4K Review: Under the Sea (The Little Mermaid, 1989)

Little_Mermaid_CoverThe Little Mermaid is famous for being the film that brought Disney back to prominence as the source of classic animation. With top notch animation and memorable songs, it really earned this reputation. Borrowing from Hans Christian Anderson’s fable, Disney worked its magic by ignoring, you know, the super depressing bits.

But the film’s visual flair, music and vocal performances are effective and charming. Ariel is a lovable lead, you really root for her. In part, Jodi Benson and completed by the fluid animation. The attention paid to Ariel’s body language and facial expressions make her a character the viewer cannot help but adore.

Of course, you cannot ignore one of Disney’s finest villains. Ursula (inspired by John Waters Muse Divine) is a visual treat. Instead of a fish’s tail, Ursula has an octopus body (which doubles as her dress). She is brash and revels in her wickedness in that way only certain villains cannot without losing the audience.

And Menken’s score  along with the songs he and Howard Ashman  wrote are infection.

Now, what does the new Signature 4k offer?  There are some new features, the most notable being Menken sitting down with five of the voice actresses from some of Disney’s biggest hits, including Ariel herself, Jodi Benson.  This is not greatly illuminating but it is pretty fun.

The set also imports all the special features from the Diamond edition several years back.

The audio is great, and I don’t have much to say beyond that.  The songs sound wonderful and unless you are just using your TV speakers, I did not notice anything that should trouble a viewer.

But what about the video?  I was a bit concerned because, as I understand things, Disney simply used the scan of the film from the previous blu-ray edition.  And at first, I felt like the 4K picture was not really any stronger than the blu-ray.  However, once you get to more colorful sequences, you start seeing the benefits of the High Dynamic Range.

Overall, if you have a 4k TV and player, I think this is a pretty worthy purchase. If this is a double dip, you may want to take that into account.  If you don’t care about the new features, then really, you should be fine with your prior blu-ray.  The 4k version is not so drastic that you are cheating yourself with the blu-ray.

You Can Never Have Too Much Spider-Man (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 2018)

Spider-Man_Into_PosterA few years ago, after the big Sony hack, Sony and Marvel resumed the failed talks about  Spider-Man films. It resulted in the very fun Spider-Man: Homecoming, pretty much run by Marvel. But Sony still holds the rights to do with the Spider-Man characters what they want.  And so…that gives us this animated feature.

Miles Morales lives with his mom and dad, but is starting life at a new school. After a frustrating week, he goes to see his uncle Aaron, who takes him to a hidden place where he can do some street art. Miles gets bit by a Spider-Man. When he witnesses a tragedy and finds himself having to make a promise to Spider-Man moments before he is killed…with no idea how to do it. Until he stumbles across Peter Parker…Spider-Man???

They discover that whatever the Spider-Man of Mile’s Morales’ world was trying to thwart has actually brought several Spider People into Miles’ world. But the world may end and so they have to team up to send everyone home and stop the destruction of the Spider-Verse.

And you know what? This only sounds confusing.  Because the movie manages to make everything pretty darn simple. Our focus is on Miles, and even the Spider-Man we meet in the beginning is a celebrity. We don’t get to know him. We just get glimpses, enough to know he was a real hero.

The film also gives us intros to each character that are a whole lot of fun. Each Spider-Man has a unique look and artistic style. And it even impacts how they interact with the world they are in. Spider-Man Noir speaks in dark pulpy fashion and is always in black and white. And he is perplexed by color.

Jake Johnson’s Spider-Man is one whose life went a bit off track compared to the Spider-Man of Mile’s world.  Spider-Gwen is keeping the world at bay, avoiding really connecting to people. And Spider-Ham is just hilarious.

This movie has a lot of heart, there are genuinely touching moments. Moments between Miles and his father, Peter and the life he has left in his universe (wondering if it is even worth going back to). Miles and Gwen, Miles and Peter….

But the film is also ridiculously funny.  I mean, seriously funny. And part of that is in how the movie makes use of its medium. I cannot recall another animated film that took such grand opportunity to put it’s possibilities on full display.

In my book? This has been the best of all the Spider-Man movies. I want more with these characters. I want more movies with this version of Miles and his family and all the other Spider-People. This was a genuinely fun movie and I recommend checking it out. Sony raised the bar here…And I did not expect that.  But Marvel better pay attention.

 

Serious Teens (Teen Titans Go To the Movies, 2018)

Teen_Titans_GTTM_PosterWhen the Titans fight a giant balloon, the day is saved by Superman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern, who are all on their way to the premier of Batman’s new movie. The Titans are informed that they are a bit of a joke, and not really deserving of an invite. After sneaking into the premier, The director of the film announces that the entire DC Universe is getting movies. Everyone. Except the Teen Titans…and especially not Robin.

Robin obsesses with how to get a worthy arch villain to make him memorable. They think they have a lead when they run afoul of the villainous Slade. Slade is a master manipulator and has a name that is fun to say very dramatically.

Having brought the Cartoon Network cartoon to the big screen, they try and make it a big enough deal for the jump. And you definitely see a difference in the budget with the animation.  It all looks good, and they have fun with applying various artistic styles.

The story is pretty predictable and the film hits all the expected beats. This is all about the juvenile jokes, sight gags and a few musical numbers. Oh, and an endless series of easter eggs. Frankly, is a running joke regarding the Challengers of the Unknown mean anything to the film’s target audience?

That said, it is passable entertainment, but this is not a film like the Lego Movie, which can be rewarding entertainment for parents in the audience…but it is likely kids who like the show will have a good time.

The Length of Love (The Book of Life, 2014)

Book_of_Life_posterLa Muerta rules over the joyful Land of the Remembered, while Xibalba rules over the Land of the Forgotten. He tries to convince La Muerta to change sides, but she is not interested.  He proposes a wager. Observing the rivalry of two young boys (Manolo and Joaquin) over their friend Maria, each god chooses a boy as the one who will marry Maria.

La Muerta disguises herself as an old woman who asks if Manolo might give her a piece of bread.  Instead he generously offers a full loaf. Xibalba tries the same thing, but Joaquin is not so giving. Maria is sent off by her father, returning years later.  Sensing Maria is favoring Manolo, Xibalba tricks Manolo into giving up his life.

In the afterlife, Manolo discovers he has been duped and seeks the help of La Muerta.

The design of this film is remarkably charming.  The framing device is that a museum tour guide is telling the story, and all the characters look like wooden puppets.

The Land of the Dead is a wonderfully bright and colorful world. The characters are full of charm. La Muerta is a kind and gentle, yet fearless goddess.  Xibalba on the other hand is both scheming and yet friendly (he is voiced by Ron Perlman, whose performance is just a lot of fun).  And while the story frames Manolo as a kind and generous artist and Joaquin as a cheerful braggart? Joaquin is not a villain.  The story is pitting the two against each other, and it obviously favors Manolo as the man for Maria. But Joaquin is seen as simply misguided and in need of a lesson. The film has sympathy for him.  And then there is Maria.  She is not interested in belonging to anyone and regularly challenges her two friends. And there is Chuy the pig who makes a sound like a goat.

The music of the Book of Life blends American Pop music with latin flavors to great effect.  But the highlight are the two original tunes I Love You To Much and the Apology Song.

The Book of Life is a charming fairy tale of love, loss and rebirth.

To Not Be Forgotten (Coco, 2017)

CoC0_PosterMiguel comes from a family that has erased music…and their great, great grandfather… fro the collective memories. But Miguel loves music.  He wants to sing like his idol, the late Ernesto De La Cruz. On the Day of the Dead, Miguel decides to take to heart De La Cruz’s motto of seizing your moment by performing a song at the talent show that evening.

When his grandmother discovers him with his guitar, she smashes it, angering Miguel. He discovers that his unknown great great grandfather is actually De La Cruz and so, after being unable to obtain a guitar from other musicians,  he tries to borrow the guitar from his great great grandfather’s crypt. Suddenly, he finds himself invisible to all around him…until he runs into skeletal beings…who seem to recognize him.  Miguel finds his relatives who have died have come to visit the land of the living for the celebration of the Day of the Dead.

He is brought back to the Land of the Dead, where his family works to get him back to the land of the living.  His Great Great Grandmother Mamá Imelda was held back by by their being no picture of her set out for the Day of the Dead.  When they find out that this is the fault of Miguel, she gifts him the blessing to return…but with the condition that he never seek to play music again. Miguel cannot help himself and ends up back in the Land of the Dead. But instead of accepting his Mamá Imelda’s blessing again, he refuses and seeks to find his Great Great Grandfather De La Cruz, certain he will give him the blessing he so needs, without condition. A con artist named Hector offers to help Miguel get to him in exchange for bringing his picture back to the land of the living and setting it out for the Day of the Dead.  But they are racing against time.  His family is trying to find him both in the Land of the Dead and the Land of the Living, and if he does not get back before sunrise? Miguel will be stuck in the Land of the Dead forever.

One might gripe that there is little about this story that is new.  Many, many times we have seen the story of the young kid or character who is out of step with their family or society in general. Pixar and animated kid movies have capitalized on this notion of the kid (or kid at heart) who has a dream and it really falls on the family (or society) to learn how wrong they were.  And there are elements of that here. His family reasons for erasing the existence of his Great Great Grandfather are understandable.  He walked away from the family…from his wife and daughter…never to be seen again.

But Coco has a much greater lesson for both Miguel and his family. Miguel must learn how important his family truly is to him.  Both Hector and Mamá Imelda express a disdain for musicians, and yet harbor beautiful talent.  We find both have been hurt by the musician’s life.

The infusion of music to the film is an infusion of emotion and life (I honestly cannot picture another artistic love for Miguel that would feel quite as powerful here). The songs connect us to Miguel, Mamá Imelda, Hector and De La Cruz.

Visually, the Land of the Dead is so celebratory and vibrant, it pulls you in, and the character designs allow for the quick adjustment to the fact that Hector is surrounded by decorative skeletons that are fun to watch.

Coco is a wonderfully beautiful fest for the eyes that is full of heart.

Mythical Voyagers (Moana, 2016)

moana_posterDisney’s Moana is the second time they have visited Polynesian.  The first was the fun Lilo and Stitch. This time around, Moana goes for mythical adventure.

Moana is a young woman, destined to be chief of her island, like her father before her.  But part of her longs to go beyond the reef at the entrance to the island’s cove.  She tries to fulfill her duties, and is doing well, until she suggests going beyond the reef, as the fishermen are catching no fish.  The coconuts are spoiling.

The reason is, because long ago, the Demi-God Maui stole the heart of Te Fiti…and this resulted in a malevolent force spreading across the sea.  Moana’s people have not left the island for fears of what lies beyond the reef, but Moana finds no choice when the sea gives her the Heart of Te Fiti.  She seeks out Maui to make him right his wrong.  The two are forced to endure each other on the mission.

Mismatched heroes is nothing new, and yet, the personalities of Moana and Maui are quite charming.  This is in spite of the fact that Maui is a tremendously egotistical guy who sees everything he has done as heroic.  Moana is both responsible and adventurous, which is a bit more unique.  Often, it seems brash and impulsive heroes have to learn the lesson of responsibility.  Not Moana.

The fact is, rather than take the easy route of making impediments for Moana some brand of villain?  They opted for making them likeable and relatable.  The one time we see Moana’s father express anger, it is not cruel or abusive.  It is out of personal fear that Moana may be to much like him.  Her parents are loving.  Her grandmother is gentle, wise and goofy.

The writers and Dwayne Johnson are able to imbue Maui with charm even when he is being stubborn and selfish.  You want to see him turn it around.

The animation in Moana is vibrant and beautiful.  It is fluid, like the ocean it crosses.  The concept of Maui’s tattoos being a living part of him that act as a conscience is a terrific idea.  It is also worth noting that the tattoos are hand drawn and animated.  They are seamless with the digital animation.

The songs, by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina are both powerful and engaging fun.  The more Polynesian influenced songs play, they swell and explode with a certain power.  The more pop songs (there is one Bowie-esque songs that is truly enjoyable) make you want to move.

The story is inspiring, built on thoughtful dialog, along with a whole lot of humor.  I have tried to find something not to like.  But you know what?  I cannot.  Moana was pure joy to watch.

Spirits In the Material World (Spirited Away, 2001)

spirited_away_poster Chihiro is an unhappy girl moving to a new city with her parents.  Along the way, they stumble across what looks to be an abandoned town.  There they discover unattended food, and her parents start to eat it, deciding to repay the townsfolk later.  Chihiro does not eat the food, instead opting to explore the town.  She runs into a lone inhabitant, Haku.  He tells her there is great danger.  He is not lying, as she finds her parents have transformed into pig.  The town is actually inhabited by demons, ghosts, witches and gods.

Chihiro ends up working in the bath house in the town, cleaning up and starting to befriend the various creatures as she tries to figure out how to save her parents.  Spirited Away is a joyous adventure which takes Chihiro from a selfish child to a strong hero.

The animation flows beautifully filled with magical designs.  It is a masterpiece filled with dragons, masked gods, phantoms, talking frogs.  It is, in a way, a whimsy overload.  But in the most wondrous way.

The film is a classic for the family, thrilling and a visual feast.

Love In Wartime (Howl’s Moving Castle, 2004)

howls_coverA young woman, Sofi, lives in a war torn town.  One day she meets Howl, a well known but mysterious wizard.  Soon after she is cursed by a jealous and vindictive witch.  Now looking like an old woman, Sofi seeks help from Howl and his companions who reside in his walking castle.

Howl’s Movie Castle is a fun fairy tale, set in a world of witches and princes fighting in a war, where nobody is willing to compromise.  Howl is a charming, yet at times childish, wizard seeking to stay out of the war.  Nearly every character is under some kind of curse.

Much like Miyazaki’s Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro, Howl’s Moving Castle is infused with a real touch of the whimsical.  One of the interesting things is that the removal of the curse become set aside for the development of the relationships between Sofi, Howl and the other inhabitants of the castle.

That is the real heart of the film, the curse is just the excuse to bring them all together.

The backgrounds are stunning, and the animation gorgeous.  No surprise, as this is a Studio Ghibli film.  Howl’s Moving Castle is an enchanting and engaging film for almost any age.

Spiritual Neighbors (My Neighbor Totoro, 1988)

2015-11-12 17.59.31Hayao Miyazaki is a pretty beloved director with a string of classic animated films.  Many have tried to duplicate his success across the world, but often, fail to key in on what makes his stories work.

My Neighbor Totoro is a beautifully simple film.  It is the tale of Satsuki and Mei, young sisters brought to the country while they wait for their mother to get out of the hospital.  The young girls discover their new home and it’s surroundings are full of nature spirits.  They befriend a giant cat/teddy bear hybrid named Totoro.  Totoro looks big and roars a lot, but is adorable and engaging.  His relationship with these two little kids is remarkably touching, considering how little time it is given.

The film focuses mostly on the girls and their father.  This is a warm and loving relationship, and especially nice is that the father has no concerns about his children believing in nature spirits.  He engages them, telling them of a time when trees and humans were friends.

There is also plenty of attention given to their human neighbors.  There is the kindly Granny who cleans the house and Kanta, a young boy with rough edges, but actually quite generous.

The animation is enchanting, with lush painted backgrounds and fluid action.   The nature spirits are whimsical and the most ideal of imaginary “monsters”.  They are never threatening in their design.

The film is a real joy and worth watching.

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