapunzel. The story revolves around a princess who is surrendered as an infant to a witch and locked in a tower, where the only known means of entrance is climbing the girl's supremely long hair up to the windows. The story here is altered a bit, with Rapunzel being a princess, and kidnapped rather than surrendered. Also of note is that Rapunzel's long hair has healing powers, due to her mother drinking an enchanted elixir while pregnant. The villain (kidnapper in this case) is Gothel, and she isn't a witch or an enchantress, but a very vain woman so consumed with being young forever. Gothel needs the power of the girl's hair in order to remain youthful looking. Move ahead 16 years later, and Rapunzel wants to see the world outside her tower, and gets her chance when a young hoodlum named Flynn Rider (originally a prince in the Grimm's tale) seeks solace in her tower while on the run.

The story, I have to say is not very original, but it is solid. There is enough development between the characters and their relationships. And while non of it is unique, it is enough to keep the story and the movie going along. Flynn Rider turns out to be a rather compelling character, one in which is so slippery that its hard to know whether or not to trust him. Although he's a thief, its only because he's something of a dreamer who thinks its possible to attain the impossible. This works in the relationship between him and Rapunzel: what she believes is impossible is actually possible, and its vice versa for him. Their relationship connects when they finally make these realizations.

Tangled is a mixture of two formulas: Disney's Princess films in the 1950's, and the modern Broadway formula in the early 1990's. They are updated further with Computer Animation. However, the CG is not the realistic "Illusion of reality" look Disney initially tried to achieve years ago, but a closer adaptation of Disney's original character designs from the previously mentioned eras. Glen Keane, who was originally one of the directors, contributes to the character designs of the film, and if you check out his blog and original drawings, the 3D characters bear a much closer resemblence to their drawn counterparts. A much appreciated breakthrough.

I have to say, when I first heard about this movie (when it was still called Rapunzel), I was curious about how they described the look of the film. Previous directors Glen Keane and Dean Wellins had stated they were working on a CG look that would capture the feel of 2D animation but with an emphasis on the look of oil paintings. I had no idea how to imagine this, but it sounded unique. What they finally have here is very nice, with a great job done on Rapunzel's hair (the much said struggles with the hair seem to have paid off). There were parts of the movie where I didn't like Rapunzel's hair, especially in the end when her hair gets cut off, and it looks all brown and pulpy (sound familiar?).

These formulas wouldn't be complete without the cute animal characters and broadway style songs which the characters break out into. Rapunzel's only friend in the tower is Pascal, a little chameleon that acts more like a cat than a lizard. The horse, Maximus, is one of my favorite characters in the movie. Maximus starts off as a loyal Royal Guard horse (acting more like a dog than a horse), fiercely tracking down the wanted Flynn, but then becoming a willing ally of Flynn, due to their mutual respect of Rapunzel. These misplaced animals personas managed to add to the enjoyment of the film.

I had problems with the songs. They just weren't memorable enough for me, even with Alan Menken, whose music many a child has grown up on. They just weren't catchy or lyrically poignant enough for me. "Part of Your World" from The Little Mermaid is still a great example of lyrical memorability. However, Menken has not worked with as bold a lyricist as the late Howard Ashman. I mean no disrespect to Glenn Slater, but these songs sounded more like they were playing it safe, rather than treading some new territories.

Overall, I come back to the same thing I tell everyone. The movie is good, but its not great. It may be a return to form for Disney, but its no great leap forward. I would have preferred something that broke new ground, either visually or story-wise. I give Tangled a 7 out of 10.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I

I have written about the Harry Potter films on the domain before. Anyone who knows me knows I am a huge fan of the Potter movies. I have managed to read most of the original books by J.K. Rowling, but it was the movies that turned me into such a Potter geek. At least two years ago, it was announced that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the last novel in the series and the end of the story, would be split into two movies, Part 1 and Part 2. This excited me, as it was obvious that after a 10 year-long phenomenon, it needed to end on a grand scale.

Part I came out a couple of weeks ago, and I saw it on my birthday. Recently, I saw it a second time (as I missed about five minutes the first time due to an emergency bathroom break). And all I can say is fantastic. Its already got me revved up for the final part next July.

Although its a great movie, it has to be judged as part of a series. It will feel weird to judge it entirely as a stand-alone movie, which I notice some other critics have done. As a stand-alone movie, it is technically marvelous, but the script and story rely on everything that has occurred in the series so far. If the previous films are ignored, then the story is confusing and disjointed. Thankfully I know the story well enough to judge it properly. And on a technical level, the film is beautifully composed, with David Yates and his crew really taking their time with the story, and changing the tones a little more casually, as opposed to rushing them from scene to scene, as they did two movies ago on Harry Potter 5.

This movie is very unique to the series in several ways. For one thing, it is the first movie where nothing takes place at the Hogwarts school. Since Hogwarts has been the primary setting for most of the story, this movie allows us to see the main characters (Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, Hermione Granger) under completely new circumstances. Now they are travelling the U.K. completely incognito, searching for horcruxes, the secret to the evil Lord Voldemort's immortality. However, there appears to be something of a Holocaust occurring, with Voldemort's control of the Ministry of Magic cracking down on muggle-born witches and wizards (something akin to white Aryans frowning upon Jews and other minorities). In this Holocaust, the Ministry declares Harry Potter "Undesirable No. 1."

This is by far the darkest movie of the series, and the movies have been getting progressively darker as the characters get older. In this one, the main characters are completely cut off from their safety zones, and yet have to enter danger to find what they are looking for. And in the courses of this danger, characters get killed off. I tend to look forward to darkness in these sort of stories, as it helps to bring home the relationships between the main characters, and it exemplifies the themes a little quicker than if it were lighthearted. Even Rowling herself stated that the major theme of the story is "death."

There are some really beautiful landscapes throughout the main trio's travels. The outdoor settings really give the feeling of a road movie, with a wide open world surrounding the three main characters. I don't know who did scouting for this movie, but they deserve some recognition for finding these locations.

And there are more scenes in this movie that take place in the "muggle" world, or the world as we know it. There are more scenes that take place in the real settings of London and Surrey. I feel these scenes really tie the story close to home, and we can understand it a little easier, without putting too much logic on the setting.

A major highlight of the film is the animated "Deathly Hallows" fable. As a fairy tale that proves vital to the second half of the story, it is given a very special treatment. The story of the three brothers and their "gifts" from Death is told in a style rendered in CG, but reminiscent of the silhouettes of Lotte Reiniger's The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1937). The style is very engaging, and gives great clarity to what I consider to be a "difficult to remember" plot device. It was designed and directed by Ben Hibon with Framestore. Definitely worth the price of admission.

In terms of acting, which has always been a stand-out (at least for me) in these movies, those who get to shine really pull it all together. The three main actors (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson) have practically grown up onscreen as actors, and the results really show. In particular, Emma Watson's performance of Hermione stands out. However, if I have one complaint, its that certain actors that don't appear for very long, they don't seem to put enough into their performance. In particular, this occurs with most of the Death Eater characters, sans Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) who are terrific as usual. Other characters, such as the Malfoys (Jason Isaacs, Helen McCrory, Tom Felton), don't get the full treatment. In particular, I thought more should have been added to the character of Narcissa Malfoy, as she plays an important role in the upcoming Part II.

I would have also liked to have seen Bill Nighy's role as Rufus Scrimgeour expanded a bit (although that would have worked better with Harry Potter 6). However, in saying that, Bill Nighy is one of my favorite actors and seeing him as Rufus Scrimgeour is one of the highlights of the movie for me.

It looks like they wrapped up these movies just in the nick of time. The three main actors are starting to look too old to play the right ages of these characters. I'm sure everything will be wrapped up nicely in the last installment in July 2011. Its nice to have something to look forward to, isn't it?