Review: Rogue One

Rogue One needs no introduction, so I won’t make one. This review, however, requires an emphatic spoiler warning. So:

spoilers

SPOILERS

SPOILERS

SPOILER ZONE. ABANDON HOPE, ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE.

Now to the review.

Rogue rogue oneOne is Disney’s first half-step beyond the traditional Star Wars trilogies. It’s a Star Wars story rather than an episode and officially outside the main arc, but it’s so closely bound to A New Hope it’s practically the prologue. If the praise is not too faint, Rogue One is the most epic prologue ever made.

There is an inherent dramatic difficulty in making a movie whose end everyone knows (they get the plans), but the makers acquit themselves well. To some extent, Rogue One is Disney retconning George Lucas. But it’s a creative and convincing retcon, and it brings a level of freshness to the story. The decision to star a new cast of protagonists and a new villain created a wealth of potential because A New Hope doesn’t dictate what happens to them – and the filmmakers mine that potential to its limits.

Rogue One is the first Star Wars movie without a Jedi in sight, and that creates another dramatic challenge. The makers attempt to meet the challenge with the warrior-mystic Chirrut Imwe, who succeeds in sustaining the presence of the Force in the absence of the Jedi. Although evidently not a Jedi, Chirrut exhibits Jedi-like traits – an intriguing idea that goes exactly nowhere, because the movie leaves him unexplored and unexplained. Possibly he belongs to a different Force-order. Possibly he’s a freelancer. Maybe he’s not even Force-sensitive. It’s not in the movie.

If Rogue One fails to take the idea of the Force anywhere new, it does present a whole new view of the Rebel Alliance. The Alliance’s plan to assassinate the Death Star’s intellectual architect raises an intriguing moral dilemma, and if the idea is unsavory, it’s still impossible to regard the intended victim as innocent.

Oddly enough, the Alliance’s assassination plot is more forgivable than its ruthless manipulation of Jyn into aiding the killing of her own father. Indeed, the portrayal of the Alliance is surprisingly dark, with little sense of higher ideals or aspirations to relieve it. Cassian, the principal Rebel character, brutally murders his own informant. The Rebels who ally with Jyn are declared to have done terrible things in their fight against the Empire. The Alliance’s leadership rejects a chance to destroy the Death Star through cowardice and sheer stupidity. The sad truth is that Rogue One goes rogue against the Rebel Alliance.

Rogue One’s primary failing is that it takes too little interest in its own characters. All of them suffer some degree of neglect. Cassian is the most developed of the lot, by virtue of having a cause and experiencing inner conflict, but he’s also a joyless character, consumed by a crusade against the Empire for reasons that are only hinted at. Why the ex-Imperial pilot defected from the Empire is a mystery, as is why he volunteered for the desperate last mission. Similarly, Chirrut and his friend, what’s-his-name – you know who I mean, the one with the fancy gun – intervene once and then just sort of tag along for the rest of the movie.

But no one is more neglected than Jyn, the main protoganist of the film. Rogue One can’t be bothered to invest in her the sort of quiet moments with which other Star Wars movies introduce their heroes – think of Luke playing with his toy ship or looking at the setting suns, or the brief shots of Rey’s handmade pilot doll and wall of marked-off days. It’s not even interested when Jyn makes decisions crucial to the plot. In the first half of the movie, Jyn disavows any interest in fighting the Empire, blames the Rebel cause for her suffering, and likens Cassian to a stormtrooper – indeed, this is the surest sign that she disapproves of the Empire: she compares Rebels to stormtroopers. And then suddenly she’s talking more Rebel than the Rebels and giving rallying speeches against the Empire.

Did she believe those speeches, despite blaming the Rebels for her father’s death so shortly before? Did she believe that the Imperial flag doesn’t bother you if you don’t look up, despite being orphaned by the Imperials? Who knows?

Rogue One is above all an action movie, and as it rushes from one action sequence to another, it seems hardly to care why its characters fight so long as they do. The characters are lost in the parade of explosions and firefights, and I think the meaning is, too.

And then, in the climax, it’s found. It’s ironic that the film waits until the penultimate action sequence to slow down and give the characters their moments, but every second is welcome. The end of Rogue One is fantastic, leading brilliantly into A New Hope and imbuing the fight and the sacrifice with meaning. Tarkin’s final use of the Death Star offends logic, but it also gives the villain’s end a kind of horrifying justice I’ve never seen any other story achieve.

No review of Rogue One would be complete without praising K-2SO and how masterfully he is used for humor, or without noting that every moment of Darth Vader’s presence is pure win. Rogue One’s frenetic pace crowds out too many quiet moments and too much thoughtfulness, and the absence of the Jedi and tarnishing of the Rebellion feel like losses. It doesn’t capture the Star Wars magic, but Rogue One is a skillful sci-fi action movie that possesses its own gleams of greatness.

Movie Review: Pete’s Dragon (2016)

Despite the old and no doubt wise saying, Disney canon clearly holds that being raised by wolves is not injuriouspetes-dragon to childhood development. This is one of the lessons of The Jungle Book, another being that if a ferocious man-hating tiger gets your calling card, you cannot lose if you arm yourself with a blazing torch. In the remade Pete’s Dragon, released close on the heels of the remade Jungle Book, we find that it is even better to be raised by dragons.

But still, inevitably, tragic to need such raising. And children grow up only to leave, don’t they?

Pete’s Dragon is a unique movie, at least in today’s world. The opening sequence sets the pattern. It is the slowest opening I have seen in a long, long while, taking its time to the disaster you can feel is coming. A lone car on an isolated highway, the land gorgeously forested around it … a young, pretty mother, a quietly strong father, an adorable little boy … the well-loved book, haltingly read by the little boy with his mother’s patient help, about a dog that gets lost and adventures and being brave …

And then the car crash, because Disney does love to warm your heart just before ripping it out. The crash itself, far from being violent or graphic, is dreamy, fragmented, to some extent detached. And it feels oddly realistic – not that this is the way a thing like that would happen, but it is the way it might be remembered, especially by a child.

If the movie shies away from the violence of the car accident, it still evokes – quietly but effectively – the horror of it, as the little boy wanders away alone from the wreck. The sequence where he encounters the dragon tastes strongly of a fairy tale, from the old, green, untouched forest, to the inhuman menace of the wolves, to the powerful, initially ambiguous appearance of the dragon. (I feel that this is what it would be like to enter Faerie: the beauty and fear and the unknown.)

The rest of the movie is crafted in a similar way. This is a film that lingers – on its characters, on its world, on its pivotal moments. It means to bring out all these things richly, and it will pause to do so. There is action in Pete’s Dragon, but it is not a fast-paced movie.

Neither is there exactly a villain in this movie. The one character who comes close is certainly reckless and somewhat selfish, but in the end even he is not so bad. The movie also rejects the cynical and sarcastic humor so much in vogue today. All of these elements add up to a gentle movie, an unusual movie in today’s theater. Even Disney and Pixar’s animated offerings are a tougher breed.

Pete’s Dragon does a fine job handling Pete’s reintroduction to human society, giving him much the reaction of a wild animal. Perhaps the most notable flaw is that Pete possesses language skills difficult to believe in a child who has lived in the wilderness for six years, with no interaction with other humans since he was five. I do not, however, complain of it. But not because I think it’s ironic or unfair to bring such a complaint against a movie that has a dragon; it may have a dragon but it has normal humans, too, and this is not realistic for humans, y’know. I give the movie a pass because to be realistic, in this respect, would have been more trouble than it’s worth.

The movie is, to the end, ambiguous on Pete’s dragon. The dragon is always central but also always silent, and it is impossible to tell whether he is a highly intelligent animal or in possession of a real, childlike sentience. The adults speak of him as an animal but only Pete could know the answer, and he would not ask the question.

Pete’s Dragon is a gentle, thoughtful film skillfully shot with beauty and a sense of wonder. It may not be the best kind of movie, but it’s the best movie of its kind.

Movie Review: Treasure Planet

If there is one thing we can all dream about, it’s finding buried treasure. We could all use the money, of course, and this way it comes with mystery and romance and adventure. What more could we ask for?

Pirates. That would add danger, ratchet the adventure up to a new level, and give us desert islands and the high seas. It would also add a touch of nobility, exalt us beyond mere fortune-seekers to the brave fighters of vicious cutthroats. We are the heroes of our story.

This is the enduring charm of Treasure Island. We all want to have the treasure, and the adventure, and come triumphantly home at the end. Treasure Island has been remembered and retold, made and remade in film after film. When Disney set out to create an animated version of Treasure Island, some fifty years after its live-action version, it needed a twist. It settled on: outer space.

And so Disney gave the world Treasure Planet. The movie may be labeled science fiction, but it can even more accurately be labeled science fantasy. The creators merge Stevenson’s nineteenth-century milieu with sci-fi, and this is most clearly seen in the ship that carries our heroes to the treasure planet. Although it is, in a highly technical sense, a spaceship, it looks like a wooden sailing ship from the nineteenth-century. It even flies like the old ships sailed, to some degree: Its sails are not decorative but entirely functional.

A curiosity about this movie: In outer space, there is no gravity but there is, apparently, atmosphere. After watching the movie, I read a bit about it online, and evidently the characters’ ability to breathe in space is explained by “etherium.” I believe etherium was mentioned in the film, but I did not know what it meant. The sort of viewers who must have breathable outer space justified to them may find this film jarring or inconsistent in its science-fantasy elements. But if you’re game for the ride, it will go smoothly enough.

The makers don’t merely choose a sci-fi setting; they go for broke. Jim Hawkins and his parents are the only humans in the film. In this telling of Treasure Island, Long John Silver is a cyborg – a natural enough leap from the one-legged man. The aliens that fill the background, and sometimes stand prominently in the foreground, are inventive but, with scant exceptions, unattractive. Disney transposes its mandatory Animal Sidekick to sci-fi with tremendous success: Long John’s parrot is, in this version, Morph – a small, playful glob of a pet whose shapeshifting and good-hearted mischief make it second only to Tangled‘s Maximus in Disney’s pantheon of sidekicks. 

Treasure Planet tinkers with the original novel to produce a solid, workmanlike plot. The movie shines far more in characterization. Jim begins the movie as what they call a troubled (read: delinquent) youth. This is not, of course, original, but what matters is that it is convincingly played and gradually becomes important to the story and, finally, meaningful. For this is the heart of his relationship with Long John Silver. Jim began that relationship distrustful, and Silver began it, at best, utilitarian; how quietly it became real, and how much it came to affect them, is a lasting credit to the film. Despite all his original intentions, Long John Silver becomes the father-figure Jim needs, giving him both discipline and encouragement.

This is, of course, the most important relationship in the film. Jim’s other important relationships are with his mother and the doctor (here Dr. Doppler because, you know, sci-fi). All three are either parental or quasi-parental, and Jim doesn’t get a girl to so much as look at. To take a young protagonist and completely sideline romance in favor of such relationships is quietly subversive in a Disney film, and possibly in all films.

Treasure Planet doesn’t quite ignite the magic of Disney’s best; possibly, with its visions of robots and outer space and bizarre aliens, it never really tried. Disney is the undisputed king of pop fairy tales and this film is an outlier. It never broke through to audiences in a way that could inspire successors of any kind. Still, the care and skill of the creators can’t be doubted. Treasure Planet is a creative sci-fi romp, with heart and with humor, and some lovely animation. Recommended.

Movie Review: Tarzan

The foundling raised by animals in the wilderness is an immemorial idea. A couple weeks ago I reviewed a movie about one of the most famous of these foundlings: Mowgli, raised by wolves in the jungle. Today I will review another movie, this one about another foundling of almost equal fame: Tarzan.

Disney released its animated version of Tarzan in 1999, on the dying wave of the Disney Renaissance. After the wave crashed, Disney languished in cheap, lusterless sequels for a decade; as it crested, it released celebrated films such as Aladdin and The Lion King. In between, Disney released more experimental, and now largely forgotten, films – Atlantis, Treasure Planet, and, of course, Tarzan.

Tarzan is the least experimental of the three. It’s a departure from classic fairy tales, but still fantasy, unlike the sci-fi incursions Atlantis and Treasure Planet. The Disney formula of orphaned hero, boy-meets-girl, and animal sidekicks is intact. Variations are evident, however. Tarzan is an unlikely hero, his character made up of two divergent halves – one the epitome of physical strength and skill, the other naive and imitative in the most childlike way. The lively Jane, with her scientific interest and artistic bent, is an unusual heroine, neither too timid to slap Tarzan nor too proud to demand his help.

The music follows a similar pattern. Tarzan features the classic Disney spate of songs, hurrying the story along and encapsulating character motivations. Phil Collins, writing the songs, provides a departure of style. The lyrics are written from the viewpoint of various characters but sung by one outside singer – a technique curiously reminiscent of the songs in Toy Story. The music may well be the highest-quality element in the movie, although the stellar animation of Tarzan’s physical agility and ape-like mannerisms comes close.

Tarzan is strongest in its lighthearted moments; when the movie wants to be entertaining, it is. It stumbles when it tries to be dramatic. Tarzan’s adoption by the gorillas, and Clayton’s trickery, are competent and more. But outside of these and a few other moments, the drama fails to be convincing.

A great deal of this failure springs from Clayton, who manages to be, as the story’s villain, both over-the-top and underachieving. He is so obviously bad you wonder how Jane and her father ever got mixed up with him in the first place. On the other hand, his ambitions aren’t scary, or even particularly impressive. He wants to capture some gorillas alive! Only two of whom we have, as the audience, any reason to care about anyway! Remember when Disney villains plotted spectacular revenge and to take over kingdoms and control powerful magic and fun things like that?

The film is also unconvincing in answering the question it sets itself regarding Tarzan’s nature and place in the world. It comes too quickly, with too little reflection and reckoning. This disappoints me because the question was so interesting. It is, however, the movie’s lesser failure.

Despite the film’s stumbles, Tarzan is a fun romp with two or three musical numbers that are good almost to the point of being addictive. Unlike Tangled and Beauty and the Beast, it may not stand up to a thousand viewings, but it is certainly worth at least one.

 

Postscript: About that music … It’s been in my head.

Now it can be in yours.

 

Movie Review: The Jungle Book (2016)

Somewhere, at some point, someone at Disney said, “Do you know what we should do, instead of making endless sequels to classic Disney films, as if no one in the company has had an original thoughts since 1997? Remakes. Remakes of classic Disney films. In live-action.”

This was a bad idea. It should not have worked. But it has twice – first with Cinderella, released last year, and now with The Jungle Book, in theaters now. A famous story holds that Walt Disney, when rallying his jungle bookteam to make the animated version, held up a copy of The Jungle Book and said, “The first thing I want you to do is not read it.”

The makers of the live-action version have read the book, and more of Kipling besides. They include Kipling’s jungle creation-myth and even quote his poetry: “This is the Law of the Jungle, as old and as true as the sky …” 

This is, in fact, the great advantage to remaking movies like Cinderella and The Jungle Book, as opposed to remaking (for example) Star Trek. If you want to remake Star Trek, your raw material is limited to, well, Star Trek. But if you want to remake Disney’s Cinderella, your raw material reaches back to Perrault’s Cinderella, and the Grimm Brothers’ Cinderella, and the whole web of Cinderella-like stories that vein the world’s folklore. In the same way, if you want to remake Disney’s Jungle Book, you can look for material also in Kipling’s Jungle Book, and in all of Kipling’s jungle myths and poetry.

Many different silver-screen interpretations of The Jungle Book were always possible. Disney has now created two of them. The live-action Jungle Book follows the general plot of its predecessor – which, considering how little plot that had, is not very constrictive. It even includes, in desultory fashion, inferior renditions of “Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You”, as if Disney just felt obligated.

But in tone and in spirit, the new Jungle Book is a revolution. It gives up the fun that ruled the animated version for danger, beauty, and – most surprisingly – grandeur. Much of the grandeur, like much of the beauty, comes simply from the jungle setting, gorgeously realized in a way that the original film could not have even aspired to. There is grandeur, too, in the elephants and the reverence paid to them by all other animals.

One of the greatest accomplishments of this film is the sense it creates of the jungle as an ancient and ordered society, with its own laws, traditions, and even prejudices. There is, in the animals, a confidence in who they are, who others are, and what everyone’s place is. Shere Kahn is so fearsome because of his lawlessness, because he can’t be counted on to stay in his preordained place.

Most unexpectedly, The Jungle Book makes a major theme of how different Mowgli is from the animals that surround him. His human inventiveness, and inventions, befuddle and anger the animals by turn. Bagheera, solemnly commanding Mowgli to bow to elephants passing by them, tells him, “The elephants created this jungle. They made all that belongs: the mountains, the trees, the birds in the trees. But they did not make you.” In the climax, of course, Mowgli defeats the tiger with “Man’s Red Flower”, which the animals cannot control and deeply fear.

The film never suggests the Bible’s vision of Man as the image of God, created preeminent over all the beasts. It does, however, get so far as G. K. Chesterton’s dictum: “Man is an exception, whatever else he is.” In our society, where people are outraged when a gorilla is killed to protect a child, even that is a refreshing breath of sanity.

Disney’s live-action The Jungle Book digs deeper than its animated predecessor both into Rudyard Kipling’s works and into the grand possibilities of film. The result is a rousing, beautiful film with a surprising measure of grandeur and of meaning.

Movie Review: Peanuts

I am back! Where have I been? Well, that’s a long story. I will only say, for now, that with finals week behind me, I hope to be posting more often. And I will begin with this review of a movie I now regret not catching in theater.

 

Who hasn’t seen it – Snoopy balancing a typewriter on his doghouse, Linus with his blanket, Charlie Brown decked by a fast ball on his own pitcher’s mound? These are all unforgettable images, imprinted on our culture’s memory.

But who has seen all these things in 3-D computer animation? Because, thanks to The Peanuts Movie, now we all can.

The Peanuts Movie, released last year, takes up this challenge: How do animators change Schulz’s comic into a computer-animated movie, while retaining its style and its appeal? This challenge is paralleled by the greater one faced by the writers – how to remain faithful to the old, great comic without simply repeating it. The specials were short, and this full-length movie requires a greater adaption than they did, a greater bending to the requirements and limitations of a different art form.

The makers of Peanuts meet both challenges with considerable skill. The film translates the style of the comic into 3-D; the characters look like themselves, and their world looks like the one Schulz created for them. Beyond its visual style, the film draws so much inspiration from the comic that every moment is suffused with it. Watching the movie, you can feel the comic.

And yet just enough is new. Movies, unlike comics, demand to be unified into one story, and the filmmakers provided this unification through the little red-haired girl. The story, although episodic in structure, is held together by the thread of Charlie Brown’s single purpose to impress her. The episodes, although never directly copied from the comics, all have their antecedents in the book reports, school adventures, and sports that Charles Schulz used so richly.

Some characters, most notably Charlie Brown and Snoopy, have been subtly changed. Charlie Brown spends most of the film as star-crossed as ever, always trying to be the hero and somehow always ending up the goat. Yet his failures are more dignified here than in the comic; it is hard to imagine Schulz giving Charlie Brown as much ability as this movie does, or as much meaning in his losses. Charlie Brown, in the film, loses a school competition because of an act of kindness; in the comic, it would have been because of something less meaningful, more random, more darkly comical.

Here, as in the comic strips, Snoopy is distinguished chiefly by the fantasies that so far outstrip his actual position in the world, and by his own unawareness of that fact. He is, however, far kinder to Charlie Brown, helping him and rooting for him throughout the film. Snoopy’s obliviousness to Charlie Brown, whom he thinks of as “the round-headed kid”, is removed from the movie. He yields the dance floor to Charlie Brown where Schulz, funnier and harsher, would have had him beat his owner to win the dance with the little red-haired girl.

This general softening goes beyond the characters to the story itself. The ending held a victory Charlie Brown never, in fifty years, achieved in the comics. This is partially, no doubt, because comic strips go on and movies end, and the unified story must have an ending to match. But it is also, no doubt, part of a judgment that the comic was a little too sad, Charlie Brown a little too inadequate, his world a little too cruel.

Schulz’s Peanuts was never truly jaded, never reached the bitterness or cynicism of some modern comics. Yet it is, in certain moments, more achingly sad than any of them, and running jokes like Charlie Brown’s always-bad baseball team seem to reflect this same blue measure of the world. The movie’s alleviation of this sadness is its one true departure from the comic. Other alterations, such as putting Peppermint Patty in the same school as Charlie Brown, are mere compression for the sake of time.

The Peanuts Movie is an accomplished retelling of Schulz’s great comic strip, successfully exchanging the art form of a comic for the art form of a movie. It is both funny and touching, and if less profound than the comic, it still provides that moment of satisfaction that the comic never did.

That moment where Charlie Brown finally wins.

(Christmas) Movie Review: Rise of the Guardians

Jack Frost was nimble, Jack Frost was quick; Jack Frost froze the world with his stick.

Yes, I know: It’s a mixing of disparate bits of culture and childhood lore, kind of catchy and not quite right. And in that, it’s like Rise of the Guardians.

Rise of the Guardians was released into theaters around Thanksgiving, and released onto DVD just before Easter. It is, indeed, another holiday movie, and like so many holiday movies, Santa is a character. But this is a Russian Santa. With Yetis. And the movie is not really about him anyway.

It’s about Jack Frost. Free, irresponsible, spreading fun, spreading mischief, leaving messes in his wake, always unseen; nobody believes in Jack Frost. The Guardians know he exists, but they don’t really know who he is. To be fair, he has only a poor idea himself.

I must say this about the movie: It was nice to experience a story about Jack Frost. I had never before seen Jack Frost slated any role, let alone that of hero. To me the idea was fresh, and they made him a character both charming and touching. His style is in vogue: cool, ironic, an edge of bitterness. But from the beginning there’s a palpable yearning, and a certain warmth toward the children he leads on wild snow days. Backstory often fails to live up to its own foreshadowing, but Jack’s doesn’t. It is pitch-perfect, full of emotion without angst, and it truly makes sense of what Jack is and why.

Rise of the Guardians has two great strengths. The first is their ability to unite different pieces of childhood stories and so cast a new light on all of them. To create a story with Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, the tooth fairy, and the boogeyman is to create a world large enough to contain them.

The second strength is the personalities of the Guardians and their delinquents, Pitch-Black and Jack Frost. Pitch is, essentially, an inversion of the Guardians – an interesting and softly menacing character. (A lot of the credit for this goes to the actor, who played him like velvet – soft and black.) The Guardians, though all abundantly well-meaning, are a little … wonky, somewhere between offbeat and mildly neurotic.

Despite all that it does right, Rise of the Guardians is hobbled by a sense of not being quite big enough. This comes partially from the oddly limited way in which the Guardians responded to the boogeyman. They showed no degree of strategy and – energetically but, on consideration, unjustifiably – ran around plugging up leaks where they should have been thinking how to dam the river.

The story’s conception of the Guardians, like its use of them, was sometimes limited, and this also fostered a hazy sense of smallness. Most of what the makers did with the Easter Bunny and Santa rise guardiansClaus and so forth was fun, and the way they brought these childhood legends together was coherent and interesting. But it wasn’t grand. The story had one piece of really excellent mythos; what it did with the Man on the Moon was mythical, worthy of a fairytale. The makers, however, failed to expand this piece of mythos. The movie as a whole would have been elevated if some of the generic “belief” had been replaced with the mystery and purpose of the Man on the Moon.

Rise of the Guardians missed some of its opportunities, but it is still a good movie. The animation and the acting were both superbly done, the characters were creative and endearing, the story held interest and humor and even heart. And the value of Rise of the Guardians is even greater when you remember that a good movie is hard to find.

Movie Review: Arthur Christmas

Arthur’s heart was in the right place; it was his feet that usually weren’t. He wasn’t quite harmless – certainly not to the elves he routinely tripped over, whose home he once accidentally melted.

But he meant well.

Arthur Christmas is a story of Santa, his wife, his father, and his two sons. If you ever wondered how Santa Claus could visit every child in the world in one night, here’s your answer. If you ever wanted to see the intersection of a military operation, a mega-corporation, and a fairy tale, here’s your chance.

There is not much unique in the premise or themes of Arthur Christmas. We’ve all seen the modernistic re-take on old cultural standbys, from Santa to superheroes to the monsters beneath our childhood beds. We’ve seen many stories of Santa, stories of misfits at the North Pole, stories about saving Christmas and learning its spirit.

But the ideas are still good, and at any rate Christmas is not the best playing field for originality. God wrote the Christmas story, and our own stories are meant to catch echoes of His – even if only in a dim note of hope or good cheer.

As expected as the ideas of Arthur Christmas are, there is some freshness in the execution. The Claus family passing down the position of Santa from one generation to the next is new, and the movie draws a lot from it. In many ways Arthur Christmas is a film about family. There’s a fine-edged realness to the portrayal; we see their love, and the complexity of hurt and longing that too often grows up around love.

Arthur Christmas also makes a striking variation to the saving-Christmas theme. Here Christmas Eve came off with brisk efficiency … except for one small glitch. Out of a billion or so gifts, one was missed. One child was missed. Arthur’s urgent, flailing effort was for one child.

And by exchanging the generalization of children for the reality of a child, Arthur Christmas adds power to the story. Arthur’s mission is that much more poignant, his heart that much bigger. Anyone at the North Pole would have moved heaven and earth for all the children of the world. But Arthur, like the shepherd leaving his ninety-nine to search for the one lost, did it for one child, whose name he knew.

Arthur Christmas is a lighthearted story, most of it fun and funny. But it had its moments of tenderness and seriousness, enough to give another depth to the film. If you, like me, keep a list of Christmas viewing, Arthur Christmas deserves to be added.

Review: Big Hero 6

If you really want to get the bad guy, it’s logical to conclude you need a hero. You might further conclude, especially if you’re fourteen, that you need a superhero.

But to go from there to creating a superhero? For that, you need adolescent logic combined with genius-level skill. So enter, stage-right, Hiro Hamada, the protagonist of Disney’s just-released Big Hero 6.

I’ve never had much interest in superheroes; I don’t know why, although I suspect it’s related to why I never cared for comic books. But I knew I wanted to see Big Hero 6, due in large part to my memories of The Incredibles and Frozen. (This makes sense. Frozen was a Disney computer-animated movie, and it was very good; The Incredibles was a computer-animated superhero movie, and it was excellent; Big Hero 6 is a Disney computer-animated superhero movie. See? It follows.)

From the very beginning, Big Hero 6 exhibits its blended nature. It’s a superhero film, yes, but beneath the flash and action is an essentially sci-fi framework. The city of San Fransokyo – a delicious mesh of Tokyo and San Francisco – and elements such as bot-fighting create a world that is near to ours and yet misses it entirely. This may be the future, and it may be an alternate universe, but either way, it’s sci-fi. The story brings even “harder” sci-fi concepts into play, anchoring deeper into science fiction and eventually leading to one of the film’s most imaginatively beautiful moments.

The characters are likable (especially Tadashi) and often quirky (especially Wasabi and, uh, Fred). As in Frozen, a sibling relationship is the linchpin of the story. But here the relationship is less complex and far more positive. It’s also brother/brother, which I mention to bring up something I’ve long wondered about: Why, on those unusual occasions when sibling relationships really are important in a story, are they almost always brother/brother, or sister/sister, and not sister/brother?

There’s a dose of tragedy in Big Hero 6 – nothing new in that, even for a so-called “family movie”, but the movie digs deeper and darker than normal. It deals strongly, though with a light hand, in themes of revenge. The movie also raises the old comfort that “He lives on in our hearts” – a standard consolation when people want to provide some assurance of continuing life but don’t want to bring up heaven. But Big Hero 6 breaks form to portray dissatisfaction with the comfort: “He’s gone” – a simple counterpoint, simply expressed, but true and right at the heart of the matter.

Not that the movie seeks comfort in heaven, or that dissatisfaction is disbelief. All truths can seem like platitudes in the face of death, and to believe is not always to be comforted. But it was a sad moment and an honest one, and it felt almost subversive.

More than anything else, Big Hero 6 is a movie of enormous creativity. From the futuristic (or AU) world of San Fransokyo to a glimpse of what I can only imagine to be some sort of fourth dimension; from the robots and other tech to the incredible CGI that brought them to full glory – the cleverness of this movie is wonderful.

And so, for that matter, is its heart. As Big Hero 6 follows Tangled and Frozen, I think we’re on the wave of the third Disney Renaissance.

Movie Review: Peter Pan

All children grow up, except one. And Peter Pan, eternally young in Never Land, has another sort of immortality in the real world. Everyone knows who Peter Pan is.

Of all the re-tellings of Peter Pan over the years, Disney’s 1953 film may well be the most famous. A skilled artistry underlies the whole movie. The animation shows an expert hand. The writers wove together a complete story, with a villain and resolution and change, and sprinkled it generously with humor. The composers contributed a few lively songs, as well as the classic “Second Star to the Right” and the tender “Your Mother and Mine”.

While the Darling family is sympathetic and more or less normal, the denizens of Never Land have a strange tendency to seesaw in their natures. Captain Hook is sometimes a villain of brute and even senseless force, sometimes a villain of considerable cunning. At some points in the movie he’s a dapper sophisticate, and more often he’s a victim of comic mischance and the sort of slapstick only an animated movie could pull off. (I recently watched the movie with a small child, and apparently the slapstick sequences are hilarious.)

Tinker Bell spends the first half of the story in a fit of such burning jealousy that she actually tries to engineer Wendy’s death. But if she, among all the protagonists of the story, commits the most ignoble act, she also commits the most noble one. Her self-sacrificial rescue of Peter Pan grows into the only tender scene that revolves around Peter.

Which leads me to Peter Pan, the title character who is so much at the center of the action and so much on the edges of the film’s emotion. He whisks Wendy and her brothers to Never Land, and he sets off Captain Hook’s aggravated quest to get him. Though he readily engages Hook, all the life-and-death passion is on the captain’s side; Peter Pan plays the game with zest, but no gravity. And though he brings Wendy to Never Land to be his mother and the Lost Boys’ mother, he begins to forget about her shortly after they arrive. First the mermaids, then Tiger Lily draw his attention away.

In addition to this forgetfulness, Peter Pan showed a streak of mean-spiritedness – laughing as the mermaids ganged up on Wendy, humiliating Hook after defeating him.

Yet there is the scene of Tinker Bell’s rescue, which takes Peter Pan out of himself and his own self-enjoyment. And there is a poignant moment where he – listening alone to Wendy’s song about mothers – snaps his arrow in half.

Walt Disney was dissatisfied with Peter Pan when his company finally finished it, finding Peter Pan cold and unlikable. But there’s no greater tribute to Disney’s success than calling Peter Pan one of his failures. It’s a fun movie, an adventure filled with memorable and sometimes charming characters. Even Captain Hook is entertaining; even Peter Pan is fascinating.