Walt Disney Pictures

Moana (2016, Don Hall, Chris Williams, Ron Clements, and John Musker)

Moana takes a while to find its stride. Directors Clements and Musker and Hall and Williams aren’t at ease until the movie’s on the water. The film starts on a Polynesian island, with a young chief-in-training (Auli’i Cravalho) secretly longing not to be stuck on the island paradise, but out exploring the ocean. Grandmother Rachel House encourages her, dad Temuera Morrison does not, she’s got an adorable pet pig and dimwit chicken as sidekicks… it’s cute, but it’s pretty shallow.

Once the movie gets out to water, however, everything changes. Cravalho isn’t reacting to House or Morrison, the performance all of a sudden has energy and personality. Until that point, it’s been entirely unclear how the story is going to work. Every time it seems like it’s going to be a quest story, Morrison steps in and shuts it down for a few more minutes. The first act of Moana is overlong.

Back to the water. The computer generation animation in Moana has these distinct thick edges for the characters. Again, cute enough, brings in some extra personality, whatever. No, not whatever, because once the characters are on the water, it’s all about how the CG light hits their CG angles to make CG shadows. Moana is shockingly beautiful. And the directors know it. They compose for it. The film gets away with a lot because of that lightning and the composition.

But it’s strongest assets are leads Cravalho and Dwayne Johnson. Johnson’s really, really good, giving a personable, but measured performance. His character–a selfish, disgraced demigod who Cravalho offers a chance at redemption–has a fairly predictable arc so there shouldn’t surprises and there aren’t in the narrative sense, just in how Johnson and Cravalho interact. Johnson’s got an askew distance in his performance, fully supporting Cravalho while still doing rote predicable incorrigible sidekick. It’s a surprisingly good performance, especially since it starts before the directors have shown they can excel at anything. They haven’t proven themselves at sea yet.

Jared Bush’s script is mediocre but fine for the first act. Too long, like I said before… way too long. Then there’s action and conflict and character development and excitement. There’s action, conflict, and character development in the first act, there’s just no excitement.

Land has lectures, ground situation, ground situation songs, and sadness. Ocean has excitement and exciting action. No more lectures, just funny and sometimes touching arguments. Good slapstick. Giant crabs doing Bowie impressions (Jemaine Clement is awesome). Sentient–and evil–coconuts roaming the high seas under the pirate flag. A lava beast. Oh, and a ghost. That’s a particularly gorgeous night sequence, because the light from the ghost–it’s a good ghost–provides the lightning for the figures’ angles.

Moana’s a thoughtful, gorgeous, amiably complex picture. The directors do well, the script does well, the computer animation’s breathtaking. Cravalho, Johnson, and House are all wonderful. It’s a lovely film.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Don Hall, Chris Williams, Ron Clements, and John Musker; screenplay by Jared Bush, based on a story by Clements, Musker, Williams, Hall, Pamela Ribon, Aaron Kandell, and Jordan Kandell; edited by Jeff Draheim; music by Mark Mancina; production designer, Ian Gooding; produced by Osnat Shurer; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Auli’i Cravalho (Moana), Dwayne Johnson (Maui), Rachel House (Gramma Tala), Temuera Morrison (Chief Tui), Nicole Scherzinger (Sina), and Jemaine Clement (Tamatoa).


Flight of the Navigator (1986, Randal Kleiser)

Flight of the Navigator works on a principal of delayed charm; eventually, it’s got to be charming, right? No, no, it doesn’t. The film’s a series of false starts. The only thing approaching a pay-off is Paul Reubens–voicing an alien spaceship–going into a riff on his “Pee-Wee” routine. It’s not even a good routine. Worse, the film wastes kid lead Joey Cramer’s substantial likability. He’s not great, but he’s not annoying. He’s always sympathetic. Well, until the idiotic conclusion.

Navigator runs ninety minutes. Almost the first hour is about Cramer, missing for eight years, returning to his family. Only Cramer’s the same age; what happened in those missing eight years. For some reason, Howard Hesseman’s NASA scientist thinks it’s got to be linked to the alien spaceship they just discovered. Flight of the Navigator takes place over like three days. The film does a weak job establishing the characters, even weaker after it jumps forward eight years, so it’s hard to sympathize with anyone. You’re not supposed to sympathize with Hesseman, who’s just a jerk. He’s incredibly miscast.

Most of the acting is fine. Cliff De Young and Veronica Cartwright have thin parts as Cramer’s parents, but they’re both fine. Matt Adler’s kind of weak as his now older brother, but with the script, it’s not like Adler was going to be able to do anything with it. Same goes for Sarah Jessica Parker, who’s basically just around to gently flirt with twelve-year-old Cramer and explain the eighties to him.

Technically, the film approaches competent. Director Kleiser tries for grandiose with the first half and fails, but has more success once the spaceship comes into it. Alan Silvestri’s music is lacking. Nothing else stands out. I mean, James Glennon’s photography is boring, but it isn’t bad.

While Flight of the Navigator is still about Cramer reappearing after eight years, it has a far amount of potential. Even during some of the last third’s special effects sequence, it has some left. It’s dwindling, but it’s still there. Until the lame finish, which lacks any dramatic heft. The film’s not long enough and the script’s not good enough to make Cramer’s adventure resonate. Flight of the Navigator could have run fifteen minutes and had the same dramatic impact. It’s slight and not diverting enough.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Randal Kleiser; screenplay by Michael Burton and Matt MacManus, based on a story by Mark H. Baker; director of photography, James Glennon; edited by Jeff Gourson; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, William J. Creber; produced by Robert Wald and Dimitri Villard; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Joey Cramer (David Freeman), Cliff De Young (Bill Freeman), Veronica Cartwright (Helen Freeman), Matt Adler (Jeff), Sarah Jessica Parker (Carolyn McAdams), Howard Hesseman (Dr. Louis Faraday) and Paul Reubens (Max).


Zootopia (2016, Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush)

Ah, the socially responsible children’s movie, or: the progressive soulless capitalism of the Walt Disney Corporation, twenty-first century iteration. I went into Zootopia waiting for it to be great–I assumed the filmmakers would take responsibility for the big questions they imply–then I waited for it to be good, then I waited for it to be over. It’s a perfectly competent, perfectly satisfactory outing. Girls have a positive role model in Ginnifer Goodwin’s protagonist, the first rabbit cop, and boys will be positively reassured of their superior position in society thanks to Jason Bateman’s rogue sidekick. Watching Zootopia, you can just imagine Disney drones toggling between Buzzfeed and The Toast for concepts.

And not in a bad way, right? I mean, it is just a kid’s movie about anthropomorphized mammals. It’s not going to do any permanent damage, is it? It’s just a movie about how predators and prey can live together as long as predators are okay with the prey thinking they’re socially and morally inferior than the prey. Oh, wait, no, it actually seems like a big question and Zootopia tries to walk back from it immediately after every time it comes up. It flares. Someone who rewrote the screenplay added this occasional flaring up of really gross social commentary. It might be unintentional, but it’s gross. And obvious.

But it’s well-acted and the plotting is fairly strong. Directors Howard, Moore and Bush do better when handling suspense than action. Zootopia is kid’s CG and the animals are stylized not just to be more genially anthropomorphized, they’re also made adorable. It’s manipulative, it’s Disney, it means what could be amazing action set pieces are just passible CG animation instead. There’s great potential in a chase sequence through a “mouse metropolis” and the filmmakers go with plastic-y CG for the setting instead of any realism. It looks like a toy commercial, it’s got limited potential. But when Goodwin and Bateman are doing a James Bond movie action sequence, it’s awesome. It’s a shame everything’s so uneven.

In the supporting roles, Idris Elba and J.K. Simmons do well. There aren’t a lot of good parts. Even Simmons and Elba don’t have good parts. I mean, Goodwin doesn’t even have a good part, not really. Even Bateman has some really weak material–Zootopia’s so confused it can’t even commit to its charismatic antihero love interest dude.

And Jenny Slate’s not great. Her part’s crap, but she’s not great. The part needs some kind of greatness.

Still, it’s a kid’s movie. For me, I just wish it was better directed. But for a kid’s movie, I wish it didn’t fumble with its social message. I wish it comment on real world racial stereotypes with absurd entries in a “Friends Against Humanity” game. I wish the directors and the writers took it seriously, but Disney isn’t even Disney anymore. It’s just progressive soulless capitalist filmmaking, what should one expect from it? It’s not *Animal Farm*, after all, it’s just a kid’s movie.*

* Of course, *Wind in the Willows* is just a kid’s book and it’s thoughtful about how it anthropomorphizes its animals.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush; screenplay by Bush and Phil Johnston, based on a story by Howard, Moore, Bush, Jim Reardon, Josie Trinidad, Johnston and Jennifer Lee; edited by Fabienne Rawley and Jeremy Milton; music by Michael Giacchino; production designers, David Goetz and Dan Cooper; produced by Clark Spencer; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Ginnifer Goodwin (Judy Hopps), Jason Bateman (Nick Wilde), Idris Elba (Chief Bogo), Jenny Slate (Bellwether), Nate Torrence (Clawhauser), Bonnie Hunt (Bonnie Hopps), Don Lake (Stu Hopps), Octavia Spencer (Mrs. Otterton), Alan Tudyk (Duke Weaselton) and J.K. Simmons (Mayor Lionheart).


Alice in Wonderland (2010, Tim Burton)

Alice in Wonderland has a number of balls in the air at once and director Burton–though he does show a good sense of them each while in focus–can’t seem to bring them together successfully. The potentially unifying elements–like Danny Elfman’s score or Mia Wasikowska in the lead–both fall short. For whatever reason, Burton doesn’t have Elfman design the score to be memorable; even when it’s competent, it just reminds of better Danny Elfman scores. As for Wasikowska, who’s utterly phenomenal whether she’s in nineteenth century England or the titular Wonderland, the film loses her too often.

And that loss of Wasikowska, even though it’s always to bring in the assorted cast of Wonderland, kills the film’s momentum. Alice has a very standard plot–Wasikowska has an unpleasant future waiting for her in reality, will her experiences in Wonderland somehow edify and empower her to deal with them? Even though it’s Alice in Wonderland, it often feels like Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton wish they were making Dorothy in Oz.

But when Wasikowska is on screen, she’s able to sell Wonderland’s generic journey. She’s got able assistance too. Johnny Depp turns the Mad Hatter into a wonderful character, acting against his makeup, and Helena Bonham Carter is fantastic as the Red Queen. Both Anne Hathaway and Crispin Glover are painfully affected but they’re always opposite someone great so it doesn’t matter too much.

Wonderland’s a moderate success, but should have been a much greater one.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Tim Burton; screenplay by Linda Woolverton, based on novels by Lewis Carroll; director of photography, Dariusz Wolski; edited by Chris Lebenzon; music by Danny Elfman; produced by Richard D. Zanuck, Joe Roth, Suzanne Todd and Jennifer Todd; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Mia Wasikowska (Alice Kingsleigh), Johnny Depp (Mad Hatter), Helena Bonham Carter (Red Queen), Crispin Glover (Stayne), Anne Hathaway (White Queen), Matt Lucas (Tweedledee and Tweedledum), Stephen Fry (Cheshire Cat), Timothy Spall (Bayard the Bloodhound), Michael Sheen (White Rabbit), Barbara Windsor (Dormouse) and Alan Rickman (Absolem the Caterpillar).


The Radiator Springs 500½ (2014, Rob Gibbs and Scott Morse)

There's some charm to The Radiator Springs 500½, but nowhere near enough. There are hints of good ideas–like a Western showdown motif at the beginning–and some of the failed gags should have worked–a car who comes along to do the cymbals after a pun. Oh, right, it's a Cars spin-off cartoon short. Forget to mention that part.

Anyway, there's nothing cohesive about it. Half the short is the good car (voiced by Owen Wilson, who must have been busy because he has almost no lines) racing against these bad cars who have no respect for the town. Then the town cars are on this idyllic anniversary drive.

There's an effective junk yard sequence towards the end, but otherwise it's tepid and without any excitement. Springs's greatest stylistic influence appears to be video game cut scenes. Whoop-de-doo.

It might get points for being harmless, but why give points for being harmless?

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Rob Gibbs and Scott Morse; written by John Lasseter, Jeremy Lasky and Gibbs; edited by Torbin Xan Bullock; music by Mark Mothersbaugh; production designer, Anthony Christov; produced by Mary Alice Drumm; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Owen Wilson (Lightning McQueen), Larry the Cable Guy (Mater), Steve Purcell (Sandy Dunes), John Cygan (Idle Threat), Jess Harnell (Blue Grit), Bonnie Hunt (Sally Carrera), Cheech Marin (Ramone) and Danny Mann (Shifty Sidewinder).


Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989, Joe Johnston)

Honey, I Shrunk the Kids is a constant battle between trite and sincere. Except the special effects stuff; the special effects are astounding, especially the sequences where there's a mix of styles, between practical and optical, and a mix of sizes. Director Johnston does such an exceptional job making the fantastic palatable, it's too bad the script isn't less banal when it comes to the character work.

Oddly, some of the character stuff is great. The relationship between the kids–Thomas Wilson Brown and Amy O'Neill are the teens, Jared Rushton and Robert Oliveri are their annoying little brothers–develops wonderfully once they're in crisis and have shared traumatic experiences. Brown, O'Neill and Rushton all give outstanding performances. Oliveri oscillates between grating and sympathetic. Unfortunately, the script decides to encourage the grating, which is one of Shrunk's many third act problems.

Then there are the adults. Rick Moranis phones it in as the scientist dad of O'Neill and Oliveri, Marcia Strassman is effective as his suffering wife. Matt Frewer and Kristine Sutherland play Brown and Rushton's parents. Sutherland's great. Frewer's likable; he gets an actual character arc.

Screenwriters Ed Naha and Tom Schulman bring a tone-deafness not just to how kids interact with their parents, but also how Strassman deals with Moranis. Makes one wonder if a script doctor handled the miniaturized kids versus the great outdoors while bonding. Not to mention the nice romance.

Regardless of the bad finish, Shrunk's beautifully made and does have some very good stuff in it.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Joe Johnston; screenplay by Ed Naha and Tom Schulman, based on a story by Stuart Gordon, Brian Yuzna and Naha; director of photography, Hiro Narita; edited by Michael A. Stevenson; music by James Horner; production designer, Gregg Fonseca; produced by Penney Finkelman Cox; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Thomas Wilson Brown (Little Russ Thompson), Amy O’Neill (Amy Szalinski), Robert Oliveri (Nick Szalinski), Jared Rushton (Ron Thompson)Rick Moranis (Wayne Szalinski), Marcia Strassman (Diane Szalinski), Kristine Sutherland (Mae Thompson) and Matt Frewer (Big Russ Thompson).


The Parent Trap (1998, Nancy Meyers)

Where to start with The Parent Trap. There’s the structure–Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer split their script into three distinct parts. Well, maybe even three and a half. There’s the opening where Lindsay Lohan goes to summer camp and meets her twin. Then there’s the part where the twins meet the opposite parents–I’m not explaining The Parent Trap, you should know these things–and then there’s the third part, where everyone gets together.

Only, towards the end, the movie all of a sudden becomes a romance between Dennis Quaid and Natasha Richardson (as the parents). Meyers deftly shifts from the kids–sorry, Lohan–being the protagonist–protagonists–to turning Quaid into the lead. Richardson has a lot more to do on her own for a bit, which seems to be part of how Meyers pulls it off. She introduces the idea of a floating protagonist label so it’s easier to assign it to Quaid.

But there’s also the technical marvel part of the film. The effects with Lohan are outstanding. The Parent Trap is a special effects extravaganza; Dean Cundey lights it all perfectly, Meyers directs it perfectly.

Of course, the film only works because of Lohan and her ability to create two entirely different characters who not only look alike, but also sound alike for much of the film. Meyers’s direction of Lohan is phenomenal.

The excellent supporting performances from Lisa Ann Walter, Simon Kunz and Elaine Hendrix are essential.

The Parent Trap is a fantastic film.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Nancy Meyers; screenplay by David Swift, Meyers and Charles Shyer, based on a novel by Erich Kästner; director of photography, Dean Cundey; edited by Stephen A. Rotter; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Dean Tavoularis; produced by Shyer; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Lindsay Lohan (Hallie Parker / Annie James), Dennis Quaid (Nick Parker), Natasha Richardson (Elizabeth James), Elaine Hendrix (Meredith Blake), Lisa Ann Walter (Chessy), Simon Kunz (Martin), Polly Holliday (Marva Kulp Sr.), Maggie Wheeler (Marva Kulp Jr.), Ronnie Stevens (Grandfather James) and Joanna Barnes (Vicki Blake).


Trail Mix-Up (1993, Barry Cook)

I think Trail Mix-Up is supposed to be zany, what with the inclusion of an adorable beaver and a cuddly bear in Roger Rabbit and Baby Herman’s trek through the wilderness.

It’s not very good, of course. Besides Droopy’s Jaws-related cameo and Jessica Rabbit showing up for a moment, there’s nothing memorable about it until the end. And, at the end, Roger Rabbit destroys the planet Earth… hopefully so there can be no more of these lame cartoons.

When looking for cartoons to ape, director Cook and his writers somehow miss the multiple outdoor-oriented Disney cartoons they could have referenced. Trail would’ve been much improved with an appearance from Ranger J. Audubon Woodlore.

It does benefit somewhat from Baby Herman actually being cute–he calls the beaver “doggy”–even if Roger’s as unlikable as always in his cartoon outings.

The animation’s competent, but lacks any substantial qualities.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Barry Cook; screenplay by Rob Minkoff, Cook, Mark Kausler and Patrick A. Ventura, based on characters created by Gary K. Wolf; edited by Victor Livingston; music by Bruce Broughton; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Charles Fleischer (Roger Rabbit), Kathleen Turner (Jessica Rabbit), April Winchell (Young Baby Herman / Mrs. Herman), Lou Hirsch (Adult Baby Herman), Corey Burton (Droopy Dog) and Frank Welker (Bear / Beaver).


Tummy Trouble (1989, Rob Minkoff and Frank Marshall)

Tummy Trouble goes out of its way to pay homage to Tex Avery (down to a Droopy cameo) and director Minkoff does a decent job of it. Not to say Tummy‘s successful, however. While Minkoff apes Avery all right, it’s a combination of too obvious and too reverential. Outside being an “original” Roger Rabbit cartoon, there’s no creative impulse behind Tummy.

It’s also way too exquisite in terms of the animation to be a good Avery knock-off. Looking at the frames, it’s clear a lot of time went into illustrating the animations and not enough went into plotting out the gags. It’s just not funny. There’s not a single good gag.

And since Tummy is a Roger Rabbit cartoon, there’s an obligatory live action section at the end. It feels self-congratulatory, which doesn’t many any sense… Tummy Trouble‘s nothing to pat oneself on the back about.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Rob Minkoff and Frank Marshall; screenplay by Kevin Harkey, Bill Kopp, Minkoff, Mark Kausler and Patrick A. Ventura, based on characters created by Gary K. Wolf; edited by Donald W. Ernst; music by James Horner; produced by Don Hahn; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Charles Fleischer (Roger Rabbit), April Winchell (Young Baby Herman / Mrs. Herman), Lou Hirsch (Adult Baby Herman), Corey Burton (Orderly), Richard Williams (Droopy Dog) and Kathleen Turner (Jessica Rabbit).


Small Fry (2011, Angus MacLane)

I find Small Fry to be a little confusing. Not just in the narrative, though the plot also has an incredibly big hole, but the approach in general. It’s a Toy Story short, only MacLane gives it enough plot it could be a feature, not just a short.

A “Happy Meal” version of Buzz Lightyear tries to impersonate the real one, only to be found out by Woody. Meanwhile, the real Buzz has to get out of a fast food joint. He meets some other discarded Happy Meal toys and cuteness ensues.

The big surprise is Tim Allen and Tom Hanks being back. While the animation is still wonderful, this short screams Disney cash in. It seems like the exact thing Pixar didn’t want, back when Disney threatened to make Story sequels alone.

Small Fry manages to be cute and competent, but pointless.

Though Jane Lynch’s scene is really funny.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Angus MacLane; written by Josh Cooley; animated by Eric Luhta; music by John Powell; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Tim Allen (Buzz Lightyear), Tom Hanks (Woody), Joan Cusack (Jessie), John Ratzenberger (Hamm), Teddy Newton (Mini Buzz) and Jane Lynch (Queen Neptuna).


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