The winding history of Walt Disney Animation Studios offers a compelling tale that rivals many of the films churned out by the group over the last 80 years. Since its founding in 1923 (an unimaginably long time ago) as the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio, the company has swung back and forth between unparalleled success to middling insignificance and occasional near-disaster. With the 2010 release of Tangled (its 50th film), the Studio happily entered a resurgence of sorts with Wreck-It Ralph maintaining the momentum and Frozen coming quickly on its heals to offer smashing box-office success as well as the group’s first Academy Award for Best Animated Feature (which sounds less startling when you realize the category was created in 2001).
I grew up squarely in the so-called “Disney Renaissance” and my childhood memories are accented with over-sized Disney VHS cases and an endless loop of The Lion King. Call me biased but I would hesitate to add these two newcomers to the shortlist of best animated films. They both feel like they are missing something, some key ingredient that would expand the story and elevate it to something achieved by those “Renaissance” classics. Maybe they lack the deep bench of side characters seen in Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, or the tales of redemption here are not as convincing as Aladdin or (yeah I’ll say it again) The Lion King. Or maybe the missing ingredient is childhood nostalgia. Either way, I can’t deny the importance of these films in the larger storyline of one of the movie’s most important Studios.
Frozen: Rating 8/10.
I am a 25-year-old man. A single man with a beard and with no children, not even any young nieces or nephews. I am not in Frozen’s target audience. Within ten minutes of the film’s opening one small girl asks another small girl if she “wants to build a snowman.” The question is delivered completely in song. Again, I am not in the target audience. But after plying from friends (okay…most of the strong-arming came from my mother), I finally caved and watched the Disney instant-classic. By now most people are familiar with the story of two semi-estranged sisters so I’ll save the e-ink. Frozen didn’t win me over like it did with so many people last year but it still had me laughing and yes, enjoying the songs. Don’t you dare tell anyone. Throughout the movie it becomes apparent that Disney is very actively fighting its own narratives. Instead of a dashing Prince saving a damsel-in-distress, the movie centers on one sister seeking out her sorcerizing sibling. This angle is refreshing. Even though we find the expected love stories between boy and girl accompanied by the expected love(ish) songs these arcs are not nearly as important to the film as the relationship between the two sisters. The film’s finale twists the “true love’s kiss” trope (a trope developed in large part by Disney itself) and shows Disney’s apparent efforts to incorporate a new tone in their films. Or at least allow their films to reflect changing tones in the world outside of their films.
Wreck-It Ralph. Rating 7/10
Another key ingredient in the resurgence of the Walt Disney Animation Studios, Wreck-It Ralph follows Ralph on his journey to redeem himself and show everyone (or at least the digital characters in the arcade where his quarter-fueled game is played) that he doesn’t just wreck everything but he can be the hero and save the day. The film opens with playful sequences showing variations of beloved video game characters. These first few minutes offer the film’s most enjoyable moments while John C. Reilly added my favorite voice to the film, giving Ralph the gravelly range we need to follow his ups and downs. Sarah Silverman provides the voice of the second lead. Before I saw Wreck-It Ralph I knew little about the film and was unaware of Silverman’s involvement. When her Vanellope von Schweetz appeared on-screen, I assumed she was a bit player who wouldn’t stick around long. As the flick progressed I was surprised by her extended stay and didn’t think of her as the second lead until very late in the film. Honestly I was disappointed when I realized Vanellope the Glitch would be so prominently featured (and featured in place of lengthy spoofs on Sonic and Samus). Part of the disappointment comes from her mildly flippant introduction and how long it takes for us to fully realize the arc her character follows (See Footnote #1). Like Ralph, Vanellope is out for redemption, striving to prove her place in the Candy Rush world/game. Her relationship with Ralph follows a routine trajectory but manages to entertain and at times delight, like the film itself.
Footnote #1: I know what you’re thinking. A footnote? Placed a few lines below the source text? One single footnote? Sounds like lazy writing. Well maybe you’re right but I wanted to add that my complaint sounds like I am slighting Wreck-It Ralph for not spoon-feeding its narrative (an unusual complaint). My gripe at how long it takes Vanellope’s arc to unfold is not a gripe against deliberate and well-paced storytelling. In a kid’s movie (and Wreck-It Ralph is most certainly a kid’s movie no matter how often it targets adults for laughs), things tend to change so rapidly with characters coming and going and mini-arcs flaring up and dying out, some deliberate exposition of its key characters is welcome. But hey, I’m not a kid so what do I know.