Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Movie That Changed Animation

I remember a long time ago - ok, 1995, but that feels like forever ago - I was a college student who was secretly a geek, and I loved animated movies. I still went to the theater to see the newest Disney releases, even if I was ten years older than the targeted demographic. And it was that year that I got to see Toy Story, and with it the first full-length computer-animated movie.

I was amazed by this little movie from the animation giant Disney and Pixar, a newcomer in the animation industry. The images were so crisp, but the story was heartwarming. So when I discovered Toy Story and Toy Story 2 were being released to DVD and Blu-Ray, I was thrilled to get the chance to see them again.

For those who haven't seen Toy Story, consider it a look at the secret world of toys. When people aren't looking, they come to life and have their own world based around knowing they are toys. They have their own social structure, they have their likes and dislikes, and they are especially afraid of being displaced by new toys.

So when Andy has a birthday party and receives a new Buzz Lightyear figure (voiced by Tim Allen), it immediately makes Andy's favorite toy Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) nervous and determined to get rid of this new competition. In doing so, Woody ends up getting himself into trouble and the two toys have to work together to get back to Andy, all while Woody works to convince the clueless Buzz that he's a toy and not the actual Buzz Lightyear. Sounds like a simple story, but it has a strong theme of friendship and is a gentle reminder of the fantastic lives we imagined our toys had when we were kids.

While I saw this film in 1995, my daughters just got to see it for the first time, and they loved it. They liked the story, they laughed at the toys acting silly, and they enjoyed the music. And if you think they liked Toy Story, then you should have seen their reaction to Toy Story 2.

Toy Story 2 begins with Andy going off to summer camp, and Woody accidentally finding himself in the family yard sale when he tries to rescue another toy. He's scooped up by a collector and taken away, while the other toys - led by Buzz Lightyear - try to find him and rescue him. Woody finds himself in the collector's apartment, where he meets the other toys that were from the TV series Woody's Roundup.

The collector plans to sell them as a set to a toy museum in Japan, and while the other toys are excited about the trip, Woody only wants to get back home. Other than Jessie, the cowgirl, the other toys have never known what it's like to be loved by a child, and Jessie has bad memories of being forgotten by the little girl who owned her. Buzz and Andy's other toys eventually rescue Woody, and Jessie and the toy horse Bullseye come along to find a new home at Andy's house.

My girls loved Toy Story 2 even more than the original. First, it had a lead female character, Jessie, and the girls loved the toy cowgirl's vibrant and outgoing personality. Actually, that's primarily the reason they liked it more. The music was equally as good (Randy Newman is a genius!) and the animation was even better than the first. While the story isn't quite as simple as the first, it's still a good story that is easy for young children to follow while still keeping adults entertained.

Both of these movies were re-released last week on DVD and special Blu-Ray + DVD combo packs. This is the first time these films have been released in high-definition Blu-Ray, and each offers a range of bonus features, including a sneak-peak at the upcoming Toy Story 3.  Each has featurettes on the making of each movie at Pixar, deleted scenes, a "blooper reel" for Toy Story 2, and each includes a Buzz Lightyear mission log. The Blu-Ray discs also have movie challenges and other interactive features.

The Toy Story franchise was what originally launched Pixar into the big leagues of animation, and it's easy to see why. Not only was it a technological achievement, the story is unique and perfect for kids and kids at heart. If you don't already have them, be sure to add Toy Story and Toy Story 2 to your collection before the third in the series comes out this June.

Full disclosure: I received a copy of Toy Story and Toy Story 2 for review purposes, but received no further compensation. A positive review was neither promised nor expected.

Friday, March 26, 2010

A Princess for a New Generation

To this day I still have a lot of love for all of the Disney Princesses. I grew up watching the classics, like Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, and then in my teen years I got to experience the Disney renaissance, with such new classics as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. Each of these groups of Disney films had an impact on my life.

The early classics, which are now seen as stereotyped and female-weak by today's standards, still taught me to hope for good and may have aided in my love of playing dress-up. The new classics, on the other hand, gave female characters more intelligence, more sass, and more power over their own destiny, although for most the end goal was still to find love, even if it was love wrapped up in exploration and adventure. They were modern women, wanting to find independence and make their own way in the world. Good role models for any girl.

And then last week, the newest Disney Princess debuted on DVD and Blu-Ray in The Princess and the Frog. My entire family got to see this movie before I did in the theater due to my work schedule, so my first experience was when I received this Blu-Ray+DVD combo pack in the mail.

This movie had a new first for Disney - the first African American princess. Set in New Orleans, the story follows Tiana, a hard-working woman from a working-class family who has spent her life saving and working towards her dream of owning her own restaurant. She is focused on her goal with no dreams of having a prince come rescue her and give her all she's ever dreamed of. So when a penniless, happy-go-lucky prince - Prince Naveen - comes to town looking for a wife, she doesn't give him a second thought.

The story really begins at the costume ball when Prince Naveen, now turned into a frog by The Shadow Man, convinces Tiana to kiss him in the hopes that she will turn him human again. Instead, everything goes wrong and she is changed into a frog as well. Their adventure through the swampy bayou teaches Naveen that there's more to life than fun, and reminds Tiana that her dreams don't have to exclude love and family - reminding her of how much her late father loved his family while working towards his dream.

Included throughout is a wonderful musical score, filled with lots of traditional New Orleans jazz music that will please young and old viewers alike. And just like many of the older Disney films, you've got plenty of talking animals, magic, and in the end the villain gets what's coming to him and our heroine finds love with her prince. But unlike past stories, he doesn't sweep her off to his castle - instead, they pursue her dream of opening a restaurant, working hard without the benefit of fortune.

It's interesting to see the different message being given to children today. In place of the old message of "when you wish upon a star....all your dreams come true," the new message is "when you wish on a star and work really hard towards your goals, all your dreams can come true." Not quite as magical, but a lot more realistic, I guess.

Honestly, I loved this movie. The story is original, the characters are well-developed, and it stands the test of repeated viewings. Tiana is a great new addition to the Disney Princesses, providing an excellent role model for young girls. I also really enjoyed that this was in the old, hand-drawn animation style. I love the crispness of computer animation, but hand-drawn animation seems to have more warmth and emotion to it. My daughters find the animal characters fun, and they love the story and the music.

Bonus features include deleted scenes, a look at the making of the movie, and an identify-the-princess game, as well as featurettes on Disney's Newest Princess, The Return to Hand-Drawn Animation, Conjuring the Villain (my favorite!), and more! (Note: Featurettes are only available in the Blu-Ray combo pack.) Audio commentary is also available, but good luck trying to listen if your kids want to watch the movie.

The Princess and the Frog is available on DVD and a Blu-Ray+DVD combo pack that includes a digital copy of the movie for your computer or iPod, too. Don't miss out on adding this one to your collection.

Full disclosure: I was provided with a copy of this movie for review and no other compensation. A positive review was neither expected nor promised.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Genius of Miyazaki

I recently wrote about last week's release of Ponyo, the newest animated film from Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki. Not only was Ponyo released to DVD and Blu-Ray by Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment last week, though - three other Miyazaki classics were also released on Special Edition DVD. If you have yet to add Castle in the Sky, Kiki's Delivery Service, or My Neighbor Totoro to your collection, now is the perfect time to do so.

For those of you who aren't familiar with any of these films, here's a brief description of each:

Castle in the Sky
Of all three films, this is the one most likely to appeal to older kids. Sky pirates, a floating castle, secret government agents, and a girl who floats down from the sky wearing a magical pendant are only a few things that will keep you and your child glued to the screen.

This fast-paced adventure is full of incredible imagery and features an all-star voice cast, including Anna Paquin, James Van Der Beek and Mark Hamil.

Kiki's Delivery Service
This charming story was my first introduction to the world of Miyazaki a few years ago. Kiki is a young witch who must follow tradition and set off on her own to become a full witch. She settles on a far-off city where she sets up her own delivery service to help the city. She and her cat encounter many obstacles and adventures in her quest for independence, and she learns responsibility as well as finding new friends and her place in the world.

Kiki is an upbeat, cheery film that would please all ages. My favorite part of Kiki has to be her cat, though, voiced by the late Phil Hartman. 

My Neighbor Totoro
Imagine the stress two small girls might face when their family moves to a new home. Now imagine those two girls find a new friend in a forest spirit that adults cannot see, and he takes them on spirited adventures where they meet all kinds of extraordinary characters.

My Neighbor Totoro is perhaps Miyazaki's greatest celebration of imagination and seeing the world through a child's eyes. It's a film that the youngest of children can enjoy, while reminding adults of the magic of childhood.

Each of these films feature a 2-disc DVD set filled with bonus features, including the World of Ghibli interactive experience that lets you explore all of the Miyazaki films in one area.

If I had any complaint about these special-edition DVDs, it would be that Disney didn't go one step further to make these Blu-Ray/DVD combo sets. I'd love to see the added richness of Blu-Ray like they did with Ponyo.

The best thing about each of these Miyazaki films is that they are nearly non-violent and encourage children to use their imaginations and continue to believe in the fantastical. Miyazaki is like the Peter Pan of filmmaking, encouraging all of us to keep believing in magic every day.

Castle in the Sky, Kiki's Delivery Service, and My Neighbor Totoro are all now available on DVD at Amazon or several other retailers.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Ponyo - Not Your Average Goldfish

It took a long time before we felt comfortable taking our oldest daughter to the movies. Because of her autism, we didn't think she could handle the dark theater, the loud audio, and the longer storylines. Her first movie was Up, and after that was a success, I carefully looked for the next movie to take her to. My next choice happened to be a perfect selection, and as a result, Cordy loves the brilliant Miyazaki animated film Ponyo, which just came out on DVD and Blu-Ray last week.

For those who missed it in the theaters, Ponyo is a must-have for your library, whether you have young children or not. Like other Miyazaki films, the story is simple enough for a young child to follow and enjoy, but rich in depth and beautiful animation to keep adults just as transfixed.

Ponyo is loosely based on the classic children's tale The Little Mermaid. It follows the little magical goldfish, Ponyo, a daughter of the sea goddess and a wizard, as she desires to learn more about the world and befriends a little boy named Sosuke. She becomes so enamored with Sosuke and all of humankind that she transforms herself into a little girl, and in doing so upsets the balance of nature and unleashing a flood on Sosuke's little village. Together the two children go on an adventure to save the world, not knowing that their adventure will determine if Ponyo can remain a little girl or will be transformed into sea foam.

OK, that recap may sound a little silly, but there's so much more to the story. If I tried to tell you all of it, this review would take pages to write. The relationship between the two children is both innocent and wise. Ponyo knows nothing of the world above the sea, and her wonder at even small things such as lanterns and wiggling toes is charming.

Sosuke's mother is also a strong woman who is brave, hard-working, and not without flaws - she could easily be one of many moms I know. And underneath the story is a not-so-subtle environmental message reminding us that we need to take care of our planet.

The cast is an all-star group of voices that fit their characters perfectly, including Liam Neeson, Cate Blanchett, Tina Fey, Matt Damon and Betty White. Other than Liam Neeson, no other actor was immediately recognizable by voice alone.

Ponyo is available on DVD and in a special Blu-Ray+DVD pack. The special features include an incredible series of documentaries titled Behind the Studio, which gives us a special look inside Studio Ghibli and the world of Hayao Miyazaki, and an interactive World of Ghibli feature.

While I'm already a big fan of other Miyazaki films, Ponyo might just be my new favorite. It's a movie that can be watched over and over without losing any of the magic of the film, and each time you watch it you'll notice something new. If you're looking for a new movie that's free of violence and reminds kids that there is still magic in the world, I highly recommend Ponyo - it will quickly become a classic in your home, too.