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.
Though Disney’s live-action adaptations of their traditional animated stories have been a mixed bag so far, Jon Favreau and company have delivered a surprising gem in The Jungle Book. Like other adaptations, this film is certainly a re-make of the original and contains many of the same thematic elements, but some unique nuances add a great deal to the overall quality of the film. Though the movie is not without its faults, it is vastly superior to the animated version from 1967 in almost every way: it has a stronger sense of character development, a more coherent plot-theme, and even sports higher-quality animation. This is hands-down the best of Disney’s recent live-action adaptations.
Disney animated films have received quite the focus here on Plot and Theme, but I have never actually had the opportunity to review one while it was in theatres. Fortunately, Zootopia has provided just such an opportunity. Even better: it might be the best Disney film since The Lion King. The film is structured as a kind of film noir with anthropomorphic mammals living in a metropolis designed to cater to their specific environmental needs. In this world, we learn not only the importance of determination, ability, and friendship – but also the seductive evils of prejudice and the proper response to it. Zootopia excels by balancing these complex themes and allowing them to play out in an imaginative world, a feat which would stymie most any film.
After an abysmal series of failures in the early 1990s, Bluth and Goldman were able to rebound from the terrible offerings and produce Anastasia (1997) and Titan A.E (2000) with Fox Animation Studios. These would be the last feature films to be produced by Bluth, as much of the time since then has been spent providing the animation for various videogames. However, there are plans from the team to continue producing animated features, but funding remains an issue to this day. Regardless, this period should be viewed not as a petered-out ending, but as a brief return-to-form for Bluth’s particular style of animation.
Competing against the Disney Renaissance would be a challenge for any production company, animation or otherwise. While Disney was creating consecutive masterpieces, the films coming from Bluth and his newly created studio Don Bluth Entertainment steadily declined in quality until Bluth actually disowned a film because he despised the finished product. For fans of Bluth, this is a hard period upon which to reminisce. There are isolated moments where the magic of Bluth’s skill is still apparent, but by and large this period is a straight downward spiral. We start with a story featuring a rooster Elvis Presley with amnesia. Seriously.
One of the biggest surprises of Disney’s D23 convention was the trailer for Jon Favreau’s live-action adaptation of The Jungle Book. Finally, we get to see the official trailer for this film, which is essentially what everyone at D23 already saw (though the trailer shown there was slightly different, based on descriptions from people who saw it at D23). Pay close attention to the tone of this trailer, and especially the multiple fades to black, as it makes the film look far darker than the familiar animated feature from the late ‘60s:
In Part VII of The Seven Ages of Disney Animation, we finally reach the end of our journey: the age we currently exist in, The Computer Age Renaissance. Disney was finally able to utilize computer animation to create powerful stories and gorgeous sequences, but there are still some hand-drawn gems in this age, as well.