Monday, July 9, 2012

The Second Half of 2012: A Closer Look

Halfway through the year, we have gotten four animated films: Dr. Seuss' The Lorax, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted and Brave. Brave was pure Pixar brilliance once again with fantastic visuals and a heartfelt emotional core, whereas Dr. Seuss' The Lorax was more of a kid-pleasing romp (albeit with some funny bits and colorful animation) with a rote environmental message. Madagascar 3, which I have yet to see believe it or not, was called the best in the series and another good film in DreamWorks' recent line-up. The Pirates! was more inventive quirkiness from Aardman.

So, what's next?

Here we are, halfway through this year. We have less features than last year, which is for the better, and not too many low quality films spamming up the market. The second half of the year, however, brings six more animated features. Based on the trailers, promos and stills that we've gotten over the months, I'm going to analyze what we are getting this year which might be another strong year for the medium.

Ice Age: Continental Drift opens four days from now. From what I’ve gathered, this film looks like it isn’t ashamed of being of a cash grab. While it does aim to look like a fun entertaining romp for the family (I didn’t mind the most recent trailer), it’s just that the adventures of these prehistoric characters aren’t cutting it anymore. I got a Pirates of the Caribbean vibe from some of the scenes, since those films explode overseas. Combine Ice Age, which is already huge around the world with Pirates, and you get this. Blue Sky will probably take home more than a one billion dollars, but it’s so obvious that this was cobbled together to give foreign audiences what they want. Pirates and Ice Age, sounds like a marketing pitch.

However, the point of this series now is just an easy way for Blue Sky to get the dough to make films like Epic, which comes out next spring, which looks like a much more ambitious film than anything they've made. That said, will they make another Ice Age? Who knows...

This year, we are also getting a trio of Halloween-themed films. The first of which is Laika’s ParaNorman. Laika entered the animation scene with Henry Selick’s fantastic Coraline. It was a beautiful film that of course drew inspiration from the Nightmare Before Christmas book while also being a colorful, surreal endeavor on its own. Its use of 3D was quite something for its time (imagine that, 3D being good, before the onslaught of terrible post-conversion films) and the story was very strong.

ParaNorman looks a bit similar, as the plot involves zombies and ghouls. While I am certainly looking forward to this film, I do think that some of these studios tend to go for the Halloween theme a little too often. Tim Burton knocked it out of the park early on with The Nightmare Before Christmas and other works like Vincent. I don’t want to compare these films to Burton’s masterpiece, because it’s unfair. I just can’t help but notice that the Halloween theme is often used for animated feature films.

ParaNorman, however, looks pretty imaginative. The trailers apparently don’t give us a good idea of what this film is like, instead opting for constant jokes and editing that makes your head spin. I love the designs of the characters and sets, they are very jagged and unique. Everything is delightfully asymmetrical. The movements are very smooth too. Most of the humor surrounding the creatures is good, everything else? Not so much. I couldn’t help but also think that Norman’s everyday life seemed a bit cliche, with the dialogue and how the bullies treat him and such. I'm also not too sure what I think of the film having the adults being fools, since that's another trope that tends to get tiresome as we've seen it before in television cartoons many times. Hopefully I’ll be proven wrong.

Sony Pictures Animation will serve up Hotel Transylvania after that, which was directed by Genndy Tartakovsky. The recent trailer pretty much tells us that this will be a fun treat. The humor isn’t as hit-and-miss as one might think, as I myself found myself cracking up during the trailer. Dracula (voiced by Adam Sandler) is going to be a hoot. Early on, when I saw that this would have a star-studded cast, I wasn’t enthusiastic. The first trailer appeared, I was disappointed, but not surprised at the same time. With this trailer, I’m more interested. Adam Sandler basically parodies the “I vant to suck your blood” voice, but it’s hilarious when you actually hear it.

Dracula builds Hotel Transylvania to keep his daughter Mavis (voiced by Selena Gomez) and other monsters safe from humans. The monsters fear humans (which reminds me of Monsters, Inc.), but it’s all played for laughs. All goes wrong when a human finds the hotel and falls in love with Mavis. That said human, named ---- (voiced by Andy Samberg), seems rather obnoxious. He has a laid-back “hey man” attitude, but he seems all too talkative for my tastes.

What shines is the animation. It’s got a fun, somewhat colorful look that affectionately pokes fun at the Halloween monsters we all know (DreamWorks’ Rise of the Guardians could be interpreted as the anti-thesis of this film). Other than that, the film looks like fun.

The last of the Halloween-themed films is from Tim Burton himself, Frankenweenie, a re-imagining of his 1984 short film of the same name. From the trailers, it’s clear that he definitely expanded the story (we see a dinosaur in the final seconds). Visually, it’s pretty much him doing another Nightmare-style film. At the same time, however, I think more of Vincent, his brilliant 1982 short film.

The decision to shoot it in black and white certainly adds to it, reminding me of the 1930s monster classics. What really makes it for me, though, is the emotional content. When we see the scenes of the deceased Sparky and Victor trying to revive him, they draw an emotional response. They’re quiet and effective, so I can imagine them being tearjerkers in the finished film. However, things seem a bit giddy after said dog is resurrected.

Of course, knowing Disney’s marketing, the story won’t be as chaotic as the trailers make them out to be, but you never know. Frankenweenie looks like a good ride at the theaters. Out of the three Halloween-themed films, it doesn’t interest me as much as ParaNorman, but the writing is less gabby than Hotel Transylvania’s.

This trio of treats are still on my “most anticipated” list. From what’s been revealed, they look like they have strengths and weaknesses. ParaNorman has the best style, but the writing isn’t catching my interest despite some very imaginative visuals. Frankenweenie looks like typical Tim Burton, but the writing is a bit stronger. Hotel Transylvania looks like fun, nothing more. That said, I’m looking forward to all of them.

In November, we'll be getting two films from Walt Disney Animation Studios and DreamWorks Animation. Both of which excite me the most: Wreck-It Ralph and Rise of the Guardians.

Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph comes on like Despicable Me and Megamind in a video game setting. At first, it may seem like Disney is trying to use the same magic trick. Not likely. Something about it already seems unique on the surface, not because it’s a Walt Disney Animation Studios film, but rather an experience that you’ll remember for years. Despicable Me, by all accounts, is a very fun film. I personally love it, but it’s really nothing more than a fun crowd pleaser.

It’s got some heart, yes. The characters are very likable, yes. That’s about it, though. It’s like a live action comedy film, it’s really funny and enjoyable to watch, but that’s about it. It has some cartoony antics that couldn’t be done in live action, as it adds to the goofiness of the whole film. Nothing wrong with that, but Wreck-It Ralph looks like something a bit beyond that. The idea has been in the works for a while, but I have no clue when the writers ever decided to make the story about a bad guy trying to be a good guy. Even if they did after seeing Despicable Me, it shouldn’t matter, as long it’s pulled off right.

As for Megamind comparisons, Megamind was already compared to Despicable Me before it hit theaters since Megamind himself tries to be the hero for a change. It’s executed differently, but Megamind also lacked a punch. There wasn’t much heart or appeal, it just felt like a mindless comedy that didn’t know whether it wanted to be an all-out spoof of the superhero genre or an intriguing story about a bored supervillain with an identity crisis.

Ralph’s (who is voiced by John C. Reilly) quest to become a hero will probably be born out of a desire he’s had his whole life, being assigned to be the bad guy. In the trailer, it is implied that he is aware of people not liking him for his job. “It sure must feel great to be the good guy...” he quietly says at the “Bad-Anon” meeting. There’s already more emotion there than what I saw in the other two films. Knowing the Disney tradition of adding heart to a story, even a non-serious one (think The Emperor's New Groove), it’s possible that there will be more meat to this entire story than in those two similar films.

So what’s the best thing he could do? Go to another video game and be the hero for once, but what he does ultimately causes disaster for the entire arcade (a family fun center called “Litwak’s”). The trailer doesn’t show us what he could’ve possibly unleashed, though it could be the “Cy-bugs”, the robotic bug-like enemies he encounters in the game Hero's Duty. Since Wreck-It Ralph is a story that involves multiple video game worlds (Ralph’s own game Fix-It Felix, Jr., Hero's Duty and Sugar Rush), I was wondering how Disney would pull that off. The recent Disney animated features have scenes where the animation and art are a radical departure from the look of the rest of the films. In The Princess and the Frog, it was for the magnificent “Almost There” scene, where Tiana sings about her dreams of owning a restaurant. It’s all told through an Art Deco style that is very reminiscent of the Harlem Renaissance artwork. That’s just one of many great examples.

From the trailer, it looks like all the worlds will be done in computer animation. However, from a color and lighting standpoint, they are all unique. Fix-It Felix, Jr. is minimal in its design, with people who look like Little People-esque toys. Since it’s from the early 1980s, it would look like that. Hero's Duty on the other hand is more akin to Halo, Gears of War and most of today’s video games. It’s very realistic with lots of details. The lead character from that world, the no-nonsense Sergeant Calhoun (voiced by Jane Lynch) doesn’t look like a character you’d see in a Disney or Pixar film. She’s not overtly caricatured or anything, she looks like something you’d see in today’s games.

Sugar Rush on the other hand is more like a Nintendo game. It’s detailed much like Hero's Duty but it’s very colorful, bright and fun to look at. It’s basically Candy Land meets Mario Kart. It’s certainly creative, as the set designers had a field day designing forests and mountains out of candies while still trying to make it look fresh and original. The character designs here are less lifelike than the ones seen in Hero's Duty. Weird shapes and cute designs, all based off of sweets. Aside from Candy Land, the setting also reminds me of a Sega Dreamcast game called Pen Pen TriIcelon, a quirky kid-oriented game which had a level made of candies and sweets. Some may remember that title, some may not.

As for the arcade itself, everything is connected through Game Central Station, which is located inside the arcade’s power strip. I went over the details there before, like how the portals to others games are the insides of the electrical sockets (look closely and it says “Moore USA”, a reference to director Rich Moore). We’ve seen a good deal of that, but this brings up an interesting question: What about other arcades? What about other Fix-It Felix, Jr. machines across the world? Imagine a joke in the film where Ralph actually meets another Ralph. That could be the source for a ton of good jokes, since this is supposed to be a comedy adventure.

What about Fix-It Felix himself? The trailers show that he does care about Ralph, but we don’t see much of him. We don’t even see the game itself, just what it looks like to the player in the arcade (The details on the game cabinet are spot-on). We get brief glimpses of the interior of the arcade (look for a Pac-Man machine, to the left of Fix-It Felix, Jr.), which looks like your typical amusement center.

As for music, who knows what kind of score this will have. Henry Pryce Jackman is composing it, but what intrigues me about him is that he actually worked with Mike Oldfield, the man behind the legendary Tubular Bells album. Not to say I'm thinking this film will have a soundtrack like that, but I am hoping for one that weaves 8-bit sound effects into the typical lush Disney-esque score. Perhaps the score will change radically to suit the different video game environments, such as Hero's Duty having a more epic, perhaps electronic action film tone (a la Tron: Legacy) while Sugar Rush can be a bit on the whimsical side. The trailer gives us no hint of what this film will sound like, since it prefers to assault our ears with Flo-Rida.

So from an adventure comedy that’s a love letter to fans of classic video games (like myself), what can we expect from the dialogue? Luckily none of it is cringeworthy. First off, the cameos. This is the most talked about part of the trailer, and it seems as if this trailer has been getting very good reception. This bodes very well for Disney, who spent several years struggling to interest audiences due to several setbacks. Potential critical and commercial performance aside, Wreck-It Ralph seems like its jokes are not going to misfire. Those who have seen the film (which is of course a work-in-progress version), such as the minds behind the brilliant animation podcast The Rotoscopers, have confirmed that the humor does indeed work. Rich Moore, having directed several episodes of The Simpsons and Futurama (which coincidentally had a “what-if” episode where life was like a video game), probably littered the film with clever jokes, along with scribes Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston.

Will all that said, Wreck-It Ralph looks like a game changer (no pun intended) for Walt Disney Animation Studios, as I’ve said many times before. I was always looking forward to this one, and the trailer only made me more excited.

An equally interesting and colorful film, Rise of the Guardians, looks like it'll be a new kind of film for DreamWorks. When DreamWorks announced that they were going to tackle William Joyce’s The Guardians of Childhood for an animated feature, I didn’t know what to think. Having been skeptical of DreamWorks’ output up until I saw How To Train Your Dragon for the first time on Blu-ray in October 2010 (which motivated me to check out their recent crop), I was expecting it to be another one I’d reject.

Having seen How to Train Your Dragon and not everything else around it at the time of the first trailer’s premiere earlier this year, I was surprised. For the first time, it was a trailer for a DreamWorks film that actually impressed me. The mood was great, it was all about the lovely visuals, the characters and surprisingly, no annoying jokes. I knew that DreamWorks was now serious about stepping up their game, the likes of Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon were only the beginning.

Rise of the Guardians (which is not a good title, The Guardians of Childhood is much more interesting and intriguing) is about the fictional heroes of childhood that we looked up to once in our lives: Santa Claus, the Sandman, the Easter Bunny and Jack Frost. Now when I read this synopsis for the first time, I was only imagining how these characters would look. Being based on William Joyce characters, their designs could not be predicted. At least they weren’t going to look like their other characters.

... And they didn’t! Santa Claus is redesigned to look more like a tough guy but with a warm heart. Alec Baldwin gives him a pseudo-Russian accent that’s a little bit too hard to get behind, though it shouldn’t be much of an issue. They’re trying to keep him as far away from a jolly man going “Ho ho ho!” as possible. His workshop isn’t your typical Santa’s workshop, but then again, Aardman’s Arthur Christmas presented an interesting take on Santa’s workshop, though the character designs were much more traditional. In addition to being with a band of elves, he also has these strange fuzzy bipedal creatures. His workshop is high up on an icy mountain, but there’s a lot of imagination put into the building’s exterior. His sled? Not so conventional either.

The other childhood heroes come off as characters you’d see in an epic fantasy saga, and their designs are all very creative. The Sandman comes off as silly-looking gnome-like man. His trails of sand are like pixie dust. The world he comes from looks like a magical version of the Sahara. He will be a mute character who can apparently create things out of sand, such as a toy-like biplane that he uses to fly around. E. Aster Bunnymund, the Easter Bunny (voiced by Hugh Jackman), has the most interesting design. Jack Frost even mistakes him for a kangaroo in the latest trailer. He isn’t presented as a friendly-looking bunny, cutesy or anything of the sort. In fact, he looks like he means business. I like it! His world is a bright, colorful forest with Easter eggs that can walk. Last but not least is Tooth, the Tooth Fairy (voiced by Isla Fisher), whose design is very colorful and coated in feathers. Her world is full of hummingbird-like creatures, but the rest of it isn’t clear. It looks like an enchanted forest from her character poster and some shots in the trailers, but we see an opulent castle in the new trailer, so that could be a part of her world.

The main protagonist of the film is Jack Frost (voiced by Chris Pine), who is from our world of course. He’s a mischievous teenaged boy who causes trouble with a magical scepter that freezes things. How he got it? Who knows. With that, he is chosen to team up with the guardians, as established in the latest trailer. Not much to say about him or his design. It’s fine, but he isn’t necessarily interesting. Perhaps over the course of the film, he’ll mature.

The worlds of the guardians are stunning, some of the finest you’ll see in a computer animated film today. DreamWorks’ animators knew that presenting these worlds would require a load of imagination, especially since countless other interpretations are rather basic and lack the magic seen in this film. Our childhood heroes go from what we know to something truly imaginative and breathtaking. It shows what you can do with this kind of story in the animation medium.

For many years, DreamWorks’ animation quality was always compared negatively to that of Pixar’s. Earlier, their style was simply competent. The crew weren’t aiming for visual thrills in fare like Shark Tale, Madagascar and Bee Movie. Shrek had some imagination, while its first two sequels were truly lacking in that area. Rise of the Guardians is DreamWorks unleashing all of that potential they had in the last six years. Comparing Pixar and DreamWorks negatively was never a good thing, but with this film’s look, it should rightfully be positively compared to the visually dazzling works of Pixar’s.

At the same time, Rise of the Guardians’ story seems to be right in line with a Pixar film. There’s characters you already like, an interesting execution of the good vs. evil story, and heart. The story is to involve a young girl who ceases to believe in the guardians, so it’s possible that the story will be very heartfelt. I definitely got this vibe from both trailers, but both trailers actually seem more fantasy adventure-oriented than anything. Comedy is (rightfully) downplayed in both, but heart is too. I’m not saying it won’t be heartfelt, it probably will be. Most trailers for Pixar’s films hide the heartfelt side of the story and go for haywire editing and pacing (with some exceptions of course, mainly BRAVE’s wonderful “Family Legends” trailer). Again, the film might possibly be a tearjerker since How to Train Your Dragon attempted to be one.

Aside from comedy and heart, this looks like DreamWorks’ darkest film to date. I never thought I’d put the two in the same sentence, given the unabashed comic nature of their older films. Kung Fu Panda had sheds of this, and so did How to Train Your Dragon. Kung Fu Panda 2 had some wonderfully dramatic scenes that were fairly dark. Rise of the Guardians goes all out due to its villain Pitch (Jude Law), the Bogeyman. I initially didn’t like the design as seen on his character poster, but in the trailers? Never mind...

Depicted as a tall, thin, dark and revolting figure, his world looks like a total nightmare. It’s a bleak and creepy medieval-like world, with empty cages everywhere. (For who?) He wants to bring total darkness to the world and ruin the dreams of children forever. Wow... DreamWorks had a convincing villain with Lord Shen in Kung Fu Panda 2, but he ultimately fell victim to some villain cliches. Pitch doesn’t seem to. He’ll be one that’ll probably scare young children. Pixar and Disney were never afraid of this, as Disney villains have always frightened the younger set. Pitch looks like he can match up to those villains, as he doesn’t come off as the typical baddie: Hammy, over-the-top and comedic. In the trailers, we see him travel by the means of dark, shadowy horses. His voice is also very creepy and menacing. I think we have a great villain with this one.

Rise of the Guardians will kick off a new chapter for DreamWorks Animation, it'll show that the studio has more to it than silly comedies with childish humor. In the same month, Disney will widen their scope with their action-oriented Wreck-It Ralph while also preparing for an oncoming new Renaissance. Both of these November releases are my top picks for the year, now that Brave has come out. To see these two other studios trying to expand the medium in the world of computer animation (I didn’t call them the “Big Three” for nothing) is quite thrilling. The Third Golden Age has only gotten more exciting.

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