AFI’s Film Fest is in full swing, and this year I am making a more concerted effort to see whatever films I can. I will be offering up some brief analysis of any of the films I am able to see, along with a rating from 1-5 (like AFI uses). So let’s get to it with a slew of animation reviews plus a minor La La Land-related rant.
Going into this year, this seemed like the 2016 Disney film that was always destined to shine (as opposed to Zootopia). Directors John Musker and Ron Clements were once again lending their brilliance to a Disney film. Lin Manuel Miranda was brought in to help with the music. The film was going to have The Rock in it. This movie had all the ingredients to be great, but… no, actually, it totally was. Yeah, sometimes things that should be good are actually as good as advertised (in a twist, Zootopia was also amazing, so at this point maybe Disney can just do whatever the hell they want and it will work out). Moana brings the Musker and Clements magic together with an engaging story that is an emotionally resonant thrill ride. It is a beautiful technical marvel, and… gasp… well paced!
Most exciting though is that the music is actually good. Lately Disney films have been in a bit of a slump, musically. The Princess and the Frog (another Musker and Clements film) is a good movie, but it only had one really good song, Dr. Facilier’s “Friends On The Other Side,” while the rest were kind of meh. Tangled is an underrated movie in a lot of ways, but the music is mostly unremarkable; though “I See The Light” tries its best, once it is separated from the marvelous visuals of the lanterns scene it doesn’t stand out too much. Then there is Frozen, which is not only one of the most overrated films of all time (shots fired), but also has its own musical problems. Part of it is that the music is paced so poorly, which leads to it all being frontloaded and then nonexistent for most of the second half of the film. More worrisome is how disconnected most of the music feels. “Let It Go” is a great karaoke song, but it never really hits during the movie itself. The only song that really hits both musically and emotionally in the film is “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”
So after these many flawed scores and musical numbers, I have been waiting for Disney’s music to fire on all cylinders again the way it did in films like The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast, and Moana finally arrived as the answer to my problem. The music just works. There are a number of memorable songs that are sure to join the Disney music pantheon, the music is well-paced, and the end of the film figured out how to use the music to enhance the story.
Moana is a wondrous spectacle, but it isn’t perfect. The script is a bit wonky, probably because four people worked on it, and some of the jokes don’t land like they should have. Plus, the main villain mostly works but does feel a little strange. Still, this film is well worth seeing, and a strong contender in a year of superb animated movies, so I give it 4 and half out of 5 stars.
La La Land
I am not going to get much into this because I wasn’t able to see it, and even if I had, this would have been looked at for The Anticipated, but seriously AFI, what was with this line? I don’t really care so much that I didn’t get in–I mean, I would have liked to, but not getting in is a risk in first come, first served situations, and I should have just gone full Comic-Con in terms of when I got in line. I care that the line was so mismanaged. The lack of communication was baffling, especially considering how much a word or two during the wait would have helped things. And I really question the choice of spillover theatre, considering how comparatively small it was compared to other choices. I don’t want to dwell on this too much, as most of the AFI Fest was rather well-run, but this was definitely a frustrating experience.
The Red Turtle
I am not sure how this film will do with the public, but I can say that I certainly had a different reaction to it than everyone else at the screening seemed to. Now hearing this, you might be thinking I hated it, but that isn’t true. This is a good movie. It’s just highly flawed, and maybe sometimes I hold animated films to a higher standard because I know how good they can be. Maybe in a less stacked year for animated cinema this film might stand out more, but this year it feels lacking compared to others. Still, The Red Turtle is likely to become a bit overrated (at least critically) by numerous people because of the following two factors.
First, it’s a Studio Ghibli film, which gives it a lot of cache. As the one studio from Japan that has gotten mainstream recognition in America, anything from Ghibli will draw attention and praise (hell, that is part of the reason I wanted to see it). The problem with this is that The Red Turtle is a very different kind of Ghibli film, in that it was not made in Japan and the studio just helped produce it after reaching out to director Michaël Dudok de Wit to collaborate. It wasn’t made in house, and while that means it also has its own unique perspective, it also means the automatic Ghibli bump it’s going to get in critical circles is not really deserved.
The second factor that will cause it to be overrated is how different it feels compared to other animated movies. This is definitely not a kid’s movie, and the fantasy elements in it are minimal. The film is mainly a tale of survival and love, which makes it very European, and also means it’s more likely a lot of people will take it seriously. This isn’t exactly a great way to evaluate animated movies–something different and more adult-minded than the standard fare isn’t necessarily always a good movie–but thanks to the near-stranglehold children’s movies have on the American animated film market, that perception isn’t going away. Not to mention that a film like this that’s gorgeous and dialogue free (other than some shouts and cries) is sure to be a critic’s dream on a lot of levels.
Admittedly, I will say the film had a lot to overcome for me once it revealed it was going in the love story direction, because that was the least interesting choice the film could have made after an intriguing first twenty or thirty minutes about a man desperately trying to survive. But even judging The Red Turtle the right way, on what it is instead of what it could have been, leaves a lot of cracks. The love story itself comes out of nowhere, as one minute he is fighting the red turtle and the next minute the turtle is now a human woman (so many sighs). If the film had at least then spent time developing the love story, this might have worked. Instead it’s like: the man feels bad about how he treated the turtle and tries to help the woman; the woman then is in love with him. (Maybe the she always was, even as the turtle? It isn’t clear.) This love story is supposed to be a central part of the movie, but its inception feels so rushed that the plot fails to connect throughout.
This ties into the biggest flaw of the movie: it never clicks like it should. The emotions of the film never quite work as well as the director clearly feels they should, and that leaves the whole movie a bit hollow. That doesn’t mean the film fails entirely. The score is lovely, and the visuals are great. Despite the issues I’ve described, the movie does manage to work well sometimes, and it keeps going at a proper pace, but it feels like The Red Turtle never quite reaches the greatness it’s aiming for. So while I liked this film, I didn’t love it, and I would say it is more in the range of 3-3.5 out of 5 stars. At some point I may watch it again to see if my opinion changes, but this feels like a solid movie that lags behind the much better animated films already released or about to be released this year.
My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea
Okay, this film is just pure fun. That is the best way to describe it. There isn’t necessarily much to it. The titular high school is on a fault line, and after being made too heavy, it breaks into the sea after a minor earthquake. From there, the main characters have to try and stay alive as the entire school sinks into the sea. What makes this film stand out are the visuals, the stellar score, the great voice cast, and the clever writing that keeps things sharp.
The visuals of the film are rather unique. Using a limited animation style, ala Charlie Brown TV specials (there is even a visual reference to this at the end of the film, with all of the characters dancing Peanuts style), and director Dash Shaw’s unique visual touch, this film really pushes the envelope. My Entire High School… combines traditional and experimental animation to create a different type of visual experience that is not generally seen in feature length films. The film explores emotion through effects and flashes of lights that create the disorienting experience of trying to survive both a sinking high school and adolescence. The score, meanwhile, fits the visuals perfectly, and creates an atmosphere and mood that move the movie forward at a breakneck pace.
Then there is the voice cast, anchored by Jason Schwartzman, Reggie Watts, Lena Dunham, Maya Rudolph, and Susan Sarandon, among others. Each brings a lot to their characters amid a writing style that is funny and off-kilter in exactly the right way. The film combines the autobiographical and boys adventure styles of ’90s indie comics with a traditional Hollywood disaster movie, and it works remarkably well.
Of course, all of this experimentation isn’t without its costs. Some of the visuals are distracting instead of helpful. The pacing of the film is actually too brisk, as it doesn’t allow for a lot of things to breathe, so a lot of relationships have be to shown through dialogue instead of action. Still, this movie is so much fun, and makes me wish more independent directors would try their hand at animated feature films. Overall, I would say it gets 4 out of 5 stars.
That’s it for my 2016 AFI Fest. I got to see a lot of great films, and look forward to hopefully being able to go again next year.