Posts Tagged ‘Disney’

You would have to have a heart made of solid bakelite, I suspect, not to be profoundly and repeatedly moved by Roger Ross Williams’ documentary Life, Animated. I must confess to having been a bit wary going in to this one, despite being aware of the glowing buzz surrounding it, as I do like to maintain a proper air of reserve and detachment (except when watching Jason Statham movies, obviously), and also because I suspected the subject matter might strike a bit too close to home for absolute comfort. But turn up I did and within the first few minutes found myself at severe risk of having an emotional episode.


This is the story of Owen Suskind, a young man in his early twenties, who as the film starts is on the verge of graduating, moving into his own place, and starting to look for a job. What makes this slightly unusual is the fact that at the age of three, Owen began to suffer a marked deterioration in his motor skills and speech, and was diagnosed with regressive autism. The doctors informed his parents (his father is a Pulitzer-winning journalist, which may have something to do with why this film got made) that some children with this condition never speak again.

And yet Owen has grown up to be an engaging, lively, outgoing young man, aware of the special challenges he faces, realistic, but also hopeful. How has this happened? The answer seems to lie with his love of Disney animations: he has a deep and abiding love for all things of the Mouse, and has apparently memorised the complete scripts of every single full-length cartoon. They are his means of rendering the world intelligible and forming a significant connection with it.

The film has the advantage of incorporating numerous clips from the various movies in question, which you might expect to have presented some interesting issues of licensing – apparent what happened was that they showed the movie to Disney’s terrifying legal team, who all promptly started weeping while watching the film, at which point the negotiations became considerably simpler. That said, it is not quite the exercise in grisly advertisement and promotion for the Disney machine that you might be expecting and/or dreading – the clips are there to service Owen’s story, not promote the brand.

And it is the story of how one lives with an autistic-spectrum disorder. I find myself a little hesitant at this point, mainly because I’m worried about crossing the line and starting to talk more about myself than the movie, but in the spirit of the courage shown by the Suskind family in this film, I will chance it. Possibly the most significant change in my own life in the past year has been my realisation that I am further along the autistic spectrum myself than I previously thought might be the case. I mean, as soon as I heard of Asperger’s syndrome and read a list of typical features of the condition, I was struck by a definite sense of personal recognition. I am strongly attracted to routine, habit, and continuity; I often have significant difficulty in processing change. When something interests me, it consumes my attention entirely and I find it difficult to devote any real time to anything else. Many social situations are challenging and uncomfortable for me – maintaining relationships can also be difficult. I find myself strangely drawn to Saga from The Bridge (although, to be honest, I suspect the same is equally true of many men with standard brain function). When it comes to Owen’s way of using reference points from Disney movies to connect with the people around him, the parallel that instantly leapt to my mind was an episode of Star Trek concerning an alien culture which functions in a roughly analogous fashion, and if I tell you that the episode in question is called Darmok, aired as part of (I think) the fifth season, guest stars Paul Winfield, that Russell T Davies has never seen it because he likes the purity of the concept too much, and that I can tell you all of this without recourse to the internet despite not really considering myself that big a fan of The Next Generation, you may perhaps begin to get a glimmering of just how oddly my own circuits are wired up.

In short, it’s a constant fact of life, and I must confess that I do feel rather more comfortable in my own skin now I’ve actually figured out what’s going on with me. I wonder whether it’s the sense of recognition I got from watching Owen deal with his own issues that made me respond so strongly to the film; I doubt it, though, for this is surely a captivating story no matter what your own background.

This is partly down to Owen and partly down to his family, who are often wrenchingly honest when it comes to talking about their own feelings. Do not make the assumption that this is a heavy or depressing film – it is always down to earth and often very funny – there’s a wonderful sequence where Owen’s elder brother Walt muses on the difficulty of teaching him about some of the elements of, erm, adult relationships, given that these same elements do not generally feature in Disney cartoons.

Looking back it seems rather like I’ve devoted more words to talking about myself than the actual film, which was the last thing that I wanted to do: this is supposed to be a review, not a plea for attention, and it doesn’t do justice to a film which is in many ways one of the most exceptional of the year – it has a warmth and emotional charge to it which very few dramatic films I’ve seen can match. You feel a real connection to the people in the film, and yet it never feels intrusive or exploitative, which can often be a problem with this kind of documentary. The documentary footage is accompanied both by the Disney clips already mentioned and by some new animation, which is actually quite lovely in its own right and suits the tone of the film perfectly.

Documentaries about autistic-spectrum disorders do not tend to be major box office hits, especially at a time when the latest stellar conflict brand extension exercise is due to swamp cinemas everywhere (ironically, itself another Disney subsidiary). I can’t really be completely objective about Life, Animated, but it did seem to me to be a great documentary telling a very accessible and uplifting story. Recommended.


Read Full Post »

It occasionally occurs to me that not having small people in my life means I am effectively cutting myself off from great swathes of popular culture and entertainment (in much the same way that it’s only when visiting my parents that I get properly exposed to antiques-based game shows and non-threatening police procedural dramas). I am aware that wanting more of a pretext to watch kids’ films would be a dubious pretext for embarking on the exploit of parenthood, but, hey, at least I’m aware of that, and the prospect seems reassuringly remote anyway.

All this flickered through my head during the trailers preceding Don Hall and Chris Williams’ Big Hero 6, which were themselves preceded by the not-entirely-family-friendly soundtrack to Halloween, played into the auditorium. No juvenile sensibilities were in danger, however, as it looked very much like I was the only person present in this great cathedral of cinema, almost undoubtedly the classiest movie theatre in Oxford (my solitude being something we may well return to later).


It was in this magnificent isolation that I settled back to enjoy a superior bit of entertainment. The tale unfolds in the quasi-futuristic city of San Fransokyo (torii motifs adorn the Golden Gate Bridge, in the first of many neat visual puns), and concerns the Harada brothers: Hiro (Ryan Potter), a prodigiously talented teenage technician and robotics engineer, and his less talented but more responsible elder, Tadashi (Daniel Henney). Seeking to wean Hiro away from the local Robot Wars scene which is absorbing all his attention, Tadashi introduces him to his techie friends from university, and his own pet project, Baymax (Scott Adsit). Baymax is a somewhat zeppelin-like robo-nurse, whom Hiro is less than impressed by, but the lad still becomes determined to get into the university.

To this end he creates micro-bots, a swarm of telepathically-controlled mini-modules with a plethora of uses, but they are stolen by a mysterious figure during a lethal fire. Hiro manages to track the miscreant down, but soon realises that even teaching Baymax karate will not give him the power he needs to stop the villain’s scheme. And so he sets about helping convert his friends’ own techie projects into the basis for more useful applications. And so a set of cheerily coloured costumed identities with rather variable codenames is born – Hiro, Baymax, GoGo, Wasabi, Honey Lemon, and Fred! Or, to put it another way – Big Hero 6!

I must confess to being rather intrigued by the origins of this movie, which is the result of Disney’s acquisition of the Marvel group a few years back: Disney’s animation arm were encouraged to rifle through Marvel’s back catalogue in search of promising ideas for new movies, and this is the result. Big Hero 6 started off as a superhero team with fairly strong connections to the X-Men – a version of the original team leader appeared in The Wolverine – but this film does not appear under the Marvel marque, nor is the company credited especially prominently.

As you might therefore expect, the characters and premise of the comic have been radically reconceived and the result is a much more child-friendly standalone film – that said, there is still a droll Stan Lee cameo and the convention of the post-credits scene continues unabated. (Apparently there are also numerous easter egg references to incredibly obscure Marvel characters, but even I didn’t spot these.) But this film, for all its Manga-inflected visuals and designs, is still very much its own thing.

Perhaps this is why the adult audiences which usually attend non-animated Marvel projects were notably not in attendance at this one, but I doubt it. All right, so I went to see a weekday matinee of Big Hero 6, so all the target-audience kids were in school: but I bet that if go to a weekday matinee of Age of Ultron or Ant-Man in the week of their UK release, I won’t be alone there. It can’t be the subject matter but the animated form itself which makes people dismiss this kind of film as kid’s stuff. Frankly, I’m dubious: superhero stories are all, ultimately, cut from the same substance, and it seems spurious to me to claim that Big Hero 6 is a children’s film while the latest outing for Captain America or Spider-Man is mature, serious entertainment.

Anyway, ‘being its own thing’ basically means the movie is, from a certain point of view, pretty similar to every other film from Pixar-now-Disney in recent years. That sounds like an implied criticism, but it only really qualifies as such if you consider gorgeous animation, stunning attention to detail, strong characterisation, a solid narrative structure, many decent jokes and a nice sensible moral underpinning for the kids to be bad things. If you consider this to be an SF movie, then it’s not nearly as unutterably lovely as Wall-E, and if you think of it as a superhero film, it’s not quite as inventive and loving a pastiche as The Incredibles, but there’s still very little wrong with it as a piece of family entertainment.

Personally I’m inclined to go with the latter, mainly on the strength of the Marvel origins, and Big Hero 6‘s action sequences do capture the excitement and inventiveness of the best superhero conflicts admirably. It’s a bit of a shame that the story is structured so heavily around Hiro and Baymax, and indeed that most of the team have had their powers radically reconceived, because everyone else does end up feeling a little bit secondary: but Baymax himself, never quite forgetting that he is, after all, supposed to be a nurse, is a cherishable creation and a very funny character: meticulously brought to life, as you’d expect.

The plot of the movie is inventive enough, even if some of the twists along the way are rather easy to predict well in advance: I suppose it’s just possible that under-10s may not see them coming. I also thought the sensible moral underpinning – this film is fundamentally about coming to terms with grief – was to some extent weakened by a couple of aspects of the conclusion. But these, apart from my very non-specific disappointment that this wasn’t more explicitly or faithfully a Marvel-based movie, were the only grounds I could find for criticising it. You could do very much worse than take your kids to see this; if they made a sequel I would certainly give it time of day. This may not be the biggest superhero movie of the year – there’s very little doubt as to what that’s going to be, I think – but this could very well turn out to be the most colourful and fun.




Read Full Post »