Reviewing the Movies of 2013, Part III: The Wind Rises, Frozen and The Croods
Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises)
The year 2013 was in many ways an excellent year for animation and animated films. Though I have to (reluctantly) admit that I've yet seen only five of the films the year had to offer, I can say that the year did yield one of Hayao Miyazaki's finest films (The Wind Rises), one of the Walt Disney Company's finest films (Frozen) and one of Dreamworks Animation's better films (The Croods), as well as an incredibly fun sequel that actually surpassed the original (Despicable Me 2). The French film Ernest & Celestine, the Japanese films A Letter to Momo and Puella Magi Madoka Magica: The Movie Part III--Rebellion and the American sequel Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 are all films that I'm moderately to very excited about seeing eventually. However, 2013 was also a sad year for animation. For one, though Monsters University was quite fun, it was weak by Pixar standards. Turbo was an unmitigated bomb. And saddest of all, acclaimed maestro Hayao Miyazaki, co-founder of Studio Ghibli and director of several of the greatest films the medium will ever see, announced his retirement following The Wind Rises. Although, as swan songs go, he could have done A LOT worse.
Kaze Tachinu takes its title from a line in Paul Valéry's poem "Le Cemetière Marin (The Graveyard by the Sea)"; the line, which is quoted at the beginning of the film, reads, "Le vent se lève!...il faut tenter de vivre! (The wind is rising!...We must try to live!)." This line is also touched upon during protagonist Jiro Horikoshi's first encounter with Naoko Satomi, the woman he eventually falls in love with, and has at least one more haunting use later in the film. The film is a sort-of biopic about Horikoshi, who was a noted aeronautical engineer during the days leading up to and following World War II, and whose designs were integral to the development of the Mitsubishi A6M fighter plane, which would become known the world over during the war as the infamous "Zero." The movie, however, follows Horikoshi from his childhood to his development of the Zero's direct predecessor, the Mitsubishi A5M plane. Apparently, the details of his academic and professional life are largely based in fact, but the remainder of the story (which was adapted by Miyazaki from his own manga) is highly fictionalized. Horikoshi is portrayed herein as a wide-eyed dreamer--a brilliant engineer so enamored of the dream of flight that he will continually pour all his not-inconsiderable skills into building an even better plane, despite the negative consequences of which he is at least dimly aware. His mentor in these endeavors (in his mind, at least, through a series of fantastical dream sequences) is his hero, Italian plane designer Count Giovanni Battista Caproni; at one point, Caproni pointedly reminds Horikoshi of the dangers of designing fighter planes, which can only bring destruction, before himself comparing the endeavor to the building of the pyramids and stating that "I'd rather live in a world with pyramids." There are other moments in the series when Horikoshi is either reminded of the dangerous path he walks (an incidental meeting with the German Gestapo, a dire warning from a German tourist that both Germany and Japan are about to "blow up," etc.) or jovially accused of being TOO focused on his work (when he announces his engagement, his bosses joke that they thought he'd marry a plane). In short, this is not a simple movie, and audiences worried that Miyazaki may be attempting a revisionist look at Japan's role in WWII need not be unduly concerned; he could perhaps have shown a bit more of the darkness that came of Horikoshi's work, but given his previous films this is actually quite a bit darker and more cognizant of reality. The aftermath of the Great Kantou Earthquake of 1923 is shown in such bleak detail I was almost taken aback; there is also another thread to the plot that helps make this a profoundly bittersweet tale, but in the interest in dodging spoilers I'll simply point out that the film does pluck the heartstrings in the last couple scenes. There is also a touching romance here--fictionalized or not, I like Horikoshi's relationship with Naoko, and even if it does seem that the movie loses focus here and there because of this, it was a nice element to the story. There is a bit of a pacing issue--as this film covers a good chunk of time, it occasionally hops forward without warning, though the film is nowhere NEAR as jarring in this respect as The Grandmaster. Also, the voice-acting from the English cast was good but actually a bit flat at times. One notable exception, however, is Martin Short as Horikoshi's diminutive boss Kurokawa; the character is hilarious, and Short digs into the role with gusto. John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, William H. Macy and Stanley Tucci all also acquit themselves well, though I eagerly await the chance to watch the film with its original Japanese cast. Overall, this was an excellent film. It does not reach the zenith of Miyazaki's work--Kaze no Tani no Naushikaa (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind) and Tenkuu no Shiro Rapyuta (Castle in the Sky) rate higher; I'd put this one in the ballpark of Majo no Takkyuubin (Kiki's Delivery Service), Mononoke-hime (Princess Mononoke) and Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away). As a farewell film, however (if, indeed, Miyazaki remains true to his word about retirement), this is one heck of a swan song--beautiful, bittersweet and more than slightly elegiac.
If this was any other year, The Wind Rises would likely have Best Animated Feature in the bag (unless, of course, Pixar had a release on the order of Up, or WALL-E). Sadly, this is not any other year. This is the year the Walt Disney Company has put out one of their most popular, highest-grossing, pop culture-dominating films since, well, ever; The Lion King and, maybe, Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid are the only others that really come to mind. Frozen is not as great a film as The Wind Rises; it's not even as great as last year's Wreck-It Ralph (probably my favorite Disney film to date). There's something... missing. I don't know what it is. Both times I saw the film I LOVED it, but it doesn't really stick with me the same way Ralph, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast or even Tangled do. Don't get me wrong; Frozen is a BEAUTIFUL movie, with excellent music, solid voice acting (easily trumps the English dub of The Wind Rises, actually), and a wonderfully playful sense of self-deprecation, whereby Disney deflates or utterly skewers many parts of the "Disney formula." When spunky Princess Anna (excellently voiced by Kristen Bell) meets charming Prince Hans (Santino Fontana) for the first time, it's "love at first sight"; before the next few hours have passed they've shared a catchy and rather hilarious duet ("Love Is an Open Door") and announced to the new queen (Anna's sister Elsa, voiced by the talented Idina Menzel) that they are engaged. I found that entire sequence hilarious in its absurdity, especially being that it was in a Disney animated film; I won't spoil things here but let's just say the filmmakers had a few more tricks up their sleeve for these two. Even the obligatory talking mascot (Olaf the snowman, voiced with enthusiasm by Josh Gad) manages to serve the story rather than detracting from it, while being just enough over-the-top to show that the filmmakers are winking at us here, too. He gets one of the film's funniest songs ("In Summer"); the other goes to Kristoff (Josh Groff), the reindeer-loving ice dealer who teams up with Anna to stop the winter her sister has created (his song, a "duet" with his reindeer Sven, is "Reindeer(s) Are Better than People").
Actually, perhaps I should say a bit concerning what the film is actually about. Based on a tale by Hans Christian Anderson, it is at its heart a tale of two sisters. Elsa, the eldest, has had wondrous and potentially frightening powers since birth--she can create and manipulate ice and snow. However, she's never had full control of her powers (she cannot unfreeze things, for example); when she accidentally freezes her little sister Anna in the head, her father takes them to visit the forest trolls, whose elder manages to remove the ice from Anna, but who also takes her memories of magic. So Anna grows up ignorant of her sister's powers and desperate for some sort of connection with the now reclusive Elsa, who for her part has imprisoned herself in her room out of fear. Then, tragedy strikes, as both the king and queen are killed when their ship goes down in a storm; Elsa technically becomes queen, which post she officially takes when she comes of age. It is on coronation day that Anna meets Hans, and accidentally sets off her sister's magic in front of much of the kingdom; Elsa flees in terror, and Anna races after her, leaving Hans (the guy she just met) in charge of the kingdom. Elsa builds herself an ice palace on Mount Crumpit, I mean, North Mountain, while singing the song that's arguably the biggest musical hit Disney's had in a while, "Let It Go." Meanwhile, Anna runs into Kristoff and Sven, and through a series of events they find themselves (and Olaf) working together on her mission. I won't spoil the rest, but rest assured all ends well. Anyway, maybe with time I'll more fully embrace this movie--I do love it, regardless, and I can say it improves on second viewing. Certainly, for family-friendly fun, this may be the best animated film of the year; overall, though, the more adult-skewing Wind Rises has it beat.
One last film that I would like to write a review for here is the delightfully surprising film from Dreamworks Animation, The Croods. I was tempted to make this a review of all five of the 2013 animated films I'd seen, but frankly it's been a couple of months since I saw Despicable Me 2, and almost as long for Monsters University, so let me just give each a passing mention. DM2 was a hilarious and well-crafted film that managed to top the original in part due to continued excellent use of the Minions and Dr. Nefario (hilariously voiced by Russell Brand), and in part due to an amusing newcomer, El Macho (played by Benjamin Bratt). I loved that his Mexican restaurant is called "Salsa y Salsa," and those tortilla/ guacamole sombreros are an inspired if unwieldy concept. As for MU, it is an enjoyable film that is better than Cars 2; the returning voice cast (Billy Crystal, John Goodman and Steve Buscemi) do a great job this go-round, and franchise newcomer Helen Mirren (who plays Dean Hardscrabble) shows that she could have one heck of a career in voice acting if she so chooses. That said, the film was weak by Pixar standards, although it is encouraging perhaps that a weak film from Pixar can stand with a decent-to-good film from most animators.
Now, to The Croods. Honestly, when this film came out early in 2013, I had little interest in seeing it. The cast caught my attention, and Dreamworks has created some excellent films (Shrek and Shrek 2, Kung Fu Panda and KFP 2, and most notably How To Train Your Dragon); however, a story about cavemen just didn't seem all that interesting. However, the film got rave reviews, and almost a year later managed to snag an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature; having finally seen the film, I have to reluctantly admit that even I miss out on great films due to unfounded prejudices against their entertainment prospects. Much like Dallas Buyers Club, I would have given this a miss if it had not made a splash in the awards race; much like Dallas Buyers Club, I am GLAD I watched this film. Anyway, the story centers on a family of cavemen who seem to be among the last of their kind. Inflexible patriarch Grug (voiced rather well by Nicolas Cage) credits this to the family cave and the family's strict adherence to the policy of "never do anything new." His daughter Eep (a spirited performance by Emma Stone) is sick and TIRED of the same old thing; while exploring outside the cave one evening (a no-no of the highest degree), she meets a strange boy named Guy (Ryan Reynolds), who ignites a spark of curiosity in her that gets fanned into a full-blown flame when the family cave is destroyed about a day later. With great difficulty, they manage to get her family moving in search of something new. This movie is full of small delights; the feral nature of the baby, the rivalry between Grug and a sabre-toothed tiger (of sorts), the hopeful expression on Grug's face every time he does a family head-count (and the death of that expression when he counts his mother-in-law), and perhaps most of all the high quality of the production. Though the scientist in me is horrified at the utter disregard for good science on display here, the designs of the creatures encountered--combined with excellent rendering of landscapes and characters--makes this a visual treat very nearly on par with Frozen and The Wind Rises. Also, the voice acting is excellent, particularly Catherine Keener as Grug's wife Ugga; voice-acting veteran Cloris Leachman also makes the most of her role as Ugga's mother. The music is excellent, and Owl City's upbeat "Shine Your Way" is a great closing number. Though not on par with the two films duking it out for Best Animated Feature this year, The Croods is nonetheless an excellent film that fully deserves to be nominated, as well as a humbling lesson that great surprises can happen any time--this is one of the joys of watching movies, after all.
Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises): 9.0/10 Oscar-worthy for Best Picture, Director (Hayao Miyazaki), Adapted Screenplay (Hayao Miyazaki), Animated Feature, Production Design, Original Score (Joe Hisaishi), Film Editing, Sound Mixing and Sound Effects Editing; nominated for Best Animated Feature.
Frozen: 8.5/10 Oscar-worthy for Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay (Jennifer Lee), Animated Feature, Production Design, Original Score (Christophe Beck), Original Song ("Let It Go"), Original Song ("Love Is an Open Door"), Original Song ("For the First Time in Forever"), Film Editing, Sound Mixing and Sound Effects Editing; nominated for Best Animated Feature and Original Song ("Let It Go").
The Croods: 8/10 Oscar-worthy for Best Original Screenplay (Chris Sanders and Kirk De Micco), Animated Feature, Production Design, Original Score (Alan Silvestri), Original Song ("Shine Your Way"), Film Editing, Sound Mixing and Sound Effects Editing; nominated for Best Animated Feature.
So, there you have it folks, my (sadly brief) synopsis of the animation of 2013. I intend to do better this year, with a viewing of The Lego Movie hopefully to come shortly. As always, if you have any thoughts or suggestions about the films reviewed above, comments on which ones need to be prioritized, or thoughts on which film should be victorious at the Oscars, I welcome your comments below. Happy viewing!
Since posting the above review, I have had a third viewing of the now Oscar-winning Frozen, and was surprised at how many scenes/ lines of dialog I did not recall (despite having seen the film twice in as many months). This seems to underscore the idea that the movie doesn't really stick with you the way some do. That said, it remains extremely entertaining, and finally seeing it on the big screen was indeed a nice touch. Incidentally, it is worth noting that the film won both Oscars for which it was nominated, Best Animated Feature and Original Song ("Let It Go"). The song also got a fair performance at the ceremony by an apparently irritated Idina Menzel, or--as John Travolta has been known to call her--Adele Dazeem; Travolta's never gonna live that one down. Anyway, though I again stress that this film did not deserve to win over The Wind Rises, I nonetheless eagerly look forward to one day adding it to my collection, and I have no qualms giving the film a high recommendation.