Tag Archive | Walt Disney Feature Animation

Audio Commentary Commentation: Beauty and the Beast (1991)

*With the rise of DVD’s in the late 1990’s, one feature many promised with the addition of Special Features, were audio commentaries. These would often contain dialogue from the film’s crew, or even film historians. In this category, I’ll discuss some of the audio commentary tracks that I feel are rather compelling, and end up being entertaining, in regards to the information provided, and what is being said.*

When the Walt Disney Studios began to put their films onto the DVD format starting in the late 1990’s, they realized that they had a big chance to show more, AND talk more, about the filmmaking process. The Digital Video Disc format, was a more compact, and less-expensive item for film aficionados, in place of the more costly laserdisc format.

Starting in 2001, the studio announced their Platinum Collection, which would take a number of the studio’s most popular titles, and give these releases the super-deluxe treatment.

Beauty and the Beast was the second Platinum release, and in October of 2002, I eagerly purchased it, and dove into the numerous features it had to offer.

Most notable to me, was the audio commentary track that was included. Sitting down to talk about the film, were co-directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, producer Don Hahn, and composer Alan Menken.

There’s plenty of material that is discussed, and I thought I’d share a few highlights, given the film came out 25 years ago this winter.

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Uncertainty over a Song

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Throughout the audio commentary, much praise is given to lyricist Howard Ashman, and composer Alan Menken, whose musical work feels like the connective tissue, binding this animated fairy tale together.

Alan was brought in as a ‘special guest’ on the audio commentary, and gives plenty of insight regarding the different songs.

To many of us, the opening to the film seems picture-perfect with the song titled Belle, in which we are introduced to our heroine, and the provincial town she and her father call home. However, there were some trepidations in the beginning:

Alan Menken: When Howard (Ashman) and I began working on Beauty and the Beast, the first song we wrote, Belle-was the first one. And he (Howard) said, “Oh my God, they’re gonna just laugh at it and throw it back at us. I don’t even want to send it out.” I said, “I think it’s great! Let’s send it out!” So we sent it out, and what we got back were “hurrahs” and “yays,”  and this was exactly where they wanted to go.

The musical-style opening, had never really been done in this way with a Disney animated feature, and the film moreso played out like a stage musical brought to animated life.

Most interesting, is that for a song that had Ashman worried, it was remembered when awards season arrived in the Winter of 1991. The song Belle was one of three nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song. The songs Be Our Guest and Beauty and the Beast were also nominated, with the film’s title song taking home the statuette that evening.

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Time is of the Essence

Audio commentaries, are often a great source of information, that is usually not as widely known to the public. Notable in the commentary for the film, is co-director Kirk Wise, discussing the time-frame for making the film:

Kirk Wise: This movie was made in a very short period of time, believe it or not. The actual production of the version of “Beauty and the Beast” that you see before you, was done in two years, as opposed to the typical three or four.

Until I first heard the film’s audio commentary, I had little idea of the first iteration of the film. Beauty was originally meant to be a non-musical feature, and would have been a bit more serious in tone. However, early reviews of that material found few executives willing to go along with it, and the film was then re-imagined into what we know it as today.

Of course, 2 years isn’t the craziest production time for an animated feature. Toy Story 2 was rewritten and animated, 9 months before its November 1999 release (all in a manic attempt to make a film worthy of the PIXAR name).

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Finding a New Design for The Beast

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When it comes to the story of Beauty and the Beast, the Beast himself has often been a character, who has been re-imagined many times over, in different story illustrations.

For his appearance within the Disney world of characters, his design took a little time to come up with, and becomes an interesting little round-table between the producer and directors of the film:

Don Hahn: The Beast was, a little bit of everything, wasn’t he?

Kirk Wise: Yeah, it was a challenging character design, and Gary (Trousdale) and I looked at some of the early design work that was done on the Beast, and we didn’t care for it, because they all just seemed to be variations of a man, with an animal head. You know, this enchantment didn’t seem to affect the rest of his body, at all. It was either a man with a baboon head, or a man with a monkey head, or whatever.

Don Hahn: It didn’t play into the strength of what animation can do-

Kirk Wise: Right.

Don Hahn: -which is, anything.

Gary Trousdale: We gave the project to Chris Sanders and said, “Could you mess around, you know, and come up with some designs?” And he came up with the weirdest things!

Kirk Wise: Yeah, the avian insectoid-

Gary Trousdale: We had like, stag-beetle and mantis Beasts. We had fish head Beasts, I mean there were everything. And finally, he hit upon one, that is pretty close to what you see on-screen right now. And we saw that and went, “Yes! That’s it!”

Kirk Wise: It was this kind-of, combination of a bull, and a gorilla-

Don Hahn: Bison kind of size.

Kirk Wise: A bison.

Gary Trousdale: And he’s got the hind legs of a wolf, and the forelegs of a bear.

Kirk Wise: It just suggested a lot more interesting animation possibilities.

To me, the Beast has always been a fascinating character, given how the designers and animators, could bring together all these different parts of different animals, and yet make the Beast seem like a real creature.

Notable in the commentary here, is the mention of Chris Sanders. Sanders made a name for himself at Disney, doing not just concept and character art, but also storyboarding a number of major sequences in numerous films in the 1990’s.

Though his biggest claim-to-fame at the studio, was being co-director and creator, of their 2002 animated feature, Lilo & Stitch (not to mention also providing the voice for Stitch).

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Revealing Revelations

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In the film, Maurice created an automatic wood-chopping device, which had been conceived of by the writers, as a way to get him and Belle out of the basement later on in the film. But after creating this machine, it seemed there was noone around to work it when the proper time came!

One of the best things a really involving story can do, is keep us so invested, that we sometimes let holes in the film’s logic, just fly by. Co-director Gary Trousdale quickly pointed out one of these, that I hadn’t considered until hearing him discuss it:

Gary Trousdale: “Oh, we’ve got that thing, it’s sitting around in the yard, isn’t it? Well who can start it up?”  They’re both in the basement. We thought, Well, maybe Chip can, but he doesn’t have any hands!

Don Hahn: He can stow away.

Gary Trousdale: It’s a cartoon! He can talk, can’t he?

Kirk Wise: We cut around the parts where Chip-

Gary Trousdale: Where he’s shoveling coal and lighting the tinder and flint and-

Kirk Wise: He’s a smart little cup.

Those little observations make the commentary quite eye-opening. The filmmakers also bring our attention to some strange goings-on with Gaston’s chair, and a bearskin rug during the reprise of the song, Gaston. I won’t go into detail, as it’s funnier listening to them tell it, than it is for me to recap it.

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What’s in a name?

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Another revealing thing that I never questioned, comes near the end of the film, when Belle reunites with the Beast.

Gary Trousdale: Yeah this scene here was a little bit of a, we didn’t realize until we actually got to it, but when Belle comes out and calls to the Beast, we said, “He doesn’t have a name. We just call him ‘Beast.'” It’s like, “I don’t know what his name is!”

Don Hahn: Tyrone, or-

Gary Trousdale: Bob!

Don Hahn: Steve!

It wasn’t until I found myself among some West Coast Disney fans almost 5 years ago, that I became aware of what I consider a Disney urban legend, regarding the Beast. When I joked about the commentary’s mentioning about how he didn’t have a name, several told me that the Beast actually DID, and that it was Adam.

This was due to a CD-ROM game licensed by Disney, called The D Show,which gave the Beast this name in a trivia category. However, a number of staff (including the Beast’s supervising animator, Glen Keane), have denied the Beast was ever given a name during production.

Maybe a sign that some legends never die, was seeing that someone had included the title of Prince Adam on the IMDB credit for the Beast in the upcoming live-action film from Disney, but it’s hard to tell if this is official naming, or some fan-submission that may get amended later on.

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Even after 25 years, Beauty and the Beast is still one of the best films the studio made during the 1990’s. I can put it in all these years later, and still be entertained by the story, and remember many of the scenes that slowly made me think that animation might be a career path I’d like to pursue.

It also blazed a new trail for animation at the time, when it won for Best Comedy/Musical at the Golden Globes, and was one of the Oscars’ 5 Best Picture nominees, a feat that had never before been achieved!

Next year will see the animated feature, adapted into the realms of live-action. While many are excited for this new adaptation (with Emma Watson as Belle), it stands to be seen if the filmmakers can make the live-action film as memorable, as the animated film that was released 25 years ago.

Movie Review: Moana (with short: Inner Workings)

 

(Rated PG for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements)

 

Earlier this year, Walt Disney Feature Animation surprised many of us, with its Spring release of Zootopia. The story and visuals, showed that the company’s animation division was continuing to “keep moving forward,” honoring the studio’s artistic legacy.

This year is also the first since 2002, that the studio has released two animated features from its Feature Animation division in the same year.

My anticipation for the fall release of Moana was high, given its main directors are John Musker, and Ron Clements. The two have directed over 7 animated features together over the last 30 years, including The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin. And now, 7 years after The Princess and the Frog, they have returned, with Moana.

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On the island of Motunui, resides Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), the daughter of the village Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), and his wife Sina (Nicole Scherzinger). Though her parents try to make her see that their island has plenty to offer, the young girl can’t help but wonder what lies beyond it’s familiar shores.

As Moana grows up, hardships begin to affect the island’s people , and she decides to make a daring attempt to save them. Leaving home, she sets out to find the ancient demigod named Maui, who may be their only hope.

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From the very start, Moana quickly reminded me of several other Disney animated films, but soon began to head down its own path.

Though many media and marketing materials claim Moana to be a Princess, she’s simply just the daughter of the island’s chief, and as such, certain royal titles are never brought up (well, only in a few jokes in the film). Not actually having a ‘title,’ actually helped make Moana more of an ordinary girl to me, though one who has a secret or two that makes her a little…extraordinary.

Moana has a spunkiness about her that may remind some of Rapunzel, or Anna (from Frozen). Of course, where she shines most, is in her determination as she takes on a journey that most would probably caution against.

We do get a bit of animosity between her and her father, Chief Tui, who keeps trying to keep his daughter focused on leading the islanders. Tui also shows a stubborness to break free of the old ways, which leads to a small bit of friction with his daughter.

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Gramma Tala (Rachel House) has a few words with Moana (Auli’i Cravalho)

The film may also be one of the first, in which we really see less of a connection with the lead’s parents, and moreso with a grandparent. Moana seems to get along well with Gramma Tala (Rachel House), who for being considered the village’s ‘crazy lady,’ still has a few life lessons to instill, and a few secrets to be told (to those who will listen).

Of course, one of the biggest selling points for the film, has been Dwayne Johnson (aka ‘The Rock’), playing the demigod, Maui. The way he’s portrayed, Maui comes across almost like a former rockstar, with a bit of an ego problem.

A small staff of hand-drawn animators also inject some humor into Maui, as they bring several of his many tattoos to life (with one acting almost like Maui’s conscience at times).

And then, there’s the music.

Broadway sensation Lin-Manuel Miranda has teamed up with Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina, to produce a a soundtrack that manages to keep one foot in the Polynesian world, and the other foot amid the likes of Broadway musicians Howard Ashman, and Alan Menken.

Tracks like We Know the Way, give us a taste of the culture the film hails from, while Maui’s song You’re Welcome, almost sounds like a combination of the songs Friend Like Me, and Gaston.

For me, one of the most enjoyable songs, is sung by Jermaine Clement, who sounds like he’s channeling David Bowie, and Ursula from The Little Mermaid (trust me, it works!).

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Maui (Dwayne Johnson) encounters Mowana (Auli’i Cravalho)

And as we’ve come to expect, the talented artisans at the studios in Burbank, craft a world so believable, you’ll want to get your feet wet on the shores of Montunui, or explore more of the eerie Realm of Monsters. The film also manages to do for water, what Frozen did for ice. One can only imagine how many sleepless nights were had, to make the ocean waters appear as believable (and unbelievable!) as they do.

One of the biggest hurdles I had while watching the film, was that some of the action sequences felt like a massive blur of color and motion. One scene I was really looking forward to, sadly seemed to barely give me much of a chance to really get a handle on what was going on.

There’s also a few modern-day references that didn’t work for me (and for most of the audience, judging by the silence), but overall, Moana proved to be one of the first Walt Disney Feature Animation releases since Wreck-it-Ralph, that seemed to really engage me on an emotional level. I feel that if it could entrance me as well as it did, it will surely do the same for you.

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Animated Short Review: Inner Workings (Rated G)

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Lungs, heart, and stomach start off a brand new day.

After Zootopia was released earlier this year without an animated short in front of it, I was afraid that Disney had abandoned the idea completely. Fortunately, Inner Workings proves that the tradition is still alive.

Taking its cue from textbooks that diagram the inner parts of the human body, the short functions almost like Inside Out, except with internal organs. The two main ones, are a man’s brain, and his heart. One wants to be sensible, while the other wants to be more spontaneous.

Director Leonardo Matsuda has some fun with the concept, giving identities to the organs, let alone exaggerating the world around our main character. The world outside of the man’s workplace, is full of curves, while he and his co-workers, are in a confined ‘square space.’

It’s a fun concept that Matsuda plays with, though I couldn’t help but feel that the short Paperman from a few years ago, really did a more entertaining job with its message of ‘follow your heart.’ Then again, maybe the short could just be telling us introverts, that sometimes, it can be okay to break out of our shells, and throw caution to the wind.

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Final Grade for “Moana”: B+ (Final Thoughts: This “Princess” film that isn’t, proves to be a pleasant and entertaining surprise. Moana’s journey leads her on a tale of self-discovery, in which the past and present collide, as she looks towards the future. Dwayne Johnson as Maui, adds some fun with his supporting role, and the music helps bring something new to the studio’s filmography. Some jokes don’t work so well, and a few action scenes come off as muddled, but the emotional resonance of the film helps keep it on course.)

Final Grade for “Inner Workings”: B (Final Thoughts: This animated short from the “Walt Disney Studios” shows that the studio is willing to experiment with new shorts and ideas. However, even with some wonderfully stylized characters and settings, the story feels rather average, as it attempts to encourage us to try something new.)

Movie Review: Zootopia

(Rated PG for some thematic elements, rude humor and action)

Throughout the history of animation, one of the most common traits since its early days, has been to exaggerate animals, by making them anthropomorphic (also known as, ‘giving them human characteristics’).

We can name a number of such animals that have these traits: Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Droopy the Dog, the list goes on and on. And in the annals of Walt Disney Feature Animation, there have been instances where we saw animals not only walk and talk, but also inhabit their own world.

One film that many are familiar with, is the 1973 animated feature, Robin Hood. Unlike talking and thinking animals that populated a largely human world, this one would be devoid of humans, as the animals assumed the major roles in the famous story.

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Concept art from “Zootopia’s” development

Robin Hood was one of the films that co-director Byron Howard mentioned, when I first heard him talk of Zootopia, at the Anaheim Convention Center, in 2013. The D23 Expo’s animation presentation, gave us a taste of what was to come in the next few years, and though all we had were a few pieces of conceptual art (like the one above), what Howard was proposing, had me excited.

That day, I walked out of the presentation eager to see what the studio would come up with in the next few years. Zootopia was 3 years away, but I had bookmarked the film in my head, eager to see where it would go.

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In a world in which predators and prey have learned to live side-by-side, the story follows a young rabbit named Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin).

Unlike her family that runs a small farm, Judy has big city dreams of going to the megalopolis of Zootopia, and becoming a Police Officer, hoping to do good…of course, she’s also the first rabbit to ever consider law enforcement as a career!

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Eventually, Judy makes it to the City, but finds that her utopian dreams, are a little more pie-in-the-sky than she expected. Wanting to make a difference, she soon ends up coming across a fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), whose species is one Judy has been told over the years, is not to be trusted.

Judy is willing to just write off her encounter with Nick, until she encounters something else, that might require his help…

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From the start, Judy’s story sounded like the typical “little girl in the big city” plotline…but in truth, there’s a bit more to it than that.

Many look at what Judy is doing, as attempting the impossible (even her parents request that she do something ‘safer’), but she is willing to prove herself, and doesn’t back down from a challenge when it’s thrown in her face.

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This is a bunny that I could definitely see resonating with viewers, much in the same way that Elsa and Vanellope von Schweetz did. Ginnifer Goodwin brings such a great voice to the character, playing someone who is sweet at times, but definitely believes in the seriousness of some situations, and wants to get the job done.

Running almost counterpoint to Judy, is Nick Wilde, a smarmy-looking fox in a hawaiian shirt.

Jason Bateman’s voice just seems to fit perfectly with this character, who sounds like he could talk his way out of anything. Though the story is largely Judy’s, Nick does end up getting in some nice moments…and one that might sting a bit.

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The film also boasts a decent-sized ring of supporting characters here as well. Idris Elba voices one of the more memorable, playing the gruff Waterbuffalo Chief Bogo, of the ZPD. JK Simmons lends a pompous regality to Mayor Lionheart, and Jenny Slate provides a nice beat as Bellwether, his small lamb assistant.

And don’t worry fans of the lovable sloth named Flash…he’s here too…and even though many of you have seen him in the film’s previews, his scene here elicited one of the biggest laughs from the audience.

Oh, and Shakira is in this too (why she’s all over this film, I have no clue!).

Also of note in regards to the film’s animal cast, is that they come in many different shapes and sizes. The world of Zootopia shows a world in which their cultures and climates are sometimes right next to each other…which leads to quite a diverse palette of colors and environments to explore. When I first heard this idea of a multi-sized microcosm in 2013, it made me excited to see how a mouse would share the road with a giant elephant, or even a long-necked giraffe.

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One of the things I lamented in regards to 2014’s Big Hero 6, was that there was so little time to properly explore the gleaming cityscape of San Fransokyo. Fortunately within the world of Zootopia, it feels like we really get the chance to become immersed in this environment, and just zip in and around its numerous set pieces in a satisfying way.

Directors Rich Moore (Wreck-it-Ralph) and Byron Howard (Tangled) teamed up to bring the film to life, and it seems like they succeeded pretty well in giving us an entertaining product…however, while it succeeded in entertaining me moreso than Big Hero 6, I will admit it isn’t perfect.

Much like several of Disney’s films in the last decade, there are a few set-up/pay-off areas in the story, and a few times, I swear I had an inkling on which direction a few of them were going (if you’ve been watching Disney‘s film releases over the last decade, you can almost layout a Mad Libs-style template to most of them).

When it was all over, I actually took stock of my emotions during the film. I didn’t do a lot of laughing. I didn’t shed any tears. Heck, I made more noise watching Deadpool…but I actually found the film entertaining!

My original thought when watching any film, is demanding that it “rip my heart out,” but I also welcome a film that attempts to be “smarter,” and I think that’s about the best thing Zootopia has going for it.

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It might not look like it, but Zootopia deals with something one doesn’t normally find in animation: prejudice…and it can get a bit tense in a few places.

One could see this story taking a lot of ‘lighter’ tones in regards to the predator/prey buddy-cop idea going on here, but the story department and personnel at Walt Disney Feature Animation, show that in the last 10 years, they have come a long way from the horribly staid, and unfunny Chicken Little.

Zootopia, while not perfect, still stands as a grand achievement in showing how the last 10 years of Walt Disney Feature Animation has risen to once again be a leader in their field, and show that animation can be a medium that can cater to both children, AND adults.

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Final Grade: B+ (Final Thoughts: “Zootopia” is another notch in the Sorcerer’s hat, showing that the Burbank-based Disney Studios, continues to excel in giving us an entertaining story, and memorable characters. Judy Hopps’ story is the main focal point of the film, but it also intersperses several other threads, notably in terms of prejudice, and how our perceptions may cloud our judgement at times. The world of Zootopia is also one of the most expansive, engaging places we’ve seen in a long time, and helps the narrative weave through numerous environments and moody situations, pulling us into one of their most original story ideas in awhile)

Movie Musings: Remembering ‘Chicken Little,’ 10 Years Later

In 1985, The Walt Disney Studios were poised to usher in a new era of filmmaking. The studio was pushing the next generation of Disney animators into more grown-up territory,, with the PG-rated feature film, The Black Cauldron, based on the second of five books in the Chronicles of Prydain series, by Lloyd Alexander.

However, instead of attracting an older crowd that was into the likes of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, the film crashed and burned upon release. To add insult to injury, the studios’ first PG-rated animated feature, was beaten at the 1985 box-office, by a G-rated animated feature: The Care Bears Movie!

Fortunately, the studio’s fortunes soon turned around after Cauldron. The Great Mouse Detective was released in 1986 to favorable reviews, and has been considered by some, to be the start of the studio’s animation Renaissance, that went on for almost 15 years.

Of course, the good times couldn’t last for long.

As animated features became more lucrative and successful than even during Walt Disney’s time, much of the studio’s upper management began to throw in their own ideas. Pretty soon, it wasn’t so much the people working in Feature Animation that were calling the shots, but men-in-suits…men-in-suits who had never animated a character, or tried to storyboard an emotional scene. All they had on their side, were fancy degrees, and facts and figures on how to run a business.

Pricey animated films like Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet fizzled at the box-office, and attention began to turn to other studios that were raking in the cash.

Box-office grosses from the likes of Dreamworks’ Shrek and Blue Sky Studios’ Ice Age films, were in the eyes of “the suits” in Burbank, California…and that meant some changes were in store for the studio.

And so, it was soon declared by the higher-ups, that hand-drawn (aka “2-D”) animation…was dead! According to them, the public was tired of 2-D, and 3-D was the future…and the company had to ‘modernize.’

And so, studios the company owned in Paris, France, and Orlando, Florida, were shut down. After completion on films like Brother Bear and Home on the Range, a large number of hand-drawn animators were shown the door…with a select few kept on board, that could then turn their skills to the computer-generated frontier.

To those of us in-the-know, the hand-drawn legacy went out with a whimper, when the animated feature Home on the Range came out in the Spring of 2004…with a measly $13 million opening weekend, and quickly sank from sight.

Of course, the executives at The Mouse House were already on board their own ship, charting a course to big-time profits. We’ll just slap the Disney name on a 3D animated feature, and the cash will flow in, must have been the first thing on their minds.

But where to begin? Animating humans in the computer would not be easy, so why not go with animals? And, how about a familiar story that everyone knows…or at least, they think they know.

And so, the fable of Chicken Little was modernized, and would become the studios’ first step into playing the 21st century game that Dreamworks, and Blue Sky Studios, and PIXAR were already involved in.

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As the story begins, Chicken Little throws his hometown of Pokey Oaks into a panic, when he claims a piece of the sky “shaped like a stop-sign,” hit him on the head. His father, Buck Cluck, assumes it to be an acorn, and Chicken Little is ridiculed and ostracized by the town following the events.

His best friends Runt of the Litter, Abbey “Ugly Duckling” Mallard, and Fish Out of Water, still believe in him, but Chicken Little finds himself trying to prove himself to the rest of the town, as well as win back the lost respect of his father…until, the sky falls, again!

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Once upon a time, Disney was the leader of animated features. 95% of the Hollywood studios, when making an animated film, would never make a move outside-the-box, but just look at what Disney had done, and try to copy them. Prince and Princess stories? we can do that. A sidekick that cracks pop-culture shtick? check. A musical? double-check!

But when it came to Chicken Little, it was clearly obvious that the leader, had now become a (desperate) follower, thanks to management and executive oversight.

Watching the film, one can’t help but get a huge Shrek vibe from the entire thing: a story you think you know…but with a twist!

The biggest problem with the film I feel, is that it’s missing a heart. The entire thing is strung together on pop-culture references, and oftentimes, is a pretty mean-spirited production.

Every other character just seems to serve a small purpose, and it feels that meaningful character development, has been replaced by making everyone loud and obnoxious.

It’s true that we can find sympathy in a downtrodden character (like Dumbo), but the slings and arrows just never seem to let up for Chicken Little. It’s not just a select few, but the entire town that pretty much blames him after a year’s time, even to the point that a movie was made over the incident. In a way, Pokey Oaks almost feels like an entire town of bullies.

Chicken Little’s misfit friends serve to try and give him a cushion against what’s happening, but it never really feels like they ever move beyond being one-note. Runt freaks out so many times, I think you could make a drinking game out of it. Abbey keeps trying to be the logical friend most of the time, but it feels that once her purpose is done 3/4 of the way through the film, she just becomes as two-dimensional as Trinity in the Matrix sequels. There’s also Fish Out of Water, who just seems to be the weird kid that tags along, but oftentimes, seems to be off in his own little world.

Also hard to find much sympathy towards, is Buck Cluck, Chicken Little’s father. Disney goes back to the well with the widowed-parent cliche, but even so, Buck becomes a father-figure that makes you more upset that he is willing throw his son under the bus regarding the town’s ire. It also doesn’t help his character that in the aftermath of the sky-falling incident, he also seems to shun his own son, and be unwilling to listen to half of what he says most of the time.

The film tries to be snappy and quick, which is one of director Mark Dindal’s trademarks. The director of Cats Don’t Dance and The Emperor’s New Groove, Dindal was able to make entertaining and even likable characters out of such irascible characters like Darla Dimples, and Emperor Kuzco. However, in Chicken Little, there’s little charm to be found.

The film also utilizes a number of popular songs, to the point where during an alien invasion (yes, and you thought Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was the first film to be ruined by aliens), R.E.M.’s song End of the World as We Know It plays…as if some executive thought, “hey, this song played in Independence Day, that’s pop-cultural! This will get lots of laughs!”

Even the amount of pop-culture references made me cease laughing pretty quickly. Whether it be Runt of the Litter singing to showtunes constantly, or the animals watching Raiders of the Lost Ark in their local theater (yes, animated characters watching a live-action Harrison Ford film. That image above is not Photoshopped). I like to think pop-culture overload began around 1992, when everyone became entranced with Robin Williams’ Genie in Aladdin. After that, it seemed every film had them built into the story in some way. When used sparingly it can work fine, but when it never lets up, it grates on you (If any of you saw the dub of the Magic Roundabout animated feature into the Americanized Doogal, you witnessed something that out-pop-cultured even Chicken Little!).

The advertising campaign also toyed with its audience, tending to rely on mis-direction. The advertising was erratic, loud, and oftentimes, just seemed to rely on ‘cool-and-hip’ animation. They even touted such background characters as Morcupine Porcupine, who in the film, only garnered less than a minute of screentime.

The posters made for the advertising campaign, also showed little creativity, with bad puns galore. Most notable, is this image of Chicken Little sitting in an egg-chair, and wearing shades much like Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in the Men in Black II poster. At least in the MIB films, we saw the egg-chairs referenced in the poster, but in this case, noone in the film sits in a cracked egg, or wears a suit like this.

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In the end, Chicken Little’s final US box-office grosses tallied up to $135 million, just a little shy of its $150 million production budget.

Even so, the studio was still planning to go forward with other, hip-and-edgy films. The next feature film A Day in The Life of Wilbur Robinson, was re-branded with the more hip title of Meet the Robinsons, and Chris Sanders (creator of Lilo & Stitch), was working on a production dubbed American Dog. There was even word that the company’s CEO Michael Eisner, wanted to take the earlier hand-drawn features made by the studio, and redo them, in CGI!

That all changed, once Disney kicked Eisner out, and Bob Iger became the company’s new CEO. Iger’s first order of business was to end the stalemate between Disney and PIXAR, and orchestrated a $7.4 billion acquisition deal, keeping the Emeryville studio on board.

PIXAR’s top brass John Lasseter, and Ed Catmull, soon came to take prominent positions within Feature Animation (a place Lasseter had worked for and been released from in the early 80’s), and began to clean house.

A number of projects were re-worked or scrapped (Robinsons was overhauled, and American Dog became Bolt, at which point Sanders left Disney for Dreamworks). The direct-to-video productions were scrapped, which also meant the end of sequels like Dumbo 2, and even a Chicken Little 2.

To this day, I still feel Chicken Little was the equivalent to The Black Cauldron: something that upper-management said would be good for the company, but had too many hands in the pot, to even make it boil to a proper conclusion. It just reeks of desperation, trying to be all things for all audiences, but its attempts to get your attention, just feel lackluster.

I can’t fully fault some of the animation done on the show, though. They tried their darnedest to get some squash-and-stretch into what would normally be rigid computer models…though there are a few times one can tell they may get a little carried away, trying to figure out how everything works. in one scene, Abbey Mallard’s face and mannerisms almost seem to move a little too much, to the point I thought I might get motion sickness.

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Of course, from this film, began the climb back to prominence. John Lasseter and Ed Catmull had some say in the upcoming Meet the Robinsons, and the story changes I feel, helped steer that film back into the realms of emotional storytelling, that I and many others had longed for.

From there, they continued climbing the ladder, their efforts continuing to improve from film-to-film. And though Lasseter did renege on the ‘2-D is dead’ campaign, the studio only put out two hand-drawn features: The Princess and the Frog, and 2011’s Winnie the Pooh. Sadly, while both had some good storytelling, they were at the mercy of bad titling (according to the analysis on Frog’s lower box-office take), or being put up against bigger films (seriously, what executive said “let’s release Winnie the Pooh on the same weekend as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2?”).

In the last 5 years, the studio has had a number of big successes, with Tangled, Frozen, and Big Hero 6. Next year, they’ll return to a world of anthropomorphic animals, with Zootopia, a buddy-cop movie in a world where animals of all shapes and sizes exist. I’m actually excited to see what they come up with character and concept-wise for the film, and hope it will continue to be a crowd-pleaser for audiences.

Toy Review: Baymax (with Mochi), and Baymax (v 1.0), from Bandai Toys

Since its release in November of 2014, Big Hero 6 has continued Walt Disney Feature Animation’s climb back into theatrical prominence, and mainstream consciousness. It also embellished on the Marvel Comics title of the same name, re-imagining its characters, into a team of nerds-turned-superheroes. Though there was one of its members who was not actually human, and that would be Baymax.

His appearance brought forth another round of sidekick-love from Disney fans, with numerous plush of his non-armored self selling out in stores. His absence on store shelves mimicked such sidekick popularity as we saw with the likes of Olaf, and Vanellope Von Schweetz.

Though the majority of Baymax’s toys were of him in his shiny red supersuit, I and many others were more interested in his earlier incarnations. In recent months, Bandai Toys quietly expanded on their action figure line that came out in the fall, adding two more versions of Baymax.

I had seen images online of the normal Baymax, but did not expect his first armored incarnation to be made as well. Given I’d probably never see them on a store shelf again, I snatched them up, and have brought them forth for this toy review. __________

Baymax (with Mochi)

"Hello! I am Baymax...your personal, healthcare, companion!"

“Hello! I am Baymax…your personal, healthcare, companion!”

And with that simple phrase, we were introduced to Tadashi Hamada’s personal project: a soft-bodied nurse-robot. Baymax has been a part of much of the film’s advertising campaign, with even his soft plush figures selling out of the Disney Stores over the Holidays.

I must say that Bandai Toys has done a pretty good job of rendering Baymax in action figure form. From his chest-drive plate, to the darker-colored points of his elbow and ankle areas, and even the way his forearms are a little thicker in size.

While I would have loved him to have elbow-joints, I can understand the toymakers wanting to make sure his arms kept their basic shape in his standard pose.

A minor design nitpick for me, is Baymax’s head. It looks a little ‘deflated,’ compared to the many images we’ve seen since the film first came out, or it could also be that the ‘face’ portion of his head, is a little larger than in the film.

As well, given his body shape, he can’t be posed beyond simply standing straight. So, if you hoped to have him cuddling Mochi like in the previews, you’re out of luck.

"Meow."

“Meow.”

Speaking of Mochi, Hiro’s cat also comes with this iteration of Baymax. Mochi himself is depicted as a normal cat, with some small rocket-powered boots on his paws. This may seem weird to those who saw the film, but in the original opening, this is explained (and which can be seen on the home video release of Big Hero 6, in the deleted scenes section).

A storyboard from the unused opening for “Big Hero 6,” showing Tadashi and Hiro working on a project, with Mochi.

On the deleted scenes included with the recent home video release, one segment showed how a younger Tadashi and Hiro had conceived of these rocket boots…sending poor Mochi rocketing out of the house and down the street! It is a cute and fun little addition to Baymax, and a fun easter egg for those of us who recognize it. However, the filmmakers didn’t completely abandon the rocket boots, as one inventor at San Fransokyo’s Institute of Technology was testing a similar invention on another cat.

It is nice to see this iteration of Baymax. However, it does straddle that fine line between being a poseable figure, but also staying true to the original design. As well, it does make it a little difficult to pose Baymax. I feel it would have also been good to have given him a ball-jointed neck, to give a little more articulation to Baymax’s head, since it was one of the most expressive points of his body in the film.

Mochi is a nice little accessory, though I do wish he could have maybe had the rocket boots as removable rubber pieces (though that means they probably would have gotten lost pretty easily).

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Baymax (aka ‘Baymax 1.0’)

"This may undermine my non-threatening, huggable design."

“This may undermine my non-threatening, huggable design.”

After finding out that some masked entity had begun producing microbots similar to the ones he made, Hiro decided to figure out what was going on. Much like how he’d prepare his botfight robots for the unknown, Hiro suited up Baymax using 3-D printed, carbon-fiber components.

This iteration of Baymax (which I dub “1.0,” since his red armor is considered “2.0”), is the only toy/figure I’ve seen of this particular version.

The sculpt definitely captures several great details on the figure. His “shin guard” portions are actually raised, and the ribbing and rivets on his central body portion are well-done. As well, there’s a back-hatch indent that they didn’t need to add, but did anyways!

A downside to this figure, is that unlike the wider ‘feet’ on the “nurse” Baymax, this one has small feet, limiting how he can be posed (aka, “only one way”). i was hoping he’d have pegholes in his feet so I could pose him with an action figure stand I have. Strangely enough, the main line of Big Hero 6 figures did have pegholes in their feet. As to why this and even the non-suited Baymax do not, remains a mystery.

Much like my comments on the other Baymax figure, this one I feel could have also benefitted from a ball-jointed neck as well.

Unlike the nicely-hidden elbow joints on Hiro Hamada’s figure, Baymax’s arms have a very prominent elbow hinge. Also a low point, is that I was hoping for wrist-rotation…but, I can settle for an angled fist-bump.

The good regarding this figure, is it’s nice to get all iterations of Baymax through the film, but the downside, is that the figure doesn’t live up to my expectations. Limited posing, and the inability to have him do much but stand on two feet work against it. I had hoped that with pegholes, I could use one of the pegdiscs from my Star Wars figures, and pose him in one of the action poses he was doing when Hiro tested out his new programming moves.

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Aside from some online internet auctions, I’ve only seen both of these figures at a local Target store, with each one retailing for $8.99 each. However, if you are looking for these guys, the unfortunate method may be the wonderful world of the internet (with a few dollars extra mark-up).

So far, Baymax (with Mochi) and Baymax (1.0) are the only other action figure iterations beyond what originally came out from Bandai Toys in the fall.  There’s been no further word about more figures for the toyline, or even of ‘nerd’ figures of each of the film’s human counterparts. That was where I was hoping the line could go, given that I think it’d be great to have a set of both normal, and superhuman figures to display.

Disney has the unfortunate habit of only continuing merchandising if the film seems to hit impossible heights of popularity (which explains why Frozen has had almost everything in it merchandised). The boys market for toys seems to be currently relegated to Marvel and Star Wars products, with a hint of the Cars and Planes product still being released.

As for merchandise for the more boy-oriented marketplace, films like Wreck-It-Ralph and Big Hero 6 have not seen the bulk of their merchandise piles grow beyond just their Fall openings. Recently, Big Hero 6’s worldwide grosses actually turned out better than expected, making it the most profitable animated feature of 2014. Of course, whether or not this could lead to more merchandise, we’ll just have to wait and see.

An Animated Dissection: The 5 nominees for Best Animated Short Subject

When it comes to The Academy Awards, one of the categories that would often pass by in a flash but intrigue me at times, was the one featuring animated shorts. Sometimes they’d show a few seconds worth of clips, leaving me wondering what some of the images meant, but pretty sure there was little chance I’d know just what I had witnessed…but that was back in the 1990’s, in the state of Iowa.

Nowadays, one can find almost all of the past nominated shorts online, and some have definitely stuck with me for what they could tell in such a short amount of time. This year, I attended a screening with a friend, in which the latest round of nominated shorts, was screened at a local theater. I thought I’d say a few things about them in my weekly blog post.

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Me and My Moulton

The middle child in a family whose parents are architects, shares her thoughts about growing up, and the shared dream she and her sisters had, of one day having a bicycle of their own.

A Norwegian/Canadian co-production, the simplicity of the art style definitely makes it intriguing. The narrator and her sisters are designated by numbers on their dresses, with us soon knowing that our narrator is the middle (‘2’) sister.

The story also deals with the narrator feeling sad that her family is not like one near them, that seems relatively normal. As well, her father is the only man in town…with a mustache!

The short serves as a simple remembrance, both in its style, and the narrative. The narrator does make the story funny in places with her characterization of family members, including one strange reason her Grandmother gives, regarding why one should fold their clothes neatly. It’s a slice-of-life story, that has a few things that most people can relate to.

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Feast

The Short chronicles a puppy who is taken in by a kindly owner, and his life as seen through the numerous meals he is fed.

This is probably the only nominated short the majority of Americans have seen, as it played before Big Hero 6 this past winter. Using their computing power to make the story seem as simple as possible, Feast’s visual stylings are reminiscent of those in their award-wining short Paperman, from a few years ago.

The star of the short is the little dog named Winston, who continues a grand tradition of Disney giving us some of the most adorable, and animated canine stars there is. One of my favorite expressions is when Winston samples bacon for the first time…and the animators get this split-second expression of ‘bliss’ to register on his little face. Keeping much of the focus on Winston, helps make an intimate story, while giving us hints at a bigger picture of what Winston is a part of.

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The Bigger Picture

The less-successful of two brothers, attempts to look after his elderly mother, while it seems his more successful brother is seen as the better of the two.

Of all the shorts, this is the one that is the most serious, but also looks to have been the most time-consuming. Characters seem flat against the walls of the rooms they are in, but their arms extend out into three-dimensional space. One would assume this was all done in a computer, or in a miniature, but there are pictures online showing them making this picture…such as this image, showing the full-size set!

Bigger Picture is definitely the more grown-up of the pieces included here. There’s not a lot of joy in the piece, but it definitely got me where it counted.

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A Single Life

Clocking in at just under 2 minutes, the short finds a woman receiving a record, titled “A Single Life.” Putting it on her turntable, she is surprised to find, that it has the ability to shift her through time!

Once the action ramps up, much of the camera stays static, with the small movements within the frame drawing our attention to the young woman’s time predicaments.

Definitely one of the tightest of the short-subjects. This could probably have been milked out to double its length, but comedy can often come from the most simple things (take the Fantasia 2000 segment revolving around The Carnival of the Animals, that also clocks in under 2 minutes!). As well, the quickness of the time-jumps, also reminded me of the Scrat-based short from Blue Sky Studios, titled No Time For Nuts.

One of the funniest little gags, is the author of the book the single woman has on her fireplace. I think my own love of time-travel, helped me really get into this one.

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The Dam Keeper

A bullied pig-child, is in charge of running a local windmill, that overlooks a town populated by animals. His days at school are filled with tauntings and teasings by his classmates, until a fox-child comes to the school.

Watching the short, I was surprised how much emotion and heart it had in it. The short looks just like a children’s book come to life, but full of the ups and downs of emotion that I strive to find in anything I watch. As well, the use of color is almost pastel in nature, which I have often loved (pity chalk pastels are so messy, or I’d use them).

The first time one watches it, the opening narration can seem a little jarring, but I think the more you see it, the narration becomes more natural, and understanding.

At 18 minutes long, Dam Keeper is the longest of the nominees.

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Who do I think should win?

All of the shorts have their moments that definitely hit emotional nerves within me. Though I didn’t have architects for parents, the wanting to be “normal” I could relate to in Moulton. The emotional expression of the dog Winston in Feast shows the Disney Studios’ continued excellence in giving us proper “animated puppy love.” The Bigger Picture deals with that often-ignored issue of hitting your mid-years, and wondering about that stretch of life that leads on to the end of the road. A Single Life is a time-based romp that doesn’t overstay its welcome. The Dam Keeper, starts out vague, but slowly opens your eyes to its story, and a journey that you aren’t quite prepared for.

And my choice for who should win is:

The Dam Keeper

The short’s directors Robert Kondo and Daisuke “Dice” Tsutsumi, are former employees of PIXAR Animation Studios, which I feel definitely helped in making the emotions flow into this piece.  I had heard about Dice working on a personal project a little while ago, and here it is!

Kondo and Tsutsumi have channeled a story that I think many can relate to, and also, gives light to how oftentimes, creativity can help bridge barriers. As well, it shows that a little kindness can often help in the darkest of times.

This 3-month experiment that culminated in their collaboration, could potentially lead to other things, and I do hope their relationship can bring about more short subjects that are as creative, and heartfelt, as The Dam Keeper.

Even at 18 minutes, it felt like the story only took up half of that time. As Roger Ebert once said: “No good movie is too long, and no bad movie is short enough.”

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Movie Review: Big Hero 6

When it comes to the world of superheroes, the animated variety have largely been relegated to the realms of television, or direct-to-video releases. Oddly enough, the one animated arena they have never really cracked into has been feature animation (i.e. the films that screen in thousands of multiplexes every week).

Of those that have been released in the last 10 years, PIXAR’s The Incredibles was the first one out the door, and won acclaim from both critics and audiences. Dreamworks took a jab at the genre with 2010’s Megamind, which was almost like Superman-meets-Shrek with its anti-hero/hero plot.

When word came of Disney acquiring Marvel Studios in 2009, the majority of the public’s immediate attention turned to how the two companies would continue to handle the live-action film division. The new direction Marvel was taking already showed potential with the success of 2008’s Iron Man, but nobody could have imagined that the company would find a partner in Walt Disney Feature Animation.

Walt Disney Feature Animation has largely been known as a company that adapts books and fairy tales to the big screen, but Big Hero 6 would mark the first time they would adapt a comic-book property…albeit, one that is not as widely known.

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Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) is a young boy living in the city of San Fransokyo (a mash-up of San Francisco, and Tokyo). Though a genius-level teenager, he seems to be unable to find a proper purpose in his life.

After the death of his older brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney), Hiro comes across one of his brother’s last inventions: an inflatable helper-robot, named Baymax (Scott Adsit). It is shortly after this, that Hiro uncovers one of his own inventions having been stolen. The young man intends to get to the bottom of what’s going on, but realizes, that he can’t do it alone.

Action and adventure films in animation are often a mixed-bag when it comes to Disney, let alone ones with multiple characters front-and-center. The last science-fiction-style films Disney used with this major of a dynamic, were Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and Treasure Planet, both of which did not fare well with audiences. Though with the attention-to-detail in the studio system today, BH6 fares much better with its character work than those previous films.

A lot has been talked of regarding the ethnic makeup of Hiro and Tadashi’s college-age friends, an eclectic group of “nerds” with their own idiosyncracies. What is really great regarding the film, is that it doesn’t really seem that each one fits into any preconceived stereotype that many would expect a film to shoehorn them into (or at least, what a 90’s film would do). Much like how the filmmakers of Frozen did away with a lot of the tried-and-true tropes, this film has each of the group’s characters really feeling like they are given a chance to shine.

Directors Don Hall and Chris Williams have each had a hand in the director’s chair, since the new regime at Disney began in the mid-2000’s. With their experiences working on 2008’s Bolt, and 2011’s Winnie the Pooh, the story work within BH6 feels like a good mish-mash of the two: a tale that tries to hit the action beats, but keeps a heart beating within.

However, even with a lot of the biff-pow-bam of the story’s superhero angle, the film does have some faults. My biggest gripe has to be in the development/acknowledgement of some of the secondary characters. There are some specific people that just tend to come and go in such a way, that I couldn’t help but wonder, “did they have to cut out certain parts to hit a certain running time?” Some characters were shoved on-and-off screen so fast, I didn’t even catch some of their names.

The speed of the film also feels like it takes away from really getting a decent feel for the environments of San Fransokyo. This is the first time that the company has built such a dense urban environment for a film, that it almost seems a shame when some scenes just fly by.

It’s not to say the film is too dense with storylines, but even at an hour and 48 minutes, it feels like some areas could have been given a little more attention. At the very least, an extra 15-30 minutes might have been nice. To me, the pacing/plotting of the sub-stories, reminds me of my feelings regarding PIXAR’s Up. While many gush and praise the emotional story of Carl and Ellie, there’s a lot going on in some of the background stories that just never seemed to gel.

Though if the directors of Big Hero 6  were told to make a beeline to focus on the beating heart of the story, they have surely succeeded, in the relationship between Hiro, and Baymax. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen one of those “a boy and his ________” stories, but the storyline still knows that you have to buy this relationship, or else the film is likely to fall apart completely. It also helps that through the relationship between both of these characters, Hiro and Baymax both end up teaching and learning from each other.

Hiro as a character has some recklessness, but it’s not quite on the levels of Merida. Mainly, he’s adrift, and needs some guidance, not to mention a way to work through his own grief over the loss of his brother.

Baymax continues the recent tradition of Disney giving us supporting characters that will stick with you long after the film is over. Much like Olaf in Frozen, his innocent nature and wish to help will most likely win him a gaggle of fans. From the gales of laughter at the preview I saw, I have a feeling he may disappear from store shelves this Holiday season…not to mention probably command hour-long lines at the Disney theme parks (I know I considered taking a trip to Disneyland to see him after the film was over!).

Music-wise, composer Henry Jackman continues his association with Disney, scoring his third animated feature for the company. While the score has its moments, it can get a bit generic at times. Much of the score put me in mind of the work Jackman did on Wreck-It-Ralph, making this almost sound like a continuation of that film’s score. I don’t hate the work Jackman has done, but it doesn’t quiet hit me as emotionally as Christophe Beck’s work on Paperman, or even what Michael Giacchino has done for the likes of PIXAR.

Even if the film feels like the back-end elements of the plot may be lacking, one can’t deny that there’s still a fun-yet-emotional journey taking place here. Big Hero 6 continues the proof that Walt Disney Feature Animation is still one of the best studios to go to, if you want to have an emotionally-animated journey.

P.S. If you haven’t doing so for the last few Disney animated features, word of advice: stay through the credits!

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The release of Big Hero 6, also continues the traditional inclusion of an animated short before the film starts, this one titled, Feast.

The short involves a hungry puppy, who is soon taken in by a human owner. As the short progresses, we see the little puppy grow up, oftentimes accompanied by some delicious foodstuffs given to him.

All I can say, is that if you find yourself in a theater that doesn’t get at least one “awww” out of seeing the little dog of this piece, you’re either in an empty theater, or noone there has a soul.

The simulated-look programs that were used in 2012’s Paperman short are brought back into play here, though not quite as detailed. Much of the fun comes from the minute animated details put into the dog in the short. I’m being very vague about this one, because it’s definitely something that you have to experience for yourself. Though I will say, there were some moments that did remind me a little of Paperman (which is still my favorite of the newer-released shorts).

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*Final Note: The poster included at the top is not an official Big Hero 6 poster, but one done by a UK artist, named Paul Shipper. One of my favorite poster artists is Drew Struzan, and the stuff I’ve seen on Pauls’s Twitter account shows him to be a big fan of many of Drew’s stylistic choices. Check out his Official Site, and I’m sure you’ll see plenty of homages, and great poster artwork that will make you wish some of them were official (like the Guardians of the Galaxy image he did!).