Friday, July 4, 2014

Processing "The Croods," "Frankweenie" and "Frozen" as a New Dad


The Croods plays like your typical DreamWorks Animation film.

Film criticism is not a science. We can try all we want to be objective about it – to talk about things like plot structure, character development, stylistic choices or technical ingenuity – but it all really boils down to how a film makes us feel.
 
Some of that derives from the aforementioned elements, but a lot of it has to do with personal bias, preferences and past experiences. That’s why someone like me can dislike an accomplished and critically-adored film like 2001: A Space Odyssey while enjoying a flawed and largely dismissed one like Hook. It’s also why opinions toward movies can change. Some movies will be diminished by repeated viewings (i.e. Crash), while others improve each time out (i.e. Step Brothers).
 
It’s a dynamic process – one that leaves little room for certainty and makes it impossible to judge cinema in a vacuum. That’s actually one of the things I love about movies, and, really, all forms of art.
 
For that reason, I try to judge films on their own terms, but that only works to an extent. I know that even when I attempt to judge movies on their merit or intent, my previous history with film and my own personal baggage still manages to play a big role in my reactions.
 
I mention all of this as a preamble to a joint review of three animated films I watched recently – The Croods, Frankenweenie and Frozen. My reason for doing so? I’ve come to realize that becoming a father has altered the way I gauge these movies, putting emphasis on the simple question "Would I be cool with my kid watching this?"
 
Concerning The Croods, the answer is a definite yes, which is odd, because I found it to be little more than a passable film overall. DreamWorks Animation has done a great job launching distinct animated franchises, but I’ve rarely loved anything they’ve done. Excluding the first two Shrek films (which were pretty great) and the last two (which were pretty blah), I’d classify everything they do as "good... enough." Even their better offerings, Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon, have failed to really move the needle for me beyond muted appreciation.
 
The Croods, which focuses on a caveman family with an overprotective dad (Nicolas Cage) and an adventure-seeking teenage daughter (Emma Stone), is the poster boy for how I feel about DreamWorks Animation as a whole. I appreciate the impressive visual display of interesting creatures and color schemes, but the film is a middling effort with a routine plot and a lot of thin characterizations.
 
Still, there is something to be said for a film that hits its marks, and it's hard to deny the film manages to be an emotionally effective enterprise. In terms of quality, it actually reminds me a lot of Night at the Museum – not good, but competent and cute with a decent message for kids. And, of course, that’s the big takeaway for me, now that I’m a dad. It basically repackages the father-daughter dynamic from Little Mermaid in a way that’s fair to both the father and the daughter, and I like that ultimately, the story is just a vibrant jaunt about cherishing and understanding your family.
Frankenweenie has that recognizable Burton animation style.
 At the opposite end of the spectrum is Frankenweenie, a film I expected to love, but found a chore to sit through. Even though I feel like he’s gone off the reels in most of his recent work, I love Tim Burton’s twisted sensibility and style, and I’m also cool with films that are just as much about paying homage to earlier classics, as they are about telling a story. However, Paranorman did that whole thing and did it better, while also including an array of worthwhile characters to boot.
 
Frankenweenie revolves around Victor Frankenstein, a little boy whose love of invention and science comes second only to his love for his dog Sparky. When Sparky is hit by a car, Victor brings him back to life using electricity, and he’s mostly the same, besides a need to be plugged into an outlet for charging every so often.
 
When the other kids in Victor’s science class find out what he’s accomplished, they worry he will win the upcoming science fair, and so they decide to follow suit and bring their dead animals back as well. But since their animals aren’t brought back with love (or something like that), they come back as evils monsters and begin assaulting the town.
 
The film is a little boring and hard to connect with. We can identify with Victor’s love for Sparky, but beyond that, there isn’t much here to gravitate toward. There are a variety of child characters, but beyond the one modeled off of Igor, their personalities are practically indistinguishable. Well, that’s not entirely true – the casual racism revolving around the Asian kid is very distinguishable.  
 
And if racism wasn’t enough for me to not want my kid to watch this, Burton seals the deal with the film’s message. The idea of doing an animated feature that deals with the death of a beloved pet is a solid concept, and it could potentially make for a valuable film for children, a sort of aid in the development of coping skills. For much of its runtime, Frankenweenie seems like it will be that type of movie, and then there’s an exchange between Victor and his dad at the end after Sparky has died for a second time. Victor says “I thought you said I had to let go,” only for his dad to reply “Sometimes adults don’t know what they’re talking about.”
 
Umm, what?
 
On its face, I don’t mind an animated film going in that direction. The Croods, which I just admitted to being totally fine with, gets a whole lot of mileage out the dad character needing to change his tune. But having this line in this context is ridiculous. It basically tells kids, “Hey, if your pet dies, don’t get over it. Cling on forever. Oh, and, umm, parents are dumb for saying otherwise.” This film is mediocre as it is, but throw in that kind of lesson and some racism? Count me out.
Frozen is basically the story of two sisters who overcome bad parenting.
Meanwhile, Frozen is certainly the best film of the three, and offers further proof of how far Walt Disney Animation Studios has come the last seven or eight years. After its 90's resurgence, the studio fell into a major rut and quickly became the ugly stepsister of the more beloved Pixar. Lilo & Stich and The Emperor's New Groove were both nice products, but the early 2000's were some pretty dark times overall. Fortunately, Disney began reestablishing a consistent level of quality, starting with the likes of  Meet the Robinsons, The Princess and the Frog and Bolt before advancing to superior works like Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph (which, to me, is easily the greatest animated film since Wall-E) and now Frozen.
 
There's certainly a lot to like about the film. It's seriously gorgeous – what they accomplish with snow effects is just awe inspiring. The soundtrack is filled with some great original tunes, including the Oscar-winning "Let It Go." And the central focus on the power of sisterhood is pretty damn cool.
 
At the same time, there's some stuff in here I have issues with. The film focuses on princesses Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell), who are an inseparable pair when we first meet them. Elsa possess magic powers that allow her to produce ice and snow at will, and at the beginning of the film she accidentally hurts Anna while playing.
 
In response, the girls' parents have Anna healed by a troll king and then wipe her memory of Elsa's powers. They then isolate Elsa from Anna, a move that was probably only meant to be temporary until she learned to control her powers, but that becomes permanent when the parents die in a boating accident.
 
So right off the bat, the film starts with some crazy bad parenting in which a king and queen decide to deal with their daughter's issues by taking away her one support beam instead of, I don't know, just telling her not to use her powers when playing. Meanwhile, daughter two is left totally in the dark, feeling all sorts of rejection. Really makes me second guess my issues with that “Sometimes adults don’t know what they’re talking about" concept.
 
Since Anna has no parents and has been shut out by her sister, she becomes so desperate for love that she swoons at the notion of any man showing interest in her. I respect this complicated state of mind as a concept, but in execution, Anna just plays as a very weak role model for young girls. There's a song in the film called "Love Is an Open Door" that is meant to be ironic, but I'm not sure how well that comes across to little kids. The song trivializes what love really means, and, I suspect, these aspects of the story will be fleshed out and play very well in the inevitable Broadway adaptation. However, in the film, it's a troublesome thing, a jaunty exercise that kids will take at face value.
 
The film ends in a good place, with the girls reuniting and Anna learning about what love is, so in many ways I'm probably making a mountain out of a mole hill in my critique. But something about the thing really bugs me, even though I can acknowledge this is a pretty good film.  Like I said, so much about film is about how it makes you feel, regardless of attempts at some sort of objectivity.
 
The Croods C+ / Frankweenie C / Frozen B+