Friday, November 17, 2023

Wish is a Walt Disney Animation Studios Fan-Film That Gets Lost in Its Lore

 “What would Walt do?” It was a phrase that gripped Walt Disney Animation Studios in the wake of the passing of Walt Disney in 1967. The response to this figure’s demise was to just make new animated features mimicking the greatest hits of past Disney classics. Though the era of The Fox and the Hound and Robin Hood is in the distant past, Wish, the latest Walt Disney Animation Studios feature, harkens back to that query. As an animated feature debuting in a year when Disney is celebrating its 100th anniversary of existence, Wish wants to be to animated Disney movies what Margot Robbie's Stereotypical Barbie was to Barbie's. "You close your eyes, think of an animated Disney movie, it's me!" Meanwhile, its animation style, which uses CG to emulate tentpoles of hand-drawn artistry, also clearly indicates that the phrase “What would the Spider-Verse movies do?” loomed large over the production. Oh, and Wish comes courtesy of the key creative team members behind the Frozen movies (including director Chris Buck and writer Jennifer Lee), so also throw in the phrase “What would Elsa do?” into the cinematic stew. 

The creative influences of Wish are apparent. Less clear once the credits begin to roll are the qualities that would make this feature so idiosyncratic that future Disney titles would want to imitate it. 

Hailing from directors Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn, Wish concerns Asha (Ariana DeBose), a 17-year-old girl living in the Kingdom of Rosas. This is a seemingly idyllic paradise ruled over by the magical King Magnifico (Chris Pine), who has the power to grant wishes. Everything seems perfect in this domain until Asha discovers the wicked secrets behind Magnifico's rule. Distraught over the darkness that's been lurking in plain sight all along, Asha, in a moment of desperation, makes a wish upon a night star that gives actual shooting star by the name of Star. This charmingly designed critter from the cosmos has some magical abilities of its own, including making Asha's pet goat Valentino talk with the smooth voice of Alan Tudyk. Star could be the key to taking down Magnificio...but can an ordinary girl really challenge a master of dark magic?

Between this and Frozen II, screenwriter Jennifer Lee seems to be way too fascinated with overcomplicated lore that feels clumsily improvised. Awkward key plot beats related to King Magnifico’s corrupt rule (namely that you forget about your wish after he “takes” it) are hurriedly introduced in lyrics or throwaway pieces of dialogue that are easy to miss. The mechanics of the wishes themselves seem to fluctuate in a way that doesn't feel like organic extensions of a whimsical fairy tale but rather a byproduct of sloppy writing. It’s also hard to grasp a discernibly real-world parallel to all the fantasy tomfoolery that Lee and company want audiences to be deeply invested in. This isn’t just supposed to be a classical fairy tale, like Sleeping Beauty, where everything's meant to be heightened and removed from our world. Wish wants to elicit tears from viewers and have its fantasy world remind moviegoers of their own. That’s hard to do when this entire realm feels so vaguely defined and aloof from the discernible reality. Compare that problem to the stories of Moana and Encanto, which effortlessly interwove recognizable real emotions and experiences into unabashedly fantastical stories. This balance between the preposterous and emotionally tangible can work…Lee’s script for Wish just gets too lost in lore, explanations, and obvious metaphors to get that balance right. 

The plot beats that do work in Wish are effective enough to make one wish this whole movie was better. If only the screenplay trimmed down the avalanche of comic sidekick characters (why does Asha have seven additional wacky human friends plus two “critter” companions?) in favor of fleshing out its better narrative impulses. That tug of war between impressive details and derivative elements also carries over to the animation of Wish. The backgrounds here are glorious creations, downright perfect recreations of the kind of painterly sights Eyvind Earle and the like made their bread and butter in the mid-20th century. Establishing shots in Wish devoid of any characters actually look like they could’ve been lifted from a hand-drawn movie from the 50s, it’s an astonishing merging of animations past and present. 

Unfortunately, those backgrounds and other lovely visual qualities (like the welcome emphasis on bright colors that make even nighttime scenes easily visible) are paired up with humans and animals who look no different than standard CG Disney humans from the last 15 years. This time, though, those humans have extra rubbery-looking skin (a byproduct of the unique lighting schemes of Wish) while the often stilted facial expressions seem extra lifeless compared to the old-school backgrounds. Imagine the emotions that could be conveyed if these figures were rendered in good old fashioned hand-drawn animation. The dissonance between environments from Sleeping Beauty and characters lifted from crowd shots of Big Hero 6 never coalesces into something interesting and instead just remains eternally annoying.  It’s very odd Wish showed so much ambition in its backdrops, yet opted for human designs that look so familiar. If you want to truly follow in the footsteps of modern CG animation achievements like The Mitchells vs The Machines, Nimona, and the Spider-Verse movies, you have to embrace distinctive visual impulses in every department, not just with backgrounds!

A similar mixed bag is the music of Wish. Given that this is the "ultimate" Walt Disney Animation Studios movie, it shouldn't be a surprise that Wish is also a musical, with an array of tunes written by Julia Michaels and Benjamin Rice. The best of these tracks are the ones that lean into being the kind of songs you could only do in a musical like Magnifico's deliciously wicked "This Is The Thanks I Get?!" or the rousing battle tune "Knowing What I Know Now." Weaker on the soundtrack are tracks like "This Wish" and "At All Costs" that are more in line with songs you'd find in a Pasek & Paul musical in that they just sound like generic pop ditties. The former track is especially disappointing since DeBose is fully committed in her vocals in this take on the "I Want" song, but the forgettable lyrics let her down. Also underwhelming is the score by Dave Metzger, a veteran of Disney's music department (he worked as an arranger and orchestrator for countless scores in the studio's past). His compositions aren't bad, but they're often lifeless and fail to demonstrate much of a personality, particularly in the instruments they employ.

More consistently successful than the visuals and music in Wish are the vocal performances. The actors assembled here do perfectly cromulent work with the writing they've been handed, with DaBose especially working overtime to inject more personality and life into Asha compared to how this figure is written in the script. A committed novice cast, undeniably cute elements (that Star character is clearly made to spawn stuffed animals, but I wanted to give him a hug all the same), and utterly stunning backgrounds can't erase the nagging feeling, though, that Wish leaves a lot of potential on the table. In trying to create a "celebration" of Disney's past, Wish just feels like a hodgepodge of the studio's greatest hits. It lacks the wit and heart that helped give an extra sense of personality to previous Mouse House homages like Enchanted or Tangled. "What would Walt do?" was clearly a question weighing heavily on the minds of Buck, Veerasunthorn, and company when it came to making this animated musical. However, just as that query drove Walt Disney Animation Studios into the ground in the 70s and 80s, so too does such adherence to the past weigh down Wish.

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

The Marvels Is A Disjointed Superhero Movie Buoyed By Its Lead Performers

Despite being connected to so many previous Marvel Cinematic Universe properties (Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, WandaVision, Guardians of the Galaxy, they all get referenced here), The Marvels is at its best just being a breezy good time. Whenever writer/director Nia DaCosta just settles for making a wacky comedy, this is an amiable feature. Unfortunately, the impulse to go big that's plagued nearly every Marvel Cinematic Universe feature in the wake of Avengers: Endgame is on display here again. The Marvels is torn between the two wolves inside of itself: one that wants to be silly and one that wants to be a spectacle-driven blockbuster. The tug-of-war across those ambitions results in a disjointed movie largely buoyed by its lead performances.

Outer space superhero Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) is working solo in the deepest corners of the cosmos when she is alerted to the evil machinations of Kree warrior Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton). This baddie has secured a bangle that gives her immense power and entangles Danvers with the abilities of two other superheroes. Now, whenever Danvers, astronaut Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), and New Jersey teenager Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) use their respective superpowers, they trade places with a member of the trio. This situation has ensured that these three have to work together to stop Dar-Benn, who is targeting a slew of planets as part of a deeply personal mission. It's time for another Marvel team-up, which excites superhero devotee Khan to no end. 

I'm sure Marvel Studios executives are reading a review written by a humble Texas bimbo, so let me say this to everyone in charge of these movies and TV shows: please stop treating the Kree and Skrull stuff in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with such seriousness. The former group especially is so boring in this and Captain Marvel, yet their lore is treated with such stone-faced rigidity. Anytime The Marvels cuts back to Dar-Benn and her generic revenge mission (plus a backstory meant to make her the umpteenth MCU villain who is "actually right"), one is bound to roll their eyes. Please, either make these alien races more compelling or stop returning to them so often. Despite a committed performance from Zawe Ashton, Dar-Benn's whole presence in The Marvels is a massive problem in the proceedings. She just feels disconnected from the rest of the feature, a UPN sci-fi show baddie inhabiting something with sillier inclinations. Plus, her eventual villain plot in the third act gets so big in scope that it's impossible to get dramatically invested. 

If the villain of The Marvels is a massive weak point, at least its three heroes are a treat to watch. In a happy surprise, Larson, Parris, and Vellani have terrific chemistry together. Who needs large explosions when you can just watch the three of them try to juggle or jump rope together? Their interactions are lots of fun, even when the third act gets swallowed up by half-hearted character arcs and muddled dramatic beats. Best of all, the heavy emphasis on Kamala Khan turns out to be an inspired choice for the film as a whole. She's such a delightful creation, full of infectious enthusiasm, and an opening scene cribbing from the visual aesthetic of the Ms. Marvel TV show that puts audiences into one of Khan's hand-drawn fan-fictions is lots of fun. Plus, Iman Vellani's performance is endlessly charming. While fellow 2023 Marvel Studios title Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania was disappointingly devoid of personality, Kamala Khan's presence in The Marvels alone gives this feature a pulse.

Almost as entertaining as Vellani's performance are the handful of sequences where The Marvels really cuts loose and embraces its silliest impulses. Specifically, a set piece where our three leads arrive on a planet extremely familiar to Danvers and a key climactic sequence involving Goose the Cat/Flerken provide the creative high points of The Marvels. The former sequence also allows one to appreciate both the terrific costume design work on display here and the fact that much of The Marvels has actually been shot on nicely detailed sets. Yay for not just leaning on The Volume in shooting blockbuster movies! DaCosta and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt lend a polished look to this tentpole that helps make it as digestible as it is. 

Such visual details, along with some well-realized hand-to-hand fight scenes, are unfortunately often marred by choppy editing and restrictive camerawork that often won't let individual shots breathe for too long. Several gags in The Marvels are undercut by an unwillingness to let jokes play out in extended unbroken images, with the cuts between shots disrupting the comedic rhythm of these gags. Unfortunately, The Marvels can't outrun its strongest drawbacks, particularly when it comes to an overstuffed story hinging on dramatic stakes one just can't get invested in. Thankfully, whenever it leans just on the silly gags and chemistry between its three leads, The Marvels recovers some of its footing.  If nothing else, it solidifies Iman Vellani as one of the great discoveries of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, please make her the centerpiece of these movies going forward.

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

The Holdovers Is a Melancholy Yet Deeply Movie Exploration of Holiday Season Grief


Who doesn't get a little sad at Christmastime? Though it's often called "the most wonderful time of the year", Christmas can also be a challenging experience. There are often toxic relatives you've got to deal with at parties. The emphasis on "unity" and "togetherness" in all those billboards or holiday-themed passages can exacerbate your loneliness. Plus, the holidays coinciding with the end of the year can lend an innately wistful reflective quality to one's mind at the end of December. Thoughts can turn to looking back on the preceding 12 months and contemplating the future rather than living in the Yuletide joy of the moment. The end of the year can be a tricky thing to navigate. The Holdovers, a new film from director Alexander Payne, fully runs into those hurdles to make a bittersweet Christmas movie that's also oddly comforting. Any reminders that one isn't alone in experiencing severe emotional problems can be unexpectedly reassuring despite the heavy subject matters being broached.

The Holdovers focuses on Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), a legendarily stern teacher at the prestigious school Barton Academy. Nobody on the campus, across the teachers and students, likes this curmudgeon who prefers to spend his days hidden away in this school rather than exploring the wider world. Screenwriter David Hemingson (impressively making his feature film screenwriting debut here) makes the wise decision to establish Hunham's crankiness in a fashion that establishes the character's abrasiveness without totally alienating viewers. We see this man's off-putting personality on full display in his interactions with his students, but most of those students are rich male jerks. Having a teacher (a job that notoriously pays little) wielding a little power against these nepo babies isn't exactly "noble" behavior, but it's also a very entertaining way to cement Hunham as an unlikeable soul. Rather than going the expected route of showing Hunham as "bad" by being explicitly ableist, homophobic, or racist, The Holdovers opts to make him more complicated. His grievances against these wealthy kids are somewhat warranted, it's just his way of communicating those frustrations (and his unwillingness to let anybody in emotionally) is deeply flawed.

After making it clear that we're watching a very detached academic soul living as a shell of himself, The Holdovers proceeds to its central conflict. Hunham is spending the final weeks of December watching over students who have nowhere to go for the holidays. Eventually, he only has one such student to look over: Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), a kid who's not quite a jock, nerd, or any other easy High School archetype. He's just messy (Tully has so many family issues) and is unwilling to roll over for Hunham. Also on the campus? The head of Barton Academy cafeteria, Mary Lamb (Da'Vine Joy Randolph). She gets along nicely with Hunham and is grieving the recent death of her son in Vietnam. 

What if The Browning Version was directed by Hal Ashby? It'd look a lot like The Holdovers, which is a compliment. This Payne feature can't hit the highs of Version or Ashby's greatest movies, but leaning so much on cinematic magic of the past leads to The Holdovers scoring its own cinematic highs. For starters, the entire motion picture is a three-hander acting exercise between Giamatti, Sessa, and Randolph, and on that front, it's an exceptional experience. It's so good to see Giamatti in a major motion picture again and his skillful work at making Hunham so unabashedly irascible is consistently engrossing. There's a believable level of authority to Giamatti's line deliveries and physicality, but also a sadness beneath those expressive eyes that exude vulnerability even in the character's most unlikeable moments. Meanwhile, Dominic Sessa is an incredible find in his acting debut as Angus Tully. I especially liked the messy way he portrays a teenager navigating emotional quandaries beyond his years. There's such an authenticity to Sessa's depiction of Tully in turmoil that you feel like you're watching an actual teenager out of their depth rather than a cozy cinematic depiction of people in that age range.

As for Da'Vine Joy Randolph, well, those of us who watched Dolemite is My Name four years ago always knew she has incredible chops as an actor. She's absolutely riveting here on all fronts, including her terrific chemistry with both Giamatti and Sessa. Especially unforgettable is a key dialogue-free scene involving Lamb visiting her sister's house. Randolph doesn't need words to grip your eyeballs, she proves captivating so effortlessly. She and the other actors here are framed through a visual sensibility established by Payne and cinematographer Eigil Bryld that's meant to make The Holdovers look like a movie that would've been produced in the early 1970s (the era in which the story takes place). I wish more of the second half of The Holdovers leaned into interesting visual flourishes rooted in the filmmaking norms of this decade, but there's still an engaging and cozy lived-in quality to its imagery that's hard to resist. Extra bonus points too for how The Holdovers was captured with digital cameras, yet various post-production processes gave it all the delightful imperfections (like film grain) of something shot on 35mm. Some movies that go down this road of shooting digitally and then adding in the 35mm visual qualities later just look strange, but The Holdovers totally fooled me into thinking it was shot on vintage Kodak film.

Payne and Hemingson's approach to The Holdovers doesn't so much rewrite the book as it does build on cinema's past to make an enjoyable and effectively melancholy new feature. That's perfectly fine by me when the final product is both actually engaging to watch and such a drastic improvement on Payne's last movie, Downsizing. Keeping the scope of this story so intimate doesn't just let one appreciate the outstanding trio of performances anchoring The Holdovers. It also gets you so comfortable with these characters that even the most conceptually schmaltzy moments in the third act feel totally earned. What a nice gift for the holidays to see a feature like The Holdovers handle that sort of material so nicely.