It is a tricky thing to tell a good story when practically every audience member knows the ending. It is trickier still when you pack your story with abject fan service, telegraphed plot choices lacking any inspiration, and under-developed characters delivering wooden dialogue. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is guilty of all these failings and many more. It is not a complete disaster, though it coasts off the strength of an exciting third act and a near-fatal dose of nostalgia. As a result, though the initial hoopla will be to declare Rogue One: A Star Wars Story as an utter triumph, extra consideration of the film (perhaps with your gender-neuter fanperson beer goggles off) will reveal its many disappointments.
As the very best animated Disney films often do, Moana marries mythology and musical to depict a princess struggling to find her place. However, Moana blasts beyond this tried-and-true method by introducing a transformative detail: Moana is more concerned with following her own values than she is on cozying up to a love interest and ruling as a princess. The film sports wonderful songs that are used in crucial bits of storytelling, the voice-acting is incredibly strong, and the plot features some interesting beats and develops a potent theme. There are interesting tweaks to the humor and animation styles as well, which keeps the film looking and feeling fresh throughout. Moana herself practically overflows with heroism, and she is perhaps the most complete and realistic Disney princess to date.
For a film meant to expand the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) into the novel territory of alternate dimensions and mind-bending magic, Doctor Strange sure does play it safe. Though many of the visuals are fascinating, some are overly show-offy, like an elaborate ornament on an otherwise bland facade. The acting talent and the performances that they deliver are impressive, but they are relied upon to prop up a flimsy story that inadequately introduces us to this new facet of the MCU. Similarly, most of the characters are unbalanced, uneven, and inconsistent – as though the filmmakers were afraid of allowing Dr. Strange to be too much of an asshole. Finally, aside from an innovative and interesting climactic sequence, the plot is about as by-the-numbers as one can imagine. Overall, this is the disquieting flaw of Doctor Strange: the eye-popping visuals are in direct aesthetic conflict with the safeness of the narrative and thematic choices. The result is a reasonable entry into the MCU, but a film which isn’t appreciably better than the average origin story.
Disney’s Queen of Katwe appears to follow the standard formula of sports movie: take an underdog (bonus points for a disadvantaged upbringing) and chart their rise to the top ranks until they overcome some snooty favorite. Mira Nair’s film distinguishes itself through peerless acting, a vibrant but patient setting, and consistent application of its chosen sport as thematic metaphor. The film focuses on a young, poor female chess prodigy from Uganda named Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga). Throughout the story, chess is used as a mechanism for improvement and a way to escape her situation. Ultimately, Queen of Katwe champions the intellect of individuals, and shows us a world where young girls and boys can apply that intellect to improve their lives.
Today, words are exceedingly lightweight. You can say whatever you like because words are as substantive as foam to us. That’s no more than a reflection of how empty our reality has become. And yet even now, the truth is that words are power. It’s just that we’re meaninglessly drowning in a sea of powerless, vacuous words.
-Hayao Miyazaki, 1999 – Director’s notes for Spirited Away
The latest film from Pixar, Finding Dory, is a sequel to one of the studio’s most-beloved early films, and one of the first with a true pathos, Finding Nemo. The original often ranks among Pixar’s best, and one of the big reasons was the character of Dory, voiced by Ellen DeGeneres. The filmmakers thought that this character (who suffers from short-term memory loss) was a good one, so they chose her to headline her own film. Ancillary characters don’t always make great focal points, so there were a lot of people worried about this one, but it was all unwarranted. Finding Dory is very good, introduces a number of interesting and distinct characters, and further develops the themes of family, friendship, and belonging of the original. It acts as a wonderful companion piece to the original on account of the fantastic union of story structure, plot, and themes – all hallmarks of Pixar.