Thursday, March 7, 2013

Animated Movies That Deserve Your Time

I’ve probably tried to write this post a dozen times now, but it always devolved and I didn’t like it.


Mostly this was because I spent so much time trying to justify some of my reasoning, and trying to get these movies into little groupings (animated sequels, unseen gems, and so on) that the list got overlong and unweidy.


So here, instead is a list of animated flicks that never quite got enough love, regardless of the audience size they eventually garnered.


Mulan 2:


Mulan is a great movie, and I’d even be wiling to argue that it was the last true classic Disney animation put out.  It’s a classic film that, I think, stands on its own as a great film instead of great cartoon.


But Mulan 2 was, of course, a direct-to-video cash-in, which, ech, right?


The first time I watched it, I think I would have agreed with you, but I’ve softened on that somewhat, and I think it’s worth a look now.


In thumbnail, if the first movie was about honor and family, this one is about the difficulties that come with falling in love and, more importantly, staying in love.  It actually tells kids that loves takes work, and that it’s okay to love across social strata, which is a pretty heady message for direct-to-video Disney.


Like a lot of the flicks I want to talk about, I think the movie benefits from multiple viewings, which allows you to the themes and songs to sink in more deeply.  There are other DTV sequels that are decent time-wasters, but this is probably the best of them.


Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs:


I thought I was just about alone in my love of this movie, until I saw recently that a part 2 is coming out soon.  That pleases me, as it tells me it has some traction, but I still think it is under-loved.


Why check it out?  To be honest, it’s a writer’s movie with an eye towards flipping clichés.  The pretty girl gets even more pretty when she puts her glasses on.  All the little jokes that start the movie become super-important at the end of the movie (the first time I saw it, it was actually breathtaking for me).  And more than anything, it’s got a wonderful undercurrent about how kids and their parents don’t always see the world the same way, but love each other all the same.


Shrek Forever After:


Let me get something out of the way: I love Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, who among other things wrote the original Shrek, Aladdin, and the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.


However, much the way that the graphic novel Alan Moore’s Watchmen opened up the comic book world to the cynical hero, Ted and Terry virtually created the “pop culture reference as joke” problem that wormed its way painfully into so many animated features.


Shrek kept this mostly to a minimum, but the number of Disney jokes slipped into the film became a touchstone for a lot of the Dreamworks Animation canon of “it’s funny because I get the reference,” and it’s only the last few years that Dreamworks has finally pushed off from that.


Shrek 2 and 3 leaned on that button hard, and Shrek 4?  It mostly tries to go another way.


Did it lean far enough?  Eh, it could have leaned a little farther.  But the movie takes a riff on It’s a Wonderful Life and shows Shrek that while family life has its ups and downs, it’s still the greatest of all possible things.


Plus it’s funny and seems to be working overtime to avert expectations.  To my mind, movies always get extra credit for making an effort.


Hoodwinked/Hoodwinked, Too!


Hoodwinked is a straight-up great movie.  People knock the animation, but look: the movie would be maybe 1% better if they’d spent 150 million dollars on it instead of 40 million.  Let it go.


The script is funny and clever, the characters are well-defined and nicely performed, and I’ve never met anyone who didn’t see this movie and laugh heartily at the goat sequence in the middle, which seems out of nowhere but is an amazing part of the tapestry if you pay attention.


And that’s the trick, really.  Most movies, even classics, get a little less great the more closely you examine them.  Hoodwinked actually improves.


Hoodwinked Too is the opposite, however.  I saw it in the theater, so happy it was finally out, and then came away disappointed that it wasn’t as slippery and smart as the original.


But really, the major issue is that it’s a different kind of movie.  The first was carefully and delicately designed.  This one, on the other hand, is a blunt slap to the face.  There are a lot more jokes packed into this one, and only about one in three land.


But that’s the trick, really.  Read between the lines of the so-so jokes, and that third joke in the middle is often wonderful and unexpected, whether it comes from a subtle line-reading or carefully constructed gag.  


You have to seek out the magic really, but like those 3D pictures, once you’ve seen it, you can’t un-see it.


The Emperor’s New Groove:


I’m not sure if this one needs defending, since it sprouted a sequel and a followup TV show.  But I think people avoid it because it’s a non-musical straight-up comedy.


Really, though?  It’s as if the people running Warner Brothers animation in the days of early Bugs Bunny cartoons somehow got their hands on a Disney flick.


This flick needs no apologies – it just needs to be seen.


Battle for Terra


In which a bunch of peace-loving aliens are attacked by alien invaders: namely, us.


Mostly I dig this one because there are real stakes. The humans are on their last legs, and if they don’t get onto the planet, it’s the final gasp of the human race.


This one got buried by Monsters Vs Aliens, which had a larger budget and bigger stars.  But in the end, Battle for Terra is easily the more profound of the two movies – like an animated Avatar with higher stakes.


Chicken Little:


There’s not much love for Disney’s first kick into 3D animation, but man, what a fun ride.  I suspect it didn’t do as well as everyone hoped, and that’s too bad.  I suspect it isn’t more well-liked because it takes a pretty surprising, seemingly-out-of-nowhere turn in the middle, and some people weren’t into that.


In fact, I remember hitting the midpoint and going, “What, what?”


But much like many of the rest of these movies, on the second showing, when you’re watching for it, there’s so much love and work in every joke, surprise, and background.