“Meet the Robinsons” (2007), Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 47th animated motion picture. The film tells the story of Lewis, an orphan who invents a “memory scanner” machine that will help him remember back to the day when his birth mother brought him to the orphanage. A visitor from the future enters the scene and changes Lewis’ life forever. While the time travel concept is really cool along with the film’s singular style, I felt the “meet the family” component was crowded, disjointed, overly busy and ultimately unsatisfying (it is called “Meet the Robinsons” after all…). However, I appreciated how the film deals with its poignant themes of adoption, family, living in the present and having faith in the future. The ending makes it all worthwhile. Based on the children’s book A Day with Wilbur Robinson, written and illustrated by William Joyce, who also served as a producer on the film. “Keep moving forward.”
“Chicken Little” (2005), Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 46th animated motion picture. After the unfortunate “the sky is falling” incident, Chicken Little tries to make amends and restore his reputation. He starts to make progress until he finds out that maybe the sky really did fall after all… (I won’t spoil it for you in case you haven’t seen the movie.) While the film has a few shortcomings, I find this wacky comedy to be quite clever and funny. I love the “squash and stretch” of the characters, a 2D animation staple that the animators were able to achieve using 3D computer animation tools and techniques. The vocal cast is great, too. Zach Braff is Chicken Little, Joan Cusack is the Ugly Duckling (aka Abby Mallard), Don Knotts is Turkey Lurkey, Amy Sedaris is Foxy Loxy and Steve Zahn is Runt of the Litter (my favorite).
The film was Disney’s first full-length animated feature done entirely using 3D computer animation and was the start of a new slate of 3D computer animated films from the Disney Studios. “Chicken Little” also represents a tumultuous time at the Walt Disney Company which is really hard to separate from the film (a summary written in 2005 is here: http://www.marketwatch.com/story/michael-eisner-says-disneys-sky-isnt-falling?pagenumber=1). Thankfully, as mentioned in my last blog entry, those days are over and, as Chicken Little says, “Today is a new day.”
“Home on the Range” (2004), Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 45th animated motion picture. An animated musical comedy set in the wild west. Three dairy cows try to capture an outlaw for the reward money which will save their family farm from foreclosure. The bold and stylish production design looks great and is reminiscent of Disney animated films from the 1950s. Unfortunately, the film falls short with its coarse, incongruent humor and its lack of real heart. A serious absence of chemistry and cohesion is also evident with the film’s vocal talent, including Roseanne Barr, Judy Dench, and Jennifer Tilly as the dairy cows and Cuba Gooding, Jr. as the sheriff’s overzealous and irritating horse. (Roseanne is especially awful in the film, even if she’s just playing herself.) Randy Quaid as the yodeling cattle thief is one of the film’s few highlights. The songs by Alan Menken and Glen Slater are fun, too.
Speaking of “Home on the Range,” Disney’s then-CEO Michael Eisner announced during the film’s production that it would be Disney Animation’s final animated film done in the traditional hand-drawn, or 2D, style and that all future Disney animated films would be done using 3D computer animation (the animation method made wildly popular worldwide by Pixar Animation Studios). Thankfully, this decision was reversed in 2006 when Bob Iger, Disney’s newly appointed CEO, acquired Pixar and put John Lasseter and Ed Catmull in charge of Disney Animation. In this YouTube clip, John Lasseter describes more about it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VVnjOqL6n0U.
“Brother Bear” (2003), Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 44th animated motion picture. An allegorical nature fantasy pic about a dude who gets turned into a bear. Set in the post-ice age Pacific Northwest, a young Intuit named Kenai seeks revenge on the bear who killed his brother. After killing the bear, the spirits of nature, including his deceased brother, transform Kenai into a bear himself in order to teach him some important life lessons. Kenai meets Koda, a precocious bear cub, and finds out through him that bears have feelings and families, too. The film’s serious tone is lightened a bit by two moose characters voiced by Canadian comedians Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas (they do their classic “Great White North”/Bob and Doug McKenzie shtick from “SCTV”–eh). While the film is not a favorite, the appealing concept of family members and nature always looking over you and helping you become the best person you can be is portrayed in a beautiful and thought provoking way.
“Treasure Planet” (2002), Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 43rd animated motion picture. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island set in space. The story is basically the same but with a few variations. Jim and his mother are the only humans in the film; all other characters are some animal/alien/robot hybrid. Long John Silver is a cyborg. The sailing spaceship’s crew look like they came from the Mos Eisley Cantina in “Star Wars: Episode IV.” The treasure map is a sphere that turns into a giant holographic projection. And the buried treasure is on, well, a planet. While not a terrible film, this sci-fi action film isn’t a great one either. As with most Disney films of this era, the visuals are top notch and the story is problematic. The film has a compelling beginning, a dreadful middle and, thankfully, a satisfying conclusion. The excellent vocal talent, including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emma Thompson, David Hyde Pierce, and Martin Short, do their best with what they’re given. Original songs are by John Rzeznik of Goo Goo Dolls fame. “Beware the cyborg.”
“Lilo and Stitch” (2002), Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 42nd animated motion picture. A quirky little movie with a big heart. Stitch, a crazy space alien/genetic experiment, escapes from confinement, crash lands his spaceship in Hawaii, masquerades as a dog and gets adopted by Lilo, a cute and lonely Hawaiian girl who loves Elvis Presley and who is facing some difficult things in her life. Beautiful watercolor backgrounds, a method not used in a full-length Disney animated feature for decades, give the film its soft, subtle look. The film highlights the wonderful Hawaiian term of “‘ohana,” or family. The Hawaiian ‘ohana comprises not only those family members related by blood, but all who share a common sense of “aloha,” or love and compassion. “‘Ohana means family. Family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten.”
“Atlantis: The Lost Empire” (2001), Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 41st animated motion picture. An ambitious sci-fi adventure that doesn’t quite live up to its potential. Set in 1914, a team of explorers (with varying skill and motive) embark on an excursion to find the lost city of Atlantis. The film is wonderful to look at (it was originally released in widescreen 70mm format) and has some really interesting characters, set pieces and ideas. The filmmaker’s high-concept backstory about what happened to Atlantis gets overshadowed by a convoluted plot that tries to accomplish too much too quickly. However, I’m completely crazy for the film’s design inspired by comic book artist and writer Mike Mignola. “Atlantis is waiting.”
“The Emperor’s New Groove” (2001), Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 40th animated motion picture. A zany comedy that would be more at home at Warner Bros. than at Disney (although I’m very glad Disney made the film). Set in South America during the Incan Empire, this fictional tale tells the story of how a selfish young emperor gets turned into a llama by his evil advisor and how, with the help of a kind farmer, he figures out that life is not just all about him. The distinctive art design was inspired by Peruvian landscapes and Inca art and artifacts. The film gets its laughs from its great character animation and from its hilarious vocal cast featuring David Spade, John Goodman, Patrick Warburton, Wendie Malick, Eartha Kitt and Tom Jones (yes, THE Tom Jones). Includes original songs written by Sting. “No touchy.”
“Dinosaur” (2000), Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 39th animated motion picture. Talking dinosaurs and their lemur friends try find the safe and verdant “Nesting Grounds” after their home gets trashed by meteors. They have to overcome their own infighting along the way as well as steer clear of the nasty “carnotaurs” who want to eat them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The film has some technical innovation and visual appeal with its combination of live-action backgrounds and photo-realistic computer animated characters. However, the dreadful, derivative plot sinks it early on and it never recovers. You know you’re in trouble when when two of the dinosaurs in the pack are sassy old ladies (voiced by British actress Joan Plowright and Della Reese of “Touched by an Angel” fame) that belong more in “Steel Magnolias” than in “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth.” As the Della Reese character says, “Who booked this trip anyway?”
“Fantasia 2000” (2000), Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 38th animated motion picture. “The Concert Feature” continued. According to Roy E. Disney, Walt Disney’s nephew and the executive producer of the film, Walt Disney’s original vision was to regularly re-release “Fantasia” in theaters but with new and different segments each time, keeping it a perpetual work in progress.
Following somewhat the original plan, “Fantasia 2000” has seven new animated segments that were created by Disney animators during the 1990s (the “Pines of Rome” sequence was the first to be completed in 1993) and one returning segment from the first “Fantasia”–the iconic “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” starring Mickey Mouse and a bunch of bucket-toting brooms with music by Dukas. The soundtrack is provided by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Levine. The new musical selections include pieces by Beethoven, Gershwin, Shostakovich, Respighi, Saint-Saens, Elgar and Stravinsky. The film has multiple celebrity narrators, including Maestro Levine. The Disney animators also created an absolutely spectacular animated backdrop for the orchestra this time around–it has to be seen to be believed.
“Fantasia 2000” was the first animated feature-length film to be formatted and exhibited in the IMAX large screen format. Seeing this film in IMAX was a real treat, especially for this animation fan. The Blu-ray Disc set released in 2010 (along with the original “Fantasia”) is beautiful, but I believe both films are best experienced in a large theater equipped with a killer sound system. Hopefully, Disney will provide the opportunity again someday.